Earlier this week, I went down to the shore of Lake Ontario and sat at the water’s edge. I sat on the sand breathing in the sunlight shining on the water, the gentle lapping of the waves, the feel of the warm breeze on my cheek. And I was flooded with memories: of camping trips every summer with my parents when my brother and I were children; of floating on air mattresses on northern lakes and flipping each other into the cool clear water in mock battles; of cooking hot dogs and marshmallows over an open fire and sleeping close to the ground surrounded by the scent of canvas. Mostly, I remembered how much my father loved being outside. As a lineman for Ontario Hydro he worked outside daily, and our weekends and holidays were spent out in the wilderness hiking, canoeing, swimming, camping and generally just enjoying the shared beauty.
As I remembered my throat tightened and my chest ached. Because these days, my father is confined to the indoors, unable to remember previous summers of outdoor adventures or even to understand our conversations about current outings. Alzheimer’s has made him aggressive so, for the time being, he is in a facility that unfortunately does not have a secure outdoor area where he could safely go out to soak in the sun. His caregivers and I have talked about the wisdom of taking him outside anyway, but it is unclear whether or not that would in fact cause him suffering (if trips outside resulted in him needing to be physically restrained from going where he might harm others or be harmed, or if they ignite expectations of regular outdoor expeditions that they may not be able to accommodate.) So, for the time being and until they find the right mix of medications that will lower his anxiety and agitation while leaving him lucid and able to enjoy where he is, he is not able to go outside.
Summer is short in this part of the world. Sitting by the lake and breathing in the scent of sun-warmed water my heart ached for the loss of this pleasure for my father. And then suddenly, spontaneously, I reached out for him, letting my heart-mind-spirit find and touch his. And I told him, “Feel the sun on my skin Dad, see the light on the water.” And I found a new practice: the practice of allowing the joy I experience in something I know my father has enjoyed but is not now able to access, be for the both of us. It’s kind of the flip side of the Buddhist practice of mudita: cultivating joy in the joy of others.
In her book How To Be Sick, Toni Bernhard does a great job of describing mudita. For those with chronic illness, one of the difficult aspects of life can be the envy and frustration that arise when others are enjoying activities or locations we are no longer able to access. The antidote to the poison of envy (and the pain and unhappiness it engenders) is mudita- focusing on cultivating joy in the joy of others. Like most practices it takes time to find real joy in the pleasure others are experiencing that is no longer directly available to us.
I think of what I am doing as a mirror image of mudita. I am bringing my attention to enjoying the moment my father cannot access, for the two of us. I dedicate bringing my full attention to the beauty of a summer day to him, to all the days he enjoyed, in the hope that my full enjoyment dedicated to him in gratitude and love may touch him in some way I cannot understand with a moment of unexpected and inexplicable joy. There is no way of knowing if this touches him in some way. I hope it does. I do know that it deepens my joy and my appreciation for the moments I am offered.