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Death of a Son
The Art of Buddhist Parenting
Bruce Farley, New Zealand
Saturday April 24 was a big day. Rory was an extraordinary and passionate young man of 14, who, like many young men, had a passion for sport; and in particular, like many Kiwis, for rugby. That Saturday, Rory played his first game for the Nelson Boys College under-14 rugby team, an ambition he had worked on for 15 months. He was a happy young man – life was good.
Two days later Rory fell down the stairs. He wasn’t hurt; he just strangely lost his balance. At dinner the next night he couldn’t get his right hand to get the spoon to his mouth. He was laughing hysterically, saying he felt drunk. Hours later he was dribbling out of one side of his mouth and partially paralyzed down his right side, like a stroke victim.
Nelson Hospital, suspecting the worst, immediately put him on a flight to Christchurch, 350 kilometers [217 miles] away, for an MRI scan. And there the bombshell hit. Rory had an inoperable brainstem glioma tumor. As the surgeon said, it was “the worst possible tumor in the worst possible place.” He was given six to twelve months to live, and even that was with the aid of drugs and a five-week course of radiation treatment.
This was the beginning of a heart-opening five-month journey of love, courage and will.
Rory loved life. He loved his sport, loved school, loved his family and loved the adventures that living in such a beautiful area of a beautiful country offered. Like all, he suffered his dilemmas. Anxiety was always a problem for Rory. He was very sensitive and worried about things. Rory had two homes, one in Nelson city with his mother, where he usually stayed Monday to Friday, and one out in the country with Phillipa and me, where he would spend weekends and holidays with us and his 10-year-old sister Georgia.
Although happy in both environments, Rory struggled to mentally reconcile the fact that Mum and Dad hadn’t lived together since he was 5 years old.
Rory met Dharma when he was quite young through the regular visits of lamas and teachers to our home; Phillipa’s and my lives revolved around Dharma. He embraced Buddhist philosophy with ease and often would take part in discussions on subjects such as karma and morality. He would often ask Phillipa what the Buddhist view would be on problems he encountered at school and in his life. Rory developed a close relationship with the late Ven. Khensur Thabkey Rinpoche from Trashi Gomang Centre in Auckland, a regular visitor to us; and he enjoyed the company of Ven. Thubten Rinpoche and Ven. Lhagon Rinpoche from the Dhargyey Buddhist Centre in Dunedin.
Right from the beginning in Christchurch Hospital we started regular sessions of visualization, mantras and Medicine Buddha practice. Returning home in June we worked hard with Rory. We applied alternative therapies and Tibetan medicine – diet, juices, supplements, a quantum booster machine and homeopathy. Rory visited a psychotherapist where he found a safe environment to cry his fears and yell his angers. Through the FPMT network we had prayers, pujas and mantras being performed world-wide. The kindness and energy Rory receive was overwhelming. He felt supported and reassured by the dozens of emails people sent him and said it was hard to repay everyone’s kindness.
Some karmas are very strong and by August it was obvious that Rory’s tumor was growing again and his body was shutting down – Rory was dying. On our precious guru Lama Zopa’s advice we increased Rory’s Dharma practice and performed the Confession to Thirty-five Buddhas regularly together, recited Shakyamuni Buddha mantras and released 10 animals from certain death – crabs from a restaurant.
Rory was amazing the way he handled the dying process. He arranged gatherings of his friends and family on several occasions. These were special moments – Rory completing his life and embracing the death process in a manner rarely seen with adults, let alone a teenager.
Rory had strong faith and refuge in the Dharma, trusting all the prayers and lamas were there for him. He said he had no fear about dying or where he was going. We played him the Death Meditation tape so he would have some idea of what he could expect upon dying. Although it startled him somewhat at the time, he referred back to it many times as symptoms arose that he remembered the tape discussing.
He told me he had only killed one animal in his life and hadn’t even killed an insect in the last four years since he learned about karma and killing.
Understandably he was sad and often upset at the thought of separating from his family and loved ones. Some days we’d have tears, others he wanted to forget about his situation and would just go out and live life to the extent that his failing body allowed.
In the last few weeks he was completely debilitated; he could no longer work or move any part of his body, his eyesight diminished, he couldn’t swallow or cough and finally he couldn’t talk or make any sound. We communicated with him through flickers of his eyelids, which became his last link to the outside world. He required drugs for pain relief and drifted in and out of consciousness. He actively communicated that he wanted us to continue reciting the mantras aloud so he could hear them and told us he could hear every word we said even though he gave the appearance of unconsciousness. He totally astounded the nurses by his continued “waking up” despite their telling us he was in a deep coma.
We continued to do the Thirty-five Buddhas prostrations, mantras and prayers daily and read him everyone’s wonderful emails. Some Kalachakra sand from the 1996 initiation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Sydney arrived to be sprinkled on his head and a precious powa pill blessed by His Holiness arrived from Australia.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche emailed to say he was praying for Rory. Rory acknowledged all these gifts.
Amazingly after three days of unconsciousness he awoke on Sunday October 10. He was weak and could barely move his eyelids. He wanted to know if the All Blacks had beaten the English in the World Cup rugby play-off! I told him we had, updated him on all the other rugby scores, told him we all loved him, and that we knew he loved us.
I asked him if in between all the pain, the drugs and the unconsciousness, was he still praying and saying mantras? He blinked a definite “yes.” I told him to take strong refuge and hold his lama in his heart. He blinked and closed his eyes. Rory didn’t wake up again.
On Wednesday morning at 9:40, after days of struggling for breath, Rory gave half a dozen soft sighs and passed on. He died with a Lama Zopa-blessed Buddha statue and a copy of Pabongka Rinpoche’s Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand at his crown, surrounded by pictures of lamas and deities. I placed the precious pill on his crown, had a little cry, then sat alone with him for a few hours reciting mantras into his ear. We kept up the mantras as best we could during the day, and that evening a group of kind Buddhist friends, led by a local Taiwanese monk, chanted Amitabha mantras and performed the Amitabha Pure Land practice and Heart Sutra in Rory’s room.
We farewelled Rory with a celebration of his life on the front lawn of the Chandrakirti Tibetan Buddhist Meditation Centre, written and performed by his family and friends. Rory had made his funeral requests while he could still talk. He wanted a white coffin, lots of friends, lots of flowers and lots of food. We gave him that and more. It was big, beautiful, happy and sad.
Rory touched so many people.
So all that is left to be said is “Thank goodness for the Dharma and our gurus!”
Yes, I am a sad dad and tears come most days for this special boy. Rory was my best buddy and sometimes it feels lonely. But I have an elation, despite being totally deluded and sucked into samsara myself, that through some miraculous karma I was able to offer Rory some Dharma. And instead of being a nightmare, the last few months have been an intense journey of the heart for all of us.
Sitting by his bed one day Rory told me that he could clearly see the nature of samsara, the endless chase for satisfaction from outside sources. He told me he felt he’d done more in 14 years than most people do in a lifetime. He was referring to meeting and understanding Dharma. Rory was 14 and dying and said he felt “lucky” and wondered how he could repay everyone’s kindness.
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Superficial observation of the sense world might lead you to believe that people’s problems are different, but if you check more deeply, you will see that fundamentally, they are the same. What makes people’s problems appear unique is their different interpretation of their experiences.
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