Monday, May 25, 2015

ON MEMORIAL DAY

Today is the 46th anniversary of the day that Ellie and I met.  It's a good long while.  We have been fortunate with each other.  And today we are both laid up, brought down by what I think is mostly sheer exhaustion.  Speaking for myself, I plan to spend the rest of the day pretty much where I am: in bed.

It was good to be back with our Laguna Beach sangha yesterday--a blessing to feel the love and support of those with whom I have sat for a silent hour for many, many Sundays, and whose collective wisdom and compassion has been the source of great comfort--as it was, particularly, yesterday.

If you've been following The Buddha Diaries for the past few entries, you'll remember the last teaching of my sister, before she died last Friday: the importance of a spiritual community. This is mine, and I'm grateful for having discovered this "refuge" more than twenty years ago.  I have been less regular in attendance since Luka's birth, because we have been staying in town more often at the weekends.  But it remains my spiritual home.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

WELCOME TO THE FUN HOUSE

I think I must have reached a state of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual exhaustion.  I woke this morning a little after 6AM, in searing pain in every part of my body, my brain a ball of cotton wool--and from the worst nightmare I can ever remember having.

Nodding off in front of the television set before 8PM, I was in bed by 8:30 and put the light out at 8:37 (strange, how differently we note the time, now that we have digital clocks with big-number read-outs!)  Asleep almost at once, I slept without a break until 4:10AM, when I woke for a quick bathroom stop.  Back in bed, I had a hard time getting back to sleep at first.  I had already had about seven and a half hours, pretty much my norm, and my mind was traveling back over the years with images of Flora.

Then I must have fallen back to sleep, because I woke as I described above.  The nightmare?  The detail was too intense and too diverse to remember--or to want to remember--very much of it.  But I was lost.  Ellie was doing some re-landscaping, it seemed, was absorbed in it, and had gone off to the plant store with an advisor of some kind.  We had stopped somewhere along the way for a huge lunch, and for some reason were driving separate cars.  Thinking to meet up with her in a little while, I drove further, parking my own car at what I thought to be the southern end of La Brea--which it obviously wasn't--leaving myself what  thought, again, to be a reasonable distance to walk off that lunch.

I started walking, and soon realized that the distance was immense.  "La Brea" was also not the straight shot I had imagined it to be, but broke off into huge, carnival-like malls with a complex, confusing architecture of shops, stairwells, restaurants and side streets.  I can't begin to describe the shifting, strangely colorful environment, not the gradual process of getting more and more lost, of feeling more and more disconnected from the world around me.  I seemed I had started smoking cigarettes again, too, after thirty years, but had left my pack in the car; so I thought to buy myself a new one and smoke a cigarette, but the tobacco store was filled with shelves of odd glass devices, and strange people who mocked my old habits and my ridiculous request.

By this time, I decided I must call Ellie on the phone to have her come and pick me up and drive me to my car, but the light was not good, and my fingers fumbled uselessly with the tiny numbers.  At one moment, I seemed to have made a connection.  I thought to hear the sound of her voice, distantly,  engaged in another conversation.  I tried shouting, without success, to intervene.  I tried yelling SOS, as though that would get her attention.  Nothing.  Then I wandered into a restaurant, asked one of the wait staff for help, and was soundly mocked by him as a lost old man--before he stole my cell phone.

Exhausted and disoriented by this time, I kept walking, through a bleak cityscape of narrow, curving streets whose end I could not see and whose direction I was unable to make out.  I asked constantly for help, for the loan of a cell phone, for help in dialing numbers that I could not see, for which my fingers were too clumsy--but to no avail.  "La Brea" was now a distant memory.  I was completely lost.  Finally, on a rocky shore line, with the city behind me, I found someone to lend me a cell phone, but without the help I needed to dial the number.  I kept on misdialing...

And woke.  Feeling that I now knew at first hand what it must be like to suffer from Alzheimer's disease.  And aching in every muscle, every limb, every joint.  And with a throbbing head.  I had a hard time even getting out of bed.  Staggered to the bathroom for a pee.  Juggled with some sweat pants and took George out for his pee and poop walk, found the whole world hazy.  Gave George his breakfast.  Checked in on Ellie in the bedroom and found her still asleep.  Thought about trying a short meditation, to clear the head.  And sat down instead with a yellow pad and a ball point pen to write this story.  I still find myself in a cloud of grief.

Friday, May 22, 2015

FLORA

I'm devastated.  My niece called last night to let me know that my sister died.

TBD readers will have followed my recent mentions of her illness and her recent surgery, so I was not unaware of her condition.  But the news last night came as a complete shock.  I thought we had a kind of pact.  When Ellie and I left her bedside for the last time at the hospital in Cheltenham last Wednesday, barely a week ago, I insisted that this was not goodbye, that I would be back to say goodbye when the right moment came.  She seemed, at the time, quite bright, almost radiant...


... and had been recovering strength and energy after surgery.  I genuinely believed that I would be seeing her again.

And now, not.  Charlotte, my niece, told me on the phone that she had died very peacefully, and that the hospital staff were as astonished by her abrupt departure as the family.  She had been transferred from the medical facility in Cheltenham to a convalescent hospital in her home town, Cirencester.  The morning of her death, Charlotte told me, she had appeared quite sprightly, getting up out of bed and leaving "all the other old ladies" behind as she walked down to the day room.  Hours later, she died.

It was as though she had simply decided it was time for her to leave.  As though she had considered the prospect of having to deal with the colostomy bag, the pain, the burden she might have felt herself to those around her, and decided instead to spare herself.

I woke this morning early, after a fitful sleep, thinking first of the grief I felt, but then... that this was a good way to die.  For Buddhists, I know, the moment of death is an important one, because the state of mind at the time can determine the nature of transition into the next state of being.  And Flora, it seems, chose a peaceful, relaxed, accepting path to follow into the next life, if there be one.  She has earned a good step up in the chain of being.

At one moment while I was with her at the hospital, she recalled a quote that she attributed (mistakenly, I have discovered) to Peter Pan: "Death is the next adventure."  Actually, it was Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of the magicians'  school in the Harry Potter series, who said: "After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next adventure."

Well, she's off on her next adventure now.  I hope there's one awaiting her, and that it will be another great journey for her.  Meanwhile, here on earth and still among the living, I and her family and friends are left with only the memories to celebrate.  And the task of mourning to be done.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

BLUEBELLS




BLUEBELLS
for my sister

It’s bluebells time.  I find myself once more
In England at this season, knee-deep in them,
Strolling through woods near Harpenden
With my son, Matthew, who’s now fifty plus,
And his young daughter, Alice, sixteen,
Already a young woman; and Joe and Georgia,
Twins, children still at thirteen, romping
Up ahead. 

       And I’m remembering those days
When we two, as children, would ride our bikes
Down that steep, narrow hill toward the airfield
Where we watched Spitfires sputter in to land
On their return from battle.  Here, the woods
Were a magic carpet, blue and green; we’d pick
Great baskets full of flowers to bring back home
To our mother at the Rectory.  Primroses, too,
And cowslips…

                             And now, not five days later,
I’m at your bedside in the Cheltenham hospital
Where they rushed you, to the disbelief of all
Who know you, to operate on what proved to be
Inoperable.  And yet I find you in good spirits.
We are both—let’s say the word—both old now,
You at eighty, I at seventy-eight.  The memory
Of those bluebell woods is distant as a dream.
I hear you say, with what sounds a kind of joy,
“I’m ready,” and it grieves me.  It grieves me
Because I know that I’m not ready. Not ready
To let go the world I left some fifty years ago!

Here’s the strange thing: I did not feel this
When our parents died, but I do feel it now,
The long-neglected, buried pain of separation,
Of disconnection from my early life, those days
When we picked bluebells in woods. 

       Back, now,
In arid Southern California, where I chose to live
My adult life, these fifty years, the gulf of time
And space between us overwhelms me, I,
At four-thirty in the morning in my bed, you,
mid-afternoon, in yours, in the England that I left.

And yet, despite the sadness, I do not nurse
Regrets.  I’ve lived a good life here, am grateful
For it all.  I’m grateful, too, for this: that, having
So diverged, and for so many years, our paths
Came strangely back together, not geographically,
Perhaps, but in more important, deeper ways,
That probably surprised us both.  You in your way,
And I in mine, we found the need to reconnect
With something of our father’s we had lost,
Rejected, even, in our anger over things long past;
Call it his search, his struggle, the ever-present,
Ever painfully examined, and yet ever unexplained
Gut pain that he lived with all his life—the pain,
Perhaps, of separation from the God from whom
He sought salvation.  He struggled, too, with death,
When his time came. 

   That you are “ready” now
Speaks well of the work that you have done
To come to terms with life, and with yourself,
To learn the ways of loving freely, both yourself
And others.  That I am “not yet ready”speaks
To my unwillingness to accept the disconnect
That you, with grace, have found; have found
Within your heart: the strong will to let go.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

GRATITUDE


I never told my father
thank you; thank you
for the schools I chose
to hate, to which
he thought it best,
perhaps mistakenly,
to send me; thank you
for the love he knew
not how to show, nor
to express in simple words;
thank you for the faith
he struggled with himself
and chose to give me--
a gift that I perhaps
ungraciously rejected,
misunderstanding it
until long past his death;
thank you for the life
he gave me, in an act
of perhaps spontaneous,
perhaps mindless, perhaps
even purely selfish
self-release.  All this
I never before thought
to thank my father for,
but thank him now
in this too long neglected
simple act of gratitude.