Pages InformationWriter Jogye Date24 Jan 2019 Read1,308 Comment0
The First and Last Filial Duty to My Mother
By Wonmanhye Seungeun Kim
The Devouring Time Disease
“Sis, can’t you come down here faster?
Though the news didn’t sound too pressing, my little brother’s desperate and pleading voice on the phone conveyed a sense of urgency about my mother’s critical condition.
“Yes, I will try to get there by the 25th….”
Prior to Lunar New Year’s Day in the Year of Rooster in 2017, I was preoccupied with my various chores at home, as well as a number of tasks I took on as a member of the lay council of my temple. Nonetheless, my youngest brother’s words were still ringing in my ears, and I couldn’t concentrate on my work at all. As quickly as possible, I finished up the most urgent tasks, headed to Seoul Station, and put myself on board the KTX, an express train to Busan. At the time, I was thinking that I would just make a short visit for Lunar New Year’s Day.
Everyone says my mother is truly great, an absolute being in life. Two years ago, my mother was making kimchi, a traditional Korean dish made of seasoned vegetables and salt, for her children as usual, when she hurt her back. Ever since then, she had been receiving treatments for her back problems at a hospital for long-term care patients. The only thing that my mother could do for her children from her sickbed was remind us not to skip any meals and be careful as we went about our daily business. Yet, I always felt her great support and was happy that she was alive. I was going to meet that great mother. As I lived far away, and was too busy to visit her often, my heart ached with a sense of overwhelming guilt. At first, it seemed as if she would recover quickly and get back on her feet, but she never did, and had to be cared for like a baby in bed.
She was like the immortal phoenix, who would be there forever, always watching over her children. Whenever I am in trouble, Avalokiteshvara, or the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion who manifests in various forms, was protecting me! That was my mother. On the train on the way down, I recited the name of Avalokiteshvara the whole way, my mind filled with worries about her. The trail of thoughts about my mother soon led me to Busan Station. My brother met me at the station, and we immediately headed to the hospital in his car.
His dark face betrayed the seriousness of our mother’s condition. That short, ten-minute drive to the hospital never felt so long. The mother I met in the ward looked very different. She had changed so much. The early stages of dementia complicated her conditions further, and even after meeting her daughter, her face remained expressionless, as if the disease had erased me from her head.
How my mother used to delightfully greet me, springing up from her bed, crying and laughing when seeing my face. Yet, she nervously searched for me whenever I was out of her sight, afraid that I might leave any minute. It seemed that she had a problem with her urination system, which made her body appear swollen and out of proportion. She looked very different from before. In addition, some food had gotten into her airway, causing her to contract pneumonia. Moreover, the hose that supplied oxygen through her nose was so uncomfortable that she had to wear mittens on her hands to stop her from pulling it out. Such a shocking picture of my mother broke my heart, and I hugged her, but she painfully let out a shout of agony. Stunned, I checked her body from her shoulders to her arms, and realized she also had shingles, a painful skin rash. In a flash, I called the medical staff to come, and showed them the rash, but they said they didn’t know about it. It looked as if she had been suffering from the disease for some time.
Furious, I confronted the medical staff and my mother’s caregiver for their negligence, and they were embarrassed and apologized. Their irresponsible care enraged me. How much she must have suffered! My brother and I felt deep regrets about the limitations of their care, and moved our mother to the emergency care unit at Pusan National University Yangsan Hospital. As she had been diagnosed with dementia, she was unable to express her thoughts clearly, and just held my hands wordlessly in the ambulance, unaware of where she was going.
Though there was nothing to look forward to, she looked peaceful, perhaps thinking that she was heading home with her daughter. Her children felt tense, due to the ongoing emergencies, as they took on the role of guardians, responsible for making all decisions for her. At the new hospital, a new set of tests was performed, prior to beginning her treatment.
According to the diagnosis, the damage to her lungs was severe due to her bout of pneumonia, and she was in critical condition. She was diagnosed with arrhythmia as well. Furthermore, another hose was added to remove the urine from her swollen body, as she couldn’t urinate well on her own. Additionally, to avoid causing any harm to other people, she was put into a private room, as her dementia caused her to holler out often. It was her first private suite. If she had been hospitalized for another disease, rather than dementia, she surely would have scolded us for getting the expensive ward. Nonetheless, she didn’t know where and why she was there now. Whenever, she screamed, “Ouch, it hurts!” I took her two hands into mine and recited “Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion.” I prayed and prayed that her pain would be eased somehow.
For meals, she had to eat thin rice gruel, but it frequently got into her airway, causing problems. Before it resulted in more severe complications, another hose for food had to be added, going through her nose and into her stomach. The number of hoses increased. Those dangling lines looked like the honorable badges of a painful life, and they made my heart sink. Her bodily functions began to fail, one by one. As I saw how much my mother had changed, I was reminded of the teaching of the tri-dharma mudra, or the three marks of existence: all things are impermanent; all dharmas or phenomena lack self-nature or inherent substance; and nirvana is peacefulness, free from birth and death, or samsara.
The wisdom of Buddha’s teaching resonated, so that my heart ached terribly. I felt extremely guilty and sorry. Everything had changed. How impermanent life is! I finally saw myself in a harsh new light: how I neglected my duty as a child, preoccupied with the delusions of the world, accumulating karma. Looking upon my mother, I wept endlessly. She wasn’t fond of most formalities, and I wondered how much she would hate all those lines dangling around, simply to extend her life.
Forgetting Pain with Sutra Chants
When we moved to the university hospital, I decided to become my mother’s caretaker, instead of hiring someone else. It occurred to me that it could be my first and last chance to fulfill my filial duty to my mother. Weary of living, we had never taken a trip while she was healthy, something that both others and I have often taken for granted. I am the only daughter in my family, but we have never gone shopping together in a department store, tenderly holding hands. She used to complain, “I would love to go around the markets with my daughter, enjoying time together like others do.” How hard would it have been to grant her request? Though I beat my chest in anguish, my useless regrets overwhelmed me, sending shivers throughout my body. From time to time, I would take her to a temple for a picnic, and she would be filled with delight like a child. Her doctor told us that we should be ready for her imminent departure from this world, but we were in a state of denial, unable to believe the warning. No matter how sick she was, she used to go to sleep every night and spring up in the following morning like Mr. Potato Head.
Reciting The Great Dharani, I begged the Buddha to help my mother, relieving her of this suffering. I had finally gained precious time with her, after losing so much. Since she was diagnosed with the dementia, the number of things that she could do by herself decreased one by one. Every time something happened that irritated her or caused discomfort, she let out a bellow of pain, and then became exhausted, falling asleep like a baby. This was her new routine. She was a Buddhist throughout her life and used to love incense like perfume. I played The Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra, or The Diamond Sutra, from the Internet to ease her pain as she screamed during a brief period of consciousness. She used to recite this sutra on a regular basis.
Quietly, she began to listen to the sutra, stopped screaming and put her palms together to give a half bow. The words locked up in her consciousness came out and she uttered the prayer clearly, like an accompaniment.
“Thank you, Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion. Thank you, Avalokiteshvara. I love you Avalokiteshvara.”
How joyous it was and how welcome; I saw once again the mother I knew and loved, whom I missed so much. Tears of joy fell as my mother recovered her old self, the one I used to know. It was like a miracle, despite being dressed differently after the lengthy struggle with her illnesses. She was the Great Compassionate Bodhisattva herself.
Though I was always concerned about her health, I had never actually prayed for her, so I decided to recite and copy the sutra for a change. On the table attached to her sick bed, I started the project of copying and reciting The Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra, or The Diamond Sutra 108 times, signifying the 108 defilements. Astonishingly, while I was copying the sutra, she stopped her bellowing all of a sudden, and watched me with tranquil, attentive eyes. It was a joyful time that could last forever.
Sadly, this moment, which I am so grateful for, came only after my mother became very ill. I had acted in such a selfish, nonfilial way that I endlessly resented myself for the years before. My heart was flooded with overwhelming guilt. While praying and copying the sutra, my mother was quiet and still. I thought it was also the power or grace bestowed by Avalokiteshvara, or the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion, and ardently pleaded more and more. Despite the difficult battle against her sickness, she held herself together well each day.
Every year, on the day after Lunar New Year’s Day, our family of three brothers and one sister used to get together and go out to spend some happy times at a place nearby. However, this year, we had to spend the holiday in the hospital. One of my sisters-in-law sent us tteoguk, rice cake soup, a traditional holiday dish. Instead of offering her a holiday bow, a traditional ritual, I placed a little bit of the soup’s broth in her mouth, and tried to finish the rice cake slices myself, but my teardrops prevented me from swallowing them. Nonetheless, it was perhaps due to Avalokiteshvara that her condition neither progressed nor deteriorated. Her doctor’s advice that we should prepare to let her go soon was forgotten, and we felt like she would be with us for a long time.
Finishing the Sutra Transcription
For the holiday, my family came to see our mother, and asked to me to come back with them. As I hadn’t been home for a long time, they were concerned about me. Caring for my mother was physically and mentally tiring, so I also wanted to go with them. Nevertheless, it wasn’t easy to find a caregiver during the holiday period. Besides, her case wasn’t so simple, and we needed an experienced caregiver for her. Since my family needed to go back to work after the holiday, I decided to let them leave first, and promised I would join them at home after I found a caregiver. A new caregiver promised to come at 10 A.M. on the 3rd day of the holiday.
Though my desire to stay longer with my mother, even a few more hours, kept me there for a while, I also felt like I needed to finish my project of copying and reciting The Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra, or The Diamond Sutra in front of my mother. On the third day, the arranged caregiver had an emergency, so she said that she would be delayed until noon. On that day, I fed my mother her breakfast through the hose, and wiped her mouth clean with a piece of gauze soaked in mouthwash to refresh it. Her face looked quite fair, and didn’t show her age. Rubbing my face over hers, I gave her kisses from her forehead to chin. Then, she touched my face calmly and shed tears. I felt that she was herself again and it brought tears to my eyes, too. This overwhelming feeling became sorrow and tears began to fall, but I didn’t want to show that to my mother, so I put my face into her bosoms, hiding my eyes. Beneath her chest, her heart was beating just fine. “My origin, my home…” she muttered something into the air as if she was seeing something, feeling my body’s warmth.
‘For eighty years, she lived as a woman, a wife and a mother, and she received a laurel wreath of sweat and blood. The tubes for food, urine, and extension of life seemed like the Medals of Honor of life itself.’
This eighty-year-old mother was muttering at the afterimages of her life. All her most miserable and ridiculous moments were thrown into her heart like discarded tissues. They scarred her, causing her heartache, but now she explained each one in her murmurs, spreading them out one by one. ‘Please leave everything here. They say if a magpie trills on New Year’s Day, good things will happen, but my mother’s murmurs are sad.’
While my mother was muttering, I recited The Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra, or The Diamond Sutra, and these seemed to create a wonderful harmony. Perhaps, she was also chanting Avalokiteshvara, like she had in her younger, healthier days. Finally, the 108 transcriptions and recitations were done. At that moment, I felt a flash of intuition. Hoping that my ominous intuition was incorrect, I watched her cardiograph, the heart rate meter. It was slowing down continuously, 55, 54, and 53. Taken aback, a nurse paged the doctors immediately. The nurse who checked the rate, went out and came back with a group of medical staff and the ward instantly became chaotic. All sorts of medical equipment that I had seen on TV, even a defibrillator to shock her heart, were brought in and the medical staff moved swiftly at these critical moments. My worst nightmare was happening before my eyes, and I knew it was my time to say goodbye to her as her last moments drew nearer. In an attempt to resuscitate her heart, the medical staff dashed around like actors and staff backstage behind the curtains, preparing for the next scene, which was about to take the stage after the first one concluded
The Last Stage
I wished that all the things happening in front of my eyes were just a play, and I was just part of the audience, watching it. She looked as if she was ready to leave right away, so I called my brothers. They all lived within 10 minutes of the hospital, but I earnestly prayed that all of them would arrive before she left us.
“In the great loving kindness and compassion of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, please help us, so that my mother can see my brothers before she goes.”
One by one all my brothers came, including all my nephews, who were on holiday vacation. As soon as all of her children arrived, she left us, and her heart stopped beating. My brothers held her hands on both sides, and she grasped their hands tightly and didn’t let them go.
“Ah, she has been waiting for them. She was longing for her children, waiting.”
We, the siblings, released the floods of tears that we had been holding back, flowing like water into a gorge. At last, my mother peacefully passed away at 11 A.M. on the third day of Lunar New Year in the Year of Rooster, with all of her children and grandchildren at her bedside.
When reflecting on all these things that happened while caring for my sick mother, I believe these were the great miracles bestowed by the grace of Buddha and the Bodhisattvas. If the caregiver hadn’t delayed her arrival, and I had gone home with my family, I might not have been able to stay with her on her deathbed. I would have had to hear about her death from others, and be filled with regrets and the guilt of failing to fulfill my filial duty. We, the four siblings, were able to stay with her in her last moments, due to my copying and reciting of the sutra 108 times in front of my mother. My last filial duty to my mother was possible, thanks to the grace of Buddha.
Thank you, Buddha the Great, for answering the prayers of sentient beings while dwelling in all the ten directions of the past, the present and the future. We are grateful to you and love you. Remembering my mother who has left this world, I would like to take refuge in the Three Jewels of Buddha for her great love.