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I’m Here for the Both of Us Now

(Photo above courtesy of Mariel Festa)

Born and raised in New Jersey, Mariel Festa realizes that her connection with her mother is deeper than only this lifetime, it’s forever.

Growing up, my mom’s love for my brother and I was never in question. Anything I was going through, she was the first to know. If someone was rude to me at school, she would listen to everything I had to say about it and she would always have my back. I never had to worry because I could always tell her anything. She was, and still is, my best friend.

Telling secrets. Photo courtesy of Mariel Festa.

I didn’t notice it at first, but to any other person, my mom would have been considered a functioning alcoholic. Finding her passed out on the couch after coming home from school wasn’t unusual. It wasn’t until I got older and she didn’t have to watch my brother and I each moment that her drinking started to get really bad.

She stopped working and would drink for weeks on end, eventually receiving multiple DUI’s that she occasionally asked me to blow into the breathalyzer so she could drive. At times, I was afraid to even go to school because I didn’t know if she would be alive when I got home. I started writing her letters begging her to quit drinking and thought the only next step would be to cut her out of my life.

It was during this time that I was introduced to the Buddhist community in my neighborhood and tried chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo on a consistent basis. As I was chanting, I kept thinking about my mom and wondered, When is it appropriate to decide to give up on someone to also protect myself?

The possibility of her giving up drinking seemed impossible. I wasn’t pessimistic, but I felt like I had tried everything and nothing worked. But at my neighborhood Buddhist meeting, they strongly encouraged me to continue chanting for my mom’s happiness and, without explicitly saying it, they inspired me not to give up on her.

The one person I wanted to talk to was my mom, and the only person I could not talk to was also my mom.

I decided to invite her to a Buddhist meeting. Even though in the past, she was usually was too drunk to make it, she showed up. After a few meetings, she decided to start chanting herself! I was blown away.

My mom started chanting regularly and making some real positive changes in her life. Then suddenly, everything changed. She suffered a stroke, had sepsis, a deadly infection of the blood, and endocarditis, a dangerous heart inflammation. The prognosis was grave. Without surgery, my mom would die, but the surgery was so risky and her condition was so fragile that all we could do was wait until the hospital could find a surgeon willing to operate. In the meantime, my mom suffered two more strokes and an aneurysm, her kidneys went into complete failure, and she had a pacemaker implanted. The one person I wanted to talk to was my mom, and the only person I could not talk to was also my mom.

All of the stability I thought I had in my life was gone, and I felt alone for the first time. But with the support from others in my Buddhist neighborhood group, I decided that we would find the best surgeon no matter what. The next morning, my brother called to tell me they had found a surgeon. This particular surgeon worked at a world-renowned hospital and is one of the best in the country. I felt that these words from my Buddhist mentor Daisaku Ikeda rang so true:

When we change our inner determination, everything begins to move in a new direction. The moment we make a powerful resolve, every nerve and fiber in our being will immediately orient itself toward the fulfillment of that goal or desire. On the other hand, if we think, ‘This is never going to work out,’ then every cell in our body will be deflated and give up the fight. Hope, in this sense, is a decision.

Oct. 16, 2015, World Tribune, p. 6

Mariel and her mother (l-r). Photo courtesy of Mariel Festa.

The surgery, which was so risky, went perfectly. But the doctors told me to brace myself, because we would not know my mom’s mental status until after the surgery. When my mom opened her eyes, she looked at me and smiled for the first time since her surgery. I said, “Hi, Mommy, do you know it’s me?” She nodded, and I started to cry. Her kidney function returned to normal, and she was even able to sit up and hold a conversation.

The next two years with her were the best years of my life. She stopped drinking, and it felt like I had my best friend back. I would spoil her like crazy, buying her whatever she wanted. Eventually she gained enough strength to occasionally be able to leave the facility she lived in. We attended a Buddhist meeting, we went shopping, and we even had sleepovers at my new apartment.

The next two years with her were the best years of my life.

Looking back, I realize just how profound those moments were; it was like a closing ceremony on her life. On April 17, 2018, four weeks after receiving an unexpected diagnosis of stage 4 pancreatic cancer, my mother passed away suddenly. The pain that I felt in that moment is difficult to describe in words. I didn’t know if I could continue living without her. I told a fellow Buddhist that even becoming happy again felt like a betrayal to my mom. She responded quickly, asking, “How do you repay your debt of gratitude and show appreciation to your mom? Do you suffer endlessly?” Of course, the last thing I wanted was to disappoint my mom, and realized that suffering was not the answer. I thought, I may mess up things for myself, but I will not do that for my mother.

My mentor wrote about his relationship to his mentor, Josei Toda, after he had passed away, and it perfectly explains how I feel about my mom:

Josei Toda continues to live in my heart, where he sometimes keeps silent watch on what I do and sometimes wordlessly gives me counsel. Our lives have coalesced. We breathe together.

The New Human Revolution, vol. 22, pp. 46–47

Growing more comfortable in my own skin each day, I’m here for the both of us now, knowing that is my greatest treasure.

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