[An extract from “Til Death Do Us Part?” by Nyerges, which is available on Kindle or as a pdf from the Store at www.ChristopherNyerges.com. Shiyo was Dolores’ mother who died in 1983. Dolores died in 2008.]
In the ideal world, we learn from other people’s experiences. This is most likely to occur when we are direct witnesses to the events from which we might derive learning. But it does seem that only the wisest among us is capable of real learning via other peoples’ experiences.
We’re doomed to repeat those experiences so that we (ultimately) learn through our own personal experience. This is generally how I received my “education” about death. I felt I wanted to learn more about this unavoidable phenomena – but polite poetry and priestly sermons, despite their sincerity – offered me nothing.
In 1983, the cancer, surgery, and failing health of Dolores’ mother Shiyo provided us with one of many opportunities to face death.
On the night Shiyo was dying, I was gone somewhere and Dolores went to Temple City with our friend Todd Pike. Later, Dolores reported back to me her very unpleasant and sad experience. When Dolores arrived at Shiyo’s home, Shiyo was not fully mentally coherent, and was apparently entering the first stages of dying. She was not properly responsive when Dolores tried to talk to her, or ask what she could do. In her uncertainty and panic, Dolores called the hospital – much to her later regret – and two young men quickly arrived by ambulance, with a gurney. The two men joked among themselves and chatted about their personal lives, treating Dolores’ mother as some impersonal task that had to be done. They talked with Dolores, and then quickly and efficiently strapped Shiyo to their gurney, much like you might securely strap a refrigerator to a dolly. Dolores felt that her mother was treated like a piece of meat, some mundane commodity, but not her mother.
Dolores followed the ambulance to the hospital. Shiyo was not coherent, and died that evening.
It was a very difficult time for Dolores, though she did her best to hide her pain She had lots of mixed emotions, and lots of regrets about not resolving her lifetime of unfinished business with her own mother.
As was Shiyo’s wish, Dolores had the body cremated.
Dolores then solicited the help of Todd and I, and others, to prepare a memorial event for Shiyo on the grounds of the Pacific Ackworth Friends school in Temple City, where Shiyo taught.
Todd and I met Dolores and planned an agenda for the memorial, including readings and a home-made meal. We all helped call people and mail out invitations. Dolores handled herself reasonably well during this stressful time, though no one would have blamed her if she broke down in tears. But that never happened.
She worked with us to create a serious and touching sendoff for her dearly beloved mother.
On the day of the memorial, Todd, Dolores, and I met at Shiyo’s home about two hours early and set up the eating and gathering area, and the outside memorial area on the school grounds adjacent to the home. Lu Kuboshima was there, as well as all the old family friends of Dolores and Shiyo.
People trickled into the outdoor seating area, around the grand stone stove that was built many years earlier by Dolores’ father Lyle (deceased many years earlier). I didn’t know everyone on Dolores’ side of the family yet, but I knew many.
Dolores opened the ceremony with a short talk about Shiyo, and there was some music. Numerous friends of Shiyo’s stood up and talked about her. It was very much like the typical Sunday Friends gathering, where people speak as the spirit moves them. One tall skinny elderly man – he was probably in his 80s – stood up and said nothing, but danced around in a circle while waving a long silk scarf. It was quite a refreshing spectacle. Then the man sat back down, never saying a word.
I read a short poem that Dolores had selected. I had already come to know and love Shiyo. I already felt that she was my mother-in-law, though Dolores and I didn’t get married for another three years. So when I read the short poem about Shiyo, I found it hard to not cry. A clay bust of Shiyo, made by one of her art students years earlier, stood on the edge of the large stove.
I had no preconception as to what such a ceremony should be like. It was the first time I’d ever actively participated in a memorial. I suppose I expected something deeper, fuller, even a more-meaningful in-depth look at Shiyo’s life and how she affected everyone and changed the world.
But I think I was still in the mode of expecting answers, even expecting “enlightenment,” to come from somewhere else outside of me. As if all that was expected of me was to be in the right place at the right time, to read the right book, to be exposed to the right people. These things, of course, can play a significant role in one’s development and evolution, but what I didn’t fully grasp was that the external forces could only enhance – but could not replace – the necessary inner condition of being ready, and willing, and able to evolve to whatever one’s “next level” might be.
Plus, I hadn’t yet learned and realized the Universal Principle of “AS ye give, so shall ye receive.”
Thus, at Shiyo’s memorial, I was only in a posture to receive a limited amount of learning about death. I was expecting someone to give it to me.
But learn I did, little by little. Along with Dolores, I learned to give, and at times, to give sacrificially so that others might have a better learning experience.
But on that day, I could only feel deeply for Shiyo, and try to feel Dolores’ pain.
When the memorial was over, we all went inside Shiyo’s home and we served soup and other healthful dishes that Dolores had arranged for guests to make. It was a great event, and I’m so glad we did it “at home” and not at some commercial funeral parlor where we’d be quickly rushed out once it was all done.
We all sat and talked about Shiyo, and got reacquainted. In that sense, the gathering was more for the living than for Shiyo, for it gave us the chance to see how each of our lives were touched by Shiyo, and how her life lived on in each of us.
I was still left with many questions, some of which I was attempting to answer through my studies of the “Thinking and Destiny” book. Is it possible to really know what happens after death? Should I fear death? What is the purpose to these very temporary lives we lead, and then die? Where is Shiyo now? Will I go there?
Lots of questions. Were the answers “unknowable,” as Joe Hall avers?
For the most part, those were not the questions or topics that we discussed that afternoon. We did, of course, talk about Shiyo, and other matters.
Then, afterwards, Dolores had the unsavory task of handling her mother’s estate, which included a yard sale where it seemed that all the vultures descended “looking for a deal” (or was it “looking for a steal”?). It was left to Dolores to dispose of the many possessions of her mother, which caused behind-the-scenes bickering and accusations for years. Perhaps that’s just one of the things that “goes with the territory” of handling an estate. Still, it only made Dolores’ pain of losing her mother even greater.
Dolores kept and maintained Shiyo’s library of Indian books and booklets, and her many writings. One such writing was the account of Shiyo’s best friend who married a Navajo man during the Great Depression and moved to the Navajo Reservation. When Dolores and I rediscovered that manuscript in her mother’s boxes, we attempted to get it published. We finally succeeded in doing so, and in 2002, Naturegraph books published “The Winds Erase Your Footprints,” an incredible true story that reads somewhat like a Tony Hillerman novel.