I’m back after taking a hiatus to deal with the deaths of my mother and her brother, my uncle. Both had lived long, productive lives; they were close-knit to the end, spending their last years together in the same facility and dying within 12 days of each other late summer. Because they were cremated, we were able to delay formal joint services until the entire clan could gather at the family plot in New Jersey. Finally, this past weekend we did so, reminiscing and remembering in a perfect, warmly-lit Indian summer setting.
I received an antique lamp from my mother’s estate that was too fragile to ship. Therefore, instead of flying to New Jersey, I set out in my little red car, embarking on a long, lone road trip armed with books on CDs, music, and my private thoughts.
I had a lot to think about. My mother and I, at the end, struggled through a difficult relationship, eventually coming to an uneasy truce that involved not discussing the issues that were dividing us. I was the last family member to be with her. She died disappointed in me because of my lifestyle (unmarried, and worse – divorced) and because I was unable to reconcile with my brother, her favorite child. I felt her disappointment blanketing me as her energy faded; still, I held her hand and sang hymns to soothe her as she called out for my brother.
Although only a few months have passed, already time is working its magic, sanding down the roughest edges of my memory. My mother was no saint, but she was no sinner, either. Like all of us, she muddled through the best she could. She was, if anything, a victim of her own rigid upbringing, held captive by biases and weaknesses that she could not forsake.
With so many conflicting emotions in my mind, I had no idea what to say at the services, what I could say that would be honest and true and would honor both my mother and uncle.
Somewhere between Atlanta and Arlington, one of my favorite pieces, Schubert’s Shepherd on the Rock, poured out of my car stereo. As a once-serious clarinetist, I immediately flashed back to the days of playing this piece, feeling in my bones the absolute joy that twisted my heart over certain beautifully-turned phrases and achingly-perfect harmonies. And I suddenly knew the direction my words would take.
My mother was the original Tiger Mom, waking me early to practice piano and clarinet, pushing and pushing, not necessarily with kindness, but rather with a grim determination.
My uncle, also a clarinetist, was the exact opposite. He stoked my enthusiasm with his own kindness and encouragement. He played duets with me, laughing as we (I) squeaked and squawked our way through Mozart, showing me how much fun making (even imperfect) music could be.
Together my mother and my uncle gave me an immeasurable gift: My mother bestowed upon me the tools and technique to gain a modest mastery over these instruments. My uncle imparted the love of music. Without the physical mastery my mother required, I would be unable to play the notes. And if I couldn’t play the notes, I couldn’t transcend the notes to fully understand and absorb my uncle’s love of music.
Mother and mentor. Yin and yang. Dark and light.
When it was my turn to speak, I thanked them both for giving me this intertwined gift.
Afterwards, as I packed my car to leave, I realized the contrast between my mother’s and uncle’s gifts had been manifested physically. I was heading home with two fitting mementos: the antique lamp from my mother and my uncle’s sheet music.
From my mother I received outer light, the kind that casts its glow over and around objects. My mother was like the lamp that was now mine: Her own energetic light bounced off her, flinging itself around those she loved like a cape, wrapping them tightly and holding them firmly through forceful deeds, not tender words. Though she had difficulty touching hearts, she knew how to get things done. So she showed her love through action; she knew no other way. Had she been a yogini, Karma Yoga, the yoga of action, might have resonated with her.
My uncle, conversely, gave me his inner light, brought to life in the worn and faded music that he had loved. I could feel his joy as I perused the pages, my eyes falling upon every breath mark, every margin scribble, every creased corner. I remembered our duets and something inside me broke loose and softened, yielding to the imprint of his music upon my heart. Had he been a yogi, Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion, would have been ideal for my uncle.
In my mind, their two lights, inner and outer, combined into one whole, each needing the other to be complete.
In one perfect word: Namaste.
Or, simply put: The light and Divine in me bows to and honors the light and Divine in you.
And so, to my mother and to my uncle, who gave me their Divine lights, I bow deeply before you, honoring all you have been to me.
Namaste. And may you rest in harmony…and peace…and joy.