Meditating with My Father’s Friends
For years I’d been meaning to attend the Friday meditation class at my father’s retirement community.
When my parents moved to Piper Shores in 2001, meditation was not on the schedule. They were in their mid-70s, and everyone assumed my father, a workaholic with heart problems, would be the first to go. When my mother died of ovarian cancer a few years later, the order of events seemed incorrect. My father was alone in a way he never expected to be. I visited every month, driving the hundred miles to Maine on Saturday mornings and leaving Sunday afternoons.
While there, I meditated in the guestroom. Sometimes I’d tell my father what I was doing, other times I just closed the door. After several years, a sign saying Quiet Room appeared on a door near the dining room. When I asked my father about it, he said it was a place where families could meet with bereavement counselors or people could meditate.
I’d always thought of my parents’ generation as being dismissive of meditation. Born in the 1920s, these men and women grew up during the Great Depression and came of age in the midst of World War II. Though my parents came from different backgrounds, they were both bright, ambitious, and ill-suited to sitting still. There was always so much that needed doing. So much to be done.
My parents met at night law school in the 1950s. After a brief courtship, they married, had my two brothers, and moved to Maine. My father wore a suit to work each day, drove a Ford, and voted Republican. He became a success not because he was daring or charismatic, but because he was the opposite—calm, measured, and considerate to anyone who asked his advice. Although my father wasn’t closed-minded, I’m not sure he ever heard of the Beats. He simply wasn’t a counter-cultural kind of guy. He attended a neighborhood Episcopal church, where I was baptized in 1960.
During the same decade as my parents’ courtship, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder famously explored Buddhism. My meditation teachers all came of age in the 60s and 70s, the heyday of the Hippy Trail, when young Westerners trekked across Asia in search of meaning and adventure. Some of this group of students, dropouts, seekers, and malcontents journeyed to Bodh Gaya in northern India to learn how to meditate at the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Some found their way to Dharamshala and befriended the young Dalai Lama. Others flew to Thailand, shaved their heads, and were ordained as Buddhist monks. Eventually, almost all of them ended up back in America.
I wish I’d been old enough to hitch a ride to Boulder, Colorado in 1974. The kickoff of the Naropa Institute that summer became the Woodstock moment of American Buddhism. Chögyam Trungpa, a “crazy wisdom” guru, invited other unconventional teachers to lead workshops. Ram Dass, who had just published Be Here Now, was there. The poet Allen Ginsberg and the composer John Cage attended, as did Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield and Sharon Salzberg, all recently returned from Asia and trying to figure out how to teach mediation to “Young Americans”—a song Bowie recorded that summer in Philadelphia. Their first students were mostly middle-class, college-educated kids like themselves.
Like me in the 1980s. I tried to meditate during the Reagan Era, but didn’t mention it to my family. My parents would have regarded it as another affectation, like my becoming a vegetarian years earlier. My brothers would have made jokes. I was ambivalent myself. Though I agreed with most of what I read in Buddhist books, on the cushion, nothing seemed to be happening except boredom, frustration, and pain. I wondered if sitting was a complete waste of time.
I took my first meditation class in the early 1990s and learned that my struggles were common. I meditated every day for a year, then quit for several years, then started up again.
By the 2000s, I had established a consistent practice. I told my family about my practice in 2005. My mother had died the year before, and my brothers and I were worried about my father. Before I drove to my first retreat, I had to explain where I’d be, what I’d be doing, and why my phone would be turned off for a week. I sent an email with emergency contact information.
Every year after, I sent almost the same email. My retreats became longer, sometimes stretching to several weeks. Getting away was never easy. As my father got older and deafer, I worried more and more about being away.
The first time I opened the door to the Quiet Room, I had to feel around for the light switch. The room, illuminated, was the size of a small living room. Three blue armchairs were arranged in a semicircle. The paintings on the wall were seascapes in muted blues and browns. It could have been the waiting room for a spa or a funeral home.
I sat in one of the blue chairs, somehow feeling guilty, as if I didn’t have the right to be there. Every time I heard footsteps or voices in the hallway, I tensed, thinking someone was about to open the door and ask, “What are you doing here?”
But nobody did. Not that first time. Not the next. I got comfortable on my monthly visits to the Quiet Room. After a while, a meditation cushion showed up in the closet, but no other meditators. If I opened the door late at night, I worried I might surprise staff members having sex in the darkness, but nobody was ever there.
My father never asked about my practice, but when meditation started to become mainstream, he clipped articles out of the New York Times and mailed them to me. It was a sweet gesture. I thanked him when we spoke on the phone. I didn’t mention I’d read the articles online.
Those last years, I often went to church with my father, though we both knew I wasn’t a believer. When he turned 90, he finally allowed me to drive. He still had his license and drove surprisingly well. I wasn’t worried that he’d cause an accident. I worried someone would hit him and he’d be hurt and unable to hear.
When a friend his age died, my father learned that donations in the friend’s honor could be sent to the meditation center I frequented. At the funeral, my father sought out the man’s daughter to ask her about it. She said her father had gotten a lot out of going to the Buddhist center, but rarely spoke about it.
When my father told me this, I asked him if he wanted to try the Friday meditation class. I offered to come up early to go with him. “Probably not,” he said politely, which we both knew meant no.
My father’s own funeral was last April, shortly after his 92nd birthday. “I don’t want to linger,” is what he always said after visiting bed-bound friends in the nursing home. “I don’t want to linger.” And he didn’t. He died a day after being rushed to the hospital and three days before a scheduled meeting to discuss his moving to assisted living.
The Friday after his funeral, my brothers and I gathered at his apartment to take, give away, or throw out all his belongings. Everything: from the almost empty box of bran flakes to the king-size bed he’d shared with my mother and then slept in alone for 14 years.
This would be my last opportunity to go to the Friday meditation class. I took it. The group had outgrown the Quiet Room and now met in the big lecture hall. I introduced myself to the two women who were teaching, both residents. They were welcoming and looked disconcertingly close to my own age.
I took a seat in one of the rows of folding chairs facing the windows. There were already a dozen people there. Some residents maneuvered their wheelchairs close to the folding chairs. Some arrived on motorized scooters, then carefully made their way to chairs. Others rolled in on walkers to join the group. No one sat on a cushion. Outside, the wind whipped the flag and clanged the rope against the flagpole. Most of the snow had melted, exposing the hay-colored lawn. Spring was still weeks away.
It wasn’t until I was sitting with the residents that I realized I’d expected the class to be something of a lark, not quite the real thing.
I’d been amused when mindfulness classes first showed up on the schedule at Piper Shores. The image of genteel seniors sitting in a semi-circle of cushions seemed ridiculous, as likely as their learning how to pole dance or build a bong. Yet as I sat with the men and women who were so like my parents, I felt an overwhelming sense of love and connection. We were all there for the same purpose—to understand our own suffering and maybe find some relief.
For the first time, I appreciated how generous Asian teachers had been to the young Westerners who knocked on their doors. How odd and comical those kids must have seemed to the elders who welcomed them in.
The doors of the room were propped open. As we meditated, the quiet was interrupted by voices in the hallway. I could picture the table outside the mailroom which held framed announcements of the residents who had died that week. Usually there were two or three. The notice of my father’s death was already gone.
I opened my eyes and looked around the room, knowing I’d never be there again. Most people had their eyes closed. One man was snoring. Several years ago, my father had delivered a Veterans Day talk about the Gettysburg Address in the same room. My nephew and I had driven up to hear him. After the talk, he got a standing ovation.
I tried to meditate, to be a part of the group, rather than an observer. I closed my eyes, then opened them again. My brothers were two floors up, working hard, probably annoyed with my absence. There was so much to be done. I closed my eyes and wept. Had my father been there, he would have been embarrassed for me. But he was not there. I was in the midst of his world, and without him.
By Sunday afternoon, we had dismantled the apartment. There were still clothes to take to Goodwill and furniture marked for the movers, but the space was no longer my father’s home.
I took only a few objects: some old photos, a gray cashmere vest, a glass polar bear I’d given him years ago. I also took the watch my father wore when I was a child. The crystal was scratched, and when I wound it, it wouldn’t tick, but I could so clearly remember it on his wrist. I thought briefly about having it fixed, but I didn’t want to wear it so much as have it near.
Martha Henry writes essays in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She has run programs for science journalists at MIT and for HIV/AIDS researchers at Harvard. She blogs at Persistent Self.