Ellie died two years ago today. It was two days after her eighty-third birthday as we gathered around her hospital bed and the doctors unhooked the machines. In the six weeks since the valve-replacement that had simply been too much for her, we had watched her go from an old woman back to a child-like state of ethereal grace. Her skin grew smooth again and her energy grew clearer and clearer until she was done with this world, merely waiting for the last permission to leave… from Andy, her daughter and my wife.
Every yoga practice ends with shivasana or “corpse pose.” After all the twisting and stretching, you lie down on your back and let it all go. Every yogi looks forward to shivasana, it’s when all the work of the practice gets absorbed; it’s not sleep, exactly (although we all do fall asleep sometimes in shivasana), but it is restorative the way a nap with a sleeping baby on your chest is restorative.
Back in the day (i.e. fifteen hundred years ago), yogis in India would sit on decomposing corpses all night as part of their training—a way of driving home the karmic point that the life of the body comes and goes.
Jung said, “That which we cannot be conscious of materializes and meets us as our fate.” This has many implications, but it suggests that if we cannot be conscious about mortality, we will live a sort of death-like life. Ironically, confronting death frees us to live (think about how some people who have survived plane crashes are oddly liberated and freed of fear).
Ellie had lost her dad when she herself was four years old. He was a military man and they had been stationed on the east coast with Ellie’s mom, a military nurse. Next thing Ellie knew, she was on a farm in Oregon, meeting her grandfather for the first time. She told me that she took this big man’s hand, looked up at him and said, “You’re my grandpa, and you love me and I love you and that’s that.” And so it was.
I have fond memories of my kids asleep on Ellie’s chest, with each passing year them growing larger, and her looking more and more like a pancake under one or the other of my napping boys. She was soothing. She was a true artist and knew how to get kids painting and cutting construction paper. Her arthritis had long left her brushes in neglect, but her gaze was the gaze of the master, the artist who creates everything by creating nothing but potential space—the space of loving attention and sincere, non-judgmental interest.
On that last day Ellie was conscious but weak. She gave us the last bits of earthly love she could muster with little squeezes and a gaze not unlike that of a newborn baby. Us grown “kids” all had a hand on some part of Ellie as her heart doctor, a truly wonderful woman, hugged her tight and literally said, “Go to the light.” And she did.
Everyone left, but my wife and I stayed, stayed with the body that no longer housed Ellie. We watched unflinching as they taped her arms and zipped her into a black bag. It was surreal—sobering and important. We were now the next wave, and while we hoped it would be awhile, we were crystal clearly next in line. This was a hospital truth that had been embedded in the text of the delivery of our children. We were facing that thing we’d all feared all through childhood, the loss of our parents. And Ellie had escaped life avoiding the worst fear we have as parents—all her kids had outlived her.
As a psychologist I have a lot of clients who have lost parents, or who had parents who hurt them as a result of their own wounds, mental illnesses and/or and lack of consciousness. And while I’m a talker (and a writer), Ellie was neither and I often find myself drawing on her spirit to bring comfort to those who need her “grand” mother, and Great Mother energies. Ellie, like all of us, was far from perfect, and yet, like all of us, so was perfect.
While what I wish to convey to you, the reader, I fear I cannot, my attempt boils down to this: if you are sad, scared or feeling alone; abandoned, overwhelmed or unappreciated please allow my words to be a whisper of compassion in the service of you and your children. A whisper that says, listen to the wind, the birds, the trees; see if you can’t hear the wind whispering, “Ellie, or Mary or Om.”