“If you look down on your left you’ll see Bryce Canyon,” the pilot announces on my flight from Santa Barbara, California, to Denver, Colorado, enroute to Chicago and home. “And in 15 minutes, Lake Powell.”
I have flown coast to coast many times, and continue to be awed by the vast splendor of this country. Visitors from other countries often express their amazement in the same words: “It just goes on and on and on!”
I was in Santa Barbara for a memorial to a beautiful woman, a beautiful soul, who put an end to her life a few months ago using California’s Physician-Assisted Suicide law after enduring 15 years of dogged cancer-induced pain. She loved life like almost no one else I knew. I last visited Santa Barbara in January 2018, and day after day, at dusk, she’d walk over to the bluff overlooking the Pacific and look out towards the setting sun. She cried inside over the beauty of it. She also spent much time “contemplating self-extinction,” as she put it.
“How do you feel when you do that?” I asked her.
“The greatest peace in the world,” she said back.
The memorial, with meditation, music, tears, food, and laughter went on for two days. Hundreds of people came and went. Bernie and I had lived in this cliff-side home for two years. I sat with the family in the same room where he and I had gotten married; in fact, she and her husband had witnessed our marriage, and then the four of us had gone out for lunch.
She’s gone, and Bernie’s gone. Bryce Canyon isn’t gone, but that was small comfort for me as I sat on the dark sofa in silence, remembering that once the sofas were all purple, her favorite color, remembering, too, a tall vase of sunflowers on the coffee table, Bernie’s desk in the corner which he never used, choosing instead to sit on one of the Adirondack chairs on the veranda (also purple) and look out to the ocean, his laptop, phone, and cigar nearby.
Did we know we were in heaven? Do you know you’re in heaven? We did at times, not at others. What does it take to fully inhabit your life? To nest unconditionally in what you have and who you are? This place, this home, continues to heal me. I went back there for five days two years after Bernie’s stroke, and now went back there 10 months after his death. And with all the death in the air, I continue to call that place home.
The living room was so long it seemed to extend right over the Pacific. When we lived there we filled its very long wall with our books. When we left, our friends used the white brick wall to memorialize homeless people who’d died in the streets. Across the room, in a smaller alcove containing far fewer bricks, is a short list of “Heroes.” Bernie’s name is inscribed there.
When we came to Santa Barbara in 2000, this exquisite jewel of a small city, so God-favored, had laws against people sleeping on the warm sand of their beaches, walking aimlessly up and down the main shopping streets and even sleeping in their cars. No matter how hard you work for a living or a home (and it’s expensive to live here), it is impossible to think it’s all yours, solely a reflection of your efforts, your dollars and cents.
“Where are you from?” a white, pink-skinned man asks me in a café on State Street.
“Massachusetts,” I tell him.
“So you must be a liberal,” he says immediately.
“We call it progressive,” I say back.
His smile disappears. “Do you know how many migrants we have here?” he demands.
“We have a nice-size community of immigrants, too,” I tell him.
“Yeah?” he asks suspiciously. “Where?”
In Turners Falls, I want to tell him, leading hidden, invisible lives. And you and I are migrants too, in my case one generation removed, in your case maybe a few more.
We parted amicably, but my mind still raced. Your dollars and cents don’t create the ocean, it wanted to tell the blue-eyed, pink-faced man. They didn’t create the whales that cruise up and down the channel or the dolphins that frolic behind the tourist boats. The Santa Ynez Mountains did not arise out of your hedge funds, they were given to us and other living beings, and instead of being humbled by the gift and overwhelmed with gratitude, some choose to reduce it into something bought and sold, hoarded like Silas Marner’s gold.
You can say that the cosmos laughs at those folks who think they own everything in sight, but people have died on the streets of Santa Barbara and elsewhere, abandoned and alone.
So our friends began to write their names on the white bricks of the living room. There were seats everywhere in the large room for the people who came and went, but none hid the memorial wall of white bricks. In that way the names on the white bricks were included in the fabric of the memorial, even as we cried and laughed and sang, much as in a Jewish wedding the groom crushes a wine glass with his foot to remember the destruction of the Jewish temple 2000 years ago. Joy is always mixed with tears.
I thought of the woman who’d died there a few months earlier and of Bernie who died in New England in November, and the people who’d died homeless and alone on the streets of this country. Below, the Pacific Ocean roiled with surfers eagerly anticipating the next big wave, and the next day Bryce Canyon sparkled in sunlight far below the airplane.