My family history was never meant to feature so much in this blog, but once again I turn to a memory that involves my father. Actually, my recollection involves both my parents and goes back to when he died of a heart attack in 1989. I happened to be visiting them on the night of his death and I will always retain the vivid memory of being awakened from a deep sleep by my mother as she burst into my room and cried, "Wake up! Come quickly! Dad is having a heart attack!" It took me a moment to come to awareness and realise what was happening. But once I did I quickly followed her into their bedroom where I found my father gasping loudly and rapidly, with a curiously blank and impassive expression on his face. Immediately, I phoned EMS which said that a crew would be with us within a half hour, which seemed far too long to save him. Unfortunately, neither my mother nor I had CPR training, but I knew that standing by helplessly watching him die would be almost as agonising for us as dying was for him. So I made a pretence of exercising a skill that I didn't actually possess and urged my mother to join me in trying to save my father. It didn't work. By the time the ambulance arrived my father had crossed a threshold into irreversible brain damage as the medics sensitively explained to me soon after they tried to revive him. They could save him, they advised me away from my mother, but if they did he would be brain dead and on life support for the rest of his life. My decision, I am tempted to joke, was a no-brainer. But in truth I knew that my father would have dreaded the thought that he would spend the rest of his life languishing in a non-conscious state, his body sustained artificially by technology. Sparing my mother any part in the decision that I knew she would later approve, I told them to let him die.
The story does not end there, however. My mother was devastated by my father's entirely unexpected death, especially as they both had been looking forward to their fiftieth wedding anniversary which was just two years away. Their marriage was as close as it was enduring and neither could have imagined living without the other. But my mother was forced to confront the unthinkable reality of living alone as soon as the ambulance crew left my parents' home. Suddenly looking like a lost little girl, she asked me "How can I possibly live without him?". In fact, life did become very difficult for her, especially in the immediate aftermath of my father's death. Staying at her house a few weeks after his funeral, I woke up in the middle of the night to hear her sobbing and crying out my father's name. I wanted to go into her bedroom and console her, but something told me that she didn't want that. As much as I loved my mother and father, I knew I couldn't be with her in the depths of her sorrow. I also knew that her sorrow was something that she needed to feel, no matter how painful her experience of it was. So I lay in bed listening to her weep, staying awake in case she wanted me to be with her. But her call for me never came.
Later, though, I heard an extraordinary story from my sister about what my mother had experienced sometime in the period of her deep mourning. She had been alone one night--perhaps she had been calling out my father's name just as she had done on the night that I heard her--when an apparent miracle happened. My father actually appeared in their bedroom. Sitting down on the bed he had shared with her when he was alive, he assured her that he was fine and told her not to worry about him. He also told her that she too was going to be fine, for he knew that she would be well taken care of in his absence. My mother was not particularly superstitious, but nor did she possess a notably sceptical mind. In fact, it occurred to me that in her grief she might have been highly suggestible as sleight of hand artists refer to people who are easily tricked. Yet, in my sister's account of what my mother had told her, the exchange between my mother and deceased father was exactly what he would have said, for he had always been the wise and protective husband to her. Moreover, the vividness of her experience seemed to be far beyond what she might have simply imagined. I myself never questioned my mother about the visitation, mostly because I didn't want to cast doubt on an experience that had consoled her in a way that I never could. But I have always wondered if the spirit of my father actually did make a posthumous appearance to her.
In his book on hallucinations, Oliver Sacks (who himself recently died) wrote that hallucinating the presence of a recently deceased loved one--especially a parent, child or spouse--is actually quite common among people who are in bereavement. Losing someone who is very close can actually feel like losing a part of oneself, just as the well worn cliche claims. Sacks even goes so far as to compare such a loss to losing a body part and experiencing a so called phantom limb from which physical sensations arise from an apparently absent source. It as if the brain feels forced to conjure what is assumed to be essential to self experience. Sacks does not, however, consider the idea that such hallucinations could be the means by which a disembodied spirit becomes manifest. But then neuroscience must regard hallucinations as neurological events and not as potential vehicles for spiritual presences. Hallucinating the spirit of a dead loved one can be seen as nothing more than emotion overriding an intolerable objective reality. Its only mystery to neuroscience is how such wish fulfilment manages to be so convincing.
Being free of any physicalist bias, Buddhism has no difficulty in accepting paranormal events. And in the Buddhist cultures of Asia, the idea that my father actually did appear to my mother would provoke little disbelief. Even many Western Buddhists would find it easy to accept that my father made a brief detour in what Tibetans refer to as the sidpa bardo, an intermediate realm between one life and another, before migrating to his next birth. Whether he did or not, there is a danger of romanticising what my mother experienced. Romantics may be tempted to believe that my father's post-death appearance to her meant that he was waiting patiently on the other side of death for them to spend eternity together. Certainly, this is what my mother (who was Catholic, not Buddhist, but also somewhat romantic) would have wanted to believe. So perhaps her ardent wish to be reunited with my father was the cause of her hallucination, just as neuroscience would aver. If so, the power of her attachment and belief in romantic love had succeeded in creating her own reality, however temporary and illusory it was. Although Buddhism is more inclined to credit the veridicality of my mother's experience, it would not agree with any romantic ideas about eternity, either. For samsara is a an eternal tribulation that never ends happily ever after. This doesn't mean that my parents love for each other was false or illusory; it was just fleeting, as all things are. I also like to think that their love brought them closer to awakening and helped me along my path, too.