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An ABC of INTERCULTURAL IDENTITY

AFTER DEATH

Mae Elizabeth Van Zwol Kruis--graduation from nursing school

Less than a month ago, my mother died. She was four days away from her 100th birthday when she walked on. I was grateful to be one of two people to walk with her. Many friends sent condolences online and in the mail. They expressed sympathy for my loss, and some said they knew it had often been a difficult relationship, and then they tried to redeem it with their words. The truth is that the loss happened more than a half century ago. Her dying was less a loss, more a reckoning. Ours had been a bond of unease, nevertheless a bond––one we both tried at different times over the years to repair. I had thought that I would simply be relieved when her death came. That I would feel little or nothing. Because we both wanted something better, a couple of years ago, we were able to speak some heartfelt words and then to cry together. Things were easier between us after that, though not what I would call whole. So after death, when those who knew my mother in a different light spoke of what a wonderful person she was, I felt perplexed. I wanted to see what they had seen, to love the woman they had loved.
 
I've attended a number of life passages—the joy of babies making their entry onto the planet, the awe of walking with people for the last steps of their journey on Earth. I always feel so honored when a soul chooses me to be present at their leave-taking, and being with my mother was no different in that respect. It was also so much bigger than I'd imagined it would be. Hers was by far the gentlest, most peaceful dying I've witnessed.
 
During the time I cared for her and saw her pass over, I was deeply aware of her, not as my mother, but as a fellow human being. Most of what I felt was compassion—particularly when she seemed to have some awareness of what was happening to her but could only communicate by blinking her eyes when asked a question. We couldn't know if we were asking the right questions. Then at the last, she went into a deep sleep and didn't wake up again.
 
My niece Naomi and I were together with her when she left, and I was so glad of that. It was when I said to Naomi, shortly after my mother's last breath, "Just imagine who she might be seeing right now—Trudy" (my sister who died at the age of 9). "Grandpa" (Naomi's grandfather, my father)—that I was surprised to be overcome by tears. A little later, I actually sobbed when my youngest brother, who was closest with my mother all his life, came in, and we held each other. Then I was crying for his loss.
 
There are small tasks to be done after someone dies, and these tasks take on the meaning of making the death round. I waited for people to come and take the medical equipment away; I signed their pad to say, This is finished; I took leftover supplies to donate to the facility where our mother had lived; I brought from there the two dozen red roses her cousins had sent for the birthday that wasn't to be and put them in water; I brought her clothing to Goodwill; I helped my sister-in-law with the distribution of her jewelry and received the turqoise and silver bracelet, pendant, and ring I remembered as the only ornaments my mother had when I was a child; I went out on the land with Naomi to find the rock that will be Mom's gravestone and visited my father's grave where her ashes will be interred; finally, I wrote her obituary. All these things brought roundness to her passing.
 
Back at home I wrote some letters and addressed them to My Mother in Heaven (not that I believe Heaven is a physical place, but I have seen and heard evidence of life after death). In those letters I told my mother things I never felt I could tell her in life. And I cried as I came to the realization deep within me that she had loved me all along. I don't just say this: I truly felt she had loved me in all the  ways she could. And I grieved that I hadn't been able to love her better. But just as she had, I loved her in all the ways I could. Then came the greatest revelation. She had been transformed, and as a result, I, too, was transformed.

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Valentine

 

MY VALENTINE FOR THE WORLD

 

This is for the ones who believe they shine too bright
For the ones who think they're not enough
It's for the ones who lose their hearts again and again
And for the ones who have yet to fall
And, too, for the ones who fell one glorious, lifelong time
This is for the self-contained
And for the spurting, the overflowing
This is for the ones who believe they carry the world
It's for the ones who think they have nothing to carry
And for the empty, the hollow
For the trembling, afraid the light or the dark may
     Swallow them whole
     Or in pieces
It is for the one who steps off the edge
     No thought
For the one who plunges the knife of shame to their own heart

     Day in and day out
It's just as much for the ones who think they're all that
It's for the savior
And for the destroyer

For the one who forgives everyone

     But not themselves

And for the one who only makes an excuse

     For themselves
 

This is my valentine for the world.
For you. For us.

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Forgiveness

forgiveness
tenderest wine
that washes away
the shame
the tension
all blame
with each sweet draught

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HARMONIOUS

Still cold but past the hard frost time in southern Sweden, yet before the crocuses had sprung. Tommy and I dug and turned the black earth for the planting of stones. To build a stairway leading from the ashram's kitchen door down to the gardens. It was after breakfast, always after breakfast, which was a small glass of grain tea, with perhaps a third of a cup of parched grain resting in the bottom. We dug, we smoothed, we went to the rockpile and chose one slab after another. Together we lifted them into the wheelbarrow. Moved the first one to the top of the slope. Pushed and shoved it into the dirt. Pounded with mallets. Laid the next and pounded the earth between the stones. Some were thicker than flagstones, rounded or pointed on the bottom, needing to be settled. More digging. More pounding.
 
We nodded, shrugged, smiled, shook our heads, because we were building without speech. In silence. And there was Tommy. Not a common name for a Dane. One day during meditation Tommy started sobbing. I made up a story then. That he had an American father who had abandoned him. I knew the meditation had released some long-held sorrow. To be experienced, not expressed, Swamiji had said when he cried, and with that, Tommy calmed. I wondered if Tommy might be like me. Queer. Always with my antennae out. And him a sensitive boy.
 
A few days into the stairs, the karma yoga leader came by. Lanky, dressed in ashram orange, Kim said, "Harmonious." The work of karma yoga was seldom praised. Tommy and I looked at each other. Didn't try to hide that we were pleased. "Fortsætte," Kim said. Continue. We wouldn't be assigned to cleaning the yoga room, weeding parsnips, or digging out the new basement. Rare to be allowed to take a job from start to finish.
 
Tommy and I. We were harmonious. Made a harmonious set of stone steps together. The whole stairway. We did it harmoniously. 
 
Years later I went back to Håå to take another course. I walked around to the kitchen door to see the steps. Gone. That is the way of karma yoga. The task is done for the sake of the task. Some tasks, like the basement we dug by hand one year, yield permanent results. Just as often, perhaps more often, the work teaches us to be in the present, that nothing is truly permanent. Teaches us to find harmony in that.

 

The word harmonious was brought to you by Corliss Kruis Mock, my double cousin. When she read my book, To Drink from the Silver Cup, she wasn't sure how she felt about the chapter that told some of the things I learned at the Scandinavian Yoga and Meditation School. She changed her mind after re-reading (props to her), so I hope she doesn't mind that this is the story that wouldn't give up when the word harmonious arrived.

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