"The bad thing about when people die is it leaves everybody else fucked up. They're gone and it's no more problem to them. It's just sad for everybody that's left."
It is a quiet afternoon, on a summer afternoon in Arizona, starting to shade towards dark. There is a helicopter in the middle of the street outside my parents' house. My mother is lying dead in the backyard, the victim of a tragic drowning accident. My two older children, whom she was supposed to be watching, instead saw her drown, unaware that she had suffered a stroke, and was not deliberately doing a dead-man float.
My wife screaming my name told me that horror had descended upon us. I vaulted over the eight-foot fence in one movement, and was in the backyard. There she lay, a mere 67 years old, not breathing on the concrete where Tara had dragged her. Tara ran inside to call 911. I began artificial resuscitation. It was the first time I ever touched my mom's lips with my own. We were very Mexican-Catholic that way. When the paramedics cut away her swimsuit, it was the first time I remember ever seeing her breasts, though she breastfed me. Everything, everything, everything about this scene was so horribly wrong. I had been a mere forty feet away, working on my truck, readying it for the drive back to Oregon. My mom had wanted to drive back with us. I told her to fly up in a few weeks, so we wouldn't be cramped like we had on the drive down with her a month earlier.
She had been clinging to the life and love of our family. The day before, mom had expressed how terribly she would be missing Ana, our youngest child, still a nursing infant, radiant as a china doll with gleaming ebony eyes. My mom, whose name was Eloise, was carrying Ana around on her hip, doting on her, and what came out of her mouth was, "Oh, you are so beautiful. I am going to miss you so much. Tomorrow I will be walking around here like a dead man."
Mama had become a prophet, and it was no surprise she had intuited her coming death. She was quite nearly a saint, not by virtue of attending Mass, although she loved to sing in the choir, but by virtue of her well-known kindness and generosity. When she met my Buddhist lama, she happily took the vows of refuge, joining our Buddhist family without hesitation. The lama, a mischievous man with a puckish sense of humor, responded to my suggestion that we get her some Dharma books to read with a dismissive wave, remarking with good-humored disdain and a wrinkled brow, "Books? What does she need with books?" I went on with a flowery statement intended to flatter myself by association -- "Rinpoche," I said, "if I have any seed of compassion, you see where I got it." The statement was silly, since all beings have the seed of compassion which is the seed of enlightenment, and Rinpoche's response was a pomposity-deflating riposte that still makes me smile. "Well," he replied, alluding to my seed of enlightenment, "before, I did not know you had one, but now I see that you do, so you must develop it." I never forgot how deferential Rinpoche, who rarely suffered fools of any age, had been towards Mom. He really acknowledged that her self-evident goodness required no improvement. I have felt her presence beside me at major decision points in my life again and again, guiding me to do only those things that she would be okay with, and it has never steered me wrong.
Mom's funeral was held a week after she drowned, because we kept her on a ventilator and watched her flat brain waves for seven days until my dad said to unplug the damn ventilator, because otherwise she was going to die of organ failure and basically rot in front of us. Well over a hundred people showed up to the funeral. I didn't know at least half of them. Many, many people introduced themselves and told me how much she had meant to them, of how kind she had been, of how fortunate we had all been to know her. None more fortunate than my brother, my father, and I. And none more bereft, now.
Guilt choked us all. My brother and Dad had been campaigning for a friend up in Prescott that day, helping a friend of my brother's who was running for Arizona Attorney General. Suddenly, their big-wheel political act seemed like a terrible, misplaced priority.
My father was furious with me. He barely spoke. His grief was like a huge, black iron that crushed everything. My father's whole life turned to hell, because I, the only man in charge of the house, had been doing some stupid, mechanical bullshit, instead of watching my mom. He never said this, but I knew he thought it. He wasn't into consolation. He'd spent the last eighteen years earning a federal pension, the two of them had just retired and bought a new house with a pool because, irony of ironies, after conquering a lifetime fear of water and drowning, she had become a daily swimmer. After a week of enduring my father's silent ire in the house inhabited by my mother's spirit, whose voice I could hear resounding in every room and hallway, we packed up and split for Oregon.
The drive home was a nightmare. We were broke, and our two new front tires were worn bald by the time we got to Lodi, California, because the idiot shyster tire guys in Phoenix had grossly misaligned the front wheels when they put them on. My mother-in-law helped us out with her credit card and a real decent guy in Lodi named Charles Gomes got us back on the road with a new pair of tires.
When we got back to our yurt on the Buddhist retreat land in Southern Oregon, I was saved from desperate grief by a miracle. Perhaps those who have never known the love of a truly kind mother cannot understand my grief. It was as if the sun had gone out. There was no sense to life at all. My son Joshua was devastated with guilt, being nine, and old enough to realize after the fact, that grandma had needed help, and he could have gone and gotten Mom, but he sent Maria, and Maria didn't understand at all that there was a problem, and neither did Josh, really. But everyone felt terrible, and Josh developed crying jags that would continue for an hour or more, when the grief and tears would flow uncontrollably. For truly, she had been like the sun for all of us, a source of love so dependable and true that it made the world bearable, and now she was gone, irretrievably gone. Things would happen, good or bad, and I'd want to call her, but I couldn't, 'cause I didn't have that number.
But we did get a miracle, and our lives were saved from utter destruction. The day we got back to Colestine Valley in Oregon, we saw that Rinpoche had begun a Great Work, the construction of a 22-foot high concrete-and-steel Buddha statue, to be built on a ten-foot concrete foundation. Rinpoche took me aside as we stood together, working on building the concrete forms for the foundation that we were constructing entirely without permits, zoning, or building code approvals. We were outlaw Buddhists, in every way. And as I stood next to my lama, he told me, "Don't do anything but work on this statue. Don't work for money or look for a job. Just do this, and dedicate the merit to the benefit of all living beings, with your mother as their representative." He turned to scan the work site, where about twenty hard-core hippies, ex-dope-dealers, scene-seasoned women, and deadheads were gaily doing the ultimate in New-Age construction work, working like beasts for free. Then he looked back at me and said, "These people don't know what this is all about. You do." He meant I knew that death is why we practice Buddhism.
I got the message and obeyed Rinpoche's command, for his words were commands to me. I always obeyed him. When he told me to stop fighting with Tara, I did. When he told me not to fall in love with other women, I stopped doing it. We had no money for three months, and lived solely on food stamps and on tiny donations from the dozens of people Tara was feeding. Rinpoche drove everyone mercilessly. The entire statue was built with hundreds of yards of concrete mixed and poured in small batches onsite, because no concrete mixer truck would cross the bridges between the statue site and Colestine Road. We ran wheelbarrows of wet cement up a twenty-five foot ramp at a 30-degree angle, using two-guy teams. We drank an endless supply of beer, ten or twelve cans a day, and barely felt it, we were working so hard. People fell in love that summer, some people ended up getting divorced. People came into the Sangha who have never left. We had genius-level people mixing concrete. We had abundant profanity and crude jokes. Much like the Blues Brothers, we were free to do anything to advance the project. We were on a mission from God. It was a hell of a scene.
During that summer, Rinpoche also wanted to teach us Dream Yoga, so we could practice meditation during our sleep, a time during which, as Rinpoche noted, we couldn't claim to be otherwise occupied with things like work or school. As part of the dream yoga teaching, Rinpoche taught us how to deconstruct the solid world of appearances, that he said was just a curiously-solid dream.
Rinpoche also taught us about how to disassociate names from their objects of reference. He taught us that "cup" is a word, and what it refers to is a piece of ceramic molded into a liquid-holding device that will someday break and not even be a cup anymore, but will become something called "trash."
Most importantly, Rinpoche taught us that our names were distinct from ourselves. To help us play with this concept, for one week we were assigned a practice called "transcending praise and blame." He told us that for one week, we should practice saying nasty, abusive things to each other. Being a gang of untamed post-hippie, proto-yogis with rock and roll craziness as our foundation, we took to faux-hostility like pigs to mud.
So on any given day, for at least a week, walking around the job site, people would come up and abuse you. Driving down Colestine Road, old Mitchell Frangadakis, the ex-grade school teacher, would pull over with Pat Hansen, the ex-Marine semi-hooligan, and we'd lay into each other with streams of invective, smiles showing all around. Then we'd drive off abruptly, apparently in a rage. It was hilarious, but I don't think we made much progress in dropping our self-regard. Maybe for Tibetans, the faux-abuse would have meant something, but hippies were used to behaving crazily, so it was basically just a hoot. Years later, I think we're all still attached to our names. In all candor, I had no real idea what the practice was all about until June, 2012.
The summer wound to a close, and I had to go back for my senior year at Southern Oregon State College. I was trying to decide what to do for graduate school after I got my B.A. in English. I knew I didn't want to be powerless and resigned, like all my friends who were English professors.
Shortly after Mom drowned, when she was in the hospital on the ventilator, I was watching a Sunday morning political show with the usual suits talking politics. I thought, "I could do that." Later, in the grocery store, I asked Tara if she thought I should be a lawyer. She said definitely, yes.
Three months later, I was standing with Rinpoche at the statue site. We were spreading concrete, I believe, and I said to Rinpoche, "I'm thinking of going to law school."
He said, "Do it."
I said, "It's kind of weird karma."
He said, "I think it's great karma."
So the matter was settled.
My grief became manageable as the joy of working on the statue of Vajrasattva, as the androgynous-faced Tibetan Buddha, draped in jewels and silks, became a huge reality -- changing figure before our eyes, and the knowledge that I was doing an act that could help my mother and all living beings soothed my pain. I became very, very poor, so poor I had no money for shoes. I had to go barefoot, like an Appalachian child, and I had children of my own. It was humiliating, and the first thing I bought when I got my student loan money was a pair of Chinese plastic track shoes so cheap the soles weren't even made of real foam, and clicked when I walked on the hard floors of the English department. But I made it back to the English department, and I got my degree, and I took the LSAT, and I got into UCLA, and I passed the bar, and I got a job at the world's fourth largest firm.
After I had been working a couple of years, my Dad came to visit, and we were walking to a Mexican restaurant for lunch, and as we stood on a street corner waiting for the light to change, Dad looked up and around, taking stock. We were both dressed in grey suits, because dad always wore a suit if he was in a business environment, and of course I wore a suit to my first job.
He looked up at the skyscrapers and then he looked at me and said, "Son, you've done it, you've really done it. If only your mother could be here now to see you." He paused and continued. "She told me, not long before she died, 'You know, Jimmy, I think that Charles is really going to do something.'" With that, I knew Dad had forgiven me for Mom's death, and he also put a burden on me. Because aside from getting a steady salary and paying student loans, I didn't think I'd accomplished enough to call it "really doing something." Mom had talked to my Dad, after all, who had high standards for such things. Mothers love us regardless of what we do. Fathers teach us to achieve goals. Between the two, we can learn the lessons that make us decent people. So we must ever protect their memory and their names.
My dad's name was Conrado Santiago Carreon, "Jimmy" to most everyone. He had a ready smile, a courteous manner, and an intrepid way of engaging any other human being in conversation in virtually any situation. Dad had been orphaned by the flu epidemic, twice, in fact, losing first his natural parents, then his foster parents in Arizona. He grew up in L.A., on his own from age 12 on. He became a boxer fighting professionally during his teens, and nearly died of tuberculosis before the age of 25, a victim of drastic weight loss regimens he adopted to "make weight" and fight in multiple weight classes. His first wife divorced him and took his son while he was trying to survive TB. That son, "little Jimmy," as we knew him, met hard times early with a mother who was not like my mom. Little Jimmy was in and out of the military, out on the streets and into street life, which in El Monte, California, gets pretty heavy pretty quick. Jimmy eventually moved to Arizona with his wife Honey and their four daughters, who were totally fun cousins to barbecue and have a beer with, and for a while there we had some good times. But, it didn't last long. Jimmy's health caved in and he died in a rest home. A second son, Andy, was killed at the age of four in a car accident.
When he married my mom, dad joined the large Ainsa extended family, and things seemed to smooth out. His dynamism was well-received by my mom's family, especially during the depression and war years. Dad had a way of raising money, including running the occasional poker game. He truck farmed and got deals from other produce guys. He got into politics, and was elected to the Arizona State House of Representatives six times.
Then he went to Washington, D.C., and worked for the Department of Labor for 18 years. My mom stayed in Arizona, working as a legal secretary for the State. I went to military school in Virginia, and stayed with dad in D.C. on holidays. He was a frugal man, who sent my mom most of his salary, living very modestly in studio or one-bedroom apartments, always overstuffed with books bought in the city's many remainder shops.
Eventually, he got moved back to Phoenix for a few years, then he had to go to San Francisco due to office cutbacks. So he and my mom spent a lot of time apart. He had an unshakeable belief in the value of hard work, and worked himself hard his whole life.
My mother's death happened just after he had moved them into a new house. Mom had retired from her job less than a year before. They had prepared well financially for retirement, so he was actually having a pretty good time. Mom was a little at loose ends after being a legal secretary for many years, but her health seemed fine, and she had quickly taken advantage of her freedom to start spending time with her three grandchildren -- pure joy for her. To have it all end in an instant was a terrible blow to dad. He and I had only recently reclaimed our relationship after years of silence due to his alienation from my failure to pursue a college degree, early marriage, and disappearance to Oregon with my wife and newborn child.
Mom's death set us apart for many months, but when I told him I'd gotten into UCLA Law School, he helped us to move to L.A. and pay rent for many months. Dad was very fatalistic about my chances of sticking with law school. I suppose he'd never seen me stick with anything before, so why would I stick with something as difficult as law school? He really kept a lid on his scepticism though, because he never made a single statement expressing doubts about my resolve. Years later I realized that he had really thought that every challenge I was facing would be the one to defeat me. He kept expressing surprise at each additional success -- straight A's in my second semester of first year, a summer clerkship at the hot firm with the best salaries and parties, and finally a top-paying job at a world-class firm waiting as soon as I got my J.D. He never thought I had it in me. So of course, our relationship just got better and better as I became more and more of a professional.
I knew dad was lonely, and felt like I should move back to Phoenix when I got my first job after graduation. I flew out to interview and got several job offers. I stayed with him in the house where he had devoted a room to a display of mom's clothes, hung all over the room. The room ached with sadness. During my visit, he made it clear that he wasn't assuming I was moving back to Phoenix, and that I should work in L.A. if that was best for my career. He also made it clear that he would think better of me if I did not do insurance defense work, that he described as "hard on the soul." Fortunately, it was easy to follow that advice, thanks to getting top grades at a top school.
Dad kept an upbeat tone and a quick step as he aged. When we all moved back to Oregon in 1993, he came and visited for months, sleeping on my couch, while the life of a family with three kids and a lot of visitors boiled around him. Tara was working all week as a legal secretary at the now-defunct Democratic liberal Heller Ehrman firm in Palo Alto to earn some real money, while I studied for the Bar. She commuted back to Ashland on weekends, but the Bar happened during the week, so dad watched the kids while I went up north to take the Oregon Bar exam. The kids took advantage, and he got an eyeful. His stories about their carryings-on with other second-generation hippies were quite believable.
That was the last good time I spent with him, but over the years he had spent many of my first lawyer experiences right with me. He stayed in a Pasadena hotel with me when I took the Bar in 1986. He flew to San Diego to hear my closing in my first jury trial. I lost, and he was incredulous. My argument had sold him! He regained a measure of good cheer around our children, clearly his favorite people in the universe. I liked being with him. He was such a good man.
I think when it got dark, the sadness would get to him. At night, all alone, he could only think of her, the one who had departed, never to be seen again. He had always loved Edgar Allan Poe -- I even memorized much of The Raven to please him when I was around ten or eleven. Now he would quote the poem's lines, "seeking surcease from sorrow, sorrow for the lost Lenore ... gone, forevermore." His head would hang heavily then, and his arms go slack, his eyes would sadden and the corners of his mouth would fall. His loss was entire. Truly the world was of no use to him anymore. He merely kept going from sheer endurance, thanks to the stripped-down fitness regimen he maintained until even after he started showing substantial signs of Alzheimers in his late eighties. At that point, mercifully, he appeared to forget his grief. Unfortunately, he also lost all track of some people's true identities. He did not recognize me as "Charles," when I sat before him and reminded him, or rather, tried to remind him, of who I was. He could recognize Tara, but when she pointed at me and said, "This is Charles right here," he would say, looking at a photograph of me, "Charles is away, doing very important work." I was glad that he felt well about me, but I was puzzled, frustrated that, in essence, I was unable to visit with my Dad.
During the last two years of his life, I only came to see Dad a half-dozen times, for short visits of a few hours. I was a busy dad running my own business, with a lot of bills to pay, but now I really regret having shown him so little respect during those last two years. He didn't "know me," but I could see he knew I was "somebody," and that should have been enough for me. I should have made more of an effort to spend time being somebody with him.
I had an intimation I would fail in this way when I was living in Santa Monica. We lived five blocks from the Pacific Ocean in a beautiful house filled with light from ample windows, surrounded by green lawns and big trees. You could hear the ocean from that house during the quiet hours of night and pre-dawn. Tara and I slept on futons close to the floor. It was amazingly peaceful there, for L.A., and I usually slept very well.
I woke up one night with my eyes drenched in tears, from a dream that was breaking my heart. I saw my father, dressed in outdoor clothes, standing in the middle of a sandy lot. It seemed like it was a ranch out in the desert. He was all alone, except for a little dog, a really sweet little dog, that was keeping him company. I realized he was all alone, and I woke up with the resolve to make more of an effort to see him, but I didn't follow up. I just kept on with the once or twice a year thing, and the years went by.
My dad gave me everything he could -- a love for education, and a lifetime's worth of great examples of what it means to be a decent human being. He was generous and always respected people who do physical work. He talked to cabbies, waiters, and bohemians as if they were diplomats, as it often seemed they were. I always remember asking my mom what I should be when I grew up. A doctor? An architect? She just frowned and shook her head lightly as if to say that it wasn't an issue of becoming any particular type of working man. Then she said, "Just be a good man. Just be a good man like your Papa. He's a good man." I only wish I had absorbed all Dad's lessons on being a good man earlier, and that I were better at putting them into effect. All of his advice was good, and my life would have been better if I'd started following it sooner.
But I must say that the tragedy that my dad suffered, I have insured against. He loved my mother deeply -- they had wonderful, exciting years together before I was born. My father ran a string of businesses from agriculture to industrial roofing contracting. With my mom and my brother, he lived and worked in Mexico City for a year. Then he owned a hotel in Puerto Punta Peñasco Sonora for another year. Then he did the legislative job for no money, or rather, $1,100 per year, which is about the same thing. When he hit his fifties, he felt he had to buckle down and pull in that retirement money. So he missed a lot of years he could have spent with Mom. For Dad, the years of sacrifice were the right thing to do. Or so he thought. But it really came to naught, because having a retirement fund without Mom to spend it with was just ashes in his mouth. Which is why I've worked for myself for the last eighteen years. Most of the time my beloved is in her office, and I'm in my office at the other end of the house, a pendulum swing away from my Dad's way of doing things. But in our hearts, I know we have the same approach to life. A sense of gratitude for talent and opportunity, the guts to do something different, an unbending will when dealing with bullies, loyalty to those who have reason to depend upon you, kindness toward those who cannot harm you, and vigilance towards those who can – that would be my father's creed, and mine, in a nutshell.
I honor my Dad with my life, trying to show the same courage, calmness, and kindly strength that he showed me again and again over many years. I never stop mourning the unique, terrible loss he suffered. One night, not long after I had a dream about my mother, I wrote a poem to describe his sadness.
Is It Thunder?
Somewhere between the gold and the black
I lost you --
You fell from my hand
Like a card from the deck,
And you're gone--
I can't retrieve
the things that we had,
I can't reclaim
the hours that have slipped away.
There is nothing left but an empty horizon and you.
Like the sun coming out from behind a cloud,
A dream that couldn't be true,
You were a vision in sunlight and lace.
Never was there another face
Like the one
That you wore.
But now that you're gone I sit alone and I wonder,
Is it the sound of the rain that I hear?
Is it thunder?
Come back again in my dreams if you can,
You're welcome if ever you choose
To join me there,
I don't have much company these days,
I stay in the same old place
And I sit alone and wonder --
Is it the sound of the rain that I hear?
Is it thunder?
(Dedicated to my mother, Eloise Carreon and the Choir of the Sacred Heart)
I never gave Dad the poem, or let him see it, because I can barely stand to read it myself. It hurts so much to read it, that I doubt I've read it more than a half-dozen times in the thirty years since I wrote it.
The dream that prompted me to write this poem came to me about a year or two after my mother died. In the dream, I was visiting her in a nice room where the sun was shining in through the window, and there were big green trees outside. Mom told me, "I'm in a choir. It's called the Choir of the Sacred Heart." She said, "I can't see, but I can help people." She sounded very happy, and I thought to myself, "Oh, this is wonderful. I am here with my mother, and I am fully aware of her presence." The light got brighter and brighter, and I understood that, like me, she couldn't see because of the light, but we were together there in the light. Then I woke up. I didn't feel like I'd wakened from a dream, but rather from a reality.
With that dream, I felt assured about my mother's current state. It put my heart at rest. She had more than once said that drowning seemed like the worst way to die. Perhaps because of this, I had suffered from the very painful, repeated, vivid imagining of how she might have suffered as she died, terrified and unable to help herself, with me unaware of her plight. After the dream, reliving the event that way came to an end.
My father apparently had no such reassuring experience, and became bitterly resigned during the last few years of his lucidity. He would go to church, go to Mass, but at heart he seemed to express his final judgment of the situation when he and I spoke one night outside an ice-cream shop in Phoenix. He had separated himself from my brother and his family, and Tara and our kids. He was standing, looking up at the sky out over the big parking lot, as if he might find some trace of Mom out there, in the absolute emptiness she had left behind. I came up and said something consoling about Mom. He said bitterly, not taking his eyes off the stars, "I will never see her again." This seemed so likely to be the truth, that I didn't argue with him about it then. I have no better arguments now. Somehow, however, I think that the peace and happiness he enjoyed with Mom during their good times together was not the end of all his happiness. Somehow I suspect that the essence of happiness is as indestructible as it is ungraspable. Like gold melted down and cast again into new coins, I believe that my father's bright and resilient spirit will take form again. And if not, then it's all the more important that his lessons live on in the way I live my life.