I’m not sure who first said “this too shall pass” – there are a few variations on the story, but the version I heard years ago was about a king who’d asked his wise men to provide a mantra to relieve his suffering. The wise men presented the king with a ring engraved with the words “This Too Shall Pass.” The king found that the mantra worked well, and his kingdom-related worries where alleviated. On one very special day, however, a particularly happy and blissful day, the king was holding his newborn daughter, feeling the love for her swell in his heart. As he looked into her tiny blue eyes, the sun shown upon his ring and he was reminded that this too shall pass.
“Lisa, say your prayers.”
My mom was lying in the bed on the other side of the small, one-bedroom apartment we shared on College Street in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She’d wave her cigarette around in the darkness making figure eight patterns of orange light, the mentholated smoke filling the night air.
“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.”
Being with my mom like this was a rare event that I adored; she seemed so happy and relaxed. I was fine with the prayer, except with the part, you know . . . the part about dying. In my young mind, I’d made the physical connection to death by poking a dead bird with my finger. The bird was stiff, cold, and unmoving. I would eventually make the emotional connection to death as a regretful sadness, similar to what you might experience if the birthday party you’d been looking forward to for months had just this moment ended. The cake is gone, the guests are leaving, and you’re standing in the doorway with a balloon tied to your wrist, waving goodbye. You’re feeling totally distraught because this was also the same exact moment that you’d started having fun – the rest of the day had been a pathetic mess because your best friend couldn’t sit next to you at the table, your ponytails were too tight, and your mom was being overbearing and mean.
I remember the moment that I connected death with that regretful sadness. I was six, bathing in an old claw-foot tub. I was thinking about my cat who’d recently run away, mom said he was probably dead, and hot tears fell from my cheeks creating tiny ripples in the bathwater as they fell.
Over the years, my experiences with regretful sadness would be stored, one after another, like books saved on a shelf to be read at a later time. One book for each beloved pet euthanized, one book for the tiny field mouse that expired in my hand after eating cheese in the trap my mom had set, one book for all of the toads I accidently killed by putting them into a bucket once filled with crop fertilizer. And, there was one book of sadness so big it had a dedicated shelf, but it was a different book, in had no regrets in the reference section.
When I was 18, and one month into my Air Force basic training, my grandma died. She’s been my inspiration growing up – she taught me to identify local birds by their songs, camp on a rock in Canada, bake delectable sweets for the holidays, explore ice caves in the Great Lakes, and how to pick Salsify (huge dandelion-like flowers) in one piece (spray it with Aqua Net Super Hold hair spray bought at the local Woolworth’s). Standing next to my grandma’s casket in my dress blues, I unceremoniously poked her stiff, cold face. I felt sad that she was gone and sad that I would never hear her voice again, but there weren’t regrets – we had always been kind, loving, and respectful to each other.
As I grew older, I understood that life by nature was impermanent, that I too would pass. I would come to understand a very important concept that we are not our bodies, confirmed for me after reading Thomas Noguchi’s Coroner (the inspiration for the Quincy, MD television series), and the two grisly gems my boss’s wife, who shared a common interest in human mortality, gifted to me called Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab; and Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers (read this one if you’re thinking about donating your body to science – I still will, but I hold out hope that my body’s demise is a tad more polite).
All well and good, but the regretful sadness would continue to haunt the corners of my heart and mind. Then, one day when I felt particularly lost in life, I began visiting a local cemetery, contemplating life from the seat of my Volkswagen, looking out over hundreds of gravestones with names and dates commemorating lives mostly forgotten.
That’s when I got it . . . I mean, really got it.
Beneath each stone were the remains of a person, someone that had been born and then died. And in between those two major life events, they’d loved, hated, feared, struggled, laughed, wished, hoped, dreamed, cried, fell in love, fell out of love, broke bones, worried about wars, had children, got sick, got married, got divorced, listened to music, read books, believed in God, hated God, dipped toes in streams, made friends, lost friends, regretted the past, and worried about the future. Just like ME. What if on their final day here on Earth they’d wished they could do it all over, this time without regrets?
Comprehension turned into compassion, and I made the decision to live my life mindfully, by being present for whatever arises, by loving more, being authentic, by being kind. I meditate, do yoga, and live healthy. It’s a good life – I hope you’ll join me.