September 4, 2015

A Beginning at Every End: The Year I Watched my Mother Die.

 amy kozak

I regularly sit on the yoga mat at the front of the studio watching over a room full of people in corpse pose.

After all the beautiful work they do with the asana portion of class, I ask them to place one hand on their heart center, and to accept themselves unconditionally. I hold the space for this difficult work.

What does that mean? What did it take to get me to this yoga mat in the front of the room?

The short answer is that my mom died, and as best I could, I helped her to do so.

Of course there is a much longer answer.

I have meditated and practiced yoga for ten years. I have watched people around me decide to go through teacher training, and then step to the front of the room. Each one of them did so when they were ready, and many asked me why I hadn’t done the same. Even though I knew that I was good at yoga, and was even practicing yoga off the mat, I believed that I lacked some essential wisdom required to be a good teacher.

It was in October 2014 that my ideas about yoga off the mat and essential wisdom began to coalesce. My mother hid her symptoms for a while, but it was then that she began showing undeniable signs that something was seriously wrong. She was diagnosed with brain cancer, an aggressive and terminal affair; glioblastoma multiforme. I wrote about the emotional roller coaster I found myself on in those early days.

After the initial shock of hearing this terrible news, eventually, we—my mom, my stepfather and I—found our own rhythm over the course of mom’s remaining months, days, and hours. I tried to spend every possible moment with her, despite and perhaps also because of, the fact that we hadn’t had the smoothest of relationships during our younger years. Everything else in my life, including the documentary film I had been working on for the three years prior, took the back burner.

The activities I once delighted in, and even the old hurts, simply ceased to matter, and because my mother so rarely asked for anything; I did whatever I could think to do.

For her I massaged kale, picked wineberries, brought lavender, teas, hair tonics and lotions that were meant to heal the wounds inflicted first by surgery, and then by treatment. I even brought her sandalwood oil because I read a study about skin smelling it and healing itself (yes, really!)—I did anything for her that I could think of.

I lived in the moment by doing.

There is no prize for it, but I was there to put away her summer clothes. I was there to help her find new clothes when she gained weight from the steroids. I was there to put away her winter clothes. As the seasons changed, the changes she went through were also extreme, not just physically, but mentally as well. One of the most heart wrenching moments I experienced with my mom, was watching her try to play an online word matching game through Happy Neuron, something that I’d read about. She simply could no longer create the names of fruit.

I started to listen. For a while she told me stories, even as she lost her words, and I simply listened. She told me mostly about her regrets; about the robbery that killed her dreams of creating interactive maps not long after she had gone back to school to learn the skill, details about her struggles around the life and death of my brother who is also the subject of my documentary film. She told me stories about her friends in her new neighborhood, about her dreams for the garden, shenanigans she and her kayaking friends got into, too. But there was no more time for her to create any more stories, and so I simply held the space for her to tell me the ones she remembered, with any words she found to tell them.

I cared for my mom and loved her despite and through all of the changes, doctors appointments, and treatments, while somehow maintaining the most Zen-like state I’ve ever existed in.

I found balance in own my mind and body where grief was the king asana.

To keep myself strong enough to hold space for my mom and what she was experiencing, I continued to practice yoga, but lying in corpse pose at the end of class became nearly impossible for me. There was an abyss looming there next to my mat. Instead of allowing myself to slip into that abyss, I became a triathlete. When I wasn’t with my mom, or working, I’d sneak away to run, or bike, or kayak for about an hour, and I eventually did all of these things in one day—a grand total of 38 miles combined—-the Josh Billings Triathlon. There was no prize.

And then, my mom died.

The final decline of her physical form from the brain cancer, first caused her to stop eating and drinking, and eventually she also stopped breathing. I was there, holding her hand, when she died. The devastation I felt initially still seems unfathomable, and yet even then, I knew some part of her wasn’t gone.

One day as I sifted through the things that still didn’t really matter to me, bills and such, I found a paper from one of mom’s cognition tests at Johns Hopkins Hospital. On this paper were the words, “close your eyes,” written by the nurse, followed by mom’s handwritten, “lift up your heart.” Close your eyes, and lift up your heart?! All that was missing was the cue to have my hands held at my heart center in anjali mudra (prayer hands). A catalog containing information about an upcoming yoga training was also in this pile and so the decision was clinched. I’d found something that mattered.

When I arrived at Kripalu for my yoga training, Rudy Pierce began asking, “”What does your heart need today?” He asked nearly every day. As I closed my eyes to listen, the answer was terrifying. I had to face the abyss.

During the course of my yoga teacher training, I allowed myself to fully examine that abyss, and it was much deeper than I had imagined.

It wasn’t easy, but I did find my way back out again. And slowly, I remembered how to smile. And eventually I even remembered how to lift up my heart. Kripalu, my instructors Rudy and Michelle, their support team, all of the staff there, and my fellow teacher trainees held the space for me to make my way through grief and to make the transition to teacher. Just as Swami Kripalu’s legacy of radical self-love lives on through this Health and Wellness Center, so too does my mother’s love continue through me, and this documentary film that I will still make.

Not long after I returned home from Kripalu, my home was broken into and I was robbed. Much like my mother’s mapping dream, my documentary seemingly disappeared into the abyss, but because she shared her story with me, I will not allow my dream to die in the same fashion. I still have time.

It has not yet been a year since my mother died. Grief still often crashes into my world, but I now know I can breathe through it just as I can through the most challenging yoga asana.

I’m no longer afraid of the abyss.

Dare I say, I’m no longer afraid of death or loss. And now, as an instructor, I can channel it. Grief and loss, and Love and acceptance. All of it.

I am able to offer wisdom now too, and it seems to bubble up from an unending wellspring within me. The foundation has been created and I am a life long learner, so I continue to read and share what I learn.

The words spill out of my throat mostly with ease:

“… listen to the most distant sound you can hear without naming it… slowly bring your attention closer and closer… into the inner atmosphere of your inner world… consider all of the magnificent things going on in your body right now that support you without your asking them to. Imagine that you are simply the sum of all of these miracles. And if that is so, what is it that makes you, you? It is not one thing, or another, but a constellation of things. Are you still you, if one of these things experience a difficulty, or even ceases to function, or even exist?

Breathe, relax, feel, watch, and allow.

The year I spent watching my mother die, and yes, holding the space for her to find her way to her last breath, taught me the truth and Kripalu reinforced it. That year was simultaneously the hardest and most bittersweet year of my life.

I know in every fiber of my being that the light of love is as strong as the abyss.

My mother took care of me on my way in, and I took care of her on her way out.

I am now a yoga teacher and that is a part of her legacy. Her story continues through me. And now, through yoga, I’m teaching my students they can live through anything that life throws at them, too.


Relephant Read:

What Happens when we Surrender to Yoga.

Author: Amy Genevieve Kozak

Apprentice Editor: Keeley Milne/Editor: Katarina Tavčar

Photos: Author’s own

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