Joe: Both Sides

Twenty years ago, Joe, a sculptor, called me as his father was dying. Over the phone I helped him guide and support his father as he died.

Joe and I became friends and, even after he moved to Detroit, have stayed in touch. While in Detroit he had been working in the design department of one of the Big Three auto makers until he recently was downsized out of a job.

Last fall, when Joe’s mother started dying, he and I began talking and writing frequently. Below are some of the emails he sent a month after his mother died. –Dale Borglum


Hi Dale,

I have been noticing that when I look at the world without thoughts, I see forms,the lines and shapes of things, as if I am looking at them for the first time. It is like I am in nature. here in Detroit in gasoline alley. When I was looking at my mother as she was dying, I saw her and the emptiness, the mystery, all of what I don’t understand or know. I experienced a sense of awe and wonder. I have found that I have been stopping whatever I am doing lately and just looking and feeling the adumbrations of God. There is nothing to worry about; then I start to worry.

The last few hours that my mother was in the hospital, she kept saying, “Let’s go,” but the phrase she used in her native dialect implied “Let us go together,” as if it were an order. She motioned me to pull back her bed covers, then she tried to sit up but could not. There was nothing that I could do but look at her. Her willfulness was getting thin and my desire to respond thinner. The silence pierced through her persistent determination and my dogged obedience to respond. All the anger that I had and all the anger that she had, dissipated. The person she was and the person I was went up like a fog in a morning sun. There was a silence like the silence between two claps of thunder. All we knew was the love between us.

I may have told you that I don’t feel like doing anything. I am finding that I just want to sit. I think of things to do but I am not doing them. It is as if my mind is running around trying to do things, but another part of me just wants to be still. Even thought I just want to sit I am not sitting. Maybe I am, but just little sittings.
I recall hearing or reading Soygal Rinpoche saying something about doing multiple short meditations throughout the day. I guess I have been sitting. But I haven’t been.


When my mom died, I told you that I felt that I was solid on both sides, this ego side and the other side. I felt as if I were helpless to help my mother on this side. On the other side I couldn’t do anything either, but I could love her. I was helpless in her presence, but on the other side she didnâ’t need any help.

Death and loss are such creative moments. Moments of real beauty and excitement. The ego mourns and cries but the spirit jumps up. It almost seems that the greater the depth of the loss, the greater experience of the other side.

Maybe I am not making sense.
It is almost three AM here. I couldn’t sleep.


I recall reading once, though I don’t recall from what tradition, that in the beginning there was nothing and in a corner of that nothingness a space came into being and in that space God came into being and the rest followed.

All the ideas of hurt, joy, confusion exist in that corner and all these ideas of emotions keep bouncing off each other, so I thought that this was all that existed. Part of me knew that this was not so, but part of me was convinced that the ideas of hurt and anger were true and solid. When my mother died I saw that emptiness existed, and I saw that one of those little constructs of emotions disappeared as if it didn’t exist. Part of me disappeared. One of those constructs of emotion stopped being. Through the gap which was the space that was my mother, I saw emptiness peer through. If there is a future life or a past life, emptiness still exists. When I touched into emptiness, it didn’t matter that there was a past or future, because the underside of everything is emptiness. I felt this in my body. I wasn’t trying to understand this. I knew it.

I felt that I was tired of all the fear that I have felt all my life. I just didn’t want
to do that any more. I was tired of feeling hurt by my sisters. I could no longer be hurt by my mother, she wasn’t there. Even when she was alive she wasn’t there. Emptiness kept looking through. I could see through those tight little constructs of emotions. I feel such a sadness about all of this, but it doesn’ have to do with only the loss of my mother. I disappeared as well. I seem to be mourning everything. There is beauty here too. I think that I only see beauty in forms or in nature when I see emptiness looking back from the other side.

Does this make sense to you? I feel like I am babbling. I wrote this the other day and I didn’t send it because I felt like I was babbling. I don’t know how to talk about this. A gap opened up when my mother died; the whole world poured through. I saw myself die when she died. This doesn’t make sense. The rush of emptiness that blew through that gap felt like a gift.


I feel like I know something, but a part of me does not wish to admit that it is true. It is like being in love with a beautiful woman whom you know is poison
for you, you know that as soon as you touch her she will leave you puking in the garbage. You know that you should never talk to her again or be in a room with her, but then when you see her you can’t stop from ripping her clothes off and trying to swallow her body whole.

Fear is like that for me. Odd, I never said that before. I never compared the relationship to fear as a relationship to a seductress. What strange words.

When my mother was dying she was kept in a room which had glass walls so
that she could be observed. Once when I was leaving I turned around and saw her motioning with her hand for me to come back in. She wanted me to help her leave. It was as if her body wanted to stay alive, but another part of her knew it was time to die. When I looked into her face, there was fear and frustration there. I felt that I knew what she was feeling. When she died that gap appeared and emptiness rushed in. That is when I knew that I could drop this emotional tie into fear. The profundity of emptiness dimmed the attraction of fear and rendered it unimportant.

So it is strange now that I find myself hat in hand, standing on fear’s back porch, knocking on her door, waiting to see if she will want to go out with me for a drink.