issue 24 Autumn/Winter 04
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A faithful farewell

Padmaketu describes caring for her friend Maitrigita before she died of cancer

When I think of my friend Maitrigita, her determination and will-power spring to mind first. As her death approached, she increasingly exuded softness, love and gratitude. She was a devoted yoga teacher, disciplined and controlled, and her yoga practice helped a great deal in enduring the pains caused by cancer. I won't forget the sight of her on her second last day - standing in uttanasana pose (forward bend) in order to vomit into her toilet-chair.

It is a year since Maitrigita died, near Essen in Germany, from ovarian cancer. She was 47. In my mind's eye, I can clearly recall my experience of lying on her bed soon after her death. I re-activated the special air mattress (to prevent bed sores) and tried to feel what it might have been like for her. The view from the windows on three sides was mainly of sky, with a big plane tree in the back court and a huge radio tower beyond. Behind I could hear the splashing water of the small fountain we installed for her. On the left window-sill were photographs of her dear friends Dharmapriya and Kulanandi. Between the windows was a simple shrine to the Buddha Amitabha surrounded by red roses, a photograph of her teacher Sangharakshita, and a Refuge Tree of Enlightened beings above. There were CDs of classical music, German literature, talks by Sangharakshita, and shelves of German and English books - though in her last months Maitrigita was scarcely able to read or listen to refined literature.

When she died, therefore, Maitrigita was surrounded by the people and possessions that were important to her. I cannot know her experience of lying in this bed. I can only guess how it felt to grow ever weaker as the painful effects of her illness increased. While I could easily get off this bed, she was less and less able to do so.

Maitrigita had been practising Buddhism with the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order for 15 years. In her last year she decided to move into a Buddhist women's community. This wasn't an easy step for her, as she had to leave behind the comfort and freedom of living alone. Nor was it an easy decision for us community members to offer her a place in which to live and die. But we finally acted on our initial impulse to help. This came after Maitrigita's first relapse, which indicated that she probably wouldn't win the fight against cancer. We responded out of friendship, and approached it as a spiritual practice, relying on the strength our community had built up over eight years. It was clear that not everyone would be equally involved in the care, and that we needed to open our community to male visitors.

Once Maitrigita had moved in, she found it remarkably easy to let go of her old flat and start to relax. She was still undergoing chemotherapy and fighting the cancer. But one chemotherapy after the next failed to work and within six months she decided to stop treatment altogether. She was willing to face death. Once a fairly controlled person, Maitrigita was placing more and more faith in compassion and awareness.

At this point she was ordained into the Western Buddhist Order, and given her new name, Maitrigita, which means 'song of love'. The ceremony took place at Vimaladhatu retreat centre, in western Germany. I remember her vigorously making her way up the frozen track to the house, when the car couldn't cross the ice. She mobilised all her energies for this ordination, for which she had been preparing for years. It became one of the happiest occasions of her life.

She was already extremely thin, and nobody knew how long she would live. Her last four months were to become intense and demanding in different ways for us all. Maitrigita stayed comparatively independent for a long time. She had clear ideas of what she needed, which made life both easy and difficult by turns. Her wishes could change quickly, which felt confusing, at times frustrating. Sometimes I felt stretched to my limit: it was hard to stay patient and clear about what was or was not possible, and to keep in loving but firm communication. My only option was to stay in the present moment as much as possible and take things as they arose.

Maitrigita could be quite mysterious and opaque. She wouldn't talk much - and then we had to listen carefully as she might say important things unexpectedly and just once. Occasionally when massaging her, we would spontaneously have deeper conversations. For example, she spoke about identifying herself less as being female and more as simply being human - which surprised me, as she was aware of having always been an attractive woman.

Sometimes Maitrigita appeared quite stubborn. One night I woke to hear her making her way to the kitchen. At this stage she could eat next to nothing and was fed through a drip; yet she insisted on drinking two full glasses of apple juice. It was useless to remind her that she wouldn't keep it down. Later we had a good laugh about this episode, when she described how she had spent hours fighting a strong desire for the taste of apple juice, until she couldn't help but give in. So I realised she'd done her best to counteract the craving and it hadn't just been a whim.

By the time Maitrigita was increasingly confined to bed, there were only three community members caring for her; the other three women supported us indirectly by cooking and shopping. I don't believe we've ever communicated so fully as in that final month - to ensure everyone's needs were met as much as possible. Although I was glad we could relax after her death, this intense experience gave our spiritual practice a distinct edge.

Maitrigita's end came more quickly than I expected. I'd been counting on her strength of body and will. As I understand, it was the tumour obstructing her guts that caused the fatal consequences; this was accompanied by nausea and vomiting during the last days. There was little we could do except offer our love and appropriate medicines, and patiently bear our own limitations and helplessness.

Maitrigita had a strong wish to die at home, so we simply stayed at her side. The night her doctor expected her to die we shared the night-watch between ourselves and Dharmapriya, Kulanandi and Maitrigita's mother. I slept little that night and got up whenever the groans from the next room increased. These regular sounds with her exhalations stabilised, so that around midday her doctor predicted she might last another 24 hours.

More of Maitrigita's friends arrived. Around 4pm Taracitta and I sent everyone out of her room, in order to clean her and put on dry clothes. I suggested taking off her watch, as it pressed into her skin causing a red mark. Maitrigita always wore this watch, which seemed to grow bigger the thinner her arm became. Perhaps it helped her keep some control and discipline in her life. I removed the watch, and within a minute Maitrigita stopped breathing. She had grown quieter when we were cleaning her, but she stopped breathing in such an unassuming way that I didn't immediately realise what had happened. It was Taracitta who first found words: 'Oh, it looks as if she has just left us'. We decided to continue washing and dressing her quietly before telling the others.

The atmosphere in the community on the day of her death was unusually harmonious and concentrated. So positive, indeed, that after her initial breakdown Maitrigita's mother was able to cook for us all that evening.

Maitrigita's body was laid in an open coffin at the Essen Buddhist Centre. We held a ceremony for the Buddhist community followed by a vigil until noon the next day. Then we conducted an Amitabha puja and finally had the main funeral ceremony. To my mind, the highlight was when people rejoiced in her life and qualities. Then Maitrigita's father got up spontaneously and thanked us; he said that despite all their differences he was so glad to hear how happy his daughter had been. It felt as if something had begun to heal. We ended the funeral with a song by Gustav Mahler.

After the ceremony Taracitta and I helped to arrange Maitrigita in her coffin and wrapped her body in a white cloth covered with red lotuses. We also put all her well-wishing cards inside the coffin, and placed the one sent by our teacher Sangharakshita on her heart. Then we screwed down the lid and sent her off to the crematorium. This last task felt quite natural to me and somehow rounded off the whole experience.

I still feel amazed by the positivity and willingness with which so many people engaged with the process. Maitrigita was not particularly easy-going, but there were many qualities shining through her, which helped us to accept her. Following her death, it has dawned on me more and more how much she did her best within the given circumstances. Would I be able to do the same? She was determined to develop her mindfulness, love and compassion; and during her illness she became softer and more patient.

Her gratitude was outstanding. She would thank you for everything you did - even when feeling miserable. She did not take anything for granted. She would also often use your name, which made the contact personal and direct. She dared to take decisions we sometimes hardly understood at the time, and showed great courage in facing the painful, frightening process of decline and death, without fleeing into the apparent security of a hospital. In this she gave us a great gift.

I still don't truly understand what happened: death and life seem so unfathomable. Reflecting on the lessons I have drawn from it, I believe I've learnt to take people more as they are - accepting Maitrigita, family, friends and myself in our complexity - which may be quite contradictory. Witnessing her death has helped me simply to love people for who they are.