My son was less than twenty-four hours old, and I knew he was going to die. The yellow cotton hat snuggled on his precious head, the brown handknit blanket securing his winging arms, he lay silently in the neonatal-ICU clear plastic crib. Veins no longer pricked, oxygen hood gone, lungs finally clear, he was healthy. Skye was coming home, yet I knew he would die. Some day.
I had studied the face of mortality before, my twelve-year-old mind racing in the dark of my room, momentarily grasping my inescapable death. I envisioned a time before me and a time after me, and the finality of it lay on my chest, breathed in my face. I wrapped its shrill cry in a blanket and rocked myself to sleep. But no amount of future thought or reading could prepare me for realizing simultaneously my son’s life and death.
Standing in the dawn, waiting for the doctor to say when we could take Skye home, I watched the mini-death and rebirths of his life marching past the nursery door: a first birthday, a tenth week of school, a third date with his future partner, a second year of work. And what of his death? His ninety-second day of kindergarten while climbing on the jungle gym? His ninety-second year while reaching to open the window?
I touched my son’s cheek and rested with my questions. Will he be scared? Will he be sick? Will he be alone? Tears arrived as I recognized that the face of this baby—my son’s face—awakened a love previously out of reach. I discovered my love as a mother, complete and unconditional.
Ten years earlier I was twenty and sitting at a conference table in Sarnath, India, with my eyes glued to the wise, white-haired Tibetan monk who was graciously teaching Buddhist philosophy to me and a group of other college students from the States. For thirty minutes we had listened to him explicate one line of an ancient text. My ears were trained on his translator; the meaning was slowly revealed in the duet of Tibetan to English. Gen-la, “honorable teacher,” was discussing a strategy to employ when considering how to treat others. “Remind yourself,” he said, “that all sentient beings have at one time been your mother—birthing you, nursing you, caring for you through a helpless stage of life. Imagine this,” he continued, “and generate appreciation and goodwill for all sentient beings, whether they cut you off in traffic, compliment your smile, or walk past you without a glance.”
At the end of the class I dutifully stood and bowed as Gen-la shuffled out of the room, but I could not stop mentally arguing with his words. I had my share of problems for which I denied responsibility and which I believed could be traced to my parents. How could I generate gratitude for countless lifetimes of mothers when the compassion I felt for my mother of this lifetime was buried under my suffocating expectations?
Eleven years have passed since asking that question. Treating every sentient being as if they were my mother stills eludes me, and seeing as how my mother and I are hardly speaking at the moment, that is probably a good thing. But what if I practiced the inverse? What if I remembered that every sentient being has at one time been my child? If I could imagine everyone being as precious to me as my son, perhaps I could finally recognize the shadow of a Buddha within me. Perhaps I could finally smell the sweet perfume of a bodhisattva walking by my window. After all, if I can feel love at first sight for one, can I not feel love at first sight for all?
During my pregnancy, as I was leaving my mother’s house at the conclusion of a very difficult discussion, she leaned into the car window and said, “When you have this baby, you will finally understand how much I love you.” Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought, and sped away.
A few months later it was Mother’s Day, Skye had been born, and I sent her a card: “I finally understand. Thank you.”
So my mother was right. I could never have imagined this quality of love before Skye. And Gen-la’s words were right. The potential for equanimity can be modeled in and learned from the love parents show children. And Buddha was right. The truth of our nature is discovered through experience. So we can listen to the person in traffic, the person who smiles, the person who never glances our way. Listen through his words and actions. Listen for the echoes of your crying child. What does she need? Go to her. Pick her up. Wrap her in your acceptance and rock her to sleep.
Or perhaps rock yourself. Awake. Some day. Some lifetime.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.