How My Dying Mom and I Learned to Meditate

Ironically, a practice we’d always joked about brought us even closer together.

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Ten years ago my mom and I learned to meditate together while she was home with hospice. Fifteen years after she was diagnosed with breast cancer at 44, five years after my dad died of leukemia at 54 and nine years after my brother died in a car accident at 18. We learned transcendental meditation in the comfort of her master bedroom that smelled both like Angel perfume and the sterile dressings which covered her punctured lung draining the build-up of fluid that was stealing her life.

Back then, there was this stigma around meditation that it takes a certain hippie-dippie, plant-a-garden-outside-the-kitchen type to get into it. Such as my best friend Aliya, whose parents farm exotic fruit and started a Transcendental Meditation practice in South Florida. Several years before my mom came home with hospice, Aliya and I backpacked through South America. She’d wake up, prop herself upright against a couple pillows, and close her eyes for 20 minutes. It seemed like such a long time to sit still to me. What could she be thinking? How did she do it? I was envious. I didn’t think I had it in me without an Adderall to focus or weed to calm down. Yet there she was doing nothing, sitting calmly with eyes closed, and it was beautiful. She’d then proceed throughout her day with grace, happy and capable, and I was jealous.

My mom was dying. The fucking cancer was winning. I was filled with rage. I was angry at her. At my brother. At myself. I could barely understand the ground I walked on. I couldn’t handle the cough that resulted from the fluid flooding her lungs. They drained it, it came back, and repeat. 

Aliya called me the day we were going home with hospice. “My mom wants to gift you and your mom meditation,” she said. This felt like the answer. The bond that my mom and I would have for life, the calm I craved. One last adventure.

My mom and I were not the meditating type. We were spiritual but, to be honest, more of the Gucci-granola mixture: John Edward and Brian Weiss groupies who liked to shop. Some of our best days were spent at Neiman Marcus indulging in popovers smothered in strawberry butter and tea cups of chicken broth. 

Aliya’s mom, Kiki, came to our house the day after we got home. She performed a short 101 ceremony for the two of us in my mom’s bedroom. “Meditation is effortless,” she said. “It becomes a part of you and your daily routine, like brushing your teeth.”

My mom and I meditated together twice a day, me on the king-sized mattress that once supported my parents’ healthy bodies, and her on a souped-up mobile hospital bed. I sat with my back propped up on pillows against the hard wall. I drifted in and out of my secret mantra that Kiki gave me. I was distracted by the heavy sounds of my mom’s breathing and coughing and remembered Kiki’s words “You will have distractions, go back to the mantra.” How the hell was I going to get through twenty minutes of this? I took a breath and released the judgement of myself and ambient noises. The breaths and coughing faded away, I was floating in the subconscious. Like no time at all had passed, I felt the pillows behind me and I peeked down at my watch. It had been twenty minutes and I let my mom know. 

In the beginning of our meditating journey she would respond, open her eyes and say thank you, more rested and more clear. I felt closer to my mom with this new practice and I looked forward to the two times a day that it was just me and her, with no one else bothering us.

Three weeks passed and my mom’s eyes were closed shut, her breathing slow, and she was no longer responsive when I walked in the room. I went through the normal motions to distract myself from the heaviness surrounding me. I made space for myself on her hospital bed and I held her hand. I closed my eyes to meditate. This could be the last time. I peeked one eye open to see if she was ok. I didn’t count the minutes. I listened to her, I said my mantra. I heard the sounds coming from her body—they were so intense. I got through what felt like twenty very long minutes of this. Her body was limp. The sun was out. How could it be so sunny outside, such a beautiful day with the pool glistening out of the corner window. Her hands had become more yellow, her nail beds appeared black and blue and her nails were overgrown. I closed my eyes and suddenly remembered her full of life. Her beautiful hands and the weekly manicures she treated herself too. Her sarcastic laugh after one of my dad’s dirty jokes and her baby blue swimsuit with sheer details. Her smile.

That night my mom physically left Earth but also stayed with me. In between subway cars and railroad trains, window airplane seats and against propped up pillows on my bed, I meditate. I find my mom in the tangled lines of my mantra, perfectly entwined for eternity.

Jamie Kolnick is a writer, mama, musician, philanthropist and the founder/CEO of the nationwide children’s music company, “Jam with Jamie.” She is currently writing a comedic coming of age memoir about loss. Follow her on Instagram @jamiekolnick

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