Yesterday I got a funny message: “Bernie Glassman wants to be friends with you on Facebook.”
My first thought was: Now you want to be friends?
Naturallement, Rami, ED of Zen Peacemakers, informed me that this was some kind of online scam. But for a moment I almost wondered if this wasn’t Bernie’s way of communicating from the hereafter; if he was to going to reach out to me somehow, this might be it.
Yesterday also marked the day when, three years ago, Bernie had his stroke. It was a milestone in my life, but that was probably nothing like how it was for him.
“You know what Muryo used to say?” he would tell me again and again, referring to Peter Matthiessen. “He said that if he gets sick, he just wants to crawl under a rock and die. He wants to be left alone. Well, that’s true about me, too.”
In earlier years, that indeed was pretty much how Bernie carried on whenever he got sick, but the stroke changed everything. He didn’t have the wherewithal to crawl anywhere. He couldn’t talk, he couldn’t walk, couldn’t use his right side.
I remember even now how relieved I was when, at Springfield’s Baystate Medical Center, after Bernie had been moved one floor down from ICU, a rehabilitation physician examined him by hitting a soft mallet all over his body and getting no response. Finally he hit the sole of his foot, then put the mallet away.
“Well?” I asked nervously.
“He’s not totally paralyzed there,” the doctor said. “I got a small response from the foot.”
“What does that mean?” I asked. What I really wanted to know was: Will he talk again? Walk again?
“He’ll regain something,” the doctor said.
Bernie talked again. Bernie walked again. Bernie used his right arm and hand again. Slowly, with help from therapists, caregivers, and so many who financially supported these efforts, he learned to talk, walk with a cane (and without in the kitchen), dress himself, and cut his food with both hands. But he would never be independent again. The man who just wanted to crawl under a rock and be left alone now couldn’t evade the fact that he was dependent. Hugely dependent.
Would he fight it? Would he be angry at his caregivers? Would he be angry at the woman by his side who could take a fast walk each morning, run up and down the stairs, get food out of the refrigerator and hang up laundry in the basement? Who flaunted her physical independence with every move, every errand? Who drove, flew to different cities and countries, who did so much that he couldn’t?
Never. Not even once. That is no exaggeration.
At most he’d withdraw, become silent, or else say he’s tired and needs to rest.
I believe that fully accepting his state of dependence may well have been the hardest thing he ever did. Forget the fuss of the old Greyston days, a divorce from his first wife and the loss of a second. Forget the financial emergencies. This was something he could never push away, never forget.
Visitors would sometimes talk too fast for him to follow and he’d say sadly to me after they left: “I couldn’t understand what they said.”
Someone else would come and talk about a dinner honoring him, or a new bearing witness retreat somewhere far away. We would love to have you there. “Maybe,” he would say with an encouraging smile. But to me he’d say: “I can’t, it’s too much for me.”
He loved his children, he was proud of his successors, he loved the Zen Peacemakers, he loved to hear about the work going on around the world. And he knew without a doubt that he couldn’t do any of it anymore.
I’d tease him after a hard day of exercise and he’d say: “Just watch, next year I won’t walk, I’ll run!” Then add: “But I won’t be disappointed if I don’t.”
“Next year [December 2020], when you turn 70, I want to take you away somewhere,” he told me. His tone was somewhere between serious and prayerful. I smiled and nodded my head, but inside I thought that in all probability it wasn’t going to happen, he couldn’t recover that much.
Do I think I was wrong? No, but now I wish I’d let those words hover for a while. I wish I’d let myself take them in, not as a promise that would not be fulfilled but as the deep, expressed yearning of someone who badly wished to celebrate me—to celebrate us—one last time.