How The American Book of the Dead Saved My Life
by Matthew Lawrence

September 1, 2009

I was aware there were stages of grief, and I was pretty sure there were seven. Three I remembered well: denial, anger and acceptance… then maybe also… remorse or guilt? Anyway, at the age of 21, I thought they were all total bullshit. Finding out what the stages were, and where I landed on that progression was not on my personal to-do list.

I knew of these grieving stages because of my friends' mothers. Many of them, wanting to do their part after my mom had died, had given me self-help books. Those books usually came in tandem with lasagna, both of which I resented greatly. As if a young man whose life had just been leveled could possibly sit around and read – or would be sated by some lame potluck dish. These books accumulated, commingling with my own books for several years, until one day, after exhaustion from moving them around with me, spines uncracked, I threw them all away. None of those ladies had understood me when my mom was alive – and they certainly did not in her death. How dare they tell me, “It will take time,” and give me a book about grief, with sincerity? I did not want time to heal this wound. Time is not real. My mother was real. And she was gone and there was nothing I could do about it.

My mother had raised me and my younger brother in a suburb of Chicago. From my perspective, she seemed to dedicate her life to her sons and to her career. My father had left the family very early on, and she never had a significant boyfriend – or really any good friends – that I can remember. Although she didn't particularly prefer the town we grew up in, alienated as she was by the nuclear families and upper-upper-middle-class incomes, we remained in Glenview for the bulk of our formative years. I remember her saying that she liked the school district, and she was happy that we were getting a good education. Though I was not aware of it at the time, I can imagine now that it must have been difficult for her to stand on the sidelines of our soccer games, alone. With no one to share the joy of watching her boys, she had to contain it, until she could pour it over us when we got home.

For the first two years, my mother's death was visible to me everywhere. When I saw a black plastic bag, a helicopter, an ambulance, a comforter, Wisconsin, a Ford Explorer, a mother and her son; when I spoke with my family, was alone, or at a party, when I woke up, before I had a chance to open my eyes, and as I fell asleep. The absence of her presence was inescapable. I lost my best friend, and the only person who really knew me. All of these feelings and associations which were so present for me were invisible to everyone around me, except for my brother. Like on an acid trip, unable to form sentences, we would check in with each other: “...this is really fucked up... ” I would say, “...all of this…”, and I would trail off, unable to synthesize the reality of living without her. He would reply, “I know”; “I really miss her…” His eyes would well, and he would trail off. Maybe he was too terrified to speak his mind. He was 16 at the time of the accident, and the driver of the Ford Explorer that rolled into a ditch. Both of us alone and unable to speak about how badly we hurt. Guilt and shame inexorably drew our grief together in silence.

I never thought I would be the person I became: withdrawn, guarded and using alcohol as a spade to dig my bed every night. These new feelings were deep, dark and overwhelming.

A little over two years after my mom's death, I had just gotten kicked out of college for maintaining a .02 grade point average. I rarely went to class or did any assignment for three consecutive semesters at Southern Illinois University. I moved back to Chicago, and my brother and I bought a condo in Wicker Park. It was in the green Dumpster in the alley that I finally unloaded all of those unread grief books, laughing at myself for having moved them around with me so many times. Shortly after our return to our hometown, I signed up to do the Minneapolis-to-Chicago AIDS Ride.

I did not know it at the time, but I think what was appealing about this bike ride was that I was going to be with 3,500 other people in grief. I was compelled by all the crying, sobbing, laughing, and breaking down, and the extreme close-up on death. This hysteria, which took place with men dressed in camisoles and frocks, only made it more appealing in some way – like a dream. While training for that ride, I met a man named Steve. We became friends quickly. In so many ways, Steve reminded me of my mother. He was thoughtful and irreverent. And everything he did looked perfect to me.

Eventually, Steve gave me a copy of The American Book of the Dead by E.J. Gold, a modernized, somewhat goofy translation of the approximately 1,200-year-old Tibetan Book of the Dead. My friend was aware of its cultlike status, and I think he was cautious about giving it to such a vulnerable young man – out of fear that I would not understand how to use it. But the ABD changed my relationship with death, and it changed my relationship with my mother. I found myself reading out loud to her everywhere I went. All of a sudden there was something constructive I could do for her – and in a way, with her. All of a sudden, time was not real or unreal; it was everything, and nothing. It was blowing my mind. I didn't totally get it, but I embraced it.

If the ABD had been introduced to me while my mom was alive, I would have thought it was a complete joke, and that E.J. Gold was a charlatan. As a teenager, I'd had some exposure to Eastern spirituality, and even tried meditating a few times, but it was not easy for me to sit still, and I would find myself mainly thinking about who I wanted to have sex with next, and how to get that to happen. I never would have imagined myself diving deeply into a tome called The American Book of the Dead. Now, however, this updated take on ancient wisdom was exactly what I needed to pull me out of the hole I was in. It was funny and trippy at the same time.

In the ABD, there are 49 "chambers" read over 49 days. They vary in length and intensity. It is said that while reading to the "voyager" (the soul who died), there is a connection in the room, as if the reader actuallly feels like there is someone on the other end of the line, someone who is listening to the instruction.

When a person decides to read the ABD "cycle," it is explained, there are a few supplemental artifacts required. It is recomended that the reader burn incense, and that a photograph of the "voyager" is kept close at hand during the reading. The contents of my kit while reading to my mother were as follows: the 30th Anniversary Edition of the book, a box of Sai Baba's Nag Champa incense, a book of matches from Soul Kitchen, a pair of Tibetan prayer bells – the kind attached with a leather rope – and my mother's Illinois drivers license, wrapped in cardboard and then aluminum foil, so it remained dark in between the readings. I carried these in my backpack wherever I went. I stopped drinking in the daytime so I could be sober when I read that evening's chamber. As specified in both the TBD and the ABD, I read out loud twice daily to my mother – guiding her through the transitions of the labyrinth.

The fact that her death had happened three years earlier seemed irrelevant. I would read to her at home, in a park, on the street, at the beach. And, in the middle of the the day, between readings, I would study that evening's chamber in silence while on the El, in preparation so I could read with conviction and understanding in the evening. The stated goal is for the reader to have the sincerity and conviction of one who is delivering instruction, not simply reciting. This is the most important thing we, the living, can do for the voyager, the dead; so you have to read it like you mean it, says the book.

Armed with this text, I felt my mom with me at all times. Some of the pain of her death began to dissipate. I was able to talk about her without totally losing it. The American Book of the Dead has floated around with me from house to house since then, and has been my handbook on life and death for almost 15 years. I find myself referring to it maybe once or twice a year.

A year ago, I got a call from a good friend, Ron. He told me he was dying of pancreatic cancer and had about two months to live. If I wanted to see him, I had better come over. When my wife and 1-year-old daughter and I went to his house, his wife, Zubin, was there, attending to him. He was totaling his possessions, doling out things, deciding which sister would get what. Zubin was in a silk robe floating on hope and sadness. She rolled joint after joint for her husband, who was in incredible pain. Ron had decided not to undergo chemotherapy. I desperately wanted to do something to help. When I asked If I could make his coffin, he scoffed (at this point he wasn't very nice anymore) as he told us he was going to be cremated. Zubin took care of his every need during those last weeks. He was awful to her. "Death is an ugly lover," she would say. Ron died in his bed, and Zubin was there to hold him. He stayed in his house wrapped in a white shroud for three days. His unshaven face peered out of the white wrap, his body was adorned with herbs from the garden, and thick incense filled the room.

I asked Zubin if she would be interested in delivering the instructions from The American Book of the Dead for Ronnie. She was more familiar with The Tibetan Book of the Dead (which I came to learn is actually called The Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State) but was willing to read the Americanized version, since, she said, we are not Tibetan, and Ronnie was a Jew. Plus, I told Zubin that the ABD had some funny parts, which might help our sadness. For example, in the 17th Chamber, the voyager is instructed to not seek suffering and despair in the powerful force of the "objective world"; the reader then asks for the "rolling thunder" of "misery and suffering" to be "transmuted to the karma-dissolving syllables 'Om-Ma-Me-Teg-Mi-Om'." Each one of the sylllables is used to bring the voyager closer to the beloved, and to close the portal of rebirth. Which seems very spiritual and reverent, until you realize you are chanting "Oh Mommy Take Me Home."

Now, as if going through a rite of passage, I found myself doing for Zubin what Steve had done for me so many years earlier. I wanted to get Zubin her own copy of the book, so I went online to Amazon to find an affordable used one. I noticed there were some reviews of the ABD on the site and, not being one to miss a good show, I stopped in for a look. It seemed bizarrely mundane to find online reviews of a book that had transformed my life. Thus far, I had never met anyone else besides Steve who even knew of this book's existence. And here, in the review tab on Amazon, 24 people had something they HAD to say about it. Mostly people were concerned about the authenticity of the author, uncomfortable with his sense of humor, and/or they condemned him as a "hack-guru." There were very desperate, earnest warnings, begging the curious to turn back. In some way, it was hard not to take the critiques of the book personally. Of course, The American Book of the Dead also had its share of defenders on Amazon. The folks in both camps seemed to have formed a little community together, like a bunch of people in a Twilight Zone episode, stuck with each other forever, fighting it out on a sideways elevator to nowhere.

Zubin read twice every day for Ron, and I joined her for the morning readings. I would arrive early, and we would have tea together. She would make us a wonderful, dark Earl Grey tea, to which she'd add honey that Ron had collected from all over the world. One day, I showed up and Zubin told me that Ron had "popped off" so we wouldn't need to continue with the readings. Zubin didn't say if she thought that Ronnie had been reborn or "merged with the heart of the Beloved" or what might have happened to him. I didn't pry. It wasn't really the point. It was still only a couple of weeks after his death. She was sad and would remain so for a long time to come. Selfishly, I was a little bummed that we weren't continuing. I was enjoying our mornings together, reading out loud to the dead. And, we never got to the 36th Chamber, my favorite.

All phenomena
is illusion
Neither attracted
nor repelled
Not making any
sudden moves
My habits will
carry me through

Fifteen years after my mother's death, I find my grief for her still forms the basis of my relationship to the world around me. And while I have gotten used to her absence, there are times when it feels like she is at my door, waiting to be let in as our next houseguest. This feeling is fantastic at one moment, and terrifying in the next. Which makes me wonder what it will be like when I'm dead. Will my thoughts be any more graceful without this clunky brain? Will I be able to recognize my mother, my self, Ronnie, my daughter, as the One Eternal and Infinite Being? Or will I be freaked out that I won't have my iPhone in any of my pockets?

Metaphysical questioning aside, nothing will change the fact that my brother and I lost our mom way too early in life. But The American Book of the Dead has been there to remind me that in this life, one powerful stage in healing from my grief is being able to laugh at the whole boggling matter of death and life.


Doo doo da doo doo mah nah mah nah

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