His Parents' Last Year

[Listen to Asha read this story]

(Told by Vairagi)

When Swamiji’s father became too ill for his mother to care for him alone, Swamiji asked me if I would move in with them. No one in the family was free to help and they were reluctant to have a complete stranger in the house.

I had visited several times with Swamiji and occasionally did housework for them, so they were willing to accept my help.

After years of being in an ashram I wasn’t eager to live in an ordinary way again, but I told Swamiji, “For your sake, I would be willing to do it.”

I lived with Ray and Gertrude Walters for eighteen months. Ray died at the end of the first year, Gertrude died six months later.

When I moved in, Ray was already greatly debilitated. I never got to know him the way I got to know her. He was losing his sight and his hearing, and was so weak that when he sat down, he needed help to get up. Once or twice he fell and we had to call a neighbor to lift him to his feet again. It was not an easy year for either of them.

Nonetheless, Gertrude was always gracious and dignified. She treated me as if I were a guest in her home, not an employee. This was what Swamiji had wanted, as, with his responsibilities at Ananda, he couldn't devote as much time personally to their help as he would have liked.

Once I happened to mention a certain kind of wine that I had liked years ago when I lived in Germany. She ordered a whole case for me, even the right year. I was touched by her thoughtfulness, although I had long since stopped drinking alcoholic beverages.

They had an unusually close relationship, harmonious, and respectful. Gertrude was a gentle person, and it was not her nature to shout. But now she had to yell to make herself heard, and even then Ray would often misunderstand.

It must have been terrible for her. But she didn’t let her frustration show. Swamiji said he never knew his parents to have a single argument or even to exchange unkind words.

Taking care of them took all my time. I seldom saw my Ananda friends and missed all the Ananda activities. At times I felt depressed and lonely.

Gertrude was very private. She didn’t like to bring feelings out into the open. But she had the ability to tune into people. Whenever my spirits dipped, she sensed it and would take me out to lunch or on some outing to lift my mood. She was very telepathic and we often communicated, even about mundane matters, without either of us saying a word.

Sometimes when I was alone in my room I felt an extraordinary connection with her. I think those were the times when she was praying for me.

Gertrude read the Bible every day, and spent time meditating and praying. Once I suggested we meditate together, but she declined. To her it was a private matter, not something to be shared.

She had healing power. Once she fell and got a big black eye. For a day she wore dark glasses so no one could see it. “I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me,” she explained. “I am not looking in the mirror. I am not thinking of it as a black eye. I think of it as being well.” It healed remarkably quickly and after a day or two she was able to take the glasses off.

Over the course of the year, Ray gradually became weaker and weaker. Finally the doctor said, “There is nothing more we can do for you.” Ray decided to stop taking his medications. Gertrude couldn’t bear the thought of losing him. But even more, she didn’t want him to suffer. She didn’t protest, but accepted his decision bravely.

I knew the end was near, but I didn’t realize how little time was left. One evening I went out for a few hours. While I was away, Gertrude tried to change the sheets on Ray’s bed, but couldn’t finish the job alone. He was too weak to roll over and she was too weak to move him. She became anxious about the half-finished bed and called and asked me to come home right away.

Ray looked a little frightened. He didn’t believe in heaven and wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. But he remained calm and kind as always. As I finished changing his bed he said, “Someday you’ll be a great help to someone.” It was his way of saying, “Thank you for all you have done.”

Sometime during that night, Ray passed away. Early the next morning Gertrude knocked at my door. “I don’t think he is breathing anymore,” she said calmly. I went back to the bedroom with her and saw that he was dead.

Later, I learned that Swamiji was praying that his father pass that night. It was the evening of Shivaratri, an all-night Indian festival dedicated to Lord Shiva, the Great Renunciate. It is an auspicious time to die.

“Right after he passed away, I felt my father’s spirit the way he was when I was a child,” Swamiji said. “Dynamic, adventurous, full of enthusiasm. The last years in that aging body were not easy for him. He was glad to be free.”

The first person Gertrude called was her youngest son Dick. Then we called Swamiji.

A few weeks later, Swamiji invited his mother to come and live with him at Ananda. It is hilly there, and at that time there were no paved roads. Gertrude said, “I wouldn’t be able to take walks.” Swamiji wanted her with him so he could help her spiritually, but I think it was just too late for her to make such a change.

Gertrude lived five months after Ray died. She was always beautiful. Now she was luminous. I was prepared to stay with her for years more if necessary. Whatever God wanted, I was ready now to accept.

One weekend during that time, we went to Ananda Village for a wedding. After the ceremony she stood outside with Swamiji and greeted the guests. They were such a regal pair, like the King and the Queen Mother.

Afterwards, at the reception, Gertrude was standing alone gazing out the window. It was obvious she was thinking about Ray.

Sensing her mood, a woman asked, “How long were you married?”

“Sixty years.”

“That’s a long time!”

“No, it wasn’t,” Gertrude said softly.

Two months later, I left her alone for a weekend. On Saturday night I called and she seemed fine. But when I arrived home Sunday evening, the house was locked, the alarm system was turned on, and when I rang the bell there was no response.

Fortunately, I knew how to get into the house without setting off the alarm. I found her unconscious on the floor. A nurse friend came over. We called Swamiji, then called an ambulance.

I think Swamiji knew she would never regain consciousness. He didn’t come to the hospital, but stayed at Ananda and prayed for her. “I can help her just as much from here,” he said. Two days later, she died.

Right afterwards, Swamiji gave a funeral service at Ananda Village. He was so moved he could barely speak when he described her deep devotion to God, her spiritual freedom, and the love they shared. “I feel her spirit clinging very close to me,” he said afterwards.

A few days later, there was a funeral at the Episcopal Church Gertrude regularly attended. Years earlier Swamiji had written a piano sonata dedicated to her. He called it The Divine Romance. At her funeral he played it for her. In the middle of the music, many of us felt a great power descend over the church.

Speaking of that moment, Swamiji said later, “When the service started, Mother was still holding on to me. But in the middle of the service I felt her soul leave and go into the light.”

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