We telephoned every Saturday morning. Though we lived in separate states, the miles disappeared as she chronicled the lives of our far-flung relatives. She knew all their birthdays, who had married, who just had a child or a grand-child. After she died I found all those facts with notations recorded in a little black book called Alfred Lord Tennyson's Birthday Book. He was her favorite poet. As a child she read me Tennyson's magical stories. Through her eyes and words I grew to love knights saving the world, The Lady of Shalott, Sir Richard Grenville, and the glories of the British Empire.
I knew something was wrong when I saw her that January. I hoped she was just getting old. But in February she was diagnosed . By the end of September she was gone. It wasn't supposed to happen like that. The doctors said “It doesn't have to be a death sentence.” But in her case it was, though she endured treatments gallantly for seven months.
In those seven months I learned more about her than I had in her previous 82 years. As though she knew her time was limited she unburied the long held family secrets. She told me about the guy from Ohio she should have married. She asked about heaven and did they have food there. She felt she'd be bored playing a harp all day long. She used to paint landscapes so we talked about art. She asked about the mandalas that I painted and what they meant. When I explained that painting mandalas was like a meditation, her questions grew deeper. I realized my answers were taking her beyond the strict Catholic shroud she'd worn since her childhood. My diversion away from Catholicism had been an issue, so when she asked questions, I answered carefully. I knew she was opening to whatever was to come after death.
At her death relatives came from distant countries to pay their respects. As she taught us, we held it together with a British “upper lip” while hosting the family. We remembered what ladies do and don't do! When lots of people are around, it's hard to grieve but once the hubbub dies down reality sets in. But all too soon everyone returned to their regular lives. After two weeks it was my time to return to Sarasota.
For the first time since her death I was alone, driving down a backwater two-lane highway in Florida. Memories of mom mixed with overwhelming grief. Tears fell so hard I couldn't see to drive. At the first chance, I pulled into a seemingly abandoned old motel on the side of the road. Weeds were knee-high in the cracks of the decaying asphalt. Had I been in a normal state of mind there's no way I would have done this. But I drove into the motel and sat in my car in front of an unpainted door falling off its hinges. There was a weather beaten chair propped outside the door.
For about ten minutes I sat there, tears falling. Then quite mysteriously the door opened and a tall ragged man came out and sat on the chair. I should have put the car in reverse and hastily exited the area. Instead, I sat there frozen, watching him. For some reason I was unafraid. The man saw me and nodded his head. Then he pulled out of his dirty pants pocket a long brown mala with a brown tassel. I watched as his gnarled fingers slowly moved over the beads and his mouth mumbled the words of some prayer.
In a flash I remembered my very Catholic mother asking me about the mala I often carried. When I explained it was like her rosary, our conversation traveled from Catholic Rome to Buddhist Tibet and the similarities of religions. This was an enormous leap of faith for her to even discuss another religion. But she was dying at the time so perhaps she'd thrown caution to the winds.
As the memories of that conversation played out, I looked up and found the man I would later call “The Buddha on Highway 301,” smiling at me. It was as though he'd been summoned out of time to this abandoned motel, on the side of a barely traveled highway, to pray silently while I cried my eyes out over the death of my mother. I smiled back in gratitude for his presence. I bowed my head to him with respect for the sign he represented. Then I dried my tears. For I remembered what mom had promised me during her illness. “If I can, I'll send you a sign!” She did. Mom sent a Buddha!