— quoted from calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh
Today is the 30th anniversary of my father’s death. Today I remember him. Every day for 30 years, I’ve remembered him.
Many years ago, long before I knew anything about Buddhism, I wrote a poem in my journal that started something like this:
Why don’t I go to the cemetery?
Because you are not there.
Today I add this:
I don’t need to go there to remember you.
You’re in my memories, in my thoughts, in my heart, every moment of every day. You’re in my hands—in their shape and length, the size of the knuckles, in my blunt fingertips. You’re in the long dimples in my cheeks when I smile. You’re part of me, written deep into every cell of my body, into the artistic impulse that feeds my soul.
You’re also in every blade of grass, every breath of wind, every birdsong; you’re in every drop of rain, every drop of water in the ocean, every cloud.
And so am I.
And so are we all.
Today, with 10 or so years of Buddhist study and practice behind me, I hear the same words from one of my beloved teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh—known as Thay (“teacher” in Vietnamese) to his students and disciples—who died January 22, 2022, just a few days before I this writing.
I’ve heard these words from him many times before now, but they are doubly poignant today, bringing healing to the many lives he touched, including mine.
Although I know Thay only through his numerous writings and even more numerous recordings and videos, his teachings and his life have touched me deeply and changed me profoundly.
Like many others, I've been humbled by Thay's own humility and grace. He was an intellectual giant, in my opinion, with the rare ability to simplify complex ideas so that even children could understand his answers to their questions. He spoke softly and with great clarity, the kind you only get when someone knows their subject matter deeply and intimately.
Thay's physical health has been declining for several years, and his passing last week at the age of 95 was no surprise; and I know that he, like my own father, is still with us. Thay himself would say he is alive in the trees, in the whisper of the wind through their branches, in every cloud in the sky and in each drop of rain that falls from those clouds.
He would also say he's present in all of his students and disciples, in the practices he led them in, even in those of us who never had a chance to meet him in person. We are his legacy.
I know all that. Yet his passing leaves a gap in my heart nonetheless.
And so I practise.
I breathe in, I breathe out, aware of breathing in and breathing out. I breathe while sitting, I breathe while walking, I breathe at odd moments of the day when I remember to pause for a moment and become aware.
When I do, I feel a sense of calm presence wash over me, surrounding my heart, surrounding the hole in my heart with awareness and love, cradling it tenderly, not pushing it away or pushing it down.
I feel myself get bigger. I can contain more.
Today this sense of calm presence infuses the sorrow that persists even after 30 years of missing my father.
Today I do not weep as much as I smile.
And even when I do weep, my tears are a gentle rain, not a raging thunderstorm with hail and destructive winds. They’re an expression of a sweet, tender sadness tempered by time and also by a change in my view and in my personal practices. The tenderness and sadness come wrapped in swaddling blankets of hope and life.
It's a tender ache that cracks me open, a sadness that opens me to feeling more, not less, an opening that allows me to feel my father’s presence in my cells, knowing he’ll always be part of me.