A Postmortem Rumination
It was two years ago today that we sat around my grandfathers death bed, six of us huddled together as if preparing for the big game. Our curled limbs and taut faces must have been a strange dream for him to see, peering down at him, his daughters and their children. It was in those final moments that the world as we knew it slipped past us, a half-moon shadowed by post mortem. Dying didn't look so bad that night, though. I wasn't jilted by his lifeless hands or cold, creped skin. It was rather lovely the way his bones relaxed and his 96-year-old physique was finally being released. His last breaths were not of desperation, but of acceptance to the finality of human existence. His pain was ending as we watched with hands on heels and heart, perhaps with the realization that we are the ones who will linger with suffering, still grinding our way around the perpetual sun and attempting to make sense of an inherently destructive world. Joe found true liberation.
But to be honest, gramps taught me a lot more about living than about dying.
His life was not summed up in those final moments of morphine-induced negotiations with god. His life, from my perspective, was about finding a way to bare life's troubles with a smile on, how he turned uncertainty into monetary value, and how he persisted through self-doubt for 9-and-a-half decades.
Our rock, our el presidente Joe, he suffered enough for a few lifetimes over. He survived the loss of his mother, his teenage immigration from Czechoslovakia, the integration into an American life with flushing toilets and sprinklers in the yard (a vast difference from the barren poverty he hailed from). He moved through a painful language barrier and he lived with his persistent self-doubt. He did this by acting on his drive for more stimulation, more financial security, and a discerning curiosity that spun him down mechanical rabbit holes until his hands started to shake. Joe was brilliant, in engineering, at business, in finances, and always led with his brain first. It served him well as his dream for leaving behind a legacy in the bank was met and his lessons of frugality and wise spending were passed down to his daughters, which they have imparted to my siblings, cousins and I. But I have to wonder, was his confidence in himself secure? Did he have the same wide-eyed admiration for himself that we all had for him. Was his own mirrored reflection one of self-worth and validation? I have to wonder.
I remember sitting on grandpa's twin-bed, about a year before he would fall into a natural state of infirmity. He was across from me in his desk chair with a plastic swivel seat, looking around with squinty, watery eyes and a relaxed demeanor paired with his baggy clothes as his frame began to soften, collar bones defined and ears growing taller. A discerning boy in an old man's body, I often thought during our visits together.
I asked gramps if he knew about Buddha and the centuries-old practice of meditation. He knew about Buddha, of course, but meditation had never been something he practiced or was ever taught. I told him about my recent integration into this world of being quiet and still. An observation of the mind rather than an engagement with its curious tendencies. He asked me to tell him more. I folded my legs under me and leaned against the wall. I told him that mindful meditation is all about breathing, taking conscious deep breaths, and creating an awareness of the body. I told him how it may be helpful to do a body scan beginning from your crown all the way to your little toes.
"Tap into the feeling tones of your physique and engage your heart. Imagine all the thoughts are just passing by you, like clouds over a mountain range."
He looked at me with those endearing eyes and eager grin, he was interested. His curiosity for all things new and complex was struck in that moment. At least I think it was. He sat with me as I walked him through the peace and patience I had collected on the cushion over the last few months. Going to group meditations, practicing yoga regularly, and making visits to my internal subconscious world. He told me had never really been able to sit still with himself, that watching his breath and being in the moment was something that seemed otherworldly, he had never practiced being quiet. I smiled big as I knew this to be true, and it brought me joy seeing him genuinely showing inquisition about something that had brought me deep interest. Maybe he was paying attention because I was his grand-daughter, the L.A. transplant who made monthly weekend trips to play Sinatra and rock n' roll for him, engage in ping-pong battles, photograph him, and sip sangria while overlooking the golf course by his side. But maybe it was something more, maybe that liberation from the stress and impatient mind was something that intrigued him because his whole life was about getting out of struggle, was aimed at proving something to the world, if only to one day prove it to himself. That an immigrant from Central Europe with a deceased mother and an emotionally abusive father, a boy who looked different than his classmates and reserved all of his money for his future self was important and deserved to be heard and valued.
My aunt Jode and I spoke of this inner struggle he went through, she believed he never really understood the fullness of his genius or his capacity to love and be loved. She had more of the existential conversations with him, she is so good at pulling the deepest parts of people out to examine like a cadaver on the kitchen table. She helped him sift through his cerebral cortex, the wild mind that still had so much to say and reflect on. But this possibility that he may have never known his own self-worth broke my heart. Surprising but also understandable, perhaps he never took the time to allow himself to breathe deeply from his soft belly and sit with absolute contentment.
Our conversation about meditation never really continued past that day in his room because Joe broke his hip that year and never really came back to his full self. His frustration with aging was apparent, he was uncomfortable and had fewer and fewer moments of lucidity. I wish I had tried to speak with him more at length about being mindful, especially through the painful strokes of his body's deterioration. I think it could have been a useful tool for him to gain access to his internal world, the Joe he maybe never really got to know. Instead, our moments were spent chatting, taking walks in the wheelchair, keeping him preoccupied with games, movies, as well as spending a lot of time interviewing him about his middle-school girlfriends, memories of raising his daughters in Ohio and of course that rugged life in the Tatra Mountains with his sisters and mother.
This rumination comes directly after a two-day meditation retreat with Noah Levine and Chandra Easton at Against the Stream. I learned about an empowering practice called Feeding Your Demons, where you address your internal demons, giving them a face, a color, a feeling, and ultimately giving yourself the opportunity to see what they really need. Noah Levine is the reason I had this conversation with my grandfather about quieting the mind and finding internal peace when the outer world demands nothing but chaos. After attending his Monday night talks on and off over the past few years, I was called to find my own practice. Noah's real world discourse about addiction, pain, self-sabbbotage and death was easy to relate to. His verbiage is splattered with 's***' and 'f***' while always coming back to his roots in Buddhist training and filling in his honest remarks with the spirit of Siddhartha Gautama.
I had let my practice go in 2017, exchanging self-help for self-sabbobtage. Saying 'yes' to everybody else, yet rarely to myself, or to the things I truly love. I dismissed my internal needs perhaps when I needed it the most, after losing 3 family members within a year, actively disengaged from a corporate job, and quickly losing intimacy with my creative instincts. Coming back to this practice and jumping into an immersive journey with two incredibly skillful and kind teachers over the same weekend that we lost Joe just two years prior is no coincidence to me. Noah and Chandra spoke in depth about the history of their teachings and why we sit with our demons and our fears. We personify them in this realm because total freedom comes when we unhinge from inanimate terrors and addictions and start living from our hearts. It was an empowering weekend of guided meditation, walks down the alleyway under the So Cal sun chanting mantras of forgiveness, and listening to long chats from the Zen, Tibetan Buddhist, and refuge recovery perspective. I have a helluva long ways to go with this liberation practice, but the deeper I go and the more I reflect on those that have passed before me and showed me the many ways to die, I become hyper-aware of the inner peace that it takes to release oneself from suffering, right here, right now.
Joe's life was ripe with adventure, from being on ski-patrol at Breckenridge mountain in Colorado, to cross-country golf competitions with my grandmother, Mary, to midnight fishing trips with my mother, Ann, and too many flowering gardens and mechanical inventions to count. I pay homage to his actions by filling my own life with outdoor excursions and nature treks, and letting my own active mind become rampant with too many ideas to choose from and so many questions and curiosities about unfamiliar cultures and lifestyles. The drive to do it all has settled in the pit of my stomach and I have discovered the only way to digest it is to sit on the mat and quiet the cerebral beast. It starts with the compassion in my own heart to forgive myself when I don't show up and stand up to ridicule and judgment and to remind myself that self-doubt is a creation of the mind. Yes, the same mind that gains us fame, money, and respect.
I never got to see Joe at five years old, but I did get to see him closely at 95, at the end of a cycle of successes, decisions, births, deaths, hole-in-ones, proposals, marriages, break-ups, insecurities, surgeries, wins, travels, self-inflictions, and bold transitions. I saw him through my eyes. I winced when he was in pain and spoke truths of his incredible, persistent spirit as often as I could with the hope that he would believe it himself.
Grandpa Joe showed me what it looked like to gracefully die and I want to meet him in the next ether with the courage to show him how to compassionately love oneself. To greet myself with as much loving spirit as I greet those around me, today and every tomorrow.
Cheers, you sweet old gringo. With love from me to you, from my seat to your spirit beyond.