Photographs and Memories Never Die

An ancient Zen Buddhist story goes like this:

A very wealthy family in China bought a large farm and built a beautiful palace upon it. They wished for good luck, health, and fortune, so they decided to ask a famous Zen priest to write a scroll for them to hang in their den. The priest accepted the job and went back to his shrine to pray for enlightenment.

After a few days, the priest returned with the finished scroll and the entire family gathered around in great anticipation to see the words that the priest wrote for them. The priest said a short prayer and opened the scroll and hung it on the wall. The scroll said:

"Grandfather dies. Father dies. Son dies. Grandson dies."

The entire family was furious at the priest. They shouted and demanded that he go back to the shrine and rewrite the scroll for them. The priest sighed and said:

"I will rewrite the order of names on the scroll in anyway you wish. But I think there can be no other sequence. If all die in this order, I think that is true prosperity."

My own mother died in a freak car accident in 1994. Of course, I was crushed. I was in Japan and she was in America. After the car accident, she was taken by ambulance to the hospital. I understand that she floated in and out of consciousness before she died. Since I was so far away, I had no way of seeing her, holding her hand, and saying:

"I love you mom. Thank you for everything."

But at least I can be thankful that my father was there to do so when she went away. Many people who die are not fortunate enough to have a loved one with them, to hold their hand, to whisper in their ear:

"I love you. We all love you…. Please rest. You may go now."

And with words like these, my mother "let go" and passed away. I will always regret that I couldn’t be there with my mother in her time of need. I thank God that my father could be.

There are too many people in this world who die alone. Could there be a more woeful way to die, than when loved ones cannot be there by your side to say their last, "Good-bye"?

After my mother died, though, I was angry. I was angry at the world and I was angry at God.

For months after my mother’s death I had recurring nightmares and the most bizarre dreams. Many of the dreams involved times when I was a boy. I would be playing in a playground and I would see my mother on the other side of a fence. I would cry out, "Mom! You’re back!" And I would begin to sob uncontrollably.

My mother would grow angry at me and she’d start to leave. I’d cry out again, "Mom! Come back!" As she walked away, she would turn around, look at me, and always say the same thing:

"I cannot come to visit you, if you are going to cry every time I see you."

And with that, she’d disappear into a field of tall grass.

I would always promise not to cry the next time. But I couldn’t keep my promise. I think I saw this same dream just about every night for at least six months.

Then one night, I had the most bizarre dream of all. My mother, as usual, walked away because I was crying, I was on my knees. I had my head in hands to try to hold back the tears. And then suddenly, I found myself in a huge chamber. It was like a colossal courtroom.

I looked up and there was an old man sitting in a chair, looking quite irritated at me. He was brushing his beard. I knew exactly who he was, yet I was not afraid of him; I was furious. I shouted:

"It’s not fair! It’s not fair that my mother died in an accident. My mother was still young and healthy. She should still be alive you bastard!"

The old man just stared at me. I continued to shout at him. And I began to cry. Then he calmly said:

"So you think it is unfair that your mother has died?"

"Of course it’s unfair!"

The old man sighed and said, "Very well then, I shall allow you to be reborn and I will give you a different mother, and that mother will still be alive today. Would you find this acceptable?"

"A different mother!?" I said. "No… No, thank you."

I suddenly awoke from my dream. My pillow was wet with tears.

I pondered this strange dream for many weeks after that. Then it dawned on me: Instead of being angry that my mother died in an accident. I should be thankful for all of the wonderful times we spent together, all the hugs and bedtime stories. All the laughs and the great dinners. All the special times that my mother made me feel special, and all the other times she cheered me up when others did not. I should thank God for all the wonderful memories I received from being the son of this loving woman.

She was always there for me when I needed her.

And now, whenever I see her in my dreams, I do not cry. In fact the dream I often have with her now is one where I am on her side of the fence and we are sitting in the field and having a picnic and smiling together. I haven’t seen her in a while, but I look forward to the next time I do.

I told this story to a priest who has become my friend. He asked me to show him a photograph of my mother. I did. He said:

"Your mother was a very beautiful woman. Always keep this image of her in your heart. You are most fortunate that it is you, and not her, who has but memories and a snapshot."

"How profound!" I thought. And I have always kept his words of wisdom in my heart. I share these words with my friends whose parents have passed away.

But dying at home due to sickness or accident is something that, in many cases, cannot be helped. For everyone dies someday. I guess it’s when people needlessly die that we get most upset.

I have wondered about people from long ago, before the age of photographs. How did they remember how their loved ones looked? Of course, royalty and the very wealthy could always hire a famous artist to paint portraits. But what about the regular people, the people like you and me? What did they do?

And what of the wretched youth who died in needless wars in the past? What about their mothers and fathers? How did they remember or worship the children that they had lost? Who held their children’s hands when they passed away? A stranger? No one?

All the surviving members of the poor souls of the past — they should be very much pitied, for they only have memories in their hearts. The parents must have had so much rage and regret. For when it comes to war, the young ones usually die first. What a deplorable situation.

But thank God for "progress." Because in today’s day and age, even though we stupid humans seem to have learned nothing in thousands of years of senseless war, we now have the technology so that lucky parents can take those treasured photos of their children:

Photographic memories that will last a lifetime to share and to hold.

Thanks to America now running its own war of aggression in some far off land, American parents can share the Technicolor memories of their children who will never return.

How much joy those photos of their dead children must bring! Those handsome young men and beautiful young women will always have youth; they won’t age and have their bodies grow old and miserable, like yours or mine.

And even if the parents were not there in that far away, lonely land, to hold their child’s hand and whisper in their ear as their life slipped away; they can always have the photos to have, to hold, to hug, and to cry to.