Inhale, exhale: sometimes that’s hard to do, because dodgy lungs run in my family; on both sides. So that this thing breathing, is something some of us struggle to do. Soon after my father died when I was seven, my own asthma arrived. So that I start waking around 2am in the morning, with a full blown asthma attack. And every night, my mother would sit there with me, soothing me with her voice and letting me know that no matter how long it took – and this I understood not from the words that she said, but from the feeling that I got from her body and the way that she sat there steady and soft – that she would be there for me, for as long as it took, until I could breathe again and fall asleep.
And in doing so, my mother gave to me that thing we all crave, whether we’re child or adult: presence. And yet I think we get confused sometimes and think oh maybe we’re not enough, so off we go and buy someone something, thinking yes it’s a present they want, not me, yes it’s the present they want, or maybe two or three.
Years later, when I was around 27 years old, to the question: what would you like for your birthday? I said I’d love for my mother and brother to accompany me on a Vipassana course, in 6 months in their UK centre in Wales. The lead in was so that they had time to prepare themselves and if need be pull out, or dive in. Thankfully, they chose the later.
These retreats are incredibly challenging. They last for 10nights with your days starting at 4am. You meditate up for up to and over 10hours a day and remain in silence until day nine, and this includes no eye contact or hugs. It’s as if you are performing surgery, says S.N. Goenka the late teacher of Vipassana, and so you have to take very seriously the procedure around it, to give yourself the best chance of success.
Fast forward to the course that I was on with my mother and brother and I walked into the dining room after lunch and see my mother sitting alone at one of the tables. Her head was bowed, not in reverence, but in seeming misery. My mother is a creature of joy, of movement and of interaction. These meditations are quite austere, so it’s perhaps not an understatement to say that at that moment in time, she was probably wishing she could be anywhere but sitting at that table one fine afternoon in July. Seeing her there made me want to go over to her and be with her. So I went over to the counter and made her a cup of tea before squeezing onto the bench beside her and silently pushing the mug over to her.
Though my mother didn’t turn to look at me, I could feel something in her beam. And as we sat there in silence, not having much else to do, I relished this opportunity to just sit with my mum – no words needed – and be there for her, just as she’s been there for me throughout my life. And actually most poignantly and significantly when all I’ve needed, or what I have needed most was her presence. Just as she gave me during those asthmatic nights, sitting on my bed, leaning against the pillows, with me in the nook of her arms.
And then here we were again, sharing a moment without words or explanations, just two bodies sitting side-by-side in total harmony. And because nothing in either of us was trying to make something happen, we just got to sit and be.
The Benefits of Tea
When she finished her tea, we sat for a moment longer, with both of us continuing to look ahead in the same direction. Then I smiled at mum and although she couldn’t see my face, I know she could feel my smile. So I carry this memory with me, even though I always forget it. But therein the gift of words, an infinitely varied and ever evolving toolbox for us to dip in and use, to write those memories down that we're not yet ready to forget. Because it is in the reading of them, that we get to remember and so relive them a little again. So that maybe that's what this blog is: my attempt to remember the golden bits.
After that silent tea with my mother, I got up and went outside. I wanted to go walk by the trees and under the skies. Because sometimes things happen that touch us so much that we can only offer them to the world around us and say thank you. Because it’s a crazy trip this thing being alive. And most of the time I’m running about and so busy but then every now and again there’s a moment when a bit of humanity trickles in and I wonder: what more can we really ask for?