I went out to dinner with a dear friend, and sometime towards the end she mentioned saying good night to her partner as he went to sleep at night, pretending in fun to tuck him in. And there it was, the monster emerging from the shadows. Instantly I saw Bernie lying in bed, receiving CBD salve on the right side of his body from me before he turned to go to sleep. Afterwards, as I went around the bed I’d pull down the bottom edge of the blanket to cover his right foot, which usually stuck out and got cold because he couldn’t feel it, and did the same to the thin right arm that lay outside the blanket. He always felt cold on his unstruck left side, and felt nothing on the right.
What hits me then is: Thank you for tenderness. Thank you for every single small moment when I made Bernie coffee, asked if he needed help cutting the food, took extra time massaging him with the salve, smiled and asked, for the fifth or tenth time that day, How ya doing? Small moments, no big deal. Thank you, thank you for all the small things it’s easy to overlook in regular life, and which I miss so much when he’s not here.
But it is here in some way, even without him. I drive Aussie home after her outing with Leeann, she sticks her head close to me and licks my upraised palm. It only lasts seconds, but oh, that touch! That sweet, palpable, physical connection! It’s over almost before it begins because Miss Aussie is not into excess except with other dogs, but so much flares for just a moment. Joy. Love.
People say: It must be nice not to have to take care of anyone anymore. I say: Not really. Yes, it’s important to return, after almost 3 hard years of caregiving, to that unfamiliar room called yourself, see what’s changed, what new furniture is there, what’s the temperature. It’s never a good idea to absent yourself from there for too long.
But you could also get trapped in that room, for in some ways, grief is as self-limiting as anger. When I get angry it takes over the world, attracting enormous energy and reactivity and reducing everything else to miniature. When you grieve, the rest of the world also shrinks to become your own very private tower of sorrow. It’s why at times you grit your teeth hearing people laugh or a truck driver honking his exuberant horn. Those things threaten the walls of sorrow you’ve built around yourself; you don’t want to be reminded that other things exist, too.
Ondaatje wrote, “The self is just a small part of it, you know.” Grief, too, can finally become self-serving.
So what to do? Start looking at other things: the dogs, the waning bright moon that has given us such illuminated nights of late. Maybe go to the Stone Soup Café tomorrow and see old friends, the people who cook a terrific community meal every Saturday in Greenfield. Do council, share my life, take a modest place in that circle of people who just live their lives. Because maybe, if you pay attention and listen enough, you’ll see that everyone has losses, that in fact your life is probably better than anyone else’s.
Do a small act of kindness every day, my friend Jon Katz wrote in his beautiful post on exercises for discernment. Yes, I’d like to do that every day, too.
Someone asked me: Who are you thanking when you say thank you for tenderness? Do you, a Buddhist, believe in a divine being?
We have a service we do monthly in the zendo to feed the hungry spirits, and there is a line I’ve contemplated for many years: “I further beseech you to sustain me day and night, and give me courage to fulfill my vows.” Over and over people have asked, Whom are you beseeching?
Over lunch at a diner, a friend of mine once said to me, “I don’t believe in God, but don’t tell Him I said so.”
I don’t know whom I’m beseeching, whom I am thanking. I just go into the deepest part of myself, the part that’s even beyond breath, and there is presence there. Whose presence, I don’t know, only that it’s fully alive and subtly responds all the time.