As my mother lay dying, regret often filled the room. The "what ifs" and "wish I hads" emanated from a lifetime of a brilliant, beautiful woman who felt her potential was never realised. Thwarted at times by the men in her life - father refusing to allow her to be a doctor, husband not allowing her to learn to drive for many years, insisting she cook dinner even as she returned from work after him - and a society that stipulated that when she married - at age 21 - she had to resign from the public service, as married women were not allowed to work. At age 18 she had been one of the first 3 women ever accepted in the Australian diplomatic service. Before she even had voted in an election , she had been a delegate to a United Nations Committe on Social Problems. Yet with marriage to my father - also a diplomat - her career was ended.
She had great happiness in her life as well, and was much respected, when my father became a famous judge, for what she offered. Yet in those weeks - dying in a hospice - anger and resentment were evident. I spent many days with her. Sometimes she refused my father entry into the room; he sat in the corridor quietly. One day she said to me : I want a divorce. What could I reply, other than - mum, you are dying. It's time to let go of that. As in any partnership there had been ups and downs, both parties probably saying and doing things that were less than kind, but there was also a depth of connection and each had brought positive things to the other, and to the world.
I returned to my home in another state, to greet my German "in-laws" who were visiting my partner and me. We had no phone; one day a knock at the door revealed a man in a suit, who worked for my father's office: I needed to get back. I saw my mother one more time. It was the evening, after a flight across the country. I went in and she was singing, her face glowing. She smiled - beamed - and said - Darling, how lovely to see you. That was all she said, then she again sang. There was no evidence of anger, simply joy. That was a great gift to me; the next day she went into a coma and some days later was dead.
My father was somewhat lost with out the fire and passion of my mother. They had lived in a retirement village, and had be-friended a woman there who had also worked in the USA for the Australian Government, spending most of her working life here. They had friends in common.
Some time after mum died my father said he was marrying this other woman. My first response was anger. My mother had waited for countless years for dad's retirement at 70 - then they were going to do lots of wonderful things together. Instead, she died. Now this other woman had become the pretender, the usurper of my mother's dream. I was not a child - I was in my 30's - I knew how irrational these feelings were. But I had cherished my mother and her pain had been mine. I remember the first meeting, in a nice hotel dining room. I was stiffly polite.
I softened over time. Beryl gave my father a new life. His health had not been strong, and she re-vitalised him. They travelled, he took classes at college. She - a woman who had never married, her career was her life - embraced with some uncertainty a family of children and grandchildren who rumpled the carpet and filled their small apartment with activity. I doubt my father would have lived those 10 or so years after my mother's death if it was not for her. That was an amazing gift she gave our family.
I was not so fortunate when he passed away - I delayed my trip to my home city and in so doing, saw only his body in death. I stayed with her in their apartment, sleeping in his bed, which felt a little odd. The night of his funeral I received a cryptic phonecall from a friend who was passing on a message from my workplace in the health department. After I hung up, i de-coded it on my mind and froze. It was suspected I had breast cancer. That was one of the hardest nights of my life. In my dead father's bed, he just buried, thinking of my mother who had died of breast cancer. My own mortality loomed at the foot of the bed, a shadow, an unknown. Yet evident. I wept. I called a close friend. I lay awake in fear.
The next morning Beryl saw straight away something was wrong. I had never confided in her. Our relationship had been friendly, but not close. I told her. On that day our relationship blossomed to love. Her response was so kind, so supportive; we became two women connected from the heart. I felt some remorse at how I had acted in the past, to a woman who had much love to offer. We both rejoiced when my follow up tests - after 5 long anxious days - were clear.
I found out later - exploring her past - that she, like my mother, had been the object of the patriarchal values of society. Despite having often run the San Francisco Australian trade office single-handedly, when it was suggested she be appointed the first Australian female Trade Commissioner, this was the response:
A Department of Trade minute from March 13, 1963, begins: "It is difficult to find reasons to support the appointment of women Trade Commissioners" and goes on to list reasons against it.
"A spinster at work, can, and very often does, turn into something of a battleaxe with the passing years. A man usually mellows," wrote A.R. Taysom to K.L. Le Rossignol, director of Trade Commissioner Services. He did concede that in some cases: "A relatively young attractive woman could operate with some effectiveness, in a subordinate capacity." But "such an appointee would not stay young and attractive for ever and later on could well become a problem".
This was 1963, not so long ago. After being put through the wringer, she was appointed, and had a successful career.
I have not been back to Australia since coming to the USA 81/2 years ago. I am not a good correspondent, neither of us were phone people. In the first years I sometimes called Beryl, or wrote a letter. On her birthday I sometimes sent flowers - yellow roses and irises, as my father had given her. For the last years, as she grew older, our contact has been non-existent, other than through my brother who passed on my love.
A month or so ago her health really shifted, and we knew death was approaching. My brother told her I loved her and was saying Buddhist prayers for her; she cried. Yesterday she died.
I do not know if she had regrets as my mother did. I suspect not. I think she felt her life fulfilled her dreams, whereas my mother's dreams were so vast and luscious she never felt satisfied; they were two very different women. But each of them showed me love and kindness, and each in their way did change the world through perseverance and vision as strong and competent women.
In a sense the Buddhist path is about preparing for death; knowing we will inevitably die, learning to live with the essence of impermanence. And because our bodies decay after death, all we can take with us are the qualities embedded in our hearts. So we strive to live with kindness, generosity, awareness of and compassion towards others, and not with judgement or anger or hatred and greed. These are the imprints of our lives that we leave behind and carry with us.
Yesterday's thought by the great Teacher Sogyal Rinpoche was very apt as I contemplate the flow of life and death:
A direct reflection on what death means and the many facets of the truth of impermanence can enable us to make rich use of this life while we still have time, and ensure that when we die it will be without remorse or self-recrimination at having wasted our lives.
As Tibet’s famous poet-saint, Milarepa, said: “My religion is to live—and die—without regret.”