Six of us carried Molly’s body up the narrow, twisting staircase, an embrace so intimate and sweet that the experience remains vivid for me months after her death. Her passing was expected and uneventful, like many I’ve witnessed—a slow withdrawal, a growing acceptance of the inevitable, and a quiet release.
Molly had struggled for four and a half years with advancing brain cancer and with the effects of the drugs that slowed its progress. Her body now rested in a hand-built coffin, cut from cedar at a nearby sawmill and reassembled for her only hours ago at the top of the house, in the bedroom that she’d abandoned several months before, no longer able to negotiate the climb. She and her husband, Craig, had built that large room and the attached deck six years earlier—she had loved it there.
The diagnosis of brain cancer had turned her life, and Craig’s, upside down. The following years were marked, as they are for many, with medical forays, with sometimes beneficial and often failed treatments; with conflicting medical opinions and occasionally vague diagnostic evaluations. Molly and Craig weathered these, with the help of friends and family, but the paranoid and accusatory states of mind brought about by Molly’s corticosteroid treatments in the final year proved extremely difficult for everyone involved. Her decision, several months before death, to move to strictly palliative care, to give up the struggle of keeping the cancer in check, brought relief to all.
I’d been invited to support Molly with meditation about a year prior to her death. She had been a member of the Austin Shambhala Center, a few blocks from her home, about 10 years earlier, and she and Craig were married in a small Shambhala ceremony. But life, illness, and busyness had pulled her away, and now she wanted to reestablish that connection. While she had maintained a loose relationship with mindfulness meditation, the effects of cancer and stress had made it difficult to sustain a regular practice. She wanted some peace with herself, and with her situation.
My years working with people at the end of life and teaching meditation in prisons, coupled with my own long-standing and often scattered practice, have taught me a simple truth: a mind under duress can use a little help. During my year with Molly, I would visit her and the cats several times a month to talk and listen; sometimes we were joined by Craig for our guided meditations:
Check in with your body. Feel your chest, belly, back, and hips, gravity pulling you down onto the mattress. Experience the sensation of your shoulders, neck, and head against the softness of the pillows. Allow your awareness to occupy your legs and feet—do you feel the rub of the sheets, and Tanner and Xena snuggling against your legs? Allow the breeze to touch you; feel the movement of the hair on your arms and scalp. Listen to the sounds of the day—the ticking clock, a passing car, my voice. Rest. . . . allow your body to rest. Rest. . . . allow your mind to rest.
Many of us, particularly when in poor health, in pain, in confusion, have difficulty with mindfulness practice, and it can help to be guided into an awareness of the body, into an identification with the breath, and coached in repeated reminders to notice the myriad thoughts and sensations, releasing them and returning our attention to our body and breath:
There’s no agenda in this moment. Simply experience the body breathing. We can feel our discomforts, just as we experience a bird flying past the window, a friend at our bedside. There’s nothing to do in this moment, no place to go—we can simply rest in our experience, observing the sensations, the thoughts, the emotions come and go. Allow yourself to rest. Rest simply in this breathing body, watching each new thought, each new sensation as it arises, as it is met by awareness, as it moves along, replaced by the next arising moment. Rest, with no agenda. . . . Nothing to do. Nowhere to go. No one to be. We are simply here, now.
In this simple way, we began to open to death, to our own dying, not as a barrier, not as an ending, but as the arising of the next moment:
Breathe in. Breathe out, resting on the breath. Rest in the body. Welcome the arising moment just as you welcome the cats settled against your legs. We don’t know when they will come, or when they’ll go. We don’t know. And we rest. We don’t know what will arise in the next moment: another breath, a knock at the door, a breeze, a car passing in the street, the sound of my voice, death. . . . We don’t know, and we can rest in not knowing. We welcome each arising. We welcome pleasure, we welcome boredom, we can even welcome pain and death. From this place of rest, we greet each arising moment with friendliness, with curiosity. Rest in your body. Rest in your breathing. Rest in the arising moment, this moment. . . . Rest. . .
In this way we practiced, and in the weeks before death, Molly softened. She rested. She softened, and we witnesses did, too. Tanner the cat died two weeks before Molly, leading the way into not knowing.
Months before, when Molly first requested a Shambhala funeral, I had felt myself tighten. The work, the coordination, the attention required to host our customary 72-hour practice and funeral service grew large in my mind. I practiced meditation throughout and enlisted the help of others in our “end of life” group who were meeting regularly to explore how our community could better address the myriad issues of supporting the dying, the dead, and the surviving. And I was relieved when Molly and Craig decided to travel a simpler road, electing to have a home funeral. This would allow our community to learn and serve and practice, but the process would be more comforting and familiar to Craig and Molly’s family and friends who are unfamiliar with our Buddhist traditions.
On the Monday evening before Molly’s death, a group of ten met at the Shambhala Center, and I trained them on the care and preservation of a body. Because Molly’s death appeared imminent, we needed to discuss the specifics of bathing, dressing, transporting, and preserving her body, assigning who would do what when the time came.
The next morning, Molly was no longer responsive; she was resting peacefully. I led her through a final meditation, a final practice on letting go, on welcoming the next moment. At noon, we brought in our coffin, assembling it and rearranging the upstairs bedroom to receive her body. These tasks gave us a chore, a way to be helpful, and added to the reality of an approaching death. Molly greeted death peacefully in the early afternoon, with Craig, her sister Carla, and her caregiver, Sally, bearing witness.
Carla and Sally bathed and dressed Molly as our team of helpers came by to assist. We bundled her in her bedsheet, and carefully, slowly, holding Molly and each other, made the short journey up the stairs into her new place of rest. Her body was arranged on dry ice for cooling and preservation, a process that would continue over the next three days. Care was taken to close her eyes, and her favorite scarf was placed attractively around her head and chin to keep her relaxed jaw closed. Molly was beautiful in life and now too in death, all tensions erased from her face. The soft shadows of the room provided a haven for release.
For three days, we came and went. Some practiced, some visited, some quietly talked to Molly. In our own way, each of us said good-byes and sent her on her way, in this most natural of settings.
On Friday afternoon, family, friends, and members of the Shambhala community gathered, and I offered a brief service. We shared memories, songs, and poems, and chanted the Heart Sutra as a photograph of Molly was symbolically burned. Afterward, her body was gently carried back down the staircase, out of her home for the last time. Outside, she was placed onto a waiting stretcher and transported to a local funeral home. Dee, a mortician, had worked with our community on several occasions, and was once more a welcome addition to these proceedings. The next morning, Craig and Carla witnessed Molly’s cremation at a small rural crematory.
It’s now been over three months since Molly’s death, and life goes on, as it has all along. Craig stays busy with household chores, but the emptiness of the house, and the absence of Molly, bears down on him. He took care of Molly day in and day out for over four years; that was his life. This is his life now, and he does the best he can, opening to it, moment by moment.
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