YOU DON’T DISAPPEAR

Photo by Clemens Breitschaft

Thinking of you. Wondering how you are today. Deep gratitude to him.

Yesterday, January 18, would have been Bernie’s 85th birthday and warmhearted greetings and condolences came my way via text and email. Also by phone, but I haven’t answered. The Gaza fighting has been closer to home in more ways than one and it preoccupied me a lot yesterday.

Long before October 7, if you brought up the Middle East, Bernie would shake his head slowly. What would he do now?

I always imagined him living a long time; his father died when he was 91, so it was only natural, I thought, for him to live even longer. He was so strong and healthy! When my father died at 90, his wife looked at me, bereft.

 “He was 90,” I reminded her.

“Yes, but his mother died at 102,” she said.

Probably older, I thought to myself. We never knew her real birthday.

Bernie died two months short of 80, and I now think that that was a good age to live to. A friend is undergoing both chemo and radiation treatments. When I try to empathize with her, she tells me that it breaks her heart to see so many younger people undergoing the same treatments in the hospital.

Bernie accomplished much. He had many students and affected way more. He had three marriages to three wonderful women. I had a call yesterday with a Greek woman who talked about his influence on her at the Auschwitz retreat, and how that affected her own life plans, including building a retreat place for meditation, peacemaking, and healing. Next week I’ll go to Greyston for yet another film about him and the Greyston Bakery, and what spiritual leadership can mean in the business world.

When someone’s life has such lasting reach, when someone has been loved and respected by so many, expecting more, wanting more, feels selfish.

It’s easy to say, after somebody dies, Wow, he gave so much! We often don’t see it before they die. We want more from the husband, more from the teacher. It’s hard to be content with things as they are, as they’re taking place.

But I couldn’t join the gatherings held in his honor, much as I appreciated them, couldn’t talk to people about him. That’s the trouble for me in those conversations, they’re about Bernie. I don’t experience him like that. His picture is on the altar in the living room, along with some others, and every morning, when I light incense, I say Hiya, Bernie, or Good morning. He looks back from under his bushy eyebrows and above healthy, ruddy cheeks, enjoying his cigar, enjoying life, and he’s here, in the house, in me.

German writer Mariana Leky, in her gorgeous novel What You Can See From Here, quotes a Buddhist aphorism: If you don’t see something, it can’t disappear. We see something when we discriminate or differentiate it in some way. Consciously or unconsciously, I see Henry holding his green turtle in his mouth, Aussie barking outside in the snow, chimes ringing from under the bare maple. I can’t see something unless it’s separate from me. I’m the observer and the observed is what I see.

When you don’t see like that, nothing can disappear. Bernie isn’t an object to see or discuss, he’s completely inside me and this house, no outside or inside. When I greet his photo in the morning, I’m greeting me and lots of other things besides. He’s in my blood, in the air, on the outdoors deck where he sat to smoke cigars while working (later we converted it into another indoors office, where I now sit without cigar). I can’t see him, and for this reason he can’t disappear.

He’s not around to celebrate his 85th birthday and I don’t think he’s responding to folks emailing me Happy birthday, Bernie. Why should he? He’s not 85, he’s something else.

“What survives you is the result of your actions,” he used to say.

The man doesn’t disappear.

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