The Blue Poppy and the Mustard Seed, by Kathleen Willis Morton
There can be few things more painful than the death of a child. Can Buddhist practice help us cope even with this level of suffering? Siddhisambhava reviews a new book chronicling loss and letting go.
The Blue Poppy and the Mustard Seed is the tragic story of Kathleen Willis Morton and her husband, Chris having a longed for baby boy who dies seven weeks later. The story is extraordinarily difficult to read sometimes because it’s so painful. It’s also a very tender book, so you don’t want to rush it.
It’s hard to write about grief well. In writing The Blue Poppy, Morton joins a canon of grief and bereavement literature that has some real heavyweights in it — and she can hold her head up. In the 1960’s Simone de Beauvoir wrote about her mother’s death (A Very Easy Death) and CS Lewis penned a Christian classic, A Grief Observed, following the death of his wife. Another spiritual classic, Grace and Grit, written by Ken Wilber in 1991, courses his five year journey with his wife, who was diagnosed with breast cancer within weeks of their marriage. More recently Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking won critical acclaim and became a one woman show on Broadway and in London’s West End. Her husband dropped dead at the dinner table. “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant.”
Just occasionally Morton overdoes the description. And occasionally she tells, rather than shows –- which must be very tempting with a book like this. But mostly she’s PDG (pretty damn good). If you want to know, or remember, how raw grief is, or can be, or if you need to have your current terrifying/chaotic/deadening/etc experience of grief articulated, read this.
It’s such a new life and tiny body dying. It’s so poignant. We grieve in relation to how we’ve loved. And they say the death of a child is the worst. “I had books on my shelf that were heavier than he was in the end.” When Liam dies they quit their jobs and book a trip around the world. “I wanted to walk away forever going nowhere, and lie down and die at the same time.” The travel stuff is interesting, but the basic material is the same. Like Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Wherever you go, there you are.”
Anyway, she pulls through, of course. It takes her nine years to feel kind of OK at his death anniversary, and to wake up one morning feeling happy. Morton began practicing Tibetan Buddhism when she was 17 and had Liam when she was 27. She had ten years of practice under her belt by the time of his death, then. Practice helps, it definitely helps. “In the darkness I had the stars to look up to.” But it’s not a magic wand: “wave this and avoid suffering.”
I would have liked more about the “end” of her process. It’s too short and “wrapped-up” a bit too soon for me. Maybe she hasn’t had enough distance from the end yet? I dunno. There’s a sense of a publicist wanting to write on the back-cover that this is an “uplifting memoir about enduring world-shattering pain and coming out whole.” That is part of the story, of course, and I’m glad Morton feels like that.
But sentences like “I had to die in my mind to wake up to my life. In letting go, samsara is nirvana” don’t do her justice somehow. I wish she’d done a little more work there, but maybe that way of expression is not her forte. It doesn’t feel like her voice. The very last sentence of the book is more her voice, and is much more interesting. “Sometimes powerful reasons to hold on are not yet known to us.” Given the age old ping pong in Buddhism between attachment and renunciation, and the manifold ways we rationalize, opine and actually behave, I wish she had explored this apparent contradiction more. In a sense, she’s writing about that all the time, not knowing how to go on living without Liam, yet somehow keeping going, fumbling. It’s a paradox and a koan this bereavement business. What do we hold on to and what do we let go of? There’s the whole of the Dharma in that question. And what exactly is it we are doing when we do hold on and/or let go? I look forward to seeing other Buddhist writers keep Kathleen Willis Morton company in this genre. She’s made a fabulous contribution, from the experience of a practicing Buddhist as well as a mother – and there’s still plenty left to say.
Kathleen Willis Morton can be found online at www.TheBluePoppyAndTheMustardSeed.com. She encourages readers to visit and share their experiences on the online forum.