The practice of yoga is a practice of self discovery. An important theme often offered by yoga masters for self exploration is the theme of "holding on and letting go." We are encouraged to recognize our very human tendency to hold on to our past. It can be as simple and straight-forward as noticing our expectations in asanas, based on prior experience. For example, if I had a great balancing practice last night, in which I nailed Tree pose, Warrior 3 and Dancer, it's likely that today's expectation would be that I could (and should) repeat that performance. The master teacher would say, "Poppycock! Today is a new day. This moment is unlike any other. Expect nothing. Do what you can. Embrace this moment fully.
Recently, my eldest sister died. Since the day of her parting, my mind has been busy recounting moments, memories, smiles and tears. My yoga practice has helped me to be present to my grief while noticing, without judging, my desire to hold on to and never let go of the energy of my sister's spirit. The remainder of this post is an essay written in her memory, on the topic of "holding on."
Who, exactly, is doing the holding on when a loved one dies yet her spirit refuses to fade … choosing instead to intensify in brilliance? Playing with lights and dominating dreams? Whispering in the night and chiming in with song during the day?
My sister died on Groundhog Day. Not to be forgotten, she chose the day, I’m sure, as a nod to the movie of the same name. I saw her that morning. She awakened me at precisely 6:20. I know this because I checked my iPhone to see the time. I don’t even know why I checked. It was a reflexive thing. I mean, I had been awakened from a sound sleep by the image of my sister’s face, looking for all the world like a younger, healthier version of the woman I had seen days earlier, clinging to life, skin draped over bone, eyes bulging and pleading for relief. Her elephant-like legs protruded from beneath the sheets. It was too painful, she had told me, to keep them covered. Even so, she wistfully admitted to me that she wanted to live. She thought she had wanted to die, she confessed, but now she knew she wanted to live.
That day, the day of our visit, she did live. She lived fully. Heroically pushing aside excruciating pain, she remembered how to laugh. Together, we laughed at our present selves and the various selves we had known each other to be throughout our shared 63+ years on this planet. She confessed her sibling jealousies while I admitted my envy. We discovered that day, that in our youth, we had each thought the other to be superior in every way. I had always struggled to fashion myself after her, the eldest, the smartest, the most sophisticated of my mother’s four daughters. She had a special ability to captivate others with fascinating conversation on a broad range of topics, even as a young girl. And I was in awe of her deep caring and compassion for others. To me, she was like a saint in that way.
And yet, she was a sinner, too. The way she puffed on her cigarettes as a young teen and successfully snuck boys and alcohol into the basement, right under my mother’s nose! I would sometimes sneak around to the side of the house to peer into the basement window, hoping to catch sight of one of her famed make-out sessions. Once, I thought I saw that she was naked from the waist up. I could not even imagine having the nerve to do such a thing. Hence, she was elevated in my mind. She was notorious. When I told her that on the day of our visit, she laughed and cried … both very, very hard.
She took my hand, looked deep into my eyes (it was a challenge to bear that gaze.) She spoke to me with a sincerity I have rarely experienced, “You have always been the one to look up to. You were the prettiest, the most talented, the most motivated to do good. I watched you with awe as you grew up and I knew that whatever lead I had when we were young, you would surpass by sheer will. And you have. And I’m so proud of you. I love you.” She took my breath away. We sobbed for a few moments and then … she broke into laughter and I followed suit.
There was more … so much more that unfolded that day. My sister, who had been starving herself, consented to eat from pouches of pureed baby food provided by my daughter who also carefully polished my sister’s beautiful, long fingernails. I massaged her cracked and swollen legs and feet and my one-year old granddaughter joined in, sweetly stroking my sister’s thigh. Her estranged son visited and they held hands for hours and apologized to one another for their multiple, mutual misunderstandings. We all told jokes, we exchanged meaningful glances, we wept with joy and sadness. When it was time to leave, we promised to see each other in a few days.
A few days later, my sister woke me from a sound sleep. She was smiling. She looked healthy and happy. She said nothing. I checked the time. It was precisely 6:20 AM. I went back to sleep, convinced that I’d been awakened by a dream.
At 7:30 AM, my daughter called for me to come upstairs. “Aunt Martha passed away,” she said. “I know,” I thought but didn’t say. Later, when I spoke with her nurse, I learned that the time of my sister’s death was 6:20 AM. It was Groundhog Day. I knew that I would hold on to the memory of my sister’s smiling face for the rest of my life. I suspect that she will reappear again and again and again for as long as she feels the need to hold on.
~ Namaste ~