Reflections on a Life Lived
I've been working up to writing this post for a while now. I had a bit of an excuse for not doing it sooner, but that excuse is gone now.
On August 5th, 2020, my father, James Fred Shoemaker, passed away from breathing complications.
He didn't have Covid-19, but the doctors had trouble figuring out what was killing him. They found scarring in his lungs most likely from exposure to dangerous chemicals during his life as an ironworker and something was causing inflammation. It was somewhat sudden but also not completely unexpected. Just a day or two before he died, he was talking about feeling better and looking forward to coming home from the hospital. He had been there for a couple of weeks because he had had breathing problems that got progressively worse.
My family didn't want to have a memorial service. My mom couldn't handle people being around, and didn't want to bring anyone outside our immediate family into it. When I got back home to Austin, my friend Mako who is the head priest at the Austin Zen Center offered to have a memorial service, and I thought it would be a good idea. I didn't expect anyone but the AZC community, my wife and myself to be there.
Little did I know that when I told my mom, my siblings, and two of my cousins who I keep in touch with that they'd all want to come.
Memorials are for the living
My dad never wanted a funeral or a memorial service. He wanted to be cremated and the ashes scattered... no place in particular. I don't think he would have minded me having a Zen style memorial for him, since I'm sure he realized what I did, that memorials are for the living.
We didn't do a memorial immediately. In the Zen tradition, there are various ways to memorialize a departed loved one, I've helped with the ceremonies for countless memorials, so it's nothing new for me. One of the ones that Mako suggested was a 49-day memorial service, seven weeks after the person passed.
Each week leading up to the service, the mourners (in this case, just me) light incense and chant for the departed. I did it, once every week, for seven weeks. I didn't know how I would feel going into it, but I found it very helpful in the grieving process. The first week or two was hard, I had trouble not tearing up during the chanting, but as I continued, it got easier, and easier.
Then, on the 49th day, September 23, 2020, we had the memorial service at the Austin Zen Center
For anyone unfamiliar with the service, it starts with an incense offering. Then some bowing. Then people are invited to make any statements or comments they want, then we chant, during the chanting more incense are offered, then the dedication, then more bows, and then it's over.
I had wondered what to say, and I had been reading the Mahaparinirvana Sutra on the night he passed away. It's the story of the last days of the Buddha, and there's a part where he passes away, and some of his disciples are overcome with grief and throw themselves on the ground wailing at the loss. Some of his other disciples are more at peace, and reflect thus:
Impermanent are all compounded things. How could it be otherwise?
I think that's easy to misunderstand. It's not an apathy, or a giving up on life. It's just an acceptance that what we have will not last, and that we should cherish every moment we have with the ones we love.
Somewhere in those seven weeks, I went from the one wailing on the ground crying "Too soon! Too soon!" to someone closer to the other students, at peace, "mindful and clearly comprehending".
What we leave behind
I find myself bumping into things that remind me of my dad. Things I come across that I'd like to show him, before I remember he's gone. Especially in my arts: woodworking and music. I have his violin and play it often. I found myself the other day wandering into a tune he used to play on it whenever he'd pull it out of the closet to play a bit. I played it all the way through, from memory. I wonder what he would think.
There are so many things I wish we had done together. So many missed opportunities. I've found I make decisions about how to live based on how he lived. "I don't want do what he did and not be around.". I don't like that, but I learn from experiences, mine and others'. He was who he was, and did the best he could given the circumstances.
As my wife and I try to have a child, I wish he could be around to see them, whoever they turn out to be. The loss is there. It will probably never go away. It has made me focus on the important things, especially as the world is so separated right now.
There's a song that I found recently, "Here's a Health to the Company", an old Irish song, about people enjoying their company while they can, for they "may or might never all meet here again". There's a similar idea in Japanese that Shibata-sensei introduced me to, "Ichi-go Ichi-e", this meeting only happens once, it will never come again.