Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA
Issue No. 18 Winter 2019
Karen Gelinas, awarded a Th.D. in Applied Buddhist Studies in December 2018, teaches on the adjunct faculty at University of the West in Rosemead, CA. She is a member of the Sakyadhita USA Board of Directors and a member of the editorial board of American Buddhist Women. Research interests focus on the intersection of contemporary feminism, women's spirituality, and Buddhism. Her dissertation title was: Creating a Sustainable Buddhist Feminist Thealogy: Guanyin Devotion Among American Women.
Cleaning the Garage: My Father’s Journey Toward Letting Go As He Nears the End
By Karen Gelinas
Four weeks ago, just days before his seventy seventh birthday, my father was told that his Leukemia was no longer in remission. The reality is, it is just a matter of time, and not a long time…just months. Every day we talk, and the conversation always ends with him saying, “I need to finish cleaning the garage.” This obsession seems to be an entry into his process of letting go, which for my dad, will be the hardest thing he has ever done.
Right now, my role is to support him. At times I find myself simply observing, which I think is my way of acknowledging that he will ultimately handle the ‘end of his life’ exactly the same way he has handled living. My dad is used to being the captain of the ship, confident that if he’s driving the boat it will not sink. It is difficult for him to let others do the work, to navigate through the rough water, as we are all doing, knowing that he is going to leave us soon, yet we are still his passengers. I watch him clinging to glimpses of hope, objects, and loved ones. He wants to leave behind a legacy, one where he is still the captain.
I wanted to talk to him about the transition his life is taking, using Joan Halifax’s article, The Heart of Wisdom: Exploring Being With Dying as a framework to pose questions about life, death, impermanence and attachment. Her contributions to "end of life," palliative care and hospice topics have impacted so many of us going through similar experiences, and I felt that her wisdom could open up a conversation between us. My father is undeniably controlling, so some of these concepts were difficult for him to grasp in the way we do as Buddhist practitioners, but nevertheless we talked about all of it and maybe in some small way he was able to gain some insight into what is happening. We had a chance to talk one afternoon.
What gives your life value and meaning?
I think it’s the love of my family and my friends (crying). Particularly at this time in my life, and I realize how lucky I’ve been. I’m very fortunate.
Concept of Impermanence: It’s part of the living and dying situation that we are all in: Why do you think it’s so difficult for us to grasp this concept that we’re all living and dying and practice this awareness of letting go and being somewhat okay with this knowledge?
I realize that I’m only on this Earth for a tiny moment, and I think that the hard part is…and I speak from the fact that I’m dying…that I don’t want to leave. If my lifetime could be extended from ten minutes to twenty minutes, it would give me twice as much (crying). My life has never been as good as it is right now. It’s hard because when life is good, you don’t want to leave. It’s like being the first one to the party and the last one to leave…
Do you think is possible to get closer to this end of life situation with less fear?
I’m not afraid to die. I think what I’m trying to do is get everything in order before I leave.
What does that symbolize for you?
I can’t put off tomorrow what I can do today, because there is no tomorrow.
You are very focused on cleaning the garage and going through boxes and organizing…would it matter if you didn’t do it? I see that it’s part of your letting go process, tangibly and maybe emotionally. Is there some kind of psychological component for you?
Well, I think it’s twofold. One, is so all of you [myself, my sister and his wife] don’t have to deal with it, and it’s somewhat cathartic because it gives me chores to do, and I can’t leave until I finish my chores. Also, I want to take everybody in my life and give them something as a symbol of my passing on.
Don’t you think these things are a symbol of you, not that you passed on, but that you love them. If you give it to them tomorrow, you are still here.
Are you struggling with the finality of this?
Yes, it’s sort of hard to believe it’s around the corner.
I think it’s because we’re all so conscious of it. We are so "in it" that we’re talking about it a lot.
Yes, just the fact that I can say "I’m dying" is something I couldn’t say three weeks ago without falling apart.
What if I said to you “I’m dying too”? We’re all living and dying in these bodies and there’s no difference between you or I.
I guess I haven’t been very focused on the fact that I’m not the only one who is going through this. I’ve been a bit selfish about it.
It can provide some ease and peace if you realize that you’re not alone. It might help with the fear.
I want to talk to you about “loosening the story knots”, which means letting go of the expectations and ideas of who we are, what we didn’t do or have enough time left to do, these concepts that we get caught up in when we are transitioning. Are you thinking about what that letting go might feel like for you?
What seems to be working for me so far, with this concept of dying, is being focused on projects. The hardest part for me is when I think about the future…and that I won’t be here. I’m still fighting back and hope that I’ll be one of those unusual cases that will still be here in two years. I think I’m still in denial but starting to move toward reality, to embrace, no that’s not the right word for me, I’m not ready to accept—even though I know it would be easier on my psyche—accepting that I can’t do something means I’m giving up and I’m not giving up yet.
What about accepting the inevitable?
I can be truthful with myself, but I can’t give up for you, for my family, because I want to put a smile on your face. I don’t want to give up because then I will become a burden and stay in bed all day and I’m not ready to do that. But I’m getting very tired and my muscles hurt.
Some people describe this process of letting go as generosity that brings joy. Is it difficult?
I’m performing a task so I’m getting some enjoyment out of it because I’m getting something accomplished. I don’t want all of you to take my clothes and put them in trash bags. I want to take my clothes to Goodwill now before I die.
Why do you want to do that now?
Because I don’t want to leave that burden on you to have to deal with.
If that’s what you want to do, if it’s part of your letting go process, but do you just see it as another box to check off your list of chores?
Yes, I think I see it more that way. I don’t think of it spiritually, I think I have a game going on inside my brain that the more projects I have to do the longer it’s going to take, and the longer it takes means I’m not ready to leave yet.
Do you have moments of feeling compassion for yourself in all of this? I don’t mean feeling sorry for yourself, but loving yourself and telling your body that this is all okay?
Well, I don’t think it’s okay. I’m projecting ahead when I can no longer move, and I’ll accept it then. If I cry or get upset, it’s okay to a degree, but I can’t be like that all the time. Every day is a transition for people and it seems to mostly show its face with a smile, but right now it’s not smiling. If that represents who God is then I would say God has given me wonderful things and a wonderful life.
Would you change anything? Do you have any regrets? I know how grateful you are for everything, but maybe you would have changed some things.
No, I wouldn’t change anything. The loves in my life, primarily my three wives have been wonderful experiences. I sometimes think to myself what would it be like if your mother and I stayed married? Do you ever think about that?
You know, during those break ups there was a huge sense of loss and sadness and then you recovered. So, you’ve experienced all kinds of suffering, but it doesn’t last and that’s a beautiful thing.
Well, it has to do with how we as a family handled it, and the love that exists between all of us. (His three wives spent last Christmas together for the first time).
Is there anything you want to say about the "end of life" as you are facing the last stage?
It’s a little bit like when we were driving down the street the other day, and I noticed the beautiful flowers blooming on the trees and I thought to myself, that’s the last time I’m going to see those trees (crying)…and I think about the finality of it all, and it pisses me off.
But did you do everything you wished to do?
Yes, for me, but there is still more. I feel bad for my wife because she didn’t sign up for this.
You seem very worried about her? What do you think could give you some peace with that?
Financially taking care of her is the only way I can protect her. I want to protect everyone…
You know you can’t control any of this, right?
Yes, I know that. Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht which means “Men plan and God laughs” (Yiddish proverb). Right now the garage is my safe haven. It means I’m still here.
I love my father dearly, and I hope he can find some peace with his transition. Often people have a spiritual and psychological shift right at the very end. I hope he is able to let go so someone else can drive the boat.