A student asked, “When times of great difficulty visit us, how should we meet them?
The teacher said, “Welcome.”
An essay by John Tarrant, Roshi, director of the Pacific Zen Institute, calls this an ancient koan suitable for our time. He says In hard times, we long to touch and feel the vastness and blessing of life. Welcome might open some blue sky in the heart.
This past month has left me welcoming…alas, cracking open. It started with my sister dieing at a young 66. Though I have no full siblings, this step sibling was the closest one I had. The last time I saw her she touched her forehead to mine. While we both cried, she told me she had loved me from the moment she saw me.
I remember the moment. I was in the driveway of my childhood home walking out to her car. I was six years old and fragile, not just because of age, but because my mom and dad had recently divorced. An extremely sensitive child, I was devastated. What seemed like overnight, I had two brand new families, neither of which I felt I fit into well. There was nobody to talk to about it, and even to this day, I don’t feel people truly understand that devastation. It’s such a feeling of loneliness. I wanted my old family back and there was nothing I could do about it. It wasn’t an option.
When Sherry came to pick me up, she had a big smile and gave me a warm hug. “Welcome, baby sister.”
As an only child, I felt a tie I had not felt up until that time. A sibling tie. With that love, she immediately staged herself as ally in my Dad’s family. She remained protective of me until her recent death. Through her multiple marriages, regions she lived, and years that passed, we remained close. We had a psychic connection. I always felt loved when she was near, either physically or mentally. She was the one who ALWAYS remembered my (and later my kids’) birthdays even when everyone else forgot.
Sherry was extremely creative and her creativity flowed any and everywhere she poured her energy. When I was young, I often spent the night at her house staying up until 5:00 a.m. having dance parties. She carried a charisma and sense of fun that nobody I knew had. Only later, in my adult years, did I recognize that as unmedicated (and self-medicated) bipolar disorder. Even to the end, that brain illness was never treated properly or talked about. In my twenties, she once told me that during a hospitalization, her then husband leaned over, looked into her eyes and said, “Why are you doing this to me?” That reaction was so hurtful to her, I think it prevented her from really getting the help she needed to shine her full authentic self.
I still feel her with me as much as ever, nudging me to learn palmistry or design a cookie platter. Create, little sister. I loved you from the moment I saw you.
Next, maybe a week and a half later, while Mike and I were hooting it up in Gold Country at a Redneck Barbecue, his mom, Janice, went to the emergency room by ambulance with stomach pains. He went down to LA the day we got back and spent a gut-wrenching next few weeks not knowing which way the road would turn.
She was 88. Infinity infinity. It was to be a minor surgery, as minor as one could have at that age. But finally, that surgery ended up in a funeral last week. As we stood at Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City, a beautiful Jewish cemetery we’ve visited many times before, the rain poured down over us. The water flowed down the steps of the main waterfall. Just after spooning dirt on the casket, and putting the casket next to her husband of 60 some years, the Rabbi said, “We now will know Janice in a different way than in her physical form. We will now know her through stories.”
I didn’t feel I was given the voice to tell the best story about Janice in the last few weeks so I will tell it to you.
Each time Janice first saw me, her true nature emerged. She was the BEST hugger I have ever met. Her hugs were a unique combination: warm like a fluffy blanket, but firm like you knew she meant it from the bottom of her heart. They were usually accompanied by a kiss to the side of the head and a noise which meant, I loved you from the moment I saw you. I looked forward to those hugs and every time they came, all these feelings about them came rushing back. I know she knew I felt this way. She came to me after she’d passed, rousing me from a sound sleep at 11:40 p.m., with one last hug. It was a doozy–a gift–and I will always treasure it as I had all the other unique ways Spirit showed Itself through her.
The Rabbi also talked about those ways–her creativity– and how it emanated in so many forms: hand crafts, painting, gardening, cooking, and in her later years, computer graphics. Every birthday she spent time making customized cards for each of us, children and grandchildren, with generous checks included. Each design and rhyme was tailored to the recipient’s year, past and upcoming. We will all miss that thoughtfulness, generosity and creativity when our birthdays roll around. This was my husband’s card waiting on her computer for his birthday, which fell two days after hers. She was buried on her birthday. She’d already been working away on his. The message, prophetic.
Create, little sister. I loved you from the moment I saw you.
And only now do I feel like I can find the words. When things get tough, I pull inside. To meditation. To Spirit Itself. To my husband and my kids. To my best friend. To the tight circle I’ve built around myself to insulate myself in Love. To my dreams. To my journal. To my prayer partner. To that space where I completely trust I will be held and not let down.
And, yet, the koan sounds in my ear: Welcome might open some blue sky in the heart.
Indeed. Without the divorce that hurt so much at 6, I never would have found my Sherry. Without the years we had together, I would have never experienced that sibling feel. Without Janice, I never would have known such a Hug. All these gifts, all these gifts. I would not trade them for the moon…certainly, not to prevent the pain of tougher times. Instead, I welcome them. I welcome them, recognizing that without the one, the tough times of loss, there isn’t the vastness and blessings of life.
And in the end, my heart is filled with blue sky.
This is absolutely beautiful, Jamie. So deep and inviting me into your depth. I can’t believe that we were together for several days and you did not mention that your sister had died. Why? It makes me feel badly that I didn’t know. We could have comforted you, as well. Let’s talk soon. Cousins can be sisters too, ya know. Much much love, S
Sent from my iPhone
Thank you, Sister. As to why, that trip felt more about honoring Janice than working through my own last month. I didn’t feel space for both. I do appreciate your willingness to comfort me. I think I’m more of a one-on-one person there. When I get in a group, I’m really more interested in what everyone else is doing than my own story that I’ve droned on about in my head. But, yeah, Truth–cousins ARE sisters, too. Much Love, J