People can have many mentors and inspirations in their lifetime. And although from grade school through college — and even into my professional career — I have many who have helped me get to where I am today, the person who first encouraged me is my mother.
In school, she loved to paint and draw but didn’t take her artistic ability further than that. After high school she went to school to become a seamstress and then, after she married my dad, they ran a small service station together.
I remember when I drew as a child, mostly copying the pictures from my comic books, she encouraged me rather than thinking it was a waste of time, as some parents may have. I recall that she even showed me how to draw a profile of a face using inverted number sevens.
In my senior year of high school, she helped me get into a graphic arts/printing program at an ROP school in Sacramento and then encouraged me to continue my training at a community college. Although I switched paths to photography and have had other mentors and inspirations, I can trace my artistic sensibilities back to my mother.
My mom has dementia now. Her forgetfulness started out slowly, and, looking back, she was able to cover it up. But in the past few years it has gotten worse and worse. Her short-term memory is the worst. While she can still remember people, places and events from the past, she has difficulty forming new memories. She became easily confused, becoming lost while driving on more than one occasion. She forgot to pay her bills and take care of her yard. And then she often would forget to eat. Her weight dropped to about 100 pounds. Finally, we found an assisted-care facility and moved her out of her house in rural Walnut Grove. She’s still confused, and although she’s lived there for several months now, she believes that it’s been only a few days at the most. Now I stop by to check on the old house and pick up the mail a few times a week.
When my dad was alive, he would mow the nearly half-acre worth of lawn religiously. He’s been gone nearly 15 years now, and in the past few years my mom just couldn’t maintain it. Over the winter I hired a guy to pull out the dead trees and shrubs and level what was once a thriving garden. I thought it would be like starting out from scratch and easier to maintain.
The mild winter and relatively wet spring caused the weeds to grow seemingly exponentially. I have a small cordless electric lawn mower that is good enough for my small suburban lot but is totally inadequate for the jungle that my mom’s home had become.
By the time I finally broke down and bought a self-propelled gas-powered lawn mower, the weeds were even fiercer. The yard almost had a life of its own. It was an overcast morning when I attacked the lawn with the new mower. Although the yard looked level at first glance, the tall grass concealed the ruts left by the backhoe that the guy used to clear the yard. Even with my new machine it was still tough and slow going. What I expected to be a half-hour of mowing turned into an hour of work, and then was headed into a second hour.
Then the darkened sky started to sprinkle, which made the grass thicker and even harder to mow. It felt like I was trying to clear the Amazon rainforest with a pair of scissors. I cursed the fact that my father was gone; he wouldn’t have let the yard get this bad. I cursed the disease that had taken my mom’s mind and memory. And, most of all, I cursed myself for thinking thoughts that a good son isn’t supposed to think.
Somewhere amongst the drone of the mower, I looked up from my task for a moment and saw an apple tree. I remember as a kid eating fruit from it. Droplets from the light rain had settled on its leaves like tiny glistening jewels. I stopped the mower and took a greater look around. From the grass to the weeds, from the leaves to flowers, the beauty of the gentle rain touched everything around me.
“Namu Amida Butsu” are words that Jodo Shinsu Buddhists say (some other sects do, as well). It means “I take refuge in Buddha.” My wife and I once asked Rinban Bob Oshita (who officiated at our wedding) about the phrase’s meaning. He said that we recite it in hopes that we see the universal truth of all things. Not how we want or hoped them to be, but to see things as they truly are.
I had worked up a sweat in my labors in my mom’s yard, and the light rain cooled me off and was welcome now. I said “Namu Amida Butsu” quietly in my head. Then I took a break from my work, went to my car to retrieve my camera and began taking pictures of the natural beauty of the raindrops surrounding me.