Virtually every Near-Death Experience I’ve ever heard or read underscores the primacy of love. Many who visit the other side are told directly that love is all that matters, that love powers the universe, and that we are all one. Yet as we live day to day encapsulated in our own bodies, which are protected by defensive egos, we often lose track of this fundamental truth.
I was shown my own forgetfulness by something I witnessed yesterday. Outside a veterinarian clinic for birds and exotic animals, my son and I were waiting in the car for news about Katie, one of our pet chickens who had taken sick a few days before. In these times of social distancing, a vet tech comes out to the parking lot to take your pet, then the vet calls you to discuss symptoms and treatment.
A car pulled up a few empty spaces from us, and having nothing else to do, I noticed two passengers, a couple in perhaps their late forties. Through our slightly tinted glass, I watched the wife, who had been driving, make a brief call. She got out of the car and walked past the front entrance along the side of the building, perhaps to a back door. A petite Asian woman in jeans, she stood there alone clasping an elbow and waiting for the man.
Suddenly, a flood of weeping overtook her. She let loose a torrent of tears, her eyes anguished, her mouth agape, pacing blindly. When her husband came around the building’s corner, he walked close without hesitation and hugged her, her shoulders shaking with sobs. A door opened adjacent to them, and they went in.
A few minutes later, the wife came out again, her face stricken but now composed, carrying a small cardboard box that, in different circumstances, might have held perhaps four donuts. At first I imagined it contained her pet’s ashes, though later I realized her grief was too raw for that. She got in the car’s driver seat, holding the box near to her heart so I could still see it through the glass.
A minute or so later her husband emerged from the back door carrying a bright yellow canvas animal transport case. There was nothing inside it.
Just before he rounded the corner where his wife would be able see him, he stopped. He stood staring at the pavement immediately in front of him, holding that empty case, his expression laden with heaviness, a private darkness. Then he raised his face toward the open sky with a look that spoke of prayers or messages to the dead. Seconds passed. Finally, his body caving slightly with surrender, he stepped into his wife’s view and climbed briskly into the car. She handed him the box, but the car didn’t move. Rather, they appeared to be staring at something on the center console, and I wondered momentarily whether they’d perhaps opened the box. But no. I next saw his head dip in such a way that I knew he was kissing her hand, and I realized it was their two hands, joined in grief, at which they’d been staring for those moments.
Only after she’d driven off did I notice a sign indicating that this vet treated neither cats or dogs. It had been a bird. The couple’s bird had died — a parrot, a cockatiel, a perhaps just a budgie — one they’d lived with perhaps for many years and both loved as if it were a child.
I love this couple now because I was randomly granted a glimpse into their hearts. I got to witness the power of their love — deeply private love for a small creature that had somehow, when it lived, embodied their love for one another. I can see them talking to the bird in the morning sunlight of their bright, plant-filled kitchen, and the bird responding with that crisp, chipper regard my budgie always showed me. Birds do bond more than most people realize.
But these two also taught me a lesson about myself and how coldly I “other” my fellow humans. As much as I like to think my default state is loving kindness for all, it’s actually competition, judgement, and stereotyping.
When they first drove up, I was bummed because their animal might take priority over my chicken, such that my son and I would have to wait even longer in the lot. I also noticed their car was newer and nicer than mine and wrote them off as materialistic eastsiders (some suburbs to the east of Lake Washington, where Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos reside, are wealthy). “I don’t care about your fancy car!” I thought with automatic disdain.
Worse still, when I saw their ethnicity, I felt surprised that the woman was doing the driving and phoning. I’m most ashamed of this: having no clue how many generations behind them were straight-up American, I assumed they’d take on roles dictated by the patriarchy of many Asian cultures — which I generalize as less open to gender equality.
Once I saw the woman’s grief, I dropped all assumptions and became free to love her. I saw not an “other” but another version of me, a fellow consciousness, a pilot navigating as best she could through life’s opposing winds of love and fear.
But I still judged the man. Only when I saw his moments alone did I realize his “being strong” for her was a choice made from love, not because he’d loved their pet any less.
I’ll Try Harder
Maintaining an attitude of loving kindness is no easy feat, particularly in contemporary culture. Our media is sheer poison. It’s an industry that capitalizes on stirring up fear and posits itself as a wellspring of defensive wisdom against a hostile, deceptive, and cruel world. Friends and acquaintances shaped by this constant flow of negativity view the world as a grim and corrupt place. They view other people as flat characters motivated by purely selfish and simplistic impulses, while only they themselves are deeply complex and sensitive beings. Clearly I, too, am often blinded by similar assumptions.
Thank you, grieving couple, for reminding me that every heart is individual, that every life is a tremendous mosaic of experiences from childhood until today, and that in essence we are all one. Your little bird, and all the love you gave it, is with god.