A BLOW TO THE STOMACH

Photo by Monika Winkelmann

Usually I feel on top of things. I don’t mean that literally, like Eve sitting on top of a tall pile consisting of spring, teaching, writing, walking, cooking, caregiving, organizing, or doing laundry. I mean that life fits into a schematic that’s familiar, clear, orderly, with rules, and often centered around me.

And then a photo comes up, like the one above posted on Facebook by Monika Winkelmann, and it’s as if someone punched me in the stomach.

You look and you look, and you can’t believe your eyes. Did he really look so good once? Did he really look so happy, so engaged, so interested? So THERE?

Did he really have that sturdiness I always noticed, the strong body, big shoulders, ruddy face, alive eyes? The self-containment that, to those who knew him closely, could explode with new ideas and activity at any moment?

Is it the same man?

This one photo is worth 10,000 words about changing causes and conditions, 100,000 words about karma. Who cares about any of that? Look at the flush on his cheeks, the high, pulsing forehead, the combination of humor and watchfulness in the eyes.

The photo lies in my files next to the photo I took of the wound on the bridge of the Man’s nose over the weekend, the one I sent to the surgeon in Springfield, suggesting that the wound may be closing after all (contrary to the surgeon’s estimate) and maybe, just maybe, we could avoid a 4th surgical procedure. Everything is so much thinner and narrower. A full face seeking to become a profile.

No, don’t talk to me about changing conditions or impermanence, because words just get in the way of that punch in the belly, the sudden, stunned inhale. I have never gotten used to seeing Bernie post-stroke; there hasn’t been a morning since that day in January 2016 when he walked to the hallway, I looked up and nonchalantly thought: Oh, that’s Bernie, as if it’s the same man I’ve known since 1985. There’s no new normal to which my brain can condition itself, only the punch in the belly.

And it’s important to feel the punch, not to roll around in words and thoughts but to feel the fast pulse at the loud dropping of a cane upstairs or the way the air exploded when he fell Friday night, dropping across the wheelchair and over the futon arm till I blocked his fall with my body, sending the table with wheels crashing towards the closet.

Do you know what courage this man has? The courage to take one labored step after another, make his breakfast slowly—get the cereal from the closet, open envelope with one hand, get bowl from closet, empty cereal in bowl, open refrigerator, get milk container and open with one hand, pour into bowl, put hot cereal in the microwave, careful with the heat when you take it out, scoop out peanut butter, unpeel banana with one hand, slice, put into bowl, bring bowl verrrry slowly to table, go back, make coffee, bring to table—all with one fucking hand.

Walk carefully, very carefully, the uneven terrain of a new spring earth and even take a seat in the sun for a short while. Go to your desk, the place where you worked for so many years, talked to so many people. Go to the exercise mat and exercise. Go upstairs to rest. At dinner face the question: How was your day?

OK, you say. OK is your code word. Code for what, I don’t know, you never told me.

Then ask me: And how was your day, Eve?

Fine, I say. Fine is my code word for: Today, in one day, I’ve been to the mountain and I’ve been to the valley, Bernie. Today, in one day, I heard the birds in the morning and the deep, sad sigh you sometimes make when you’re asleep. Today, all in one day, I laughed with Rami about something and a few hours later removed a tick from your right leg that you can’t feel because you can’t feel anything there. I found it because you leave your right leg out from under the blanket, not feeling the cold air coming through the window.

Every day is like one of those wide-panorama photos where you aim the camera from one wide angle to the opposite side and follow the arrow, only I have no arrow to follow, just sun and clouds sun and clouds sun and clouds flickering by so fast I’ll never catch up.

Monika’s photo, I believe, is from one of our bearing witness retreats. Which one was it? What year?

How do you think it went? I’d ask you time and time again after each retreat. OK, you’d reply. You? Fine, I’d say.