NO IDEA

Every time I go somewhere as directed by Waze (my preferred app over Google Maps), Ms. Waze immediately proceeds to give me the wrong direction: “Turn right onto N. Leverett Road,” says she, though I’ve already turned left. At which point the squiggly tone comes on to inform me that I’ve taken the wrong turn.

Nonsense, I think to myself, and sure enough, 100 yards later Ms. Waze corrects herself: “In half a mile, turn left on Rte. 63.”

“Now you’re talking,” I tell her.

Miss Waze and I have been having this tête-à-tête for years. She insists I go right as soon as I exit the driveway, while I turn left and wait for her to catch up.

It seems as though every single journey I make starts with the wrong turn. It was Philip Roth who said that you always get people wrong, and that’s where the life is. Similarly, there’s lots of life in wrong turns. Not just on the road, either.

In Hollywood, deep connection happens when two people, often a man and a woman, look into each other’s eyes and spill out their life to each other, heart to heart, eye to eye. It doesn’t always happen that way.

“Bernie,” I say the other day, “give me an idea of what I can talk about in the zendo.” We’re sitting round the kitchen table, which is where we have all our conversations nowadays.

“I don’t have an idea,” he says slowly. “I don’t have any ideas. Maybe in six months I’ll have 1 or 2 ideas. Maybe not.”

“What happens when you do a webinar via the computer?” I ask him

“I don’t have any ideas about what to say. Maybe I bit the end of my rope.”

“How does that feel?”

“It feels fine. Well, maybe not fine. But now I just talk adverbatim.”

I ponder this new word.

“Isn’t that amazing?” he reflects. “I used to have so many ideas, and now I don’t have any ideas.”

“Don’t you miss having ideas?”

“No.”

“So what do you talk about in webinars?”

“It’s tough. All I have is that.”

“All you have is what?”

“Tough,” he says simply.

“In order to really connect, you may have to be unsettled a bit,” Fr. Greg Boyle wrote in his wonderful Barking to the Choir. Bernie and I are settling into being unsettled. He has let go a lot, and his gift to me is that I learn to let go a lot, too. Softening happens not just in him, but also in the people around him.

ESSENCE OF CONFUSION

“Stanley, how do you feel?”

“I feel great.”

“Seriously, Stan, your back legs are collapsing more and more. Last night your legs splayed apart and you fell with your butt right into the water bowl.”

“I feel great.”

“You splashed the entire floor!”

“I feel fine.”

“Stan, it’s been hot and humid all July and into August, and you pant night and day. That thick black fur of yours can’t be much help, either.”

“I feel fine.”

“Stanley, you can tell me the truth. You’re eating less than ever.”

“More, less, it’s all okay.”

“I can’t believe my ears, Stanley. More or less is okay? From the dog who wanted to eat New England?”

“It’s all fine.”

“You slammed into the edge of the chair this morning because you can’t see much, Stan. It’s hard for you to poop because you can’t squat.”

“Things are coming out fine.”

“Leeann told me yesterday that your body’s working hard to do even a short walk. You still recognize all the dogs—”

“They love me! They call me Sensei Stanley—”

“But you walk really slow and you pant a lot.”

“Everything is fine.”

“You can tell me the truth, Stanley, things are tough for you, aren’t they?”

“I’m a Zen teacher, so everything is okay,”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Ahh, defective student, learn from me and weep. If you are enlightened, nothing troubles you.”

“Who says, Stanley?”

“If you are awake, everything is the same: seeing, not-seeing, walking, not-walking, hearing-not hearing—”

“Marrow bone/no marrow bone?”

“Ah, essence of confusion, are you feeling threatened by my superior understanding?”

“No, Stanley, I think you’re the one who’s confused. Walking and not walking, seeing and not-seeing are not the same. They’re all manifestations of absolute reality, and in that sense they’re equal in value, but in day to day life they’re definitely not the same.”

“I’m a teacher, who cares about day to day life? I’m all into essence.”

“Okay, Sensei Essence, I was going to give you what was left of last night’s roast chicken for dinner, but tell me, is roast chicken essence?”

“Of course roast chicken is essence, gobbler of drek.”

“I believe the aspersion is gobbler of dregs, Stanley, not gobbler of drek. In fact, if anyone gobbles drek around here, it’s—”

“Dregs, drek, it’s all the same.”

“Stop saying that, Stan, you’re driving me crazy.”

“Tsk tsk tsk, what kind of teacher are you? Zen teachers are never crazy, they’re always peaceful. They never have problems.”

“The Man walks with a cane indoors and needs someone at his elbow when he walks outdoors, Stan.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“He can’t open the catsup on his own, Stanley.”

“That’s why you’re there. What’s the problem?”

“He talks a lot less than he used to and rests a lot more, Stan.”

“You more than make up for him, at least talking-wise. I’m telling you, everything’s fine. Since the Man gave me dharma transmission, I never get rattled. I’m nice to everybody.”

“Everybody? What happened when Minnie the dachshund ran over to you the other day when you arrived at Leeann’s, Stan?”

“I told her to get of my face you ugly dog—but I said it very spontaneously. Zen is about being fully spontaneous..”

“Oh Stan, you’re been saying the same thing to Minnie for ages. In Zen we have no problem with feelings, just with grasping. And we don’t harm other beings. Doing no harm is very important. I think you should apologize to Minnie next week.”

“Zen teachers don’t apologize.”

“The good ones do, Stanley, the good ones do.”

NO SURGERY

Today I took Bernie to Mercy Hospital in Springfield for what we hoped would be the last graft surgery on his nose. Less than 2 hours later we drove home, stars in our eyes, after being told he wouldn’t need anything.

Bernie has two wounds that aren’t healing after surgery and radiation to remove cancer from the bone of the nose. They don’t heal due to after-effects of radiation, leaving an already weakened bone exposed in both places. We’d gotten a second opinion, and the consensus was that he had to go back and get patched up, even stay the night in the hospital since general anesthesia would be needed.

Preparing for surgery, Bernie got a haircut yesterday. I packed overnight items for the both of us this morning and off we went down I-91, two grim, battle-scarred veterans.

In the pre-op room nurses come in to do blood pressure, pulse, EKG, and review medical history for the 10th time. One starts an IV inside his elbow and reminds us that she took care of him in his first surgery last December. “How has your summer been?” she asks Bernie, trying to distract the Great Man while getting the needle ready.

“Well,” GM says, “you know I had radiation.”

“Bernie,” I interrupt as gently as I can, “your radiation ended mid-March.”

“My summer was great,” he informs her. “Memory not so great, summer great.”

The fuss goes on for some 20 minutes, and then everyone leaves at once, informing us that the surgeon and anesthesiologist will be in shortly.

“Well, it’s just you and me, kid,” GM says with a leer. “What should we do?”

“What I’d like to do, oh Bernie my Bernie, is persuade them to let me take you home after surgery,” I think aloud.

“You know, there is one thing I can do if they tell me I have to stay overnight.”

“What’s that?”

“I can cry.”

“I’d also like to persuade them not to do general anesthesia, Bernie, but monitored sedation. You know what’s my biggest concern?”

“What’s your biggest concern, Eve?”

“That you won’t tell anyone if something hurts you. You’ve done procedures with a local anesthetic, and when you come out you tell me that it hurt you, only you didn’t say anything.”

“I don’t say hurt,” he reminds me. “I say that I could feel it. Don’t forget, I have a high threshold for pain.”

I shake my head. Men!

The surgeon, Bryan Prior, comes in, which immediately cheers me up; good-looking men always do. He hugs us both, which probably means he’s seen too much of us by now. Then he looks intently at Bernie’s nose. Even more intently. And even more intently. “It looks a lot better than before,” he murmurs. “Mind if I look around?” Out comes a Q-tip and he starts rummaging around inside the wounds. “Let me know if what I’m doing hurts you, Bernie,” he tells him.

Ha! I think to myself.

When he’s done he gives us a few options. Two of them are surgical. The third is no surgery, at least for now. While he doesn’t think a general healing will take place because of the paucity of healthy tissue around the wounds, the body is obviously straining to cover up the bone with just enough thin, porous tissue to prevent infection, which was a big concern. There’s still a little bone exposed, but if things continue as they are, and if Bernie doesn’t play football, he may be able to get back into his clothes and just go home. “I’ll leave the two of you alone to discuss this,” he says.

“No need,” we say as one. “No surgery.”

“Now don’t forget,” Bryan says, “eat lots of protein. You’re not vegan, are you?”

“What’s vegan?” asks Bernie.

“You two make a good team,” the attending nurse says admiringly.

“You should see us with our dog,” I tell her.

We hug Bryan Pryor, make an appointment one month from now, and Bernie gets back into his clothes. I wheel him out of the hospital.

“What a way to leave,” I say happily. “Remember when we left last December after the first surgery, your nose covered in bandages getting bloodier and bloodier by the moment? You scared people in the lobby and babies cried. Somebody asked me if this was Halloween. This is much better.”

GM looks disconsolate.

“What’s the matter, Bernie?”

“He didn’t say anything about how I look after my haircut.”

THE BIRDS AND THE BEES

“Stanley, you know how bees fly from flower to flower collecting nectar and pollen to feed their young? I wonder if they’re even aware that when they do that, they’re also pollinating all these flowers and plants, you know what I mean?”

“No.”

“Flowers and plants can’t move, Stanley, so how do they pollinate each other?”

“Who cares?”

“The fertilizing pollen sticks to the fuzzy part of the bee, and when it flies to the next flower it drops it there, Stan.”

“Has your life gotten a whole lot better from knowing this?”

“You’re missing the point, Stan. The bees are probably not even conscious that while they look for food, they are actually doing this important job. Do you have any sense of how important pollination is? What would we do without flowers?”

“Pee somewhere else?”

“But flowers and plants are crucial for nature’s habitats and eco-systems, Stanley. Animals rely on plants for their food.”

“An animal that eats plants shouldn’t be called an animal, if you ask me.”

“I’ve seen you snacking on fresh new stalks, Stan, especially after a rain.”

“Only to throw up.”

“The point I’m making, Stanley, is that bees are doing what they need to survive, but in the process of that they are playing a very crucial role in the wellbeing of the planet. And maybe that’s true for the rest of us. Maybe none of us knows what is our true work here. Maybe none of us knows what our life is really about, just like the bees.”

“I know what my life is about.”

“What’s that, Stan?”

“Eating and walking.”

“You don’t really know that, Stanley. Life is so complex that our brains can’t fathom it. All Zen teachers know that.”

“Of course, I forgot. Call me Sensei Stanley.”

“For instance, Sensei Stanley, maybe your most important function, the reason you were put on this earth, was to talk to Minnie.”

“The only thing I ever said to Minnie was to get out of my face you stupid dog. I guess that’s a good reason to be put on this earth, hee hee hee. Far more important than what those bees are doing.”

“How could that be a good reason to be put on this earth, Stanley? How could insulting a sweet dachshund like Minnie be anyone’s big reason for living?”

“Life is so complex your brain can’t fathom it, defective student.”

“Being nasty to young females who adore you, Stan? I don’t get it.”

“It’s not gettable. That’s how you know I’m a good Zen teacher. Nobody gets what I’m saying.”

ARE KOANS DOGS?

“Hey Stanley, where are you going?”

“Can’t you see that the tree fell across the path? I can’t climb that anymore.”

“You’re kidding, Stan! You can’t climb over that limb?”

“So much for sympathy. That’s what I get for hooking up with a much younger woman.”

“It’s too hot and humid, maybe we should have stayed home, Stanley, where it’s cool.”

“We have a nice, cool wind at home.”

“Humans call it air-conditioning. Did I turn it on for the Man? No. For me? No. I turned it on for you, Stan, because you were panting so much.”

“I don’t want to stay home, I’m too busy forging new trails. That’s what you do when you get old, you make new trails because you can’t use the old ones anymore.”

“I didn’t think of that, Stanley. I thought that once you lose the freedom to go anywhere you want, you just stay home.”

“That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard you say. Why stay home where I’m still free to go wherever I can go?”

“That’s the point, Stan, you’re free to go wherever you can go, but not wherever you want to go. What kind of freedom is that?”

“The best kind.”

“I always thought of freedom as doing just what you feel like doing, Stanley.”

“What I call freedom is finding my own way, and it’s different every day. Today I am free to go around the trees to get to the pools. Tomorrow I’ll be free to sit here and rest. The day after that I’ll be free not to go into the woods at all. That’s what I call freedom.”

“You know, Stanley, there are lots of koans about that.”

“Are koans dogs? They sound like dogs.”

“Maybe I’ll call my next dog Koan.”

“I don’t want to hear about your next dog.”

“You can’t hear anything anyway, Stanley. You’re not even sniffing anything.”

“I think everybody in the forest drowned.”

“You’re old, old, old, Stanley!”

“Don’t laugh too long, chickie, you’ll walk in my footsteps soon enough.”

“You know, Stanley, just north of us is the border with New Hampshire. When you drive north on 91 there’s a sign that says: Welcome to New Hampshire. Live Free or Die.”

“What are they talking about?”

“Guns, I think, Stan.”

“I ain’t never going to New Hampshire.”

AN EXTRACTION ECONOMY

Stanley and I walked down the road, a slow slog by the old dog, and ¾ of a mile away a big freight train came down the tracks just as we were about to cross.

It wasn’t mile-long, like the trains bearing cars loaded with black coal crisscrossing Wyoming, but it was long enough. Stanley, who once had to be restrained on the leash from the loud noise of the locomotive, was perfectly at ease because he’s fully deaf, while I did what I usually do after waving to the engineer, I read the names off the cars: Westervelt, Canadian, CSX, Nebraska, NAHX, CCX, WWUX, Central Vermont, Procor, etc.

It’s not uncommon for me to read off some 20 names and ponder the mystery of a freight car hooked at a depot somewhere out west, traveling with others of its kind for thousands of miles before being unhooked at another depot somewhere in the south and continuing its travels with a new gang of cars before arriving at some unknown destination. Together they’re so loud and formidable, while in the end each goes its own way.

I hear the roar of freight trains every day and night even after Amtrak left our rails and chose to do its one daily train south and one train north on parallel tracks running through South Deerfield. I always wish we were living in the small white house that’s right next to the tracks, separated only by a hedge of bushes.

This morning I remembered two things. When I turned 60 Bernie took me to New Orleans. Knowing how much I loved trains, he reserved a sleeping car onboard Amtrak. We boarded the train in Springfield, Massachusetts, in mid-morning and arrived into New Orleans, Louisiana, at 11:30 the next night, some 38 hours later. The sleeping car was somewhat drab, with a bad smell in the bathroom and a bed half falling off its hinges, while the food was surprisingly good. But the real thing was outdoors, the many states going past our window, farms and trees, waving children, long glimpses of different eco-zones.

I also remembered my brother’s words after he drove from New York to Washington, DC a month ago: I forget what a big country this is.

I saw this in Wyoming, with its enormous blue skies canopying only half a million people. I imagined their families there years ago, the women giving birth alone, the men maintaining miles of fence posts, both knowing they’ll probably get sick, old, and die with no doctor or preacher around.

Their descendants have independence in their bones. Accustomed to a big space, many expect to do it all alone with no one to ask for help. The space, the solitude, the self-reliance are embedded in our culture, in our imagination. Those of us reared on Westerns and the frontier believe in some corner of our minds that they are the real thing, the real Americans, not the rest of us crowded in small urban places.

“Economy is zooming,” said the lovely man at the Bunkhouse Motel in Guernsey, Wyoming. “We ship everything out, coal, oil, natural gas, you name it we’ve got it. We also got lots of windmills,” he added kindly, taking note that we were from Massachusetts.

Lots and lots of jobs in Wyoming, lots of jobs in an extraction economy. Not working out a good balance, but digging, frakking, and extracting. The big rocks overlooking the train tracks looked on inscrutably and the trains roared by, many, many miles of coal. What would happen to any relationship in which you take and take and take, and don’t give back?

LOVE, GRANDPA BERNIE

Bernie’s grandson, Ethan, is having his Bar-Mitzvah in Jerusalem and grandpa can’t go. So yesterday we sat down, he dictated his thoughts and blessing, I wrote it down, printed it, pasted onto a card, and then asked Bernie to sign it.

What’s in a few letters or a few words? Everything. Those mysterious squiggles, the curves that don’t curve and the lines that don’t go straight, all speak to me of a life beyond prediction and control.

I can plunge into the Black Hills, with their ghosts of Native America, a lot easier than I can plunge into these few letters. Love is clear enough, but Grandpa Bernie goes all over the place. Figures, I think to myself.

The anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson said that most of us treat the prospect of growing old as if it’s adding a room to a house. We already have our 60 years, we already have our kitchen and dining area, living room and 1 or 2 bedrooms, and now that we live till 80 and even 90 or older, we think it’s like adding something to the rest of our life in a straight, linear fashion. That’s not what old age is at all, she said. It’s not adding a room to an existing house, it changes the entire house.

Getting sick is like that, too. When Bernie had his stroke, once he was out of danger and I had some sense of what the work would be, I thought I’d just add it to everything else I was doing. All it would mean is maybe getting up a little earlier, going to bed a little later, working a little harder, cutting corners. After a period of time in which I rushed through things like a tornado, creating havoc and misery in my wake, I understood that wasn’t it at all. It wasn’t about adding more distance before you get to the finish line, in fact it wasn’t any kind of race or an endurance test. It was simply going to change everything.

I’m beginning to realize that a meaningful change is never an extra room, but something that changes the house.

That’s how I think, too, about the election of 2016. Focusing on Donald Trump and losing your cool about him is like thinking that the election was about adding a tiny closet that eventually, maybe in 2020, we could all lock up and forget it ever existed, except as a reminder of some errant behavior weird, beer-guzzling voters indulged in once upon a time. The next president would have us sigh in relief and we’d all go back to normal.

But the election of 2016 changed the house. Or perhaps it showed a house we didn’t know existed, one with rocky, termite-eaten foundations. A house built on stolen land, using slave labor till 1863 and slave-like labor to this very day (i.e., the prison economy). Those of us who knew of these things perhaps had hoped it had all gone away, or that it was going away. But it didn’t, and it’s not. Not quickly, at any rate.

Take advantage of the election of 2016 and look at the whole house, at the different skeins of thread still unspooling and unspooling, not finding common ground, at the many things we can’t come to peace with. Remember we’re here for the long run. Have patience.

Love, Grandpa Bernie.

STAY OUT

Honor the Treaties

Stay Out

Apologies Are Useless

Those words were chalked on the crosswalk we crossed before climbing the hill that leads to the mass grave of the Bigfoot Band, killed in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890.

How do you stay out?

Maybe through ignorance, or oblivion, looking neither right nor left only straight ahead, maybe even watching lots of TV. On a recent visit to Israel I asked my sister how so many Israelis could be so oblivious to what is going on in Palestinians’ lives day after day, and she answered: “They can’t deal with the cognitive dissonance.”

We want to be good people, we try to be good people. Maybe it was once an evolutionary mechanism to help us survive, to ignore so many of the contradictions in our lives in order to go on, raise our children, go to church, meditate, go about our day calmly.

Showing up at Wounded Knee, and especially bearing witness to testimony and ceremony by descendants of survivors of Wounded Knee, basically means you’re bearing witness to betrayal. And it’s your people who’ve done the betraying.

It doesn’t matter that no one from your family was anywhere near Wounded Knee in 1890. We are members of a society that enriched itself by stealing land from Native Americans and making slaves out of African-Americans, and our culture tops the denial by vapidly admiring rugged individualism and independence, as if everything we have comes from our individual work and achievement.

At the top of the hill we witnessed a ceremony by the descendants of the survivors of Wounded Knee, though for every survivor there were relatives that had been killed there. Some spoke in Lakota, which was good and bad. Good in that the Lakota language is still being spoken (If we lose our language our culture is lost, we heard so often these days), and bad in that I didn’t understand what they were saying except for catching the curious names of those who died: Ghost Horse, Wolf Eagle, Shoots the Bear, Pretty Enemy.

And sometimes we were lucky and heard stories in English, which invariably began this way: “My grandmother told me that her grandmother ran away down to the creek and hid there,” or “My grandfather told me that his grandfather . . .”

They were generous to a fault with us, allowing us to enter that enclosure with them, stand under a 90-degree sun, hear mourning songs and survivors’ songs, listen to the drumbeat. They gave us tobacco to offer the dead.

Down below was written: Stay out. Only I can’t. If I must—because of well-earned suspicion and distrust—then I’ll get as close as possible to the words Stay out, and then withdraw with respect. Always with respect. I will do this again and again and again, withdrawing with respect every time, so that one day one day, not necessarily in my lifetime, I won’t be told to stay out anymore.

But this didn’t happen here. We were invited in, we were permitted to witness their grief. It was a great privilege.

In the end we were also invited to shake hands with all the descendants, which we proceeded to do. A little girl was there who had taken active part in the ceremony, and when I shook hands with her I could feel something in her palm transferred to my palm, and she said quietly to me, “This is for good luck.” It was a small cluster of sage.

WE BRING OURSELVES

Back in 1991 when Bernie first started his street retreats, folks would ask him: How much ,money do you bring to the people on the street? And he would say: “No money.” Clothes? Blankets? Extra shoes? And he would say: “None of these. We bring ourselves.”

I remembered this today, sitting under a grove of cottonwoods at Fort Laramie along with 35 others from around the country on this, our second day of retreat with Native American Elders. Fort Laramie, of course, is where we Americans signed two treaties with the Lakota Indians, and broke both very quickly.

Yesterday we drove south to Hot Springs from Rapid City in South Dakota, took a tiny nibble of Nebraska before turning west and driving into Wyoming. Except for some 10 months in New Mexico, I have spent the entirety of my American life on two coasts, New York/Massachusetts and California. I am reminded of this whenever I am in Wyoming, its small towns punctuating long, straight stretches of highway, sites of past trading posts and Pony Express stations, places that actually made history.

Today the sky was blue for most of the daylight hours over Fort Laramie, and as we sat together with Violet Catches, Manny and Renee Ironhawk, along with their children, the cottonwood trees wept small clumps of white cotton that fell down to the grass like snow in summer. As we listened to them talk, I remembered a conversation I had just 2 weeks ago with Sami Awad, head of Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem, Palestine.

I was in Jerusalem to celebrate my mother’s 90th birthday, and as usual, I went into Bethlehem to visit Sami, crossing through the wall that separates the West Bank from Jerusalem. We talked about many things, including the agreements that Israel had signed with Egypt and then with the Palestinians.

Sami said: “People still cry about what happened to the Camp David and the Oslo Accords. But the truth is, those agreements were bound to fail because the people weren’t meeting. They weren’t coming together. They had fought each other and loathed and hated each other for many years, feared each other, and in the middle of all that their leaders signed political agreements to create some kind of peace. But without that personal coming together, without bearing witness to each other, they weren’t going to lose their fear. Political agreements are nothing in the face of fear, fear will always win out.”

Some two weeks later I am sitting in Fort Laramie, where we broke two very important treaties with the Lakota Indians, dooming many of them to a life of loss and brokenness. And us white Americans? Maybe also to a life of brokenness, a loss of connection to the old wisdom that connected the stars and the earth, that told us how to live as responsible inhabitants of a generous earth.

I disagree with Sami, political agreements and treaties have their uses. We must work to repair our brokenness on all levels, including the political. But we also must come together and bear witness to one another. Learn the other’s language, their name for God, their ceremonies, how we need two words to describe two things while they use one word to reflect a more fluid reality, their rules of kinship within the family, their view of all of life as their relations. We must come together to lose our fear and illusions of superiority, see into the one big heart that includes all differences and commonality. Be the fragments coming together with other fragments, revealing the unimaginable mystery of the whole.

“We just bring ourselves,” Bernie said long ago. You can support and help, but you can’t fix or repair other people’s lives. What you can do is bring yourself.

I DON’T NEED ANYBODY!

“I’m off, Stanley,” I whisper at 4:45 am, bending down to kiss him on his nose. I’d just woken Bernie upstairs to say goodbye, and now I do this to the black dog lying by the dining table downstairs, where he prefers to sleep because it’s so much cooler than in the bedroom.

“Where ya going?”

“To South Dakota, for the Native American retreat.”

“Why?”

The answer seemed obvious 9 months earlier, but not now. Leaving is never clear.

Losing personal independence is probably no joy for anyone anywhere, but is there a culture in the world that hates dependence as much as our own, here in America? Is there a culture in the world that admires independence and rugged individualism more, which looks down so contemptuously on those needing food assistance and welfare support? I listen to parents express their enormous pride in how their children are becoming more independent, which often seems more important than how good, kind, or generous they are.

But personal dependence is ahead for all of us, if we’re lucky enough to age and get sick. Nobody seems to be ready for it.

Back when Bernie was in rehab after his stroke, I saw patient after patient yell at family members and therapists about not needing help. My own 90 year-old mother, contemplating 2 months without her Indian live-in caregiver, adamantly refused to get a substitute. “I don’t need anybody, I haven’t fallen once this entire year,” she says angrily. “You also haven’t prepared one meal, one cup of coffee, or gone anywhere on your own,” I remind her. She doesn’t want to be reminded.

Listening to our politicians, you’d think that the biggest crisis facing our nation is mothers and children and the elderly needing help. Aging friends spend less time reflecting on their lives and preparing for what comes and more in resentment and anger at how needy they’ve become, how reliant on family members or caregivers.

Needing help is ahead for all of us. I am grateful to the Man and Stan for accepting dependence with simplicity and grace. Bernie gets drinks, glasses and cutlery as he patiently waits for me to finish making dinner. He walks outside with someone always at his side and accepts help with putting on jackets or even with pulling the heavy blanket over his body. Not once, not once, has he complained or second-guessed what life has given him. He shows no nostalgia for his past, not once has he reminded me of the times when he was so fiercely independent, chomping away gleefully on his cigar. He has no interest in cigars now.

Stanley waits patiently for a butt lift to get into the car. He doesn’t say Don’t touch me, he doesn’t say I can do this myself leave me alone, I hate this. He seems as happy as ever for a car ride, a slow walk in the woods even as things have changed.

It’s getting harder and harder to take him into the woods. The cataracts almost cover his eyes and he slips and falls. Unlike when we walk on the road, which is clear and without obstructions, in the woods, where he’s unleashed and free, he’s more liable to trip over things. He looks back a lot to place where I am, unlike previous years when he pursued alternative trails, running down the slope for a drink of water from the creek or chasing smells, knowing our meeting place by the pools of water that gush down to the creek. Now he stays by my side. His days of independence are gone. We get closer and closer, the world grows smaller, and he moans in his sleep.

“Bye, Stan,” I whisper to him.