Embracing the Cycle of Life
by Gwen Harris
My father was 60 when I was born. I grew up an only child in a happy household with my father, my mother, who is 30 years younger, and my maternal grandmother. In 1975, at the age of 14, I was introduced to Nichiren Buddhism. My parents saw the difference in me and started to practice seven years later.
In his early 80s, my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and in the same year I became pregnant with the first of three children. My husband and I decided to move to the city where my parents lived. The early stage of Alzheimer's was manageable, and my mother was my father's primary caregiver. My grandmother also lived with my parents. At one point, as my husband and I were saving to buy a home, four generations of practicing Buddhists lived in one household. Each family member had our strengths and weaknesses. My grandmother and parents had difficulties walking and taking care of their various daily needs, but they were excellent at folding laundry, reading storybooks over and over again and rocking a crying baby for hours. My husband and I took care of our family's daily needs. It was a wonderful, compassionate environment.
But as their chronic illnesses intensified, living together became more complicated. My mother and grandmother could no longer navigate the stairs in our home; my father's illness resulted in combative and aggressive behavior that scared our children. Over time, my husband and I could no longer handle caring for everyone's daily needs. This was very difficult for me to accept. We placed my father in a wonderful senior community in Hawaii. My grandmother also moved to Hawaii to live with her other daughter. My husband and I moved my mother and her sister to a nearby apartment with an elevator.
This process took about 12 years altogether--my father, grandmother and mom eventually died within 18 months of each other. Throughout these years, I, as their durable power of attorney, had to make many medical and health-care decisions for my parents, including bypass surgeries, stents, brain surgeries, falls, dialysis and artificial nutrition and hydration. Each time I had only the advice of their doctors and the wisdom and confidence of my Buddhist practice on which to base my decisions. I could never have survived these ordeals without my Buddhist practice and community and the love and support of my husband and children.
My father died peacefully at the age of 94 in a hospice. My mother died in a hospital bed in our living room. Our children had been chanting, playing cards and doing their homework in the same room. They kept company with my mother until the end. I am proud and grateful that our children experienced their grandmother's death as a passage full of love and kindness, not a distant mystery that happened in a sterile hospital room. The greatest gift my parents gave us was not to be afraid of death.
I knew I had to create value from my 12-year struggle. After a couple of years, I went back to school and received a Master's in Gerontology and was certified in Thanatology (the study of death and dying). I determined to help other families who struggled with balancing caregiving for aging parents with caring for their children.
Now, I work as a gerontologist on a palliative care team. I work with a team of a doctor, nurse, spiritual adviser and volunteers to help seniors and their families live successfully through old age, sickness and death. I have helped many families through the aging and dying process. SGI President Daisaku Ikeda says, "Confronting the reality of death actually enables us to bring unlimited creativity, courage and joy into each instant of our lives." I feel so much appreciation toward my Buddhist practice which has taught me how to use my challenges as an opportunity toward happiness for myself and my family.
[Courtesy October 2012 SGI Quarterly]