Take it or leave it.

Sunday, July 12, 2015


My maternal grandmother, or Grandma Dave as I used to call her, passed away in October of 1997. For several years leading up to her death she had grown more and more senile. I don't think it was Alzheimer's. More likely she suffered from a vascular dementia, where a succession of mini strokes takes out progressively larger areas of the brain, in her case those involving speech. She'd speak less and less, a phenomenon known as expressive aphasia, and when she did talk she'd say the same things, like "How tall are you?" and "My how you've grown!" (She always was good with numbers. When my brothers and I were growing up she'd have us stand against the kitchen wall so she could measure us, and with pencil scratch our height in inches in the paint.)

Towards the end Grandma Dave was almost always in a good mood. She'd giggle and her eyes would light up at the slightest thing. But she'd talk less and less. It was as if she was just slowly fading away. The last words of hers I remember and that didn't have to do with my height - which by the way I'd gently remind her hadn't changed since 1987, when I was 14 - came at Thanksgiving dinner in 1994. We were at my Uncle Jamiel's house.

After dinner we are seated having coffee; Grandma liked hers with cream and two lumps of sugar. I'm eating cake. We are by the fire, and she looks over at me and sort of pins me with her gaze. She says to me, "Don't get involved." Grandma, whatever do you mean? I wonder. She says it over, real serious. "Don't get involved." Okay, I say. And go back to eating my cake.

At the time I was in a rather serious relationship for nearly a year, and Isabella and I were considering taking our next step. It was mostly her prompting. She felt lonely without her family. If we didn't get married, she said, she'd need to move back home to Brazil. At 21 I wasn't sure I was old enough or mature enough to be a husband, and as a student I sure didn't have enough money to support a wife let alone myself. But these conversations centered around commitment grew more and more intense until they developed into quarrels, which is why Isabella wasn't there at my uncle's spending Thanksgiving with me.

Now I don't know that when she told me not to get involved Grandma Dave meant not to get involved with Isabella, whom she had met once and asked about her height. Maybe it was more along the lines of don't get involved in general, with life. Like, remain detached. This is, after all, age-old wisdom, dating back to the time of the Vedas, I'd come to find. Among the sage Shankara's four perfections put forth in his Crest-Jewel of Wisdom, is dispassion, or "the indifference to sensual self-indulgence, to everything lower than the Eternal, through a constant sense of their insufficiency." (The other perfections, in case you're wondering, are discernment between things lasting and unlasting; the six graces beginning with restfulness; and longing for freedom, indispensable if you are to break the chains that bind.)

Marriage is certainly "lower than the Eternal" in that it doesn't last forever, and I know that people try to gain immortality by perpetuating their name through their offspring; but what good is there in your name living on if you're not around to witness it? Besides I wasn't sure I wanted kids, though I didn't tell Isabella this. Perhaps God was speaking eternal truths to me through my little old senile granny. Perhaps my Grandma Dave was summarizing the story put forth in the Mundaka Upanishad, that sacred Hindu text, about the two birds.

"Like two birds of golden plumage, inseparable companions, the individual self and the immortal Self are perched on the branches of the selfsame tree. The former tastes of the sweet and bitter fruits of the tree; the latter, tasting of neither, calmly observes.

"The individual self, deluded by forgetfulness of his identity with the divine Self, bewildered by his ego, grieves and is sad. But when he recognizes the worshipful Lord as his own true Self, and beholds his glory, he grieves no more."

Maybe she was telling me to remain fixed in your identity with the Higher Self, and whatever of life's many fruits you as an individual taste, whether with this girlfriend or someone else, know that the true You stands aloof and detached, and ever the same.

What wisdom! What ancient truth my grandmother uttered to me that fateful night 20 years gone by! And my father didn't think his mother a spiritual person. This is the best advice I've ever gotten from anyone, friend or family. Provided of course that remain detached is what she meant. Maybe she just meant don't get married. After all her marriage to my grandfather was stormy and descended into bitterness towards the end, prompting her to ask my father, an attorney, of the advisability of getting a divorce. He declined to comment. This was wise of him. Or maybe she was just cautioning me against sticking my nose in other people's business. But even if my granny wasn't speaking metaphorically, telling me to keep my hands in society if I must, but my head in the clouds, this was my interpretation of her cryptic remark and it served me well - although it spelled the death of my relationship.

When Isabella and I broke up and she moved back to Brazil, the lower me was broken-hearted, and for quite some time. It felt like the end of the world. And indeed it was the end of that chapter in my life. "One of life's bitter fruits," said the budding philosopher in me, emboldened by my granny's sage counsel, inwardly of course. But the awareness behind it all, in whose light the drama of life unfolds, shines ever brightly, and continues to shine, and always.

A year later Isabella would give birth to her first child, a baby boy. I recently found out that she had a second son this year. I am still uninvolved, in both senses of the term. Making granny proud. But even if I did have kids, I'd doubt they'd be any cuter than this little angel, my cousin Sascha whom I saw just the other day. Also making granny proud.

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