Lam Rim on the Road: Reflections on Life, Legacy, and DeathNov 12, 2021
Rolling thunder rumbled as I reflected on the number of dead bodies surrounding me. Who had these people been? What were their stories? Did they live with integrity? Were their deaths peaceful or wrought with fear? Who did they leave behind? Looking around at the inscriptions, I recognized many of the surnames – in a small town, there are only so many families and you tend to know a lot of them. This mausoleum is bigger than the others in the cemetery, and it contains two of my great grandparents. Though I never met them, they were the only two that were alive at the time of my birth.
It may sound strange, but I love cemeteries. They’re usually peaceful or creepy, and I enjoy both types of energies. The cemetery in Balestrate, the town where my mother’s family is from, is the most beautiful I’ve seen. Located on a hilltop, it overlooks the Gulf of Castellammare, a gorgeous inlet facing the Tyrrhenian Sea. I pass the cemetery every time I walk down to the beach, but the entrance is usually closed. A few days prior, as I was heading back up from the beach, the crisscross metal gate was finally open, and I took advantage of the opportunity.
I explored the cemetery for about an hour and a half that first visit. Although I didn’t know where in the cemetery they were buried, I wanted to find my three great grandparents that are buried there. I wandered up and down the lanes searching for their names. I was in awe of the way Sicilians honor their deceased loved ones. Most of the bodies are in small mausoleums. There are typically one to four family members per building. Inside each one is an altar with photos of the deceased, fresh bouquets of flowers, candles, and other sentimental items. It reminds me of the lam rim preliminaries – the way I set up my altar each morning and make offerings.
At one point, I came across a larger mausoleum that looked a bit older. Something told me to go inside. I passed through the first door into a small foyer with an old, rickety cart and two candles. There were several crypts in the foyer, and some of the lettering was falling off the marble headstones. It felt eerie. People’s names lost. Their lives forgotten. I pushed open the next crisscross metal door – it had an old wooden frame and no doorknob. Inside, there was a musty smell and many graves. I walked straight to the crucifix on the back wall and said aloud, “God, please help me find my great grandparents.” I turned to my right and couldn’t believe my eyes. There were my grandmother’s parents! I looked back at the cross and said, “Thank you, God. You’re incredible.”
Dumbfounded by what had just happened, I approached their graves, rested my hand on each for a few moments, and said hello. I stayed for about a half hour, talking to them and reflecting on their legacy.
I know small tidbits about their lives, but the stories are incomplete. How might their missing puzzle pieces enrich the understanding I have about my own life? Like why did my great grandfather develop a problem with alcohol – so much that my grandmother feared him when she was growing up? And, does the fear she had of her own father impact the way I relate to men? Or, what was it like for my great grandmother when her only daughter and 5-year-old grandson left for America? When I was drowning in grief last year, was I in part feeling the sadness of this loss?
In the end, the mosquitoes drove me away; they were hungry, and their bites painful and itchy. I told my great grandparents that I’d be back another day to bring them flowers.
So, there I was – a few days later – with three bouquets of bright yellow daisies. I chose the color of sunshine to brighten the rainy day. It was my last day in Balestrate, and I didn’t want to break my promise, so I ventured to the cemetery despite the thunderstorm. Truthfully, I was excited to go to the cemetery in a storm – talk about creepy! Having spent the summer in the Mediterranean, which was so hot and dry and that it was literally on fire, the rain felt like a treat. My bright blue rain jacket offered some protection, although by the end of my two-hour excursion, I was soaked. It reminded me of the pilgrimage in Sri Lanka, where I really came to love and appreciate rainy adventures. With roars of thunder and rainfall as my soundscape, I sat on an old chair in front of my great grandparents’ crypts and meditated – on impermanence, death, and karma.
Afterwards, I went to find my grandfather’s mother’s grave, which is underground and unmarked. He had given me directions to her because I couldn’t find her the first day – “Walk towards the church, before you reach it on the left side, right before a house – Valenti.” I laid the last bouquet of daisies on her gravestone. My reverie was cut short by the voice of an angry Italian man – the cemetery employee – yelling at me. I didn’t understand everything he said, but I could tell he was eager to close the gates and go home for lunch.
*** My maternal grandfather is my last living grandparent. He will turn 97 next month. His mind is still sharp but his health is declining. I returned to the United States last month to spend some time with him. When it’s just the two of us, and he can feel that I’m receptive and undistracted, he tells me stories about his life. His autobiographical memory is impeccable.
All his stories and the insights they provide are like precious gems, but I’ll share just a few points that strike me. The first is that we both value freedom above all else. On my recent travels, I have been exploring what freedom means. What are the ways in which I have felt imprisoned in my life? Is the sense of feeling caged the result of external circumstances or of my own mind – my perceptions and limiting beliefs? As I gain a greater sense of freedom, my grandfather experiences the loss of it. I watch what it is like for him as he loses his independence due to a deteriorating physical body.
The second remarkable point is how I can trace the major themes of his life. His core wounds are threaded throughout his stories and perceptions of the world, and they have shaped his vehement personality. Karmic seeds ripening and others being planted. Attached to certain narratives, he hasn’t been able to let go of the emotional pain associated with those experiences. I want to help him resolve these wounds before he dies, but I’m not sure how. When we reach deeper levels of hurt, he asks to change the subject or just gets up and walks away. I will keep showing up and giving him a loving space to express himself. I will surrender to his process as I continue to explore the connection between his suffering and my own.
One afternoon, we were talking about his health, and I asked if he is afraid to die. Without hesitation, he said no, but he is afraid to suffer on the way to death. He accepts that he will die and said that at his age, each day feels like a gift. While I was traveling, he ended every conversation with: “Don’t save for tomorrow what you can do today because you never know how much time you have.” And now, as he reflects on his life – the mistakes he made, the things he did well – he comes to this conclusion, “We create our destinies through our choices.”
My grandfather is not a Buddhist, but his advice is reminiscent of the lam rim. Teachings of impermanence, karma, preciousness of human life, and death embedded throughout his 97 years of experience. Perhaps my love of cemeteries reflects my desire to realize the wisdom they represent.
Erica Saccente After 15 years in NYC, Erica decided to pursue a lifelong dream to live abroad. Letting go of the fear of disappointing others, she is following the call of her own heart. As she continues to work remotely as a contemplative psychiatric nurse practitioner, she will practice the art of surrender - having trust, listening to her intuition, and embracing a path of uncertainty. She will express her reflections of the Lam Rim through her love of writing and photography. Join her on the journey!
On Instagram: @butterflyez