I believe in the redeeming powers of birth and death. Ultimately and literally, they are the milestones by which we measure a person’s life. For all of their importance, however, it is ironic that very few of us remember our births, and of course, no one really “knows” about his or her actual death as it is an experience we are not allowed to process. Instead, the polarities of birth and death and their lessons are processed and felt primarily by observers.
Ten years ago, my grandmother was dying of cancer in her bed. Many family members had gathered to be with her in her last moments, and we all took “shifts” watching over her during the night. As I held one of the hands that had cooked for my grandfather, raised my father and uncles, and taught piano to countless children, I was thankful for all she had done for other people…because I knew I had not lived that way. The moment was deeply imprinted on my mind because, at the very moment of my meditation, she woke up and smiled at me. Then she returned to her shallow, labored breathing and soft moans of pain. Her expression simply reinforced what I already knew; she was reassuring me, thinking of me, even in her worst moments of anguish. She died only two hours later.
In a hospital on a March evening a few years ago, my daughter entered the world, and all of my macho friends’ proclamations of “You just wait and see…it will change you” came true despite my doubts. Her blue little body started to turn pink, and she finally began to cry at life’s first struggle with displacement. As I stood next to her and took in the sights of her tiny toes and fingers and the sounds of her agonized cries, I felt a love washing over me so profound that I still cannot find words to express it. I could not express it then, but my seemingly endless tears were palpable and real (they were real). Her helplessness and vulnerability cried out for sacrifice of my own ambitions and plans, and I wanted to give it with no expectations. The thought came to me that I was finally feeling a purity of love and purpose I had never experienced, and the rare lucidity with which it came helped me to genuinely contemplate the moment. What I thought was “love” had always been tainted by narcissism, maybe even hidden agendas…even in my marriage. I felt ashamed of myself, but there was redemption in the thought that I had been given a glimpse of pure human love. I purposed that such a gift should not be wasted, that I would live and love differently, more unselfishly.
Although representative of two very different experiences, the death of my grandmother and the birth of my daughter ultimately taught the same lesson. This, I believe: my life isn’t or shouldn’t be about me.
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