When I said early last year that I was ‘retiring’, little did I know what challenges the following year would hold. It was as if, without realising it, I was clearing the space so that I could be completely available for the journey I was to share with my mother in the following year. Shortly after I decided to withdraw from my public role as a Buddhist priest, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. What had started as a little sore on her face, which she thought was just a mosquito bite, became a virulent facial cancer that quickly spread to the lymphatic nodes in her neck.
And so I became her primary carer throughout the ordeals that followed as her medical team worked to save her life by extensive face and neck surgery, which left her terribly disfigured, and brutal doses of radiation treatment, which caused her enormous pain, utter debilitation and the distress of losing her ability to eat and speak. The doctors held little hope of her recovery and the treatment was in order that she could die in the least amount of pain. It didn’t seem likely that there was very much of a win any way you looked at it. Then after the radiation finished, when she was supposed to be recovering, my mother suffered from a severe MRSA infection of her radiation burns that meant she another long stay in hospital, extremely ill and in continuous pain.
But throughout this nightmare, my mother met these ordeals with enormous courage, humility and dignity. And she was always so appreciative of every little kindness or attention shown to her by the wonderful nurses in the hospital and at home and she never complained. I saw a side of her that deeply moved and inspired me – she was nothing short of truly heroic!
Then, after all this, in order to give a final prognosis, she had another PET scan to see how far the cancer had progressed in her lymphatic system, but the medical team was astonished to find that the cancer had disappeared! This was completely unexpected as the surgery and radiation were seen as palliative measures only. The doctors were at a loss to explain it. However, for my mother the explanation was simple. She was absolutely sure that what had cured her was love: the love of her children who rallied to help, the love of her friends who prayed for her, the love of the nurses who cared for her. She said that throughout these terrible ordeals she could nonetheless feel healing love flowing through her body and she said she drank it up as a sweet medicine, focussing her meditations on fully opening to this love that was all around her. Then as her strength slowly returned and she felt her life-energy returning, she meditated on feelings of gratitude as a way of returning that love into the world.
At the time when my mother’s suffering was at its greatest, the almond blossoms at my home were blooming. I cut a twig of almond blossom that still had tight buds and I placed it in a bottle by Mum’s bed. One by one the blossoms burst open and then gradually the petals fell. Mum and I would meditate on the beauty of the almond blossom and reflect on how fleeting and beautiful life is. Even when all the petals had shed, we left them there because somehow they seemed to embody the journey we were sharing. Then, after all the suffering was past and the healing had begun, a whole year and a lifetime later, the almond blossoms once again bloomed this week and again I took a twig of blossoms over to Mum. When she saw the twig she immediately recognised its meaning and we both just hugged and cried because those blossoms still embodied that journey we had taken and yet here we were a year later, still together. It was indeed a miracle.
For me, to bear witness to my mother’s pain and to share in her journey was a tremendous privilege. It is so hard to watch someone you love suffering and to feel that there is nothing you can do to alleviate that suffering. But now I know that the greatest healing gift you can give a loved one who is in pain is to bear witness to their pain with love, to hold their hand and feel your own healing love flowing from your heart into theirs. This is the source of all miracles.