My father has been struggling recently. His health has deteriorated somewhat and confusion has become more evident at certain times. The other night was one such time. It coincided with what would have been Mam's 88th birthday. To help centre him I put a DVD on of the Welsh comic and folk singer Max Boyce. That created an air of familiarity and he settled into both a time of mirth and a moment of one of a million shared memories between himself and the wife he lost two years previously. Max Boyce was a perennial presence in our house in my early years, whether on the TV or one of the several albums Dad had bought to play over and over. I sat with Dad a while and we shared laughs, familiar songs and those moments on weekends when Dad would have one of Max's records on and Mam's Welsh accent would thoroughly reemerge. He was happy and it was a lovely few minutes for us, with Mam's spirit very much in that room.
Mam was born into a Welsh mining village a few miles outside Caerphilly. It was not an easy childhood. It often saw her, due to her family's poverty, being placed in temporary care. I've learned since just how traumatic elements of those years were. Despite that she loved referring to her Welsh life and it rubbed off on the rest of us. Dad was even made an 'honorary Welshman' at a local Eisteddfod festival - quite the achievement for a stereotypical Cockney of the "Cor Blimey guv", Dick Van Dyke persuasion. As for me, though born in England, I always looked to Wales as a heartfelt spiritual home, cemented, it should be said, by an adoration of the Welsh Rugby teams of the 70s (I still have man-crushes on Gareth Edwards and JPR Williams). In this, I had something I could share with my Mam.
In my early years, Mam and I were close and I adored her as many young boys will their mother. Yet things deteriorated. She suffered several psychotic breaks. Her mental health deteriorated. Dad worked nights and it was left to me to be with her in the shifting sands of her extreme moods. Walking on eggshells for years meant I would only spend short periods with her, especially as I went through trauma of my own. That extended into adulthood. Don't get me wrong. I loved Mam but I just could not relax around her and the complexity defined almost forty years of our lives. Nonetheless, I moved my parents up to my Scottish village to care for them in their final years but the controlled contact remained.
In the final weeks of her life, there was a tremendous winding back of the clock. The years of resentment, anger and bitterness Mam had felt for decades slipped away. All that mattered to her was enjoying the time. She knew she was soon to pass and she wanted to ensure all was right with the world around her. We talked the most we had since I had been a young child, laughed, hugged, shared memories. She was the Mam whose hand I'd held, with whom I rode my bike, in whom I confided. What to the outside world was a time of approaching demise was, in reality, overflowing with life. She was my Mam again.
The night before she died she was barely conscious. I was still a priest at the time and, fulfilling a long-standing request, I celebrated the Last Rites. Afterwards, I bent down and whispered words that will remain forever with me:
It's OK Mam. You can rest up now. Rwy'n dy garu di. I love you.
And there was the slightest, yet firmly discernible, squeeze of my hand. We remained there, my hand in hers, for another hour. The next day she died moments after smiling and laughing with her nurses. I missed her passing by five minutes.
Those final words represent something vital. They mark the dropping of every defence on my part. Mam had finalised her letting go weeks before but mine came in those six weeks and completed in a perfect moment. In that short eternity, the distance retracted to nothingness and all there existed was a mother and her son.I've pondered on that time. Over the years I have waxed lyrical on Enlightenment and Spiritual Liberation. It's easy to do that. Know something of theology, some philosophy, a smattering of Comparative Religion and the latest posts from a Facebook Guru and you have all the unwise wisdom in the world. All words. Unlived. Unexperienced. Unknown. Ultimately irrelevant and potentially harmful as a result. Not by intention but certainly in reality.
I wonder now if what we call liberation, enlightenment, again, words, is to a large degree (if not completely) the dropping of defences, the barriers that keep one from another. These barriers create the illusion of distance, both physical and psychological, and thus the barriers to Presence. We build our defensive ramparts throughout our lives. We believe they will protect us from emotional harm. They will prevent the truth about who we are being known. Yet drop those barriers and in the removal of the mask, we become apparent to the other. Collapse the ramparts and the bows and arrows that maintain a divide have no base from which to fire. One becomes present to the other. Not simply to one another but, as each drawbridge is lowered, to The Other until the distinction is revealed for what it is - a barrier of our own making. Of course, once the barriers drop, the Divine Love from which we all emerge flows like a river. This isn't the earned prize, for it cannot be nor needed to be earned. It is the Divine hand taking hold of ours. Rwy'n dy garu di. I love you.
The task of liberation then, it seems to me, has little to do with gurus, a world away from philosophy (no matter how useful it may be) and a universe apart from sitting on a pew. It consists in the work of identifying one's barriers and letting them fall. When a wall falls Presence is not only a possibility, it is an inevitable gift of Grace.