15/07/2010

THE LIMIT OF MY COMPASSION

"My body was telling me not to leave. I didn’t listen..."


As I sat in meditation this morning a memory passed like a freight train through my mind:

the memory of what was by far the longest and hardest day of my life.

I’ve learnt to know the difference between low-key, ‘random’ thoughts, and deeply subconscious ‘stuff’ that comes up in meditation for good reason; so I paid attention.

In May 2008, a couple of weeks after Petra and I got married here in Slovenia, I had a phone call from my Mother. She told me if I wanted to see my (very sick) Father again, I’d better come soon. I  came off the phone and immediately booked a flight for the following day. I would fly back to England on the Friday, stay the weekend, and come home to Slovenia on Monday morning. (Petra was leaving on the Tuesday morning to go to India for a month to study Ayurvedic massage, and I wanted to see her off).

I flew home with the realization that this was probably the last time I’d see my Father – a realization that filled my whole physical and emotional being with a deep sadness. He’d been ill for a long time, and we’d all known this moment would be coming, but even so… there is no way to prepare for loss. It happens, and then you deal with it.




When I saw him that day, the horror left me feeling numb. He was very, very ill. As I look back now, I realize that if I’d taken time to think about it, I would have known that he had only days left. Subconsciously, I did know; but consciously, I avoided thinking at all. It was too painful.

I spent some time with him, but he was so weak that no communication was possible. He had long since lost the use of his voice, and now he could barely move. His neck muscles were too weak to support his head, so eye contact was difficult. I spent most of the time with my Mother, talking with her and trying as best I could to support her.

The weekend passed, and suddenly it was Monday morning. I learnt that morning what it means to have a ‘heavy heart’. However, when I said goodbye to my Father for the last time, there were no tears and no drama. I gave him a hug, stroked his head, and whispered, “I love you Pops”. He summoned up the strength to lift his head and give me a look of love that I’ll never forget.
Then I went downstairs and left for the airport. My bags weighed nothing compared to the physical feeling of heaviness. My body was telling me not to leave. I didn’t listen.

At the airport I was the first person in the departure lounge. I was set on getting home to Slovenia and putting behind me the pain of seeing my Father in that condition. All I could think of was finding some temporary solace in my wife’s arms.

Slowly, the lounge filled. The plane was outside on the tarmac, and through the window I could see the luggage being stowed on the plane.
Then, I had a sudden and peculiar urge: I wanted to buy a newspaper. (The reason this was peculiar was that I rarely used to read the papers).
The plane wasn’t boarding yet; I had plenty of time. Besides, they always announce the boarding, right?


I walked down the hallway to the shop, and bought a paper and a bottle of water. It must have taken me 3 – 5 minutes, but when I returned, the lounge was empty! The strangest feeling came over me – the heaviness in my body was now accompanied by a feeling of complete emotional emptiness, as if every cell in my body was hollow - as I realized what was about to happen.

I ran the few steps to the flight departure gate, where a woman in uniform was counting ticket stubs. She didn’t even look up as she told me that I had missed my flight.



The world went into slow motion. I could see my plane still sitting outside – two lines of people slowly climbing the stairways into the front and back – the ground crew scurrying around like ants, still finishing their flight preparations.

I pleaded with the woman in front of me.
Would she let me run down and join the back of the line…
would she radio the plane and ask the cabin crew if I could go down…
my wife was going away, my father was dying, please, I needed to get on that plane.

If she would just look at me, maybe I could communicate how important this was. As I raised my voice, she did look up: to inform me that if I continued to behave in a threatening manner she would call the police. She was a stony-faced, cold-eyed woman, and nothing I could say or do would change that fact. I wasn’t getting on that plane.

As I walked away, my world crumbled. I couldn’t stay in England; I couldn’t bear to see my Father like that again. I needed to be with my wife; to be home.

I had to wait 2 hours in the departure lounge for a ground crew to come and ‘escort’ me disdainfully back to the check-in desks. I booked another flight from another airport on the other side of London, and then traveled two hours by train to get there. That flight was delayed, so I finally arrived back in Slovenia at 2am. Petra’s parents were there to meet me, and drove me back to our home, where we arrived at 4am. On arriving home, I saw that my car had a flat tire, so I then had to drive my parents in law home, and return with their car in order to be able to drive Petra to the airport 30 minutes later (she had an early morning flight). I successfully saw her off to India at the airport!

I then drove home, having been traveling non-stop for about 36 hours, having had no sleep and only 30 brief minutes with my wife at 5 o’clock in the morning.

When I arrived back home from Ljubljana airport (again), I sat down and felt more alone than I had ever felt in my life: heavy and empty and utterly alone.

I made a cup of tea, and the phone rang: my brother. My Father had been rushed to hospital that morning, where he had just died.
I couldn’t believe it.
Deep down, I had known.

I realized at the time that I should have stayed in England that day: missing my flight was a good thing! Everything happens for a reason. I should have stayed and been with my Father when he passed on. I knew he was dying, and missing my flight was no ‘accident’.
I should have been there for my Father and Mother and my Brothers.

But it was only this morning, as the memory of that weekend came flooding back to me during meditation, that I was able to see clearly why I didn’t listen to all the signs.

I was selfish, and I lacked compassion.

Truth be told, I couldn’t stand being with my Father when he was ill. It was too painful. It made me feel helpless and useless and so, so sad. And although it pains and embarrasses me to admit it, I couldn’t bear the smell of stale body fluids and atrophying muscles.
I didn’t know how to handle the situation of someone I love slowly dying.

I realize now how selfish I was: I put my feelings before my Fathers’. What was he going through? His body was in excruciating pain and he knew he was dying.
I put my feelings before his. How utterly selfish.

As I sat meditating this morning, my mind went back to that other morning two years ago. I apologized to my Father, and visualized myself doing now what I was unable to do then: staying in England, being with my Father and my family at a time when they needed me. Putting others first.

I learnt a little about compassion: to be able to sit with someone who is sick just because they need you. Just to sit, putting up with a smell, and with my own discomfort, and perhaps finding joy in giving solace to another.

To offer solace rather than seek it.

I learnt, most importantly, about the limits of MY compassion. I am a spiritual teacher. I have always known myself to be compassionate – I have many times saved animal’s lives, helped people in difficulty, and made tough decisions based purely on compassion. But each of us, unless we are truly en-lightened, has a limit. How strange that the limit of my compassion was found in a situation with someone that I loved the most! But then that is what relationships are for: sometimes only through relationship can we learn the hardest lessons. As Buddha said:
"The foot feels the foot when it feels the ground."


And again I learnt that my Father was a great teacher.


(If you enjoyed this article, you might like: Tribute to my Father.)

21 comments:

Cynthia Occelli said...

What a beautiful post. My spiritual teacher would tell me (as you have said) there are no accidents and all IS in divine right order, even when I think I chose wrongly.

How fortunate we are to know that the barrier that masquerades as death is really an illusion as is time; it is never too late to heal.

Your post is invaluable. Perhaps I, and others, are saved an experience like it because you walked before us and lit the path.

Thank you.

Ben Ralston said...

Hi Cynthia,
thank you.
Yes, there are no 'wrong' choices. "Regrets are just lessons you haven't learnt yet" (Beth Orton).
With love,
Ben

LionGirl said...

Ben, everything happens for a reason; whether it is missing the flight or finally got home and receive the news. The important thing is you have said what you wanted to tell him and both of you feel the love you have for each other. It is not how it ended, it is how it got there.
Stay strong. I am sure that is what your father wants if he is still alive.
Take care.

Ben Ralston said...

My strength makes the mountains look like molehills.
My softness could make the newborn chick weep with joy...
RAWR

Sue said...

Ben, thank you for sharing this, it meant so much.
xxSue

Ben Ralston said...

Thank you for taking the time to read and comment Sue. Much appreciated.
Love, Ben

timethief said...

Oh Ben. I am so grateful that you shared this. I was with my father at the end of his life. I washed every inch of his body in preparation for his departure. I knew it was the end and I was hard pressed to leave. I wanted to be there and to continue to hold him but he looked me in the eye and said "Go now dear daughter - I wish to die alone." So I reluctantly complied and he died moments after I left the room -- fearlessly and alone.

He was so very weak and ill that I could have ignored his last request. I could have remained next to his hospital bed and no one would have faulted me for doing so. All around me would have thought that it was the right thing for me to do but it wasn't his wish. I respected his last wish and it was one of the hardest things I have ever done.

Today I am at peace with his passing but in those few moments when I was on one side of the hospital door and he was drawing his last breath I was not at peace. I wanted to control his passing. I wanted it to be good for me.

Namaste,
TiTi

Ben Ralston said...

Thank you TiTi,
I'm glad you had the wisdom and strength to grant your Father his last wish. Your story is almost like a mirror image of mine. We both left, but your motivation was selfless, mine not so... not that I regret. I've learnt that lesson now.
Thank you for sharing - you brought a tear to my eye.
With love,
Ben

Susan said...

Dear Ben,
Thank you for sharing this. I am also a Sivananda teacher, and I can hear what a fine teacher you are through your writing. I can also hear what a fine person you are.
With Om and Prem,
Susan

Ben Ralston said...

Hi Susan, thank you so much.
Where are you from?
Love,
Ben

Susan said...

Hi Ben,
I live in Buffalo, NY and I study at the ashram in Woodbourne, NY.
And I just returned from visiting my 96 year old grandmother with dementia. Like you, I do visit often, but not enough, and it is because I too get so sad. Tough lessons.
Prem,
Susan

Ben Ralston said...

Ah, do you know Swami Sadasivananda? Is he still in NY?

Sorry to hear about your Grandmother. It is difficult isn't it.
Can I ask you, what is beneath that sadness? - I mean, when you allow yourself to really feel that sadness, what is the deeper feeling below / beyond it?
Another way of putting it: how does that sadness make you feel?
With love,
Ben

Susan said...

Yes! Swamji is still at the NY Center, and often teaching in Woodbourne. He is a great teacher.

Hmm. I think it is difficult-- makes me sad--to watch my Grandmother and all those around her be unhappy. They are all physically ill, most in wheelchairs as they can no longer walk. And not in their right minds either, doing and saying and behaving in ways they would not have before dementia/alzheimers set in. They are largely unhappy and don't wish to be there. I feel helpless because I cannot really make it better for her. Although I know my presence does make her happy. I think that is it. The sadness is due to feeling helpless. So, it is all about me. Selfish still. The human condition? Maybe.
Prem,
sue

Ben Ralston said...

No, it's not selfish. I think it's just an old pattern - many generations old - of simply not being able to accept things as they are. We judge that things should be a certain way... or that things are 'wrong'... or that other people should be different. In reality, our judgement comes from our head... instead of from a deeper space. The deeper aspect of us simply accepts things as they are: and rejoices.
I think that perhaps, now that you recognise that helpless feeling, it might be easier to visit. Let me know.
Love, Ben

Anonymous said...

This is very eloquent, Ben. Thank you for sharing this touching experience. Isn't it amazing how the universe conspires to open us up?

Blessings,
Kim Sequoia

Anonymous said...

Wow, that is so beautiful... thank you for sharing.

namaste

Bridget said...

Thank you for helping me to be a better person today through your experience.

moonfairy said...

This was a beautiful post...thank you for sharing it. I think I found it when I was ready to really hear what you were saying. I lost my father the last day of August 2010. He had been sick for a long time and had many close calls over the years. That summer I knew he was getting ready to leave us but I just didn't want to deal with it. Long story short....I found a million and one reasons not to get out and see him.Including ...I had just started a new job..he was mad at me over my new spiritual beliefs...this was just another phase he was going through...it went on and on. The reality was I hated seeing him sick...hated seeing someone who had always been so strong in a fragile weak body. In the end I was not there and had so much guilt....but from that my dad taught me many lessons even after he was not here physically. You just taught me another one....thank you
Namaste
Anita

Ben Ralston said...

Thank you all for your comments... they came at a time when I was up to my eyeballs in nappies / diapers, hence the lack of response!
Anita / Moonfairy - I'm glad you learnt and are learning those lessons. There is no room for guilt. Your Father would not want that. "Regrets are just lessons we didn't learn yet". Stay on path, and remember your Father with love.
All the best, Ben

Claudia ;D said...

Very moving post Ben, thank you for the courage to write about those moments and making it a lesson not just for you but for all of us.
Love and light
Claudia

Ben Ralston said...

Thank you Claudia.

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