[Posted by Kiri Westby, Change-maker/Rule-Breaker/Story-teller]
This week I nearly lost a family member, albeit a four-legged one. And in the midst of dealing with urgent care doctors, IVs and exorbitant bills, I shed a lot of tears and thought a lot about the end of life…how quickly it arises and how little control we actually have over it.
At four months pregnant, the last thing I imagined being preoccupied with while creating life was death. But it keeps coming up again and again. This little person in my womb, barely 5 inches long now, will die someday (hopefully long after me). Perhaps it seems strange to be thinking about my baby’s death, when it has not yet had its birth, but I feel it is important.
I like to picture myself becoming a non-controlling mother, one who allows her child to roam free, realizing their dreams uninhibited by my fears and expectations. But my fierce instinct to keep our cat alive this week and my fears of letting him leave the house (now that he is home recovering) have brought to light just how difficult this state of motherhood may be.
How do we balance our parental instinct to protect and nurture with the tendency to become overprotective, fear-based parents who raise fearful, reticent children?
In these moments, I think of my mother and all that I have put her through, testing the limits of her sanity (you too dad!).
When I was 18, I entered my first war zone in Cambodia and ventured far West into the territory of the brutal Khmer Rouge Dictator Pol Pot…just to see what I could see. When I emerged unharmed a week later in Vietnam, I forgot to call home on the agreed upon date and my poor mom spent several days distraught, waiting by the phone, refusing to leave the house (at that time we had no e-mail, no Facebook, just expensive calling booths).
When I was 30, I was arrested by the Chinese Military for staging a Free Tibet protest at Mount Everest and subsequently disappeared for three days before any government could confirm I was still alive. And believe me, in the twelve years between those two events I gave my mom’s heart several reasons to stop beating. At the time, I thought little of it.
Now, on the precipice of becoming a mother myself, I often wonder how she handled it all? The only thing I can come up with is that she spent a lot of time contemplating death and becoming friends with it…hers and mine. An avid meditation practitioner, she set me loose upon the world, working through her fears and desires to control me and refused to stand in the way of my path.
When we try to control life and pretend that death is not awaiting us, then we exist in an illusory world of make believe, convincing ourselves that everything is safe and predictable. Then, when the reality of death does strike, it is much more brutal and unfamiliar and we are that much more unprepared. But we all know that there is no avoiding death, no matter how safe we feel, no matter how much insurance we purchase. As we saw last month in Haiti, and as I witnessed over and over again in my years working in war zones, disaster can strike anytime and our only weapon against it is to know it, to expect it, to befriend it.
There is a Buddhist saying that goes, “Death comes without warning, this body will be a corpse…at that time the Dharma is my only help, I shall practice it with exertion.”
Or as the poet Mary Oliver puts it, “when death comes, like an iceberg between the shoulder blades, I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?”
So as an expecting mom, one who wants my kid to grow up fearless and believing they can accomplish anything, I am already practicing by contemplating my unborn child’s death and coming to terms with it.
For many, contemplating death is considered morbid and to be avoided. But for me, embracing death is the only way to live.