Tomorrow I drive down to Maryland to see Bernie’s daughter and her family, a trip that’s been delayed a long time on account of covid.
I’m bringing certain art works from her dad, including this beautiful Kwan-yin that’s coming off the dining room wall. It was a free-hanging scroll for many years but was getting damaged, so finally we framed it behind glass. These works will bring beauty to their already-lovely Maryland home, and will leave some white spaces in mine. Not a loss; white spaces are interesting.
Every once in a while I remember what the last three years of my life with Bernie were like, mainly the fragmentation. The constant shifts one has to make, from answering emails to going to the bedroom to help him up to planning meals to trying to post a blog to speaking to caregivers or lining folks up to take him for chemo in Springfield to finishing edits on the Book of Householder Koans to preparing a retreat talk to phone calls for doctor appointments to feeding the dog to doing laundry to washing dishes to organizing the next day to wishing you could sit a little more. The inability to stay long with any one thing came hardest to me.
I wasn’t on top of the game, I was ahead of it. Even as I did one thing, my mind would already be in the next, assessing how much time it needed, would I get to it, etc.
And the sense of loss, and more impending loss, never let go.
It’s one thing to be full of energy and optimism. You’re facing challenges, but you have faith that you’ll persevere, that you are more than a match for anything obstructing you. But after your husband has suffered a severe stroke, loss stares you in the face every single day. You work hard to help him recover as much as possible, but you can’t fool yourself, it ain’t ever going to be like it was.
You spend your days hustling from one activity to another just to get to a modicum of what you had previously, when both of you drove and not just one, when both of you got things for the house (Eve, got an errand for me? I need to go smoke a cigar!), when he took Stanley to the vet and you didn’t because you were embarrassed by the dog’s antics in the vet’s office, when you moaned and groaned about his preference for sausage but loved his weekend breakfasts. It’s just you now, a brand-new identity, even as you watch him getting accustomed to his new identity.
But even then we had afternoons like this afternoon, when we’d walk outside carefully on the grass to the chairs looking at the afternoon sun and sit down. Bernie had never been a great nature-lover, his eyes would glaze over when I effused about hummingbirds and daffodils and complained about recalcitrant dahlias. From his seat, he’d look out to the south and not say much.
For many years I worried that he didn’t want to burden me with his sorrows and therefore stayed quiet. When people don’t share their feelings, it leaves me to suspect the worst.
But I don’t think that was why he was quiet. We met somewhere in that silent sitting together. There was no one stronger than the other, no one walking better or more stably on her feet, no one talking quicker and clearer while the other still labored at putting his words together, especially when he was tired. The sun beamed at us together.
The walls are bare now, leaving big dusty squares where the pictures once were.
“Do you think I’ll have to repaint?” I anxiously ask my housemate, who did most of the work of loading up my Prius with those heavy pictures.
“It’s mostly dust. First brush it, then use some warm, soapy water. That should do it.”
A friend quoted the great Zen master Uchiyama Roshi: “Practice is active participation in loss.”
“Also, in life?” I added.
“Of course, in life,” he replied. “I want my actions to be life-giving every moment but I’m aware they’re accompanied by loss.”
This morning another friend took Aussie for a walk and said, looking around him at the fluttering leaves, “It feels like September.”
“t’s June,” I laughed.
But he was right, the leaves were fluttering madly. Saying hello? Goodbye?
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