“The lotus cannot be there without the mud. Likewise, happiness cannot be there without suffering. Looking deeply into suffering, we gain an understanding of it, which enables happiness to have a chance to blossom. Thus, the lotus does not have to reject the mud, and the beauty of the lotus actually gives value to the mud.”Thich Nhat Hanh
While Jim and I wanted to retire to Spain early so as to have more freedom over how we spent our time, we were fully aware that not all of it was going to be about exploring our new country and tapas-hopping. Many ties remained, and they always remained preeminent, especially those regarding family.
We all know that time is in short supply and we need to do our best to make the most of it.
We discovered in early 2018 that my father had Parkinson’s disease. Judging by his symptoms, it was pretty far advanced. Before we got the news, Jim had already decided to retire that June, but I was still hesitating to make the jump.
My father’s Parkinson’s diagnosis was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. All hesitancy evaporated. I realized that I could use the early retirement to have more time and flexibility to be there for my parents and family back in Thailand.
So, right after I stopped working in mid-May 2018, I traveled back to Thailand to help my brothers in arranging for the new living conditions for my parents before I came back to the USA to prepare for my own move to Spain just a month later.
The move and transition to Spain was not easy by itself, let alone coordinating it from Thailand while tending to my father. It was like working on two big projects at once, one near and the other remote. It was exhausting, especially as the 12 hour time difference meant working day and night on each.
After Jim and I moved to Spain that September, my dad continued to struggle. He was hospitalized twice due to infections, and I had to conference with my brothers by phone daily. Due to his age (82), his frail body, and his health condition, any slight fever would require hospitalization.
I relied heavily on my two brothers in Thailand to update me about my dad’s health and, most importantly, to assess the seriousness of the situation and let me know if they thought I should fly to Thailand immediately. Even though they informed me that it was not necessary for me to fly back to Thailand at the moment, I still felt guilty and worried.
My father and his heath were always running in the back of my mind, even as I was trying to settle in to a new place, language, and routine in Spain. I was looking to create a “new normal” in Spain, but my worries about my father always consumed me.
On January 10th, my brother, John, called to say that my father fell and was in the ICU in Bangkok. While treating his head from the fall, the doctor discovered that my dad also had a urinary infection that led to sepsis, speculating that the infection might have caused him to blackout and fall. My father, unconscious and hooked up to a breathing tube and IV, was given a 50/50 chance to survive. John thought I should come.
I booked a ticket, packed my bag, and within two days flew back to Bangkok while Jim stayed behind until we could arrange for a house (and cat) sitter.
Fortunately, my dad survived the infection and sepsis. He spent one week in the ICU, and one week in the in-patient unit.
That episode hit him hard, the effects a lot more severe than his previous hospitalizations. He can no longer talk intelligently, can’t swallow, can’t sit up, and can’t walk. He is bedridden. He will most likely be hooked up to catheter and feeding tube for the rest of his life. We are not sure how much he understands, as his responses are often unintelligible and he has a far away look to his eyes.
He has good and bad days. On good days, he seems to recognize me, as well as most friends and relatives who come to visit. On bad days, he looks confused, can’t recognize me or others and drifts in and out of sleeping.
The doctor has informed us that he is in the last stage of Parkinson’s and that he may not survive the next infection or hospitalization.
It’s a dark time, even while people who only know of my early retirement repeatedly tell me how lucky I am and exhort how good and carefree my life must be. To be honest, that sometimes makes it worse.
This brings me to the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s calligraphy No Mud, No Lotus. Coincidentally, I came across it when I took a break one day from being with my father and visited an art exhibit of Thich Nhat Hanh’s work in Bangkok.
Was I looking for a message, or did the universe see fit to hand one to me? That’s one of those questions one can never know, but just accept the message as it comes.
I realize my father’s past self, as a vibrant, intelligent man, a well-respected medical doctor in his community, is gone. He was the man I looked up to, turned to for wisdom and loved as my father. We would talk on either side of the world about tennis, sharing stories of our personal games or discussing the next major professional tournament. Now, he is trapped in a body that cannot move or communicate. It hurts to not be sure which.
According to Thich Nhat Hanh, If we focus exclusively on pursuing happiness, we may regard suffering as something to be ignored or resisted. We think of it as something that gets in the way of happiness, an “either/or” proposition. If we know how to use our suffering, however, we can transform it.
No mud, No lotus reminds me to understand that happiness and suffering go together like a lotus and mud. One of the most difficult things for us to accept is that there is no realm where there’s only happiness and no suffering. When we can learn to accept, embrace and understand our suffering as part of the whole, the suffering is more bearable, because we know there will be a lotus blooming out of it.
The hardest part of embracing suffering, especially for a person whose training and career was as an industrial engineer and a credit risk manager, emotionlessly analyzing and then fixing problems, is that it requires me to let go and surrender.
I make peace with my personal suffering, treating it tenderly, and looking deeply at the roots of my pain. My pain is based on my not wanting to see my father suffer and I want to hang on to my image of a vibrant and intelligent man who was and remains my role model.
It is now about accepting the reality of my father’s health and, with that as my starting point, learning to take care of what I can. Beginning with the acceptance that my father is in the last stages of his life, I am able to look around and see what life has to offer. Strangely, that is liberating for me.
Even though I am beginning to prepare for the mourning process and loss to come, I look for the lotus buds that may arise from all this. The situation, bad as it is, has made me very grateful for several things:
- Due to our distance, I didn’t see my parents as often as did my brothers who live in Thailand. With each visit, I have made sure to use the opportunity to express my gratitude to my father before it was too late. I let him know that I love him, how much he means to me, how I appreciate him supporting me all these years to be where I am, and that he is my role model. I am fortunate that I got the chance to express this in person. How many of us regret not expressing our love to someone you cared about deeply before it was too late?
- I have the opportunity to spend more time to bond with my 80-year-old mother during this difficult period. I got to hear her story about her younger years, which was never been told before. I came to appreciate how much she has worked and sacrificed, often behind the scenes and with little acknowledgement, to pave the path for all her children. Listening to her, it was clear to me that there is nothing she would not do for her family. I am grateful that she is still healthy and full of energy. When I was younger, we often fought because we are both strong and stubborn. Now I have learned to appreciate her strong character and feistiness.
- Being a parent myself, my ultimate wish in life is to know that my adult children have done well in their lives and are happy. I often heard from my father’s friends that he bragged about his four children all the time and how happy he has been to see that we all have very happy and fulfilling lives. He often said to me, “That’s the best way to pay me back.”
- My parents’ four children live in three different countries (Thailand, US, and Spain), but we haven’t let the distance stop us from connecting. Over the last few years, the four of us have stayed in communication. Across continents, we have come together for our common propose – to provide my father with the love, care and comfort in his final stage of his life and to support my mother. Each person brings his or her strengths to support our parents. It is truly remarkable how we are not just siblings, but equal partners in this endeavor.
- Having a great personal partner is tremendously important in the stressful situation as well. Jim has been wonderful in being there for me when I needed a shoulder to cry on or to be the calming voice when I was frantic and upset. I know I can count on him.
Everyone’s life has its unique mixture of joy and suffering. For some, suffering may include tension on the job or in a relationship. For others, it may include illness or some kind of disability.
It is possible, of course, to get stuck in the “mud” of life. It is easy to get upset at feeling like we are sinking, about to be sucked down and covered over. I know it is easy to say not to worry, but hard to do. I am learning to embrace and accept suffering without judging – just like a mother taking care of a crying baby will cradle that baby in her arms without suppressing, judging or ignoring the crying, because she knows it will pass, and there are good things to come.