Watching My Mentor Die: Learning to Say Goodbye

by bryan maynard

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It was a balmy July evening in southwest Nashville and the sun was still high when I entered the naturally lit sanctuary. Golden filaments of an effulgent light filled the room and my body responded to the sensations and to the familiarity of this place with an unsettled easiness. The room was nearly full  but you could hear a pin drop as people glided down the aisles to their seats. This was the night for Mindfulness group meditation led by Insight Nashville’s leaders and I had been coming for about a year and a half.

I felt my feet slide across the cool wooden floor as I took my usual seat, and I gazed a long time at the two people on the platform, two people who have come to mean a great deal to me: Gordon and Kathy, my first mentors in the Mindfulness world. There was a grievous hurt in my chest as I held my eyes on Kathy for a good while and then I peered around the room at the others and I could see both terrible fear and respectful love on their faces. Kathy was dying and her body was showing us just how closely she walked with death and we all knew that her time with us would not be long.

Learning to Say “Goodbye” While She Lived

I honestly don’t know how Kathy made it to this meeting. Her cancer had returned after a few years of being in recession and the tumors were now consuming precious millimeters of space in her brain. Her right arm hung to her side and she told us it had stopped cooperating a few days earlier and then she explained the patch over her right eye: I’ve been blind in this eye for some time and the pressure behind it makes for an unpleasant appearance.  All I could think as she spoke was she is transcending all of this with an honest presence that makes her holy, other-wordly. Her peaceful face was emaciated with little color in the skin, but her consciousness, ever alive and bright, continually transformed her foreboding pallidity into a vision of ivory saintliness. I loved her more dearly at this moment than ever because of the strength of her hard-won authenticity.

Years of practicing how to be present and to be aware of ‘this experience too’ and ‘oh, this too’ were now carrying her through the valley of shadows as she welcomed pain and suffering as expected ‘companions.’ It broke my heart to see her being so present to all of this. But I knew I was watching a trusted teacher and friend walk out a long-grown wisdom. While there was no hint of denial of her experience, she never allowed herself to deny her desire to live and not die.  I really wanted to beat cancer and live. But, sooner or later, the body wants to die. This too is part of our experience and we can choose to deny it, or we can open our heart to it with the lovingkindness and tenderness.

I was sitting in the audience, watching her with the love of a student who did not want his mentor to die. I think I was trying to memorize her so I could recall her when I needed her in the future. I listened very closely to what would amount to be her ‘last words’ to me. I imagined that she spoke to me in my head, If you feel sad, that’s okay. Whatever you are noticing in this moment, just let yourself feel it. Whatever it is, just let it be true and open your heart to it.  As I returned to her and the room Kathy was speaking slowly with a reedy voice that pitched up and down. Gordon and I made the decision to spend the last few weeks, once it was clear that I would not survive this cancer, to share our experiences with all of you about what we are learning from all this. And, one of the things we are learning is how to say ‘goodbye’. We’ve been doing a lot of that lately. Hurt turned to a burning weight that crushed inward on my chest and the heaviness pressed aching tears out of my eyes and they flowed freely and generously down the side of my face onto my shirt. I let these tears fall as if they came from clouds full of grief and I breathed in the way that everyone who has ever known loss understands. Kathy continued, Today, we spent our time planning the funeral…We picked out some songs and we sang… and we cried. More tears. More sore ache in my heart. And more fear that life takes as it will and all things change without our control., Our family recently gathered together and all the grandkids were there along with our adult children. This was an early Christmas for all of us for an obvious reason. We gave gifts to each other and we enjoyed that. Cecil, our grandson, loved his present. He always loves a big party. But, then it came time for us to acknowledge that this would be our final visit together. And, we said our final goodbye to one another. As she shared these stories of saying goodbye, a moment of insight shined into my mind: I have to say ‘yes’ to this pain of realizing that this is her ‘goodbye’ to us and to me and this is our ‘goodbye’ to her. And I whispered a quivering, Goodbye, my dear friend and mentor.

Saying “Hello” Prepares You to Say, “Goodbye”

Kathy must have been exhausted by all these goodbyes, but in true form she remained present with us on this night and she shared her reflections with the rest of us about learning to say goodbye.

I am now realizing the fruit of what I have always taught and practiced through the years. In many ways, the practice of saying ‘hello’ to our experience and then saying ‘goodbye’ to that experience when it changes, and it always changes, is a kind of preparation and rehearsal for saying goodbye all the time. In this way, our practice has us always saying ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ to each experience. Saying ‘hello’ to everything in our life, whether pleasant or unpleasant, is all the training we need to be able to say ‘goodbye’ when our time comes to die. In life everything comes and goes as nature dictates. There is no peace in fighting what comes and then goes; if we have been saying ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ as a way of relating to each of our experiences, then death, though hard, is one more experience of letting go and of saying ‘goodbye’ to what has been true for us up to this point. 

I was and still am astounded by Kathy’s wisdom as evidenced by her words and by her trained ability to be aware and attuned to the changing nature of her experiences, especially this one. She once asked me (and the rest of the group). What is true for you at this moment? Whatever your answer is, the only response is to lovingly allow it to be true by being present to it with kind awarenessAnd when it passes, let it go and come back to the present to see and feel what is happening now.

The Last Moments

Gordon said that on the night that Kathy died, she had been doing well all that day. Her vitals were strong and she was fading in and out from the medications and he and everyone thought it would be okay if he stepped out for a quick bite to eat. But Kathy suddenly took a turn for the worse and it took Gordon several minutes to reach the hospital. As Gordon entered the hospital and the floor where she was located, he came rushing down the hallway to be by her side. Kathy, I’m here. I’m here with you. The nurse commented that she didn’t know how Kathy had hung on as long as she did because her vitals were so weak. But Kathy had waited for Gordon to be by her side. She would wait for him to be with her when she left this world. And, by her side now, and holding her hand, Kathy allowed herself to enter her final moments and to begin her final departure. As she was leaving, Gordon put his face close to hers and he shared his love for her and his gratefulness for her love and presence to him and the children and grandchildren. In the very final moments Gordon leaned close and said something to Kathy that Philip Moffatt, her mentor, had shared with her about the moment of this final passing: Kathy, remember what Philip said to you, ‘As you are leaving your body, stay present to all that your mind shows you, to all that you see and feel. And let loving awareness carry you to wherever it takes you’. He told her he loved her, again, and then she died with him next to her. After he was with her body for a while, he stood and walked to the door of the room and he stopped and turned back. He said to her what they always said to each other whenever they said goodbye. He said, I’ll be seeing you.

–Kathy Woods, my mentor, died on August 3, 2014. At the memorial she wore the wedding dress she had on the day she married her husband and friend, Gordon Peerman.

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