Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Kali Ma Ki Jai!

On Sundays sometimes, here, I help out in the garden. My job at the moment is to gather bamboo so one of the swamis can build frames for tomato vines. It's good, sweaty work, first cutting the stalks with some big ole clippers, then hacking off the branches with a machete. It's fun, in a safe and productive setting like that, to get to destroy something.

Ma identifies and associates herself with Mother Kali, a Hindu goddess of death and destruction. Kali often appears with a sword in one hand, the severed head of some innocent in another, and blood dripping from her mouth. She's an image to give children nightmares. In proper paradoxical form, she's also adored and beloved as the sweetest, warmest, gentlest goddess of the pantheon. Kali destroys so that new life can begin. To love Kali is to let her kill your ego and nurture your soul.

I'd like to say that two weeks ago, as I hacked away at bamboo, I was thinking about the Kali appropriateness of destroying one thing to build another. The spiritual depth of what I was doing could have been fascinating. Instead, I grunted and sweated and circled the same mental drains I always do.

It's an odd rule of this place that whenever I leave my phone at home, Swami Rudra Das tries to call me, and that morning was no exception. He managed to find me among the bamboo wreckage, though, and told me that he and Yeshoda (Ma's personal aide, kinda) and half a dozen other people had been looking for me.

I'm gonna try to tell this part without names, but there is a woman in the community here whose mother was dying. The mother was an observant Jew, and she'd come to stay at her daughter's house for her last remaining months, but she didn't have a rabbi or Jewish community here. It looked like today was the day, the mother was dying, and they needed someone to come and say the end-of-life prayers with her. Without a rabbi in town, I was being recruited instead.

I called my father and we talked about how to do this, what I should say, what the dying mother should say. I took a shower, and put on something rabbinical looking. My father emailed me some prayers to read, but I couldn't get to a printer, then realized I had the same texts in a book here already. I found, then lost, then found again my yarmulke. With everything ready, and one foot out the door, I stopped at my computer for a game of solitaire. I knew I shouldn't, and I didn't really enjoy it, but I just couldn't leave yet. It took me a little over an hour to get from the bamboo grove to the house.

They tell me I knocked on the door just a moment after the mother took her last breath. Her eyes were still open, her body was warm, and you could feel her presence in the room still. But she didn't blink, or breathe, or speak. I held the dead woman's hand and read the Shema, the central affirmation of Jewish faith, on the her behalf. Her husband was there, the community member's father, and I had him read the Hareini Mochel, a prayer to forgive and be forgiven. We sat in silence around the empty body, and I silently encouraged the spirit to gather herself together, release this world, and be welcomed into the next.

After a while, it felt like she really had gone away. I went into the other room, and ended up sitting with the husband/father for a while. He was in his nineties, and also in poor health, and he seemed kind of stunned by his wife finally passing away. We talked a little about their marriage, and his time in the army, and the difficulties of growing older. I blessed him for good health and long life. I apologized for arriving too late, and they told me it was just right. In time, a nurse came to fill out a death certificate, the family thanked me for coming, and I left.

People have told me since then what a great job I did, and how grateful the family was that I could come. I'm glad to hear this, and I'm glad to have helped. At the time, though it didn't really feel like I did much at all. I didn't have anything especially wise or comforting to say, I didn't stay very long, no one cried on my shoulder. But my father had said to just be present, trust my heart, and focus on escorting the mother to the next world, which I more or less succeeded at.

Back in my car I felt exhausted. In the house I had really felt myself in the rabbi role, but back outside I was just some shocked, inexperienced kid again. I drove home and watched TV and played solitaire for four hours. I got up and finished stripping the bamboo, then went right back to watching TV. Finally, around 9 or so at night, I managed to look directly at what had happened. My first dead body. My first (pre-)rabbinic housecall. My father told me a visit like that makes you confront your own mortality, and I supposed that's just what was going on.

I wrote in my journal for a bit. "She's in a better place now," or "she lived a long life and died peacefully, surrounded by loved ones" or "I never even met this woman, why do I care?" didn't help me much. These are all ways of ignoring the fact of death, no more authentic than TV and solitaire.

I could feel death inside me that night. I could feel my whole body slowly dying, way up the same road leading to open eyes and a warm body, but no breath. I could let it weigh me down, and just wait for the inevitable, or I could embrace it as the nature of life, that life is dying, and let the death I felt inside me push me onward and upward to more living. Kali Ma Ki Jai, I thought. Mother Kali to Victory! I even maintained that state for about two-and-a-half minutes, feeling life and death coursing and swirling together inside me, then I curled up in a ball again and went to sleep.

I'll be doing more of this in a decade or so, once I'm a rabbi. A whole lot of Baby Boomers are going to die over the course of my professional life. In a way, I'm relieved that I missed the actual moment of dying, as I don't know if I'd have handled that as well - it's tempting to see a divine hand in the accidents, delays, and solitaire that got me to the house just minutes afterward - but I'll have to deal with that, too. Death is going to be a sizable part of my life. Writing this now I remind myself, Kali Ma Ki Jai, and I'm grateful to Mother Kali for using me well, and meeting me early. In school, when I study the preparation for death, and the ceremony of funerals, and grief counseling, I'll think of that weekend. I'll try to embody that feeling of life and death intermixed and interdependent. I'll try to look my own mortality in the eye and keep living. But it sucks, man. We're all born, and we all do our darnedest, and when the time comes, our bodies just crumble. This is how Mother Kali loves us, and we do our best to love her back. I'll try, but it might be a while before that's not hard for me.

Sri Kali Ma Ki Jai!

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