Monday, October 8, 2012

Martha Rosemary Ham

This is in dedication and memory of our friend Martha Ham...

This picture was taken during our BCF teachers’ retreat, on July 3rd, 2012.  We were in the Bumthang District, visiting a sacred place called Membarthso.  This is a beautiful spot where the Tang River channels through a hole in the rock , forming deep, swirling pools.  This is where Pema Lingpa, the sacred treasure revealer, plunged back into the treacherous current with a butter lamp to prove that his powers would prevent the flame from going out.  On this day Martha sat on a rock here above that spot, contemplating the deep secrets of her surroundings. (Photo and caption credit Martin Thorn)

Keep this in mind when in dire straights
Upon the vast plain of clinging to life’s appearances,
Surrounded by your emotions—the obscuring emotions—
You are about to be robbed of the supreme wealth—virtue.
            -Sheshen Gyaltsap, “The Great Medicine”

The Tibetan word for body is lu, which literally means “something that is left behind.” Lu refers to the fact that we abandon the body when we die, and then it disintegrates. On September 20th, our beloved friend and colleague, Martha Ham, left her body and began that most ultimate journey, whatever it is, that takes place when the soul departs it’s worldly wrapper. A joyful adventurer and fierce individualist, she will be forever remembered by all those who had the privilege of touching lives with her through this experience.
BCF director Nancy Strickland addressing Martha's students
Traditional Bhutanese cremation ceremony
At the age of 51, she came to Bhutan like the rest of us, bright with life, wide-eyed, wanting to live in beauty and support this country. She was one of the 15 newbies that came this year. The last time I saw her was over the summer break in Bumthang. She contracted a rare strain of E-Coli and fell subject to subsequent infection. She was transported from her Dzongkhag of Trashigang, the easternmost district of Bhutan, to the hospital in Mongar, only an hour away from me. There, her condition rapidly deteriorated. BCF had arranged to have her air-lifted out of Bhutan to India, but rain and heavy fog prevented the flight. People here say it was “so unlucky.” I would say tragic, and there are so many questions swirling around this situation and the circumstances of her death. I didn’t know she was even ill, let alone in critical condition, until the situation was beyond human control. I left school early that week when I found out, after lunch on Thursday, but didn’t make it in time. I got the news she had passed as I was waiting on the side of the road, trying to get a ride to see her.

Martha’s knowledge and belief of Buddhism was extensive. I’ve incidentally been reading literature that explores the foundations of Mahayana Buddhism and the practical applications of this path. I have read that our tendency to associate all experiences of suffering and pleasure with the notion of a body result in obscuring emotions; thus the human condition. Martha undoubtedly knew and may well have believed in this principal. These concepts resonate in my heart but do little to quell quizzical mind. This unforeseeable event, undeniably, “un-Buddhistly,” appears to me as quite sad. She left behind three brothers in Canada, and two nephews that she loved very dearly, who did not get to see or speak with her before her passing. I thank and appreciate the people who knew about her condition and were tirelessly with her until the very end, doing everything they could to help: Becky, Vicky, Ian, Scott, Sheal, and the office assistants of her school.

All grouped to honor and respect Martha's passing
The day of her passing, Thursday, Sept. 20th, Becky, Sheal, and Ashley were already in Mongar when I finally made it. Martin and Iman were on their way with Nancy and Nima from BCF, and arrived at about 1:00 a.m. after driving 14 hours straight. We all left in a convoy very early the next morning to take her body for cremation at the grounds in Rangjung, a 6-hour trip east of Mongar, back in the district where she lived. We picked up Scott and Tim on the way. Most of the high-ranking officials of the surrounding areas were in tow, and it seemed the whole eastern side of Bhutan had heard about it by the time we arrived and met Vicky and Ian later that day. The ceremony was tastefully done and very reverent, in traditional Bhutanese style. Her body was washed, wrapped, and discretely, carefully placed in a nest made of chopped wood, artfully covered and adorned with the customary ceremonial fabrics. An alter was made, offerings were given; prayers and chanting reverberated and undulated omnisciently throughout the entire ceremony. Then, the fire was lit, and Martha’s human remains joined her spirit as smoke and became infused into the open sky. It was humbling, beautiful. Principals, District Education Officers, Dashos, teachers, and students flooded the cremation grounds to show their respect and support. Martha’s brother was on the phone and got to hear the prayers and goings on. I appreciate the honor and veneration with which Martha and her family were treated. We have been assured the doctors did everything they could do, and they did it correctly. Even His Majesty himself wrote a kind letter of condolences to her family.
There were incidentally two cremation ceremonies happening simultaneously

Yet, it has been over two weeks and I am still in shock and quite incapable of completely processing, or even relating, it in a satisfactory way. I haven’t been able to write about it because I have not had power since last week; (thus no Internet) but I have also not had the words. Here is what I wrote in my journal as I sat on the side of the road there waiting to get to Mongar, after having just heard: “…she was so full of life, strong and energetic. Tough as nails, yet compassionate and kind to the core. She felt immediately familiar to me in a way not many do…it’s literally unbelievable.” It’s difficult to write more about this, to know what else to say, other than I pray for the healing of Martha’s family, and wish I could more eloquently and completely articulate the facts and feelings surrounding this unpredictable thing. All those who knew her will always remember Martha Ham. I am honored to have had the privilege to have known her, however briefly.

Fly high

Butter lamps lit in honor of 14 days of Martha's passing

 We love you, Martha


  1. Reidi,

    This is such a beautiful post. While reading your blog, my eyes became watery because I could easily relate to how you feel. Although it's been a few weeks now, I think about her death every day and I still feel like it's not real.

    Thank you for describing the ceremony because I wish that I would had been informed that they were going to cremate her body because I would have definitely attended:-(. May Martha rest in peace.

    Take care and stay strong. See you in a few weeks. Love ya!

  2. Gorgeous post Reidi We were there and I couldn't even come close to telling the details. I thank you and know we are still all trying to moving on and yet as you say "un-Buddhistly" not wanting to let go. Performing the ceremonies with my class each week has really helped me. We will light more butter lamps on Thursday and I was contacted yesterday by a friend in Bartsham who will add her name to the list that goes to the Dali Lama himself for prayers. An honour indeed but we still have a lot of healing to do all of us and most especially her brothers

  3. Reidi,
    I thank you so much for this post. I am from Montreal and took many Masters level classes with Martha at Bishops University. I just learned about her passing from the Bishop's Magazine I received in the mail today. Without any details, I "googled" her and found your blog entry. My heart aches. She was so full of life and was a true life-long learner. We shared many laughs and academic struggles, but she always had a smile on her face. May she rest in peace.
    Liane Brabant

  4. It is with great sadness I read this post about my friend Martha Ham. Martha was my Jr. Ranger Sub-froman at Moose Lake Jr Ranger camp 28 years ago. That summer Martha and I became quick friends. I have often looked for Martha by googling/Facebook. I was deeply saddened to read of her untimely passing.
    I am convinced if Martha and I met up today we would pick up just exactly where we left off.
    My heart ached when I read this post and I wept openly. I am sad about the loss of my friend and also so proud of the wonderful person that she continued to be.
    I thank you for letting me know exactly where my friend Martha Ham is today and no doubt she is lookinig down on all of us.
    Kate Clarke
    Kirkland Lake, Ontario