The door of my office looks out at the back yard and the many feeders hanging there. Sometimes a bird flies smack into the glass door. I heard that sudden, heavy sound yesterday morning, looked out, and there was the junco on the steps. Not flat out, standing on its small legs, but clearly stunned. I watched it for a while—wanted to make sure the dogs weren’t out and about, happy to make trouble—and soon it flew up to the nearest branch, ready to be a bird again.
After that I visited a friend who lost his wife a month ago. I knew both of them as a couple, and now I was getting to know him alone, as an individual. If my experience is any guide, it’ll take him longer to recognize himself as an individual than it takes a visitor like me.
Tibetan Buddhists and others talk of the person who died spending time in the Bardo, but I’ve learned that the people we leave behind, still living, are also in a bardo. Their identity as half of a couple has disintegrated now that their loved one is gone, and they are only beginning the process of reassembling a new identity. In my experience, that new identity often integrates qualities of the person who died and aspects of the couplehood they shared.
Three and-a-half years after Bernie’s death, that identity is still in formation. My friend is only beginning that process now.
We sat down and talked; then he took me around the house. I’d walked around that house before, but this time it felt very different. The absence was so present! His wife had been a powerful personality and you might imagine that with her gone, there might be a deadness in the air, a blank emptiness, a lifeless quality in their living room, bedroom, and office space. Not a bit of it. The house was completely alive. I don’t say this out of nostalgic remembering of her there, it was the absence that was alive.
When our human form doesn’t take space, the space that was there is still there. You realize it was always there and that it was fully and vibrantly present, completely aware, only our senses only focus on the person in the space. We think it’s the person that makes the presence, but that’s not the case.
Now the flesh-and-blood body is no longer there, but something vibrant and alive is. I could almost feel the hairs on my body trembling from all the energy in that house. When I first drove there, I was tired and dragging due to a lack of sleep the previous night. When I left, I felt wide awake and full of energy, ready that hour of the early evening to start a full day’s work.
Some people say that this vibrancy is left only when a great person leaves this realm of existence, and as I wrote before, my friend’s wife was a powerful woman. But I think it’s true for everybody. There’s something that shines all around and through us, and it doesn’t go when the body goes.
The thing is not to fill up the “empty” space they once occupied with distractions. Don’t be in a rush to leave the house, buy new furniture, seek solace in new boyfriends or girlfriends, in food, drink, and other addictions. My personal addiction is to being busy, to filling the day with projects, writing and housework.
After Bernie died, I didn’t leave the house for 49 days other than to sit in the zendo, walk Aussie, and get groceries. I wouldn’t see anybody. I worked, including keeping up this blog, but there were big pockets of silence, of getting up to go to the next room for something and just stopping. My friend told me yesterday that he at times sees and hears his wife in the house. That didn’t happen to me. Instead,, I stared at nothing, thought nothing. It wasn’t a dullness, it was entering a realm of aliveness that was quiet and deep, even intense.
To paraphrase the words of Eihei Dogen, the founder of Japanese Zen, I sensed that right there in my home, hiding behind the elephant of day-to-day life, day-to-day loss, was a dragon that had nothing to do with Bernie’s death.
I also knew, even in the midst of grief and misery, that that dragon was benevolent.
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