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I am already familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh’s grain of corn teaching—I’ve read it in his books—but it sounds fresh right now. He is delivering it as if he’s never delivered it before, and I’m hearing it that way. Thay says that practitioners of meditation can see the grain of corn when they look at the plant—meditation allows them to do this. So maybe it is this retreat, with its meditation and mindfulness practices, which is allowing me to see more layers and live differently. Lots of little things feel different since the retreat started. Last night, for instance when I went back to my dorm, I unwrapped the vegan chocolate peanut butter brownie that I’d been too full to eat at lunch. I sat on my bed and just ate, concentrating on the soft, sweet frosting, the chewy nuttiness. Back in the non-retreat world, I never just eat; I’m in too much of a hurry for that. I read at the same time, or else I talk or tidy the kitchen. This slowed down life feels a lot better. It tastes better too.

“The grain of corn has not died,” Thay continues. “You can no longer see the grain of corn, but you know that it has not died. If it had died, there would be no plant of corn. You cannot take the grain of corn out of the plant of corn.

“We are the continuation of our father and our mother, like the plant of corn is the continuation of the seed of corn,” Thay told the children. “In the beginning, every one of us was much smaller even than the seed of corn. But we don’t remember, so we need a friend in the dharma to remind us that we were once this very tiny seed in our mother’s womb—half of the seed from our father and the other half from our mother. Your father is in every cell of your body; your mother is in every cell of your body. So when your father dies, he doesn’t really die. He lives on in you, and you bring him into the future.”

In October 2008, I had just fallen asleep at my grandmother’s house when my aunt Peggy shook me awake. “No,” I said, sitting bolt upright. “Yes,” she said. “Quick.”

I was already dressed, so I threw off the covers and ran down the dark stairs after her. But I didn’t understand: If yes, why this rush? Wasn’t it over? Didn’t death look like falling into sleep? I imagined the transition being like a kite disappearing into the sky. The kite would go higher and higher—deeper and deeper into dreams—then the cord tying it to earth would release, all the kite colors peacefully swallowed up in blue.

But no kites, no open sky—in the TV room turned hospice, my father was gasping, struggling to find air for his body swollen with cancer. There were five women gathered on and around his hospital bed—me, my two aunts, my grandmother, and my father’s third wife—and each of us was shouting last minute messages to him. “Let go, Stephen,” my aunt Valerie urged, making it sound like “push” in a delivery room. “There’s nothing to worry about here.” The gasps got further and further apart and his eyes glazed. Aunt Peggy checked his pulse. “He’s gone,” she said.

It wasn’t yet dawn; we had hours before the people from the funeral home would come with their black bag. So I stayed sitting on the hospital bed—between the wall and my father slowly going cold. I wanted to sob, but held back because I didn’t want to make this more painful for my grandmother or the others. My grandmother, I was pretty sure, also wanted to sob, but held back for me and the others. Maybe this is how families always support each other; individuals keeping themselves glued together for the benefit of all. I talked quietly with cousins, aunts, and uncles.

“The people from the home will be here in half an hour,” my aunt Peggy finally said, and my heart contracted. Sobbing I could do later, alone. What could only happen now was wedging myself into the crook of my father’s arm. I tried to pull his elbow to the side, and it was like ice water in my face when I realized I couldn’t—he’d gone stiff. Still I crawled between his arm and his chest—that small, rigid space just as it was—and there I breathed for both of us, following the breath.

This was a rare moment in my life—I had my father all to myself for half an hour.


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