REMEMBRANCES

The other day I dusted all the books in the tall bookcase in my bedroom, as well as the top of it, where I had stacks of magazines. When I noticed that the dust seemed to be irritating my throat, I threw open both windows for ventilation, but within a few hours my throat was painfully sore and my sinuses stinging. I figured it was an allergic reaction and would wear off in a few hours. No such luck—by bedtime my nose was flowing like a faucet being abruptly turned on and off, pouring down my face without warning before I could reach the Kleenex box. The next day I was even worse, so I couldn’t attend the last meeting of my second bereavement group to present my memorial of Earl.

I’d been feeling genuinely happy as I dusted and packed the pileup of magazines into boxes that afternoon. Ella was vacationing in L.A., visiting her mom and brothers, while I tidied up and finished old household projects before next Sunday’s meditation at our place. We’d agreed to host mid-month meetings that Sara would lead, several of us in the group feeling we need additional prodding to stay in touch with our Higher Power. And what I was thinking as I worked was that now that my memoir was written, I didn’t have to hold the pain of my life anymore—because my memoir was holding it for me.

At Chris’s suggestion over the phone, I gathered a number of vignettes I’d written about Earl for the group to read out loud that evening, as well as copies of the photographs I’d taken off his walls and snapshots of his paintings—Betsy was going to drop by for them on her way. And there was something so apt about my memorial taking this form that I was almost glad it had turned out this way, as I lay languishing on the sofa, leaving Kleenexes stuck up my nose when it got too pointlessly tedious to keep blowing. I’d written a memoir—and now my writing was speaking for me, as it should.

I thought about coming across that newspaper review last summer of a children’s book that had the same premise as Sir Little Fool and the Skeptical Princess—which had seemed at the time like another cruel twist of fate and had precipitated my writing my memoir in the first place. That was the prompting I needed to write about my outings with Earl, too, and to finally begin to set down the stories he told me. Early on in our friendship, I’d realized I was going to hear his anecdotes more—probably lots more—than once, and I decided not to make an effort to remember the details. That was one way, I thought, my bad memory could actually serve me well—it would be more fun for both of us if I didn’t remember too much. But once I started my memoir, I began to record everything Earl told me about his life. Weird as it may sound, I sometimes stroke the pages I’ve written about him now, grateful for these vivid—even palpable —remembrances, recognizing at last that happening upon that review was no cruel twist of fate but an incomparable blessing in disguise.

HARD STUFF

One evening I told my second grief group the hard stuff—the things I still felt anxious and guilty about. I’d had moments with Earl, I admitted, when I’d felt afraid of the future, about his aging and inevitable deterioration—especially after my half-aunt Margret’s elderly husband had several devastating strokes and was left barely able to talk; she’d been tending him for several years now. I had to keep reminding myself, I said, that Earl had dreaded deteriorating too and would have been relieved if he could have known this was something he would be spared.

Then I told them what Pippa had said about his being lonely—her opinion that if he’d had a love interest, it would have given him something to live for. I said I felt so bad that I couldn’t be that person for Earl and yet perhaps hadn’t left room for someone who could—because I’d enjoyed being the focus of his attention, glad I didn’t have a rival. I realized then that on some level I was afraid that Earl had intuited all this and so hadn’t gone looking—that in this way I might have hastened his death.

“There are many kinds of love,” John said simply. “And it’s obvious you two really loved each other.” And as his words have settled in, I’ve begun to understand that love, whatever its configuration, is always something to celebrate.

PROMONTORY

I dreamed Earl and I walked down to the edge of a cliff, then leaned over a short railing to peer down at the surf below. The breakers were huge, like nothing we’d ever seen before. “Wow!” Earl exclaimed, awed, which pleased me—I was delighted he was enjoying himself. “Let me check the posts,” I said, worried that the railing we were leaning against might give way—and, sure enough, I was able to lift up the nearest one, which was only barely anchored in the ground.

Then I lost my balance and pitched off the promontory. I’m not sure what happened next. I may have hit the water, though I don’t recall getting wet—or landed on an outcropping of rock. In any case, I wasn’t hurt and remember being surprised that the sea was much calmer than it had seemed.

Then I was on the observation deck of a boat that was sailing along the coast. I kept thinking I should go looking for Earl to let him know I was OK, but I didn’t want to miss the scenery we were passing—crags of rock jutting out of the ocean and small islands.

I struck up a conversation with a young woman who told me she was an actress and had done “the coast circuit”—and how much fun it had been, staying in homey little motels or bed-and-breakfasts. “It sounds like it would be,” I said, “as long as you liked the people you were working with.”

In the meantime, I continued to fret about Earl, supposing he’d gone back to where we’d parked the truck to rendezvous with me.

When we docked on an island, the actress got off the boat and started off through a dark wood. Following her, I accidentally stepped in the glowing embers of a campfire. Feeling a fiery sensation in one of my shoes, I figured an ash must have fallen into it. I thought I could snuff it out if I kept going, but the pain persisted—it was then I realized the ground beneath me was all live coals.

The last thing I remember was being back on the boat—I must have been half awake—knowing that Earl was dead and that I couldn’t rendezvous with him, that we would never be together again. I felt a piercing sadness then that was strangely different from my waking grief, though I couldn’t explain how.

KEEP ASKING…

For the last couple of monthly meditations, we’ve met in a larger room downstairs in Mandana House, since more people have started to come again. But the room smells of mildew, and people passing on the walkway outside keep sticking their heads in curiously even after the lights are turned out. I feel grumpy about the whole thing and wish we could go back to the cozier room upstairs.

When I brought down a pillow for my head from the old room before the meditation tonight, Hamil was talking quietly to Ella, his back turned to me, so I couldn’t hear what he was saying. Suddenly I felt shut out, as though he were doing it on purpose, as though I were being rejected—an old state of mind I still sink into sometimes. And my next feeling was sadness that the one person to whom I was special—always on the top of his list—was gone forever.

When Sarah suggests, midway through the meditation, that we might have something we want to say to our Higher Power, I envision being with my grandmother in a garden, sitting back to back, talking. Then I think, “There aren’t any gardens in the afterlife—if there is an afterlife—gardens are material.” I feel foolish, all my imagery contrived and false. When I used to picture a healing light or my grandmother’s loving presence, tears would well in my eyes—I would feel deep grief, a softening, relief, release—and gratitude. But since Earl’s death I don’t experience these things. Instead, when I imagine Earl reassuring me that he’s still with me in spirit, I’m liable to retort angrily, “Yeah, and what good does that do me?”

“If you have a problem you’re tired of dealing with, ask your Higher Power to fix it—not necessarily to give you more wisdom or strength or courage but to take over and fix it. And if you feel you can’t trust your Higher Power to fix it, ask Him to fix that,” says Sarah.

“OK, Higher Power,” I think blackly, “fix my attitude—I’d like to see you try.”

“What is it your Higher Power most appreciates about you? If you don’t know, pretend you do,” she says.

I can’t think of a thing.

After the meditation, I just lie there on the shikibuton rather than sit up to look at the other people.

One of the newcomers comments that when she imagined herself in the presence of her Higher Power, she thought of Him behind her, kneeing her at the back of her legs playfully, reminding her to lighten up. “I liked the fact that after you invited us to feel whatever was weighing the heaviest on us, you suggested that we be gentle with ourselves. I’ve been delving into a lot of painful feelings lately, and my problem is I don’t know when to stay with them and when to give myself a break.”

During a pause, I consider whether there’s anything I want to say—and decide there isn’t. For the last two sessions I haven’t wanted to talk afterwards. The last thing I remember sharing is that a friend of mine had just died. During one of these meditations, I remember, I had to keep opening my eyes to remind myself I was surrounded by people, I felt so desperately alone when I had them closed.

The newcomer says she wonders how to “catharsize”—that’s a new one, I think—difficult feelings, like anger.

“Your Higher Power will let you know,” Sarah answers, then tells us how Elizabeth Kubler-Ross used to carry a length of rubber hose in her purse with which she beat pillows when she got furious or frustrated with hospital administrators or staff.

Later Sarah explains how she herself deals with painful feelings: “I try to hold the pain rather than push it away or act it out. Then I try to hold the experience of my Higher Power’s compassion and invite Him or Her to share my pain with me. I go back and forth between these two states of mind, trying to make the intervals smaller and smaller, until I can hold them both at the same time.”

“When I’m in a lot of pain,” another newcomer says, “it helps to remind myself that I’m bigger than even my worst feelings—that I contain them, they don’t contain me. If they were bigger than me, I wouldn’t be here, would I?”

“In the movie Sybil,” Jobie muses, “Sybil’s therapist leads her through a number of guided meditations to get to know her various selves. The self she keeps putting off meeting is the angry one, she’s so afraid to confront her. But when she finally does, all she sees is a hurt little girl standing behind a tree.” There’s a murmur of response throughout the room. “I just wanted to throw that out there.”

“Well, it’s a good toss,” says the latecomer.

“Yeah, sounds like you scored some points with that one,” Sarah chuckles.

At another point in the discussion, Sarah tells us she first started leading these meditations five or six years ago—though for the first year or two, she often had only one or two attendees. “But she didn’t give up,” I think, impressed.

“I don’t have a Higher Power,” says Hamil. “I guess the experiences I’ve had in life make it hard for me to believe in one. Maybe my Higher Power’s on strike—at least, there seems to be some kind of labor dispute going on.”

“I don’t experience a Higher Power who is critical or judgmental like you used to,” I tell Sarah, after most of the others have left. “I just experience an absence.” I’m aware of feeling frustrated, that I haven’t gotten whatever it is I need, and I keep wondering if there’s something I’m supposed to do to get it.

                                                                               …

Sarah and Ella and I are standing in front of Mandana House a few minutes later; like Linus in “Peanuts,” I’m clutching the car blanket I always take to the meditation. It’s a crisp night with more than the usual smattering of stars.

“Have you always believed in a Higher Power?” I ask Sarah.

She tells us that she didn’t have any notion of God at all as a child—and how excited she was, at age twelve, when she finally got the concept. “All this—and God too!” she’d marveled. Years later, after a failed relationship with a man, she says, since she’d been raised on operas in which the heroines always retreated to convents after getting their hearts broken (her father was a conductor), that’s what she did for four months. If she’d been raised on country western music, she grinned, she would probably have spent her nights drinking in bars and picking up one-night stands.

At the convent, she found when she read scripture that she had a powerful emotional response to certain passages, like the one where God called Abraham his “friend.” “I want God to think of me as His friend,” she told one of the sisters. “Your longing is the voice of God talking to you,” the sister explained. “There is a place in everyone’s heart where they touch God, where they are one with Him—or Her—and God is talking to us all the time. Sometimes He speaks to us through people, animals, nature, even priests,” the sister had said wryly. “All you have to do is listen for His voice.” “For me,” says Sarah, “this was difficult. Of all the voices in my head, a lot of the time I couldn’t figure out which was God’s. ‘If it sounds like your father, it isn’t God,’ the sister told me.”

It took her longer to realize if it sounded like her mother, it wasn’t God either. Her mother used to tell her she was a good and kind person when she did exactly what she was told, then that she was cruel and selfish when she didn’t, so she didn’t know what to believe about herself. “It took me a long time to trust God,” she says. “I used to be afraid that He was going to pull the rug out from under me, just like my mother did.”

In a certain Christian group she once belonged to, the things she used to say infuriated the elders, she admits. At the time she was physically handicapped—homeless and in pain. “God was my only life-line back then,” she says. “I had to rely on Him because there wasn’t anybody else. He was my only means of survival. Today when the sisters tell me that I’m the servant of God, I insist He’s my servant—that God has made it possible in my life to do what I love—which is to be a spiritual advisor. I demand a lot of God,” she laughs. “For years I tried to be humble, but it just wasn’t me…so I finally gave up. You don’t have to be humble, anyway, I realized. God accepts us just the way we are. I like to think that the thing God most appreciates about me is my fearlessness in sharing all of who I am with Him.”

                                                                          …

As Ella and I are driving home, I remember Sara saying once, “Keep asking till your heart feels satisfied.” And for the moment, at least, I realize that it does.

ARTIFICIAL MEANS

This morning I woke up before dawn, let my mind churn for an hour, then had some hot milk and tried to go back to sleep. My feet were cold, but, too tired to get up again and give them a hot soak in the tub, I tucked one, then the other, in the crook of the opposite knee to warm them up, a bit of a contortion. I woke up next at noon, knowing there was a way Earl might have chosen his death, after all.

We’d had jocular arguments about it, in fact. Earl would claim he didn’t believe in using any artificial means to prolong life—that included everything from triple bypasses and organ transplants to vaccines and antibiotics. “Antibiotics?” I’d glower at him, with a little—real—annoyance. “But then I wouldn’t be alive!” He’d insist that survival of the fittest shouldn’t be interfered with. “But we’d lose some of our best and brightest,” I’d persist. “So much the better,” he’d grin. “Smart people have gotten us into the predicament we’re in now. I’d rather we go back to clubbing each other than launching nuclear weapons.”

So I’m as sure as I can be that if Earl woke up the night he died and knew he was having a heart attack, he wouldn’t have called out to Pippa—he wouldn’t have asked her to call for an ambulance. His sister had recently gone through hip replacement surgery and had a stroke on the operating table. She’d lost her speech and was still trying to recover it while continuing to have blackouts—post-stroke epilepsy. And his father had suffered one heart attack after another. No, he wouldn’t have called out to Pippa, I consider, or done anything that might have bought him a few more months or years of life. He would have let nature take her course, as she did.

NEVER AGAIN

Every January, I feel full of fervor and resolve about the new year and energetically launch myself into new projects while dispatching with old ones. This past January, to my surprise, was no different, despite Earl’s death.

A few nights ago I went over to his house and took down from the walls several large framed photos of him—as an Army Air Corps pilot at nineteen, as a middle-aged gardener standing alongside his eight-foot corn, as an elderly painter at his easel. The ones that were too large to scan into my computer I copied at Copy Central. I also decided to take two mementos—without anyone’s permission, since no one was on hand to give it to me, anyway—a mug with the signatures of famous artists…and a pair of Earl’s red suspenders that reminded me practically more than anything else of him.

Then yesterday I must have spent a couple of hours in…well, I was going to say Payless, but then it became Rite Aid, and now, apparently, it’s Long’s—choosing frames for my photocopies of Earl, as well as my snapshots of Arielle and Wesley. Another day I bought three large plants for our apartment, hauling them in and out of the car, indifferent to the pain in my back. And all the while, I kept asking myself how I was managing so well. Whenever I felt a sadness about Earl welling up, I’d just imagine him with me, holding my hand.

The nights were another matter, however. I’d wake up before dawn feeling desperately alone—and grapple with issues of faith… If I were to choose a life after death for Earl and me, what would it be? I asked myself. Would I like to think of Earl as spirit or angel, or merged with an ”oversoul,” or awaiting reincarnation? I’d prefer him to be reincarnated, I decided, provided I would get to know him again in this life or the next.

I’d said in my first bereavement group that I didn’t expect to feel anger at Earl. For one thing, Andrea had told me there was a high correlation between fathers and sons when it came to heart conditions, and I knew Earl’s father had died after his fourth heart attack in his mid fifties. So I figured Earl was lucky to have lived to seventy-five—and that I was lucky to have had the eight years I did with him.

But two nights ago, after I collected the photos from his house, I suddenly did feel angry at him for leaving me. When I imagined him reaching out his hand to take mine, I pushed him away, mad at him for not taking better care of himself so he could have lived longer—for not exercising, which I kept urging him to do, and for drinking too much beer and wine, as I belatedly learned from Pippa. Right then, none of the things I’d been telling myself mattered—about the way he died being a blessing and about us being lucky to have had the time we did. Later in bed, I sobbed about the beautiful boy in the army photos who was gone forever—and cried because I would never see Earl again in this life.

BLESSING

“Earl had a good death,” I said to Bonny on the phone one evening. “That’s one of the things that makes it easier for me to accept. He died the way he would have wanted to.” “He died the way we all want to!” she exclaimed. “He used to say,” his sister had commented, “that before he’d waste away from cancer or lose his mind to Alzheimer’s, he’d drive his car off a cliff.”

Earl had been trying for years to get me to learn to drive a stick-shift. I knew he was worried something might happen to him behind the wheel—a heart attack or stroke—and he wanted me to be able to take over. His death finally brought home to me how immanent a danger this was, crowding my mind with alternative even worse case scenarios. Rather than dying in his sleep, he could have died behind the wheel with me in the passenger seat, in which case I might be dead, too. If he’d survived a crash and I didn’t, he might have felt overwhelmed with guilt. If he’d had a fatal heart attack on some trail, trying to keep up with me, I would have wound up the guilt-ridden one. Or if he’d had a heart attack or stroke he could have recovered from if I’d been able to get help fast enough, but, unable to drive his truck or MG, I couldn’t—I would never have been able to forgive myself.

As much as I miss him, I’m coming to understand that it was a blessing for both of us that he died the way he did.

IRIS

Driving back from Earl’s house the other night, I saw radiant cumulous clouds towering above the Berkeley hills, so staggeringly lofty they took my breath away. “Oh, Earl,” I thought, “If only you could see this!”

                                                                             …

In my bereavement group that evening, I tracked my feelings with crayons—coloring a yellow patch of light in the middle of my paper for that moment of elation. Then the darkness of loss circumscribing it—I found myself ferociously circling that narrowing bright patch with a black crayon, hardly able to stop, feeling like the pain of Earl’s death would never let up but would remain with me for the rest of my life. Then I was scribbling blood, red crayon zigzagging—splattering and pooling everywhere—obliterating everything else, I was so angry at the fact of mortality. And finally, a philosophic impulse, green sprouting from a pool of blood, a flower blooming—out of death, birth, the beginning of a new cycle.

                                                                              …

Today felt, though it’s still January, like the first day of spring. The calla lilies were just starting to bloom in my neighbors’ gardens as I drove home from my doctor’s appointment, and, along a curb, I saw my first iris of the New Millenium.

BELATED GIFTS

I’m now in two bereavement groups, sponsored by different organizations. When I told the psychologist doing the intake interview for the second group that I was thinking of taking the two simultaneously, he said, “Oh, no! You can take them sequentially but not together—that would be too intense. No, I don’t think the leaders would permit it.” I went home furious at him for thinking, like so many of his ilk, that he knew better than I did what I could and couldn’t handle—and at myself for my misplaced candor. I was supposed to call him the next morning to let him know which group I’d settled on. Instead I left a quietly emphatic message that after careful consideration, I was quite clear that I wanted to take them both concurrently. When I found out a day or two later that, coincidentally, my friend Betsy was going to be in the second group, it felt like fate.

My first group was lead by Birgitte, a pretty blond with a gentle voice and a Scandinavian accent. She’d had a stroke, limped, and couldn’t use her left hand. We met in a slightly depressing little room in the Bethlehem Parish House, sat on metal folding chairs, and helped ourselves to teabags and hot water from a thermos with a spout at the center of our circle. Birgitte led us through brief meditations, read inspirational poems and quotes, and had us do a little art and writing therapy (when we had to write a letter to our deceased loved one, we were all in tears by the end of the exercise). Everyone in the group had lost a parent, except me—some had even nursed them through terminal illnesses.

My second group met in a cozy therapist’s office in a handsome old residence near Lake Merritt, sat more comfortably on love seats or director’s chairs, brought in photos and mementos that we placed on an altar, and did half-hour memorial presentations of the loved ones we’d lost. We had two leaders—Chris, whose office it was, and John, who was so tender-hearted he often teared up over our stories. In that group, too, everybody but me had lost a parent—actually, in one case it was a parent-in-law and other relatives in a car accident.

One evening I brought two photos of Earl in silver frames to my second group. I’d finally finished some unfinished business, I said. Then I explained how on Christmas Eve I’d promised myself to buy Earl two beautiful frames as belated Christmas presents. Since his death, I’d been scouring photography and gift shops. “These are the frames I would have given Earl if he’d lived,” I said, placing them on the altar. In one picture he was bearded, in his red shirt and red suspenders, pouring himself a glass of wine under the boughs of a tree. In the other he was clean-shaven, in sunglasses and a windbreaker, a snapshot I’d taken of him up on Grizzly Peak Boulevard when we’d stopped to look at a sweeping view of Oakland, the bay dazzling in the late afternoon light. Then I told them about the astonishing symbolism that I recognized later of the gifts I had given him—two pet dishes with angel cats and two photographs of a sunset, the second capturing the last brief moments of light.

REMINDERS

Everything reminds me of Earl—my beat-up old Reeboks, still scuffed from our last trip to the beach; my threadbare black jeans, the only pair that still fits me, which finally split irreparably in the seat while I was prying myself out of the MG. His Christmas gifts to me, The Art of Maurice Sendak and Lighthouses, which have become our coffee table books.

                                                                         …

Tuesday, I dropped by Earl’s house to take pictures of the paintings on his walls.

“Doesn’t it feel really weird to be in here,” Pippa asked me, “in Earl’s inner sanctum?” I was searching around his bedroom for the album I gave him for his birthday. His family had said they couldn’t find it—but there it was, still in its box, in the middle of his desk. To one side in a cigar box were the pictures I took on our outings—except for the sunset card. It didn’t feel weird, I realized, because his bedroom didn’t remind me of him—I’d never been in it, except when his sister was sorting through his things and showed me a shopping bag full of sixty-one pairs of socks. “That’s the side of the bed I found him on,” Pippa said, “where you’re sitting now.” A part of me wished I’d found him then, cold and still, to help me know—really know—that he was gone.