When I heard the news of my father’s passing, I was confounded by the disturbing silence that rang through my mind.
Wasn’t I supposed to be hysterically crying? Wasn’t I supposed to have rushed home to the East Coast to see my dad in his last moments of life? Wasn’t I supposed to have been the dutiful daughter who sat by his bedside as he took his final exhalation?
While entering the passenger seat of the car that would take me to the airport, after I heard the news at four in the morning on September 4th, I didn’t feel a thing.
Truth be told, I had sensed the imminence of my dad’s passing about a month before, in August. News had come from my mother and sister that my father, who was 85 and had suffered three previous strokes and a brain hemorrhage some ten years earlier, was back in the hospital. There had been mass confusion among the various doctors and nurses at the hospital as to the nature of his condition, but the gist of the story had been that there was something amiss with his gallbladder. Whether it was stones or an infection, they had not been able to tell even after running CAT scans and a sonogram. They were going to operate.
I booked my flight for a few days after the operation. Upon arriving on the East Coast, I learned that there had been no operation. After my father had been cut open, the doctors had found an enormous amount of infection in the affected areas and had had to drain the infection before an invasive surgery could take place. If they had not done this, death would inevitably have been on the horizon. With two draining bags in place, my father had been confined to the hospital for observation.
I first saw my dad in the hospital. The halls reeked of sickliness. It was challenging to breathe the air. Where was the prana, the flow of life force? The sunshine? The room was dark, with only the flickering of the television illuminating it. I thought to myself, “How will his health get better in this environment? More importantly, how will he keep his spirits up?”
A few days later, he was released from the hospital and entered the nursing home. He was well enough for physical therapy. When I went to visit, he had a bed by a window, but he only lay on his bed, almost motionless. His eyes were open, yet vacant.
Then the seesaw went the other way and he had to be readmitted to the hospital. Truth be told, I am not sure whether or not the doctors had any idea what his condition was or what his treatment plan should be. When I visited him, he was sitting upright in a wheelchair because the nurses had to make his bed. This took three and a half hours. He wanted desperately to lie down, but was told that he had to wait. He was cold and wanted a blanket. When he was finally given one by an attendant, he looked up with the most solemn and grateful eyes and said, “Xie xie,” which means “thank you” in Mandarin. Then they strolled off with him to get a CAT scan.
I was fortunate that, prior to my departure from the hospital and the East Coast that day, the attendants strolled back in with my father. I held his hand and kissed him on the cheek, even though I knew he had MRSA, a contagious hospital disease. I didn’t care and, deep inside, I knew this could be the last time I saw him in person. I told him I loved him.
Weeks passed. There were countless phone calls to and from my mom and sisters.
“Dad’s doing better.” “Dad’s not doing very well.” “Dad’s having hallucinations.” “Dad wants to go home, but he needs physical therapy.” “Dad’s putting a white sheet over his head.” In our culture, white is the color of death. Throughout this whole process, I remained 95 percent calm, almost stoic. The remaining five percent was filled with sudden bursts of sadness, which would then vanish as if they had never existed.
The yoga classes I taught and the yoga classes I took during that time were all dedicated to my father. I spoke to him spiritually from the West Coast. I sensed that all he wanted was the feeling of the radiant sunshine and the soft whispers of the wind against his skin. I sensed that what he longed for the most was to breathe in deep, long, soothing breaths in nature.
On the day prior to his death, instead of rushing back to the East Coast, I breathed in nature for him. I walked through the woods along the coast in Wadell Park. I breathed in loads of fresh air scented with leaves and trees. I hugged a tree; I felt the earth with my feet and my hands. I basked in the sunshine with all my being. All this I sent to him from afar. I only hoped that he received it.
I arrived on the East Coast on September 4th, after my father had died. I was calm. Thus far, not even a tear drop had welled in my eyes, even while I watched my sisters and especially my mother crumble into tears before me. I thought that it must have been all the yoga that I practiced. Maybe it helped me stay in control of my emotions, keeping a sense of aparigraha, non-attachment.
Exactly a week later, on September 11, we scattered my father’s ashes in the waters of Cape May, New Jersey, in an expanse backed by a convent, a lighthouse and a national park. As the sun was beginning to rise, my feet walked my father and me into the warm, gentle waters. I relished the hints of orange in the sky, along with the pink and blue hues. I noted how my father would have loved this place. I gently released his ashes into the ebb and flow of the bay and sent prayers to him for a peaceful journey.
My sister and I returned to her hometown after a five-hour long car ride. We were due for a massage.
It was during this massage that I realized I am still very much a beginner in the yogic process. The massage therapist intuitively worked on my back, on the right side of my spine. As I lay face down, I felt a surge of emotions releasing through a flood of tears.
Every press, every pull touched something uncomfortably deep. Every single stress or emotion that had come upon me during the past two months had been translated into and stored as blockages within my body. Rather than releasing these, as we do in yoga with the breath, I had clung on, holding my breath, becoming tighter and tighter.
Relating this to my asana practice, I had been observing that my backbends had become a bit tighter and my breath a bit more constricted when I was in them. I hadn’t known why. Now I realize that I had been trying to protect myself from my own feelings. I had caged them up. I had rounded my spine to protect my heart. And when I had tried to open myself to a place of vulnerability through a backbend, I had found myself a bit shallower in my breath and a bit more anxious to get out of the pose.
Realizing this was a teaching to me. Now, as I surrender myself, whether in a pose or in meditation or through breath, through the process of each and every tiny bit of heart opening that occurs, I send my love and light to my father’s spirit. I am willing to open and be vulnerable.
Thank you, Dad.
Jennifer Lung is an avid lover of animals, nature and yoga. She has been teaching Vinyasa Flow for several years and also works as a vegan chef.
Editor: Jayleigh Lewis