Sunday, September 30, 2007


Reaching for a pillow; Compassion and Loss

Sorry I haven't kept my promise to post more often. Work and life always gets in the way but that is no real excuse since I seem to waste so much time doing other things.

One week and one day ago, Saturday morning, I was getting ready to go with my father-in-law on his truck (he has a garbage business). We received a call from Care One, a Morristown NJ nursing home/rehabilitation center. His wife was having trouble breathing and they were taking her to Morristown Memorial Hospital for an evaluation. A short while later he received a call from the emergency room. He knew where the doctor was going and couldn't listen to it. He handed me the phone. She had had a heart attack and died.

Patricia Delli Santi was a good friend for over ten years. Weight, diabetes and other health problems had taken their toll on her and in the end death won out as it always does over our mortal bodies. For the last, I don't even know, four months we had visited her almost every day as she slowly recovered from a previous heart attack and verbally sparred with her back and forth over all the problems, conflicts and other drama going on in the house. For decades nearly everyone came to her house and had coffee with her late into the night as they mulled over their divorces, affairs, fights, even indictments. More mayhem and chaos passed over her kitchen table than any episode of Jerry Springer. After spending a week thinking about this it seems so ironic now that all those supposedly important problems have passed into memories and history. What was important all along was the coffee and conversation.

There is nothing quite like the death of someone close. The rush of adrenaline as a funeral is quickly planned (we were literally picking out caskets before noon) and relatives are notified. The week was like running a marathon as the whole family had to dress, eat and attend the viewing and finally the funeral. At the same time there is so much that is normal still happens. People make jokes, there's small talk and always planning for the future.

Now that some time has gone by it is clear that we are all carrying around an emptiness. Feuds that took up so much of our energy before are now either on hold or have ended in a cease fire. What is ironic is that for so many months she wasn't even with us at home. Yet the house has changed from her loss. I have no insights to offer other than to say one has to always keep mortality in mind. This is something you all will go through at some point so we all must be as strong as we can and help others make it through.

The title of this entry comes from what Brad Warner wrote in his latest book:

One Zen master walks up to another and asks, "What does the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion do by using his limitlessly abundant hands and eyes?"..."He is like a person in the night reaching back with a hand to grope for a pillow."...It's not quite as nutty as it sounds. When you reach back for a pillow in the night, the action is totally unconscious. Someone is suffering from a stiff neck, and someone does something spontaneously to relieve that suffering. Forget about the way we usually conceive of both of these "someones" as being the same person. Just look at the action itself. It's totally spontaneous. There is no thinking involved. Something needs doing, and it gets done. When it's finished, no one even remembers it. There are no medals given out, no pats on the back from the master, no ticker-tape parades. In fact, there's no evidence it ever even happened. All truly compassionate action works exactly like this.

In retrospect I understand Patty's compassion for others. I see how the endless hours of conversation were not just gossip but was sincere compassion for all those people and their selfish problems. In the end we sit with a shrug and say "ten years ago I got a divorce", "I lost all my money" or "we were having some problems then" as if we were talking about a TV show. The most dramatic 'crises' we think we are experiencing are nothing in the big scheme of things. But those little things we didn't even notice at the time now loom so much larger and their importance is now so clear. I'm not even sure Patty would have understood what I just wrote about her. No doubt she would have told me she was just killing time and socializing with her family and friends. There were many times when she took direct action to help. Sought out people, found money and solutions for them. While important I don't think those times really made up the sum of her life. Her life was so many little acts while letting others take the 'center stage'.

All I can do now is sigh. She probably owed us a few more years but we will have to forgive that unpaid debt. She sometimes said all she wanted was to see everyone happy and getting along with each other. How ironic that her home often had so many people at war with each other. Perhaps, though, she was just unconsciously doing what needed to be done.
"Sorry I haven't kept my promise to post more often. Work and life always gets in the way but that is no real excuse since I seem to waste so much time doing other things."

It would be nice if you blogged more. It might take away from your time spent as a pathetic troll on other folks' blogs (yes I'm aware of the irony but I'm only insulting you rather than disrupting actual conversation).
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