(Originally posted on old blog on Monday, November 16, 2009)
I’ve been thinking more about my earlier statements that death is a cliché, and once again I was reminded of my favorite Buddhist story (and maybe any religious passage, actually). When I first read the story of Kisagotami over ten years ago, I was struck by the message that we are not as alone in our personal experiences as we think, that the experiences that we regard as significant and personal are not as unique as we think they are.
Because I am committed to keeping these posts as close to 800 words as possible, I will give you the Cliff’s Notes version of Kisagotami’s story, but you could read the longer version here. Kisagotami’s inlaws did not treat her well, and it was only after she gave birth to a son that her status in the family was elevated. She adored her son, but her joy was destroyed when he died of a snake bite. Distraught, she wandered throughout the village carrying her son’s body, imploring anyone to give her medicine to bring him back to life. A villager recommended she visit the Buddha, who instructed her to visit every house in the city and bring him back a mustard seed from any home that death had not visited.
Kisagotami did as she was told, but instead of collecting any mustard seeds, all she heard were each household’s stories about death – in every house the story was different, but the grief was the same. Kisagotami returned to the Buddha empty-handed with the wisdom that the intention all along was for her to get comfort and take solace in the understanding that she was not alone.
In Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which is not billed as a tale of grief but is about as good as any other I’ve read, 9-year-old Oskar Schell’s father dies in the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11. Oskar finds a key hidden in his father’s things and embarks on a journey throughout the city to find out what the key opens, meeting several different characters along the way. Oskar does find the lock that corresponds with the key, but it was so anti-climactic that I can’t recall what the key went to now. That wasn’t the point. Like Kisagotami, it was the search, the journey that he needed to help him heal.
I look back on my actions over the past 9 months and realize that I have been on a similar search. When you lose someone so precious so unexpectedly, you start grasping for pieces of them to hold onto so the connection is not entirely severed. I wanted to wrap myself in my father’s essence as a way of preserving his presence in my life. I was like a junkie looking for a hit wherever I could get it.
I canvassed my father’s family, friends, coworkers, and patients for their stories and memories of him. I searched his e-mail “sent” box for all of his communication with me – emails I had previously deleted when I foolishly thought there would be plenty more. I listened to his outgoing voicemail message on his cell phone. I played back the tape he and my mother recorded of me when I was two and just beginning to speak in sentences. I read through all of the letters and cards I had saved and lamented that I tossed so many more. I visited a medium with the hopes of hearing some fatherly advice from beyond. My latest endeavor has me digging through the box of my grandmother’s mementoes, as she saved EVERYTHING from the birthday cards my father received when he was 5 to the letters he wrote home during his college and dental school days.
I don’t know why I do this. I think I am still hoping to find some secret envelope marked “For Kirstin to read after I am gone,” inside which, of course, will be everything my dad wanted me to know about life and every bit of advice he planned to impart to me.
I know this is unrealistic, and it’s probably unfair of me to hold out for this imaginary letter because, in fact, my father left us plenty of material from which to glean his wisdom – far more than I imagine most people leave behind.
Maybe the point of my search is to remind me that I already have everything I need to teach me what my father would want me to know.