A big animal is eating our hostas, so I decided to sit outside and look for it.
It was the longest day of the year. At 9 pm there was plenty of light on the western horizon. Fireflies lit up the slope, the overhang around the tool shed, even small caverns inside the bark of trees. They lit up even the darkness of the forest from where Norman likes to emerge, tempting me with his calls to depression, despair, blackness of all kind, and the call to leave the moment and go somewhere—anywhere—where it’s always better.
Norman lies through his teeth, but his voice has whispered to me all my life. I could count on him to point out everything that didn’t work out, the work that didn’t pay off, the blessings that didn’t accrue, the love I hadn’t gotten, the money I didn’t have, and always, always, the passing years. He was also pretty good at pointing out the faults of every single person that ever lived.
I’d sit with his voice in my ears and feel I had to fight somehow, get on top of things, my spirits up, find some spiritual mallet to slam him down with. Remember all the people who have it worse than me. Remember spiritual giants like the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis, as if they represent some goal line I am kicking the ball towards. Thought of RBG, the film I saw on the life of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the US Supreme Court judge, and my admiration and gratitude for her.
All that lingered a moment, then waned. Instead I sat quietly and watched the fireflies. Don’t have to idealize anyone anymore. Don’t need to go to somebody else for some truth that isn’t already right under this scratchy (from mosquito and tick bites) skin of mine. I find it not by reading books, but by sitting in the dark watching fireflies, waiting patiently for the animal eating up our flowers.
I’ve probably struggled with some form of low-key depression all my life. It’s almost always there first thing in the morning. Activity submerges it, which is one reason why I like to be active. But last night, sitting under the watchful gaze of Venus in one direction and the half-or-so yellow moon in the other, watching blinking fireflies everywhere, even Norman got quiet.
My husband, Bernie, takes my breath away sometimes. The stroke leveled him. The strong, robust, bigger-than-life personality aged so overnight that even now, 2-1/2 years later, I don’t recognize him sometimes. There isn’t a morning when he gets up and, from my desk I look over my shoulder to see him standing on top of the stairs and I startle, ask again for the thousandth time: What happened?
What happened, and continues to happen, is that Bernie plunges. Once he plunged into Zen koans, ending homelessness in Westchester County, inspiring peacemakers for this endlessly suffering world. Now he’s plunged into stroke. Goodbye fierce independence, goodbye quick rejoinders, goodbye complex new solutions and approaches, goodbye daily activity that started at 4 am. Hello to dependence, paying attention to the body, medical decisions difficult to understand, to the changing proportions of a human being as he ages and gets ill. His greatest lesson to me is that no one is exempt, not even a Zen master.
Do you do this fighting or lying down? Bernie has chosen lying down. He fights no one and no thing. He walks carefully, checks his calendar for phone calls, Skypes, and Zooms. And now, when he gets questions from students, old questions he’s answered a million times, he takes his time and goes to a place I don’t know, a place I don’t think he knew before the stroke. A place you go to again and again because it’s never the same from one visit to another.
I used to call him Rocky because that was his nickname when he was a boy, because he was a fighter. This Rocky never fights. Nothing in the world is his opponent, no experience is beyond his experiencing.
“I have a question,” he admits to me quietly. “It’s—what do you call it?”
“I don’t know, Bernie.”
“You know, something philosophical.”
“An existential question?”
“That’s it,” he says, and proceeds slowly. “My existential question is why I am still living.” He doesn’t ask the question, he lives it. Plunges into it, like any good koan master.
Outside it’s completely dark as I wait for the phlox-eating beast to arrive. Stanley comes out of the garage, and though I’m right in front of him he can’t see me, doesn’t catch my scent, and his black shadow passes me by. Only the fireflies keep blinking on this longest day of the year.