When I was 14, I watched my Great Aunt Dot die and the experience changed me forever.
My best friend Maureen came from a huge Catholic family. She had countless aunts and uncles and everyone had at least four kids—that is except for Great Aunt Dot. Dot was a spinster and spent her life in quiet service to the church. She ran a soup kitchen program in San Francisco.
When it was her time to die, she was taken in by Maureen’s family and we sat by her bed for a few hours several days each week, reading to her, painting her fingernails, and talking about God.
When she was moved to a nursing home, we took the bus twice a week to go sit with her. I’m not sure I would have been so kind on my own, but my friend Maureen was a saint and I was her side-kick, so I went.
And we did adore Great Aunt Dot. On the day she died, I was in the hallway staring at the vending machine and Maureen charged out the room and whisper-yelled, “I think she’s dead!” I scurried back in and we sat shoulder to shoulder next to a very still Great Aunt Dot. Without opening her eyes, Dot reached for Maureen’s hand and gently squeezed. She opened her heavy eyes and focused sweetly on her beloved great niece and said, “Never be afraid of dying. It’s beautiful!” Then she smiled, exhaled, and faded into stillness.
Maureen and I sat in silence for a long time before calling the staff. It was a big moment for a couple of teen girls.
But the story does not end there. Two days later at the wake for Great Aunt Dot, the mourners were milling about whispering to each other when Maureen stood on a chair and tapped a glass with a spoon to get everyone’s attention. They turned to her and fell silent. She told the story I just told you. And what happened afterwards was kind of crazy. The mood in the room elevated palpably. Someone put on Nat King Cole and people started singing, really singing, beautifully. Then there were ripples of laughter and loud toasts to Great Aunt Dot. The wake became a true celebration of life.
In his Yoga Sutras, Patanjali lists the five kleshas (obstructions to a steady mind). The fifth is abhinivesha which means fear of the unknown and is often translated as fear of death. The idea being that if we live scared of death we cannot live fully. Practices that help assuage the fear of death will calm the mind and allow the Atman (the soul) to be more present in the physical experience. The practices of yoga, pranayama and meditation are all designed to calm our fear of the unknown and settle us into a trust of of life’s flow. Great Aunt Dot gave us that gift with her parting message. And with a little less abhinivesha we felt the goodness of life more clearly. Thanks Great Aunt Dot.
Looking back I see how Great Aunt Dot’s gift deeply influenced my life. I moved through the world with solid trust in the benevolence of the grand plan. My thinking went something like this: “Okay, so we go through this adventure called life and when we die, something wonderful happens. Awesome! I have first-hand evidence of this and I feel the truth of it so no one can convince me otherwise.” It was as if Great Aunt Dot had given me a cloaking device against fear and doubt.
As a result I started to follow my heart and take risks. That same year, much to the chagrin of my meat-eating Catholic family, I became a vegetarian and announced my non-dogmatic belief that everyone has the right to see God in their own unique way.
I took a year off college to work at a ski resort in the winter and as a life guard in the summer. I did finish college and get a good job, but I was constantly weaving fun and adventure into my life. I bought a speed boat and took friends water skiing every weekend. I sailed a Hobie Cat in the Santa Cruz Bay. I took up Brazilian martial arts and traveled in Salvador, Bahia for several months. After five years of corporate life, I quit and bought a farm and began to explore sustainable living, yoga and meditation. I started wondering about the other side of the veil; the place that had embraced Great Aunt Dot as she died.
That wondering brought me to the blessed life I live today teaching yoga and leading retreats and teacher trainings on the glorious island of Maui. I don’t know if I would have had the hutzpah to live this way if it weren’t for the gift of liberation I received from Great Aunt Dot.
Author: Jennifer Lynn
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Jim Kenefick/Flickr