JUST DIE! DOESN’T CUT IT FOR ME ANYMORE

It’s late September, a time of melancholy and silence. I’m flying into Colorado for a healing conference, where I will give a talk.

What will I say? Will I tell them about New England in September, with the red flush on the green leaves? The hummingbird feeders remaining full, the banquet there but the feasters gone? The air purer, drier, clearer, as if nature took one last inhale before beginning its slow exhale? That now when I sit outside in the early morning the birds don’t call out anymore, that even the dogs come out looking bleary-eyed, as though wondering why I’m getting up when there isn’t much light anymore at this hour of morning?

“This will be your first fall in New England,” I tell Harry, who came to us from a Mississippi animal shelter in January. “You’re in for a treat.”

“Can’t wait,” he says, and goes back home to sleep on the sofa.

At times pain comes up. It can be triggered by anything: a couple talking about Bernie coming late to officiate at their wedding but what a fun wedding it was when he finally showed up. Getting up early in the morning to go to the airport, looking out the window, and remembering a morning years ago when we saw a bear scamper in front of the house just as we were about to leave on a similar trip.

I had a dream about Bernie after he died, in which I’m off to go someplace and he gives me a peck on the cheek: “See ya,” he says lightly. He always seemed to take things lightly, but he hated to be left alone. The TV would go on extra early on those evenings and I would find empty pizza boxes in the recyclable bin when I returned. He didn’t mind a guy-kinda evening, he assured me with a jaunty grin. But the eyes above the grin were rarely jaunty.

Like most wives, I saw my husband in dark places, the kind of dark he didn’t share with others. The kind of dark that preceded our marriage, preceded me, that came from some unnamable past. You could try to name it—he lost his mother at the age of 7, had an unhappy childhood with father and step-mother, lost a wife when he last expected it—but some things just remain unnamable.

“You’re the wordsmith,” he used to say. It was my job to express things in words, or at least try; it wasn’t his job. He had his Brooklyn way with words, but he couldn’t find the words for his feelings. He couldn’t find his feelings.

“Getting attached to a person is no problem,” Ken Byalin, Founder of Integration Charter Schools, said to me as we walked together in a Staten Island park early Monday morning. “Getting attached to your idea of the person is the problem.”

There is no person here right now, but the feelings continue, I think as I look out the small airplane window at one of the Great Lakes on our way to Chicago. If they come from memories and reflections, is that a problem? There have been Zen masters who, when asked about dying, tell you to JUST die! Don’t make a thing about it.

But nature makes a thing about it. As temperatures at night dip into the 40s the plants seem to sink into themselves. The fringes of maple leaves start turning red but the others seem to just get deeper and darker. One last or, if we’re lucky, next-to-last dahlia opens up into an awareness of a short lifetime, but it’s no less red for all that; instead of dropping, it seems to blush its way into essence.

I think it’s what happened to Bernie after his big stroke. Tiers and layers fell away and revealed the secret deep inside. I’d like to go like that.

And the person left behind? At times her sadness gets depressed, flat and cloudy like the horizon outside the airplane window. But when she pays attention it’s like a flower, changing colors every day, every moment, deepening gradually under the shine of the autumn sun. You can melt into that and not mind being sad at all.

JUST die! doesn’t cut it for me anymore.