Bernie’s first gift to me when we came together as a couple was this statue of the Hindu goddess, Sarasvati. Her name refers mostly to certain rivers, at times standing for healing water, but Sarasvati can also refer to speech, the goddess of eloquence.
I gave Sarasvati away some years ago, and now she came back. She sits next to a drawing of Bernie done by our neighbor, the artist Jack Coughlin. That drawing is now at the center of my altar and receives incense and candlelight each morning, while Sarasvati is at his side. But one day—perhaps after Bernie’s 49th day, perhaps after the New Year—she’ll take her place at the center of the altar.
I think of my Bernie. I think of his Sarasvati. The two loved their work together. Sarasvati never had a doubt in her mind about the breadth and clarity of Bernie’s vision. All of life was his practice, and as he grew older he seemed to give up more and more attachment to this form vs. that form, this way of practice rather than that way, certainly this spiritual tradition vs. another. The very vocabulary became foreign to him. Everything became bigger, nothing was excluded. He was more aware of areas where he hadn’t engaged much, things he apologized for and wished he’d done differently. But this went with a radical acceptance of life as it is, a radical acceptance of himself as he was.
It was in our personal life that our differences arose. We were so different from one another, and we lived together. Which brings me to love.
For Bernie and me, love never implied two matching pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that came together. We didn’t match; sometimes these two strong personalities, 11 years apart in age, barely fit. We loved to laugh and watch movies together, we loved to talk about Zen Peacemakers, projects, and what different folks were doing. And sometimes we were very quiet, especially in the last years after his stroke.
The most intimate moments that I remember from that time were spent sitting over the dining table by the kitchen and admitting to each other that we didn’t fit perfectly, or even near perfectly, that between us lots of needs remained unmet. I admitted that I couldn’t be there for him all the time, he admitted there were things he wanted to do for me now that he would never be able to do. We knew we often didn’t even talk the same language.
The gap was there over those dinners; it was probably always going to be there. We’d sit in silent acknowledgment of it, no blame or anger, not even disappointment, just seeing that this was our life together, unified and relentlessly imperfect, till he’d say, “I’m tired, I have to go up.”
“Okay,” I’d say. And it wasn’t just an okay to his going upstairs, it was an okay to the gap, and to letting that gap be.
We certainly had that love that came out of seeing eye-to-eye, the excitement of being parts of something unified and whole. It’s great when you’re going great guns and you love each other because you fit each other hand in glove. That’s when your energy is so contagious that it spills out into the world.
After his stroke we had much less of that, many more of the moments when we could see our streams diverging, when contrasts stood out in sad honesty. That, too, was love. A different kind of love, more private, aching, when you get to the heart of things and there isn’t much more to say. We would contemplate those moments not in silence but in a tender kind of quiet, the sun setting just beyond the right-most window, Stanley settling down from his restless pacing after food. And it always ended the same way: “I’m tired,” he’d say, “I need to go upstairs.”