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A Japanese Grandmother’s Heartful Final Message at 111

“She waited for you,” the priest told me. I believe she did.

It had been a long trip to get there and Grandmother had been on a long journey in this world. My grandmother was 111, though the priest pronounced her 113 by the Buddhist way of counting age, adding one for the time in the womb and another on New Year’s Day. Her old body had finally broken down and I couldn’t just let her go, so I went to Japan.

With a heavy feeling that this was my last time to see her I made the long trip across the ocean. When I finally arrived in her room and saw her, my heart sank as she appeared to be unconscious. I stared at her for a while thinking that I had come for nothing. But when I called her, “Obaachan,” she opened her eyes and looked into mine. “It’s me,” I said. “Stephen.” She recognized me and her eyes closed. We did this a few more times before she appeared to fall into a deep sleep. Wanting to get away for a moment from the enormity of the situation I went outside into the falling darkness wandering through neighborhoods filled with sights, sounds, and scents of home – fish grilling, television news, students bicycling home.

When I returned her condition had markedly changed. The nurse said that she was rejecting food and even water. The doctor was called and after examining her told me that she was nearing the mountain top – an unfamiliar expression but one I instantly understood. He left the room and I waited alone by her side. The only sound was the rhythm of her harsh breathing. After a few hours I grew weary and fell asleep. A short while later I awoke to a strange silence. I knew that it was over. Her long time in this world had ended.

As I gazed at the lifeless body I recalled the time that I lived with Grandmother in my youth. Everyone marveled at her vitality, and I was fortunate to have absorbed some. She taught me about the beauty of Buddhism, and the meaning of dharma, as a way of living by accepting who I was, being grateful for it, and responsibly doing what I could with what I had, which was abundant. Though life was full of suffering, there was also great joy in giving and receiving.

Grandmother also talked about the beauty of Jesus Christ. She insisted that my father, a sworn agnostic, was actually Christlike in many ways. I knew him as a man scorned by society as a fool, and Grandmother affirmed that he was indeed a fool. But she called him “Obakasan” – a wonderful fool, foolish enough to try to live by ideals and the highest values, for which he suffered severe consequences.

I wondered why she waited for me. Maybe Grandmother wanted to give me the final message that everything was all right. I sensed that she was closer to God, nearer to a different world beyond my consciousness. And she was okay. I would be okay too.

The funeral ended with family members placing flowers on Grandmother’s body, especially around her face, before the coffin was closed. We then moved to the crematorium. We watched as the body was rolled into the oven and the switch turned on. I had a strange sense of detachment; none of this was horrifying. I sensed no life in the body, no Grandmother. Whatever form she was now in, it clearly was not attached to that body.

I wondered if she was now with God and remembered asking Grandmother, “Where is God?” She pointed to her heart and said, “God is here.” Then she pointed at my heart and said, “God is there too.” And she looked up to the heavens and said, “God is in all that is beauty, truth, and kindness.” I understood that God is in all of us and in all that was good.

I wondered if she was still with me in some way. When I mysteriously lost the room key and eventually found it in a strange place in the bedcovers, I thought I heard her laughing mischievously, as she often did. I remembered her telling me that we would always be together. I think she meant that something about us was greater than just the person we appear to be or think we are. Maybe this is the soul.

I noticed a poster on the wall of the temple. “Let’s begin with thanks.” It seemed fitting for Grandmother. She had taught me to always be grateful for what I was given. And at the end of her life it was still the most important lesson.

If you would like, please take a moment and reflect on what you feel grateful for at this moment. It could be something big, like gratitude for your birth. Or it could be something small, like gratitude that you can breathe. I believe that with this moment to moment heartful awareness we can live and age gracefully and gratefully.

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