Surrounded by her own paintings and mementos from around the world, with a caregiver who fed and bathed her and adjusted her intake of oxygen, our family friend Rozanne rested in her home in serenity. At ninety-six, Zanne was dying—with a rare sense of ease and completeness. At the end of her life, there was such letting go. Where did this come from? It didn’t come from Buddhist training. I’m not sure how she arrived at such openness, such peaceful release. But it was palpable. In these last months, she’d often muse with a teasing inflection, “Pourquoi pas?” (Why not?)
When I came to visit, she would surface out of a wide dreaming to decipher who I was, reach into her memories, and retrieve my story. Then she would smile and say, “Hurray for you!”—recently also a favorite phrase. With her “hurrays,” it felt to me as if she was fanning a tiny flame of possibility with unconditional love. She was applauding something hidden behind that story, something vast and luminous but not yet recognized. Buddhanature? Something like that. “Hurray, Hurray!” she’d say. “Hurray for you!”
Here was a woman who had spent many festive hours with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She’d delighted in her yearly sojourns painting in Paris. And, like the rest of us, she had also known suffering. She had witnessed addiction, betrayal, loss. Her husband, Henri, an international consultant, my dad’s friend and mentor, had a stroke in his fifties and was challenged to learn again to add and subtract. A beloved grandson died at twenty, hit by a car. Somehow Zanne had dropped into a vast neutrality below the heartbreaks in her own family story, rarely seeming to veer toward blame or the sourness of self-pity. Instead of “why me,” I can imagine Zanne wondering, “Why not me?” Pourquoi pas?
Above my husband’s and my bed is one of Zanne’s block prints. Whenever we’ve moved or changed rooms, this print has always followed us and blessed our bed. Two images are juxtaposed—in the background, a man and woman embracing each other, with their baby held in their hug; overlaying that, in bolder strokes, a mother nursing a baby. Zanne has seemed to hold even the inevitable catastrophes of life with a like kindness. Throughout much of my own life, I have braced myself against the catastrophic: loss of precious friendship, abandonment, the failure of family to stay intact. I’ve seen this print as a talisman, championing embrace—even of what is painful.
At three, I was hurriedly deposited for a week in Zanne’s care when my parents’ marriage was breaking up and my heartsick mom fled town to her parents while my dad packed up his things to leave for good. In later years, East Coast and West and in far-flung climes, I’d seek sanctuary with Zanne. She eased feelings of inadequacy, tendencies toward shame and self-recrimination that have sometimes taken over my mind. That’s what she has done for people—many people—her grandchildren, her artist friends, her neighbors, even caregivers she has just met in her last weeks. She has somehow helped counter the debilitating habit of self-hatred.
I’ve heard several Tibetan tulkus express their bafflement at the pandemic in the West of this painful self-created suffering, so unfamiliar in Tibet. One tulku describes self-hatred as the first of the “Buddhanature blockers,” habits of organizing inner experience that block us from living our lives with a deep awareness of freedom, clarity, wisdom and wonder. Zanne seemed to intuit something akin to these ancient understandings, cutting through the Buddhanature blocker to reveal the unrecognized potential, there all along but untapped.
I’d come to Zanne’s bedside twice when her son Georges was still in town. Despite her advanced cancer, she had no need for morphine (had seemingly no pain). She would dip into my conversation with Georges, offer an incisive remark here or there. Georges would be tenderly massaging her feet.
When I left these visits with Zanne, there were no entreaties to stay, no demands. If I project ahead to see myself on my own deathbed, my daughter, Caitlin, leaving, it’s hard to imagine such spacious allowing. I know in my current self a certain neediness, a wanting back. Maybe someday . . . Perhaps I have been learning from Zanne’s “pourquoi pas?,” from her sense of unburdening and openness, from the way she sometimes sings out “Wheeeeeeeee” as if whizzing down a water slide, free fall.
It’s not that this letting go of hers hasn’t at times carried a sting for those of us who have been close to her. Her wide neutrality has so outdistanced my own longings, fears, posturing. The first time I visited her bedside, I told her as I left how glad I was to have come. “Check it off your list!” she’d quipped. Not at all. That’s not what I meant. At a moment like this, I yearned for more sentiment from her—for her to let me know that she (so often a nourisher) needed me, that I had nourished her. But that didn’t come easily to her.
This third visit, I was clear with myself: I was coming for me, to receive Zanne’s unique darshana (blessing). With anticipation, I entered the familiar chaos of her home, sidestepping cartons of books, baskets of photos, feathers, unnameable tchotchkes. In the dining room and along the hallway, I stopped to admire photographs of Zanne—her hair in a loose chignon, set off by a jaunty cloche or beret—and her paintings—tomatoes, pears, sunflowers, dancing nudes with whimsical breasts and bountiful buttocks—celebrating, cheering for, a wondrousness in life.
Once a substantial woman, Zanne was lying small in the rented hospital bed, her body turned toward the window. I breathed in a faint smell of soap and talcum powder. Sunshine flowed into the room, lighting up her face. Peaceful, I thought.
I pulled up a chair close to Zanne. We didn’t say much, but we did a lot of gazing, eyes into eyes. Hers were hazel. After a long while, she said, “Beautiful eyes.”
And I said, “Those are my dad’s.” Memory of his eyes. Blue.
“He was a brilliant man,” she responded. Pause. “Some people recognized that.” A longer pause. “My husband, Henri, was one of them.” I thought of my dad, harsh with himself for failing to live up to the success he’d so aspired to. At moments I recognize that in myself. Oh, to bring Zanne’s kind hurrays to this harshness!
A memory from forty-two years earlier shuttled into my consciousness. Zanne and I by the club swimming pool in the lugubrious heat of Kuala Lumpur. My dad and Henri, as consultants for the government, were always working while my stepmom was with my young siblings. At twenty-one, I was voluptuous and awkward with my family in my youthful glory. I felt like whatever I did was wrong, my skirts too short, my voice too loud. What a solace when Zanne seemed to see me as I was, without judgments. I blossoming out of a tiny bikini, Zanne in a flowered lady’s bathing suit, the two of us dangled our legs in the cool water. I had confided to her that I’d chased around the world—through Madrid, Rome, Delhi, Bangkok and now KL—with my sights on my dad, whom I hadn’t seen for three years. I longed just to sit down alone with him and talk. “Is he really too busy, his work really too important, to take time off to be with his daughter?” I asked Zanne.
“Ahh, but he loves you so much,” Zanne had said. “Don’t you remember when you had that tryst with the professor, how your dad came to your rescue?” Kaleidoscopic memories of a tall, restless man, my college professor twice my age, a night in a tiny apartment, with a bottle of wine, a narrow bed, being scared that I didn’t know how to do it right. I’d forgotten that I’d fled the next weekend to my dad, who was also a professor at a nearby college.
“Of course, you know,” Zanne had continued, “that your dad tracked that man down?”
“No, never, I never dreamed.”
“Sure. Your dad went to his office with a gun. He told that man, ‘If you ever come anywhere near my daughter again, I’ll blow your brains out!’”
Stunned, I couldn’t speak. Did that mean he loved me? I wondered.
Drawing my chair up closer to Zanne where she now lay dying, I remembered feeling her acceptance when she told me that story so many years earlier. With her implied hurrays, she helped me to drop beneath the shame at having embroiled myself in that affair, beneath my shock that my restrained professorial dad had made such a threat. In Zanne’s presence, I could feel my dad’s love as he had so gallantly leapt to my defense; I could feel compassion for that hungry young me, struggling with dislike of my self.
With graciousness, she had turned toward me as she had turned toward others, accepting what I hadn’t been able to accept in myself, offering a trust in some immeasurable potential, a hidden sweetness or courage. She’d seen past a narrow, hurting sense of self to the limitless—there all along, needing only to be recognized to find expression. Yes, Buddhanature, why not? In the guise of a family friend, Zanne had been for me a kind of mother of all buddhas.
Could I bring the letting go of her “pourquoi pas?” to our stories now, seeing as Zanne has, beneath the specific misfires and flailings, a profound hurray—for our common humanity, for our common yearnings for happiness, for connection, for relief from suffering? Take this memory. Underneath the all-too-human passions and misjudgments, here was my dad with his gun, on his proverbial white horse galloping though the hills between the two campuses, yearning to save his daughter from suffering; here I was, in a failed affair, yearning for happiness, for connection; and the professor as well, albeit misguided and hurtful, yearning too for happiness, for connection.
Zanne will die soon, I thought. Please, may I absorb her ways, not just borrowing her phrases but truly living them, both letting go and expressing kindness moment by moment.
Sitting now by Zanne’s side, I remembered how her son Georges had massaged her arches, her insteps and toes. I asked, “Would you like me to massage your feet?”
A pause. “Well, you could help figure out what to do with my hair.”
At first I thought she was hallucinating and I was trespassing on some dream party to which I hadn’t yet been invited. But then I noticed that her hair was newly washed. It was combed wet against her scalp and streamed across a towel over her pillow to drape behind the bed, pearlescent in the light. A whiff of the scent again: lotions and, yes, shampoo, like a new baby’s. So that’s what I did for most of our visit: with a hair dryer, I dried her hair as she dozed. I took on the task with care, at each moment gauging the heat, the ferocity of the blowing. I kept the sound soft, the air gentle, as Zanne would have done for me.
Standing behind the head of the bed, I appreciated Zanne upside down. Her face, beautiful in repose, had few lines, a large mole on her earlobe practically the only blemish. Her hair, which I’d only seen in its chignon, was fine and surprisingly long. If she’d been a young girl, she might have worn it flowing long down her back. As I caressed these silver strands, I felt a raw pain that Zanne would soon be gone. In the spirit of “pourquoi pas?,” could I open to the sadness, truly know it, but not be taken over by it? Could I see it in the compass of a “hurray,” as one expression of our fundamental nature—impermanence, endless possibility. Lifting the long strands of hair with one hand, I protected Zanne’s scalp with the other and tenderly blew the warm air through.
When Zanne’s hair was dry, I returned to her side. Out of a long doze, she roused herself to ask, “Could you see if you can find a lady’s fan?” I soon found a cache of Tokyo Airlines fans in a cookie tin with some calligraphy brushes and an old perfume bottle. I chose the gold fan with cherry blossoms. Tentatively, I waved it by Zanne’s cheek, sending a flutter of air. “Mmmm,” she sighed in pleasure. After some time, she fluttered her hand by her other cheek, motioning for me to change sides. She was training me. And gradually I was getting the hang of this, a shivering of my hand issuing a steady, continuous flicker of air, cool this time, responding to what was needed.
After some time, she raised her brow: “A fan can be so expressive.” I sportively shook the accordion closed and, with some drama, curved the folded fan in a great glinting golden arc. Just for that moment, I’d become a mother of all buddhas, waving this fan with loving intention, then with fearless elegance slicing it through the air, releasing form into emptiness. Under Zanne’s tutelage, my spine lengthened, I tapped into a clear-eyed grace I didn’t know I had. “I wonder,” she mused, “what do ladies do now?” I couldn’t think of what to say. But once again, I unfurled the fan, and my hand took up its quiver, sending out a trembling breeze, cool and, yes, serene.