“That Book You Bought for Me”
“I visited my mother in England on her eighty-fifth birthday, three years before her death, after attending a retreat with Sogyal Rinpoche at Lerab Ling.
Because she came from a strongly academic and scientific background my Mom was curious about, but unfamiliar with, the concept of “retreat”, although she was familiar with Buddhism. Comparing it to a conference was the best explanation I could offer, but I passed her a copy of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying to give her a better idea of the philosophical background. For some time the book lay on her lounge table, and although my Mom was entirely homebound she said she had “no time to look at it”. I arrived home from an excursion two days later to find my usually placid mother quite excited; she had read a little of “The Book”, wanted her own copy, and for me to go to town and buy her one, and as soon as possible.
I never saw my Mom reading Rinpoche’s book, but she confided in me that to her it was “like a bible” of which she would read a few pages every day. I frequently talked to her by phone from my home in the United States, and we would regularly discuss the books we were reading. She always mentioned “the book that you bought me” as if the real title was too foreign for her tongue and her ears. Less than a year before she died we had our usual book/phone discussion and I asked her which chapter of the book she was reading. She laughed in a matter of fact sort of way and replied “the one on death, of course, that’s the one I read over and over again”. This was at a time in her life when her memory and cognition were rapidly failing her and she was limited in how much she could read and retain, but instead of continuing to read the French literature that had occupied most of her life, she chose Rinpoche’s book.
Whilst I was visiting my mother a year before her death she spotted a photograph of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in my possessions. This was the first time she had seen a photograph of him, and I am not sure that she really knew who he was. The photograph showed him praying, and with his familiar compassionate smile. My mother made an immediate and complete connection with this photo—much in the way a very young child will intuitively feel such things. We had to find a frame for it right away, and with my message of blessings written on the back she insisted on placing it on the mantle-piece directly above the head of her bed, where nothing had ever previously been kept. She seemed happy and at peace to have His Holiness watching over her! Even so she had a strong sense of propriety and was a little concerned at what her more traditional English visitors might think of this gentleman in his odd robes occupying such a place of honor in her room. She right away devised a plan to allay any problematic questions; she announced happily to me that she would tell any curious visitors that this was a picture of her grandfather! Since her family was of Turkish origin she perceived this as quite a plausible ruse.
It was important to my mother to have me by her side during her death. She never discussed this eventuality, although she repeatedly reminded me that I should come quickly when she really needed me. That call came from my sister in July of 1999 and I flew and drove the miles to be by her side. She had entered the death process very consciously two days before I arrived. She passed on exactly 24 hours after I stepped into her hospital room. Much of that time I spent practicing at her bedside, speaking in the French which was her native tongue, using The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying as my guide. The photograph of His Holiness was the only item, which had, surprisingly, managed to accompany her to the hospital.
My mother had never claimed any religious or spiritual beliefs. She had grown up in an age and society which deified science and pragmatism, where religion was seen as a poor alternative to the supremacy of the intellect. I believe that Rinpoche’s book touched her deeply in some area of her being which she had barely accessed during her life, and it was the sense of inspiration, together with her unquenchable spirit of enquiry, which had motivated her to study the teachings deeply at the end of her life. All the signs surrounding her death indicated that she had consciously chosen the time, and entered into the process willingly and gladly. I know that she was happy and content that I was at her side practising with her, chanting aloud for her the mantras which she had never heard before in her life. Her presence, even as her senses closed down, was of serene confidence and happy anticipation. Her death was a great inspiration to me and a fine example for any practitioner. In a drug-free state, she sat poised and calm in her bed. Holding the hands of two dear friends, she simply breathed out and her breathing ceased.
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