by Tomon Marr
I grew up feeling safe in my family. Although our nuclear family was small, we were close, and we had a lot of aunts, uncles and cousins. As a kid I felt secure, that I was part of a fabric of support if anything went wrong. I know this is not many peoples’ story, and I am grateful.
My brother and I studied hard and did well in school. We were poor, but my parents understood that education was a way to get ahead and have stability. Many kids in families like ours worked to help support the family. But my mother said “school is your job”, and encouraged us to work hard and succeed. And we did. We both got into college in our home state, Maryland. My brother became an aerospace engineer, and I went to college and eventually became a doctor.
Our world changed about 10 days before I started medical school. My father, now 56, had to start commuting a long distance to work after his job as a supervisor in a furniture warehouse moved. He was overworked and now had to do physical labor after changes in management.
He had a heart attack at work on a hot August day. My mother called from work in tears. He was walking that day with a co-worker who had been a paramedic. He started CPR right away. My father survived, but it was clear he was going to have brain damage due to lack of oxygen. The fact he survived at all was miraculous, now looking back with a physician’s lens. In shock, my mother, brother and I didn’t grieve, because he survived, and we forged ahead.
I went off to start medical school 10 days later. Why did I start school then? We didn’t know what to do. My mother and I discussed it with my father’s cardiologist in the hospital. “If you don’t go now,” he said, “you may never go”. We were in uncharted territory without guidance, so we took his advice.
After a several months’ sequence of intensive care units, hospitalizations, and eventually an admission to a psychiatric unit because he was so confused and had no short term memory, he came home. He was like someone who overnight developed dementia, and he was also big, strong, and as my mother used to say “bull-headed”. He didn’t know he was impaired, so wanted to do what he wanted to do, when he wanted to do it, even if it wasn’t safe for him. Caring at home for him at home was challenging. He wandered at night, didn’t remember where he was, but eventually over time, everything settled into a routine. Medications helped control his confusion and helped him sleep. That helped us sleep. My mother took him to an adult day care during the day on her way to work as a transcriptionist. My brother, fresh out of college, started work closer to DC as an engineer.
I went off to medical school, trying to do my best to get through the first year, but eventually had to take the second year off from school. It was too much for me. After the year off, and finding a job in the art department at medical school (I still can’t believe they hired me), I went back to school and finished the training, then residency and eventually became an internal medicine physician. My father lived seventeen years, most of it at home with my mother after the routine settled in, with the last few years he lived in a nursing home as his health declined.
I remember going to the first Buddhist retreat I ever attended, about 13 years after his heart attack. It was “Being With Dying” at Upaya. I think it was the second year it was offered. I went thinking I would learn how to care for sick and dying people better as a physician. It actually turned the mirror around and asked “how are you caring for dying people, and how are you caring for yourself while caring for dying people”? At least that’s what I got out of it. I also sat zazen for the first time, and met a wonderful Canadian Palliative Care physician there (Bev Spring) who explained her work and I realized it was what I wanted to do too. Eventually I studied Buddhism, and ordained with my teacher, Tonen O’Connor. I also trained to become a Palliative Care physician, which is the work I do now.
It was also at that retreat I first started to grieve the loss of my father. It came out in buckets, unexpectedly. I didn’t realize that I hadn’t grieved the loss of my father as he was, even though he survived. We were too focused on just getting by day to day, caring for him and surviving, and that pattern was reinforced in medical training and even afterwards for me. Neglect your own needs, focus on others’ needs, forge ahead, don’t look back was the training in medical school. It spilled out at Upaya. I was embarrassed initially, and then didn’t care.
I’m sure many people reading this have a similar story, of a life change that tested them and their families in ways they couldn’t have imagined. Working in Palliative Care, I hear stories like this, and much worse, every day.
As I reflected back years later, I felt that I’d lost my safety net that day. Youth ended abruptly and it was sink or swim. I spent a good deal of time seeking safety and security from that point on. Fear was a constant companion. Like Mark Twain once said “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” That was me. Our experiences shape us, sometimes in ways we don’t comprehend. We are the result of causes and conditions.
This year I’m 56, the same age my father was when he had his heart attack. I realize now that the safety net was, and actually has always been, an illusion. Seeking safety, grasping hard so it won’t go away, and pushing away frightening things, living in fear of what might happen, is being caught in the grip of the three poisons. It is a stifled life.
There is no permanent safety net. I recently wondered if the real safety net is actually Indra’s net. We are in an interconnected web of mutual dependence. If I reflect back on my life, even in the difficult times when I thought I was alone, there were always hands there to help me even when I didn’t realize it, or sometimes appreciate it. Sometimes you need to be in survival mode to get through; it’s only later you can appreciate the many hands that reached out and helped.
The year I took off from medical school, I needed a job. Not knowing what to do, I packed up art I had made and went into the medical art department at my school and asked if I could have a job. To my surprise, they hired me. These kind women offered me a paycheck and friendship for that year, even though I had no formal art training. That shouldn’t have happened. Many people helped my father, and all of us through that difficult time. Even though they couldn’t make it better, they cared and that made all the difference.
I think there is no “self-made person”, or “going it alone”. That’s an illusion too, like the safety net. All of us have myriad people and things helping us when we succeed. Everyone also has difficulty and suffering in their lives, but in the midest of the crisis it’s sometimes hard to see the hands around us. I recall the story of the woman, Kisa Gotami, who lost her child and was so distraught she asked the Buddha to bring him back to life. The Buddha instructed her to go and find a mustard seed from a house that had not known a death, and bring it back to him, and he would restore her son’s life. She couldn’t do it, since every home she visited had known loss. But in understanding the universality of loss, and I think in the embraces and shared stories of others who had also known loss, she was able to come to terms with her own loss. She followed the Buddha from that point forward.
Moving forward, I will try to be more aware of and grateful to the many hands around me, and offer my hands as well to those who are suffering, in this complex web of interdependence. I see that everyone suffers. How can I be a healing presence for my fellow humans, all beings, and the planet? I give true thanks to everyone I have ever known, and all the circumstances that have brought me here today.
Tomon Lisa Marr is a Palliative Care physician and a Soto Zen priest. She received dharma transmission from Tonen O’Connor in 2012 and now lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.