Living the Bardo

I know it’s just a date on the calendar, but it was one year today that my heart sank, my knees buckled and my body literally fell to the ground under the weight of it all. It wasn’t the burden of telling my sisters, their kids and the bill collectors that my father had died. I could handle that. I am the strong one, after all. It wasn’t that my mom was finished either. In the last months of my father’s life the VA had given him an unlimited supply of methadone which he generously shared and which my mother would now have to recover from and fast, as the sheriff pulled every single bottle of anything he could find to report to the coroner. I knew about withdrawal and I knew we would need help, so I got it. It wasn’t the bills my father had neglected in the last month of his life or the suddenly vital auto repairs both of my sisters required—my credit card was accepted by phone in most cases. It wasn’t even the funeral arrangements. The VA would send a memorial plaque, flag and certificates for my mom and sisters to be presented with at the service. I made sure that everything was taken care of and we were, as they say, as good as can be expected.

My five-year old niece and I were sharing a fruit bowl for breakfast the day after burying my father’s ashes when I got the call about James. It had been a trying three weeks, but life was definitely beginning to look up. We smiled at each other as we shared tiny bites of watermelon and honeydew – our first real food in days and my last for another ten. An almost inaudible little giggle escaped our lips simultaneously, as if it had been waiting for the guards to turn their backs—no guilt, just a bit of happiness shining through the bars of grief at long last.  I should have known not to answer the phone. Not on a Sunday before noon.

When I fell, I fell alone. My youngest sister found me crouched in a ball outside on the porch, my nightgown torn where it had been dragged across the splintering wood. Bare skin pressed perilously close to the slats between the floorboards we all scrupulously avoided. We had been warned that the dark, cool recess made a perfect home for scorpions and rattlesnakes, but I no longer cared. I lay there prone now, practically daring them to strike. She held my head as I sobbed—limp, half in, half out of her arms and she stroked my hair until the convulsions subsided a bit. I remember this as if I had been observing it from above. I cannot actually feel the warm wood beneath me anymore.

I suddenly wish I would have been there to hold her and comfort her instead of having to tell her over the phone. She’d had the same reaction to our father’s death I’d had with James’. All I could do was cradle the receiver as she wept, and cried, and shouted in protest. I pressed it hard against my cheek and lips as she finally succumbed, but I could not kiss her sweet head and make it all go away. Her tears fell silently into the tiny holes of the mouthpiece. I tasted them in mine.

Her tears fell silently into the tiny holes of the mouthpiece. I tasted them in mine.

My little niece cried with me that Sunday; our fruit bowl now abandoned for each other’s arms. Her for the loss she hadn’t yet comprehended. Me, for the men who I know now were my source of praise and pride—founding fathers of my autonomy, protectors of my sovereignty, replenishers of the well. I carried her outside and we sang to a storm cloud looming in the distance. “Rain, rain come today. Rain, rain come today.” We basked in the last refuge of sunshine as dark clouds threatened our playful lament. Shouting, we raised our fists to the angry sky. Fervently now we chanted, “RAIN, RAIN COME TODAY.” A torrent of rain under a cloudless sky abruptly reprimanded us for our insolence and we opened our palms to the raging wind in apology. The drops fell swiftly and stung our cheeks like a virtuous old nun chastising us our paganism. We spun in circles, wailing, holding each other sometimes, sometimes spinning apart into our own private vortexes of anguish. We imagined a gust of wind had swept us up face to face with our loss and we said goodbye. Goodbye forever. Goodbye. We waved our arms in the air like mad women, screamed a banshee duet that spooked the horses and finally, laid ourselves down to the storm. Side by side spread-eagle in the grass, we waited hand in hand to be rinsed clean of the venom our mothers had warned us about.

Only hours before we had knelt down next to each other in a field of glorious wild flowers and now a gossamer poison rushed through our veins so forcefully we could only wait with the pain and wonder if it was enough to actually kill us. It wasn’t. But we didn’t know that then.

We only knew that surrender was inevitable and that we would be facing it alone. With surrender came peace. That comfort was not our right, it was our ambition. 

I awoke Saturday afternoon with such a start that my mother rushed to my side with a succor she has not possessed or shown to me in more than a decade. It was 2:47. James was pronounced dead at 2:51. But I didn’t know that then. There were other signs. I see them clearly now. At the park that day, a violent summer storm blew in from the north. The squall composed itself of sand and rain so thick and wide we shuddered in fear as it approached. The temperature dropped more than ten degrees in a matter of minutes. All of these things had happened before. It was a typical monsoon season in the high desert. But then something else happened. My mother the storm chaser calmly and quietly suggested we leave. There was urgency in her voice that scared me. She was trying to protect us. From what? I took a picture with my phone as we retreated to the safety of my father’s truck and sent it to James’ phone. We were finally in the same city, seeing the same sunsets, watching the same storms. The message sending failed.

I discovered right away that sole-proprietorship means much more than conducting business under your own name. I had taken the day off for my birthday to spend some time with my nephews, when the calls began. Expecting jubilant singing and celebrating on the other line, I hastily answered and instantly regretted it. The very next call was from a client who desperately wanted his paper to go out before he left for vacation. In a state of shock, I complied. I hadn’t even made the calls to my sisters before I finished his publication and sent it off to the printer. Later, I resented him  for even asking and for making me say the words, “my father just died” over the phone in a room where I’m sure my young nephew must have overheard me. He didn’t react. In fact, even after we sat down with his mother and she told him that grandpa had gone where his dogs Brave and Blondie had gone when they “left” he only sighed and asked if we hadn’t made a mistake. Maybe grandpa was just sleeping, did we ever think of that?

Maybe grandpa was just sleeping, did we ever think of that?

My husband had been away on business in Seattle. I had just returned home a few days earlier from a meditation retreat in the mountains of northern Arizona with James. We were all but strangers then. Living as room mates in reality and as a couple only in public and only with people who knew us. We were thrown together by tragedy, bound together more by our families than our vows, not to mention by love. We did what was expected of us and we each took our responsibilities very seriously. For this assignment, I was the strong one and he was my driver. He initiated conversation only once in the 14 hours it took to travel by car from San Antonio back to my home in Arizona. It wasn’t unusual for him to be so silent, especially driving long-distance. When he finally spoke over burgers at a rest stop at the halfway point, I was leveled, disheartened; finally and conclusively devoid of any hope for our future. He wanted to know if I had slept with James. Internally, I mulled over my rebuke. How dare him! Didn’t he realize my father had just died? And, more wistfully, wasn’t there anything else he could think to say to me at this very moment? I felt him fidget after a tenacious silence, figured my penalty sufficient and very simply replied “No, I did not sleep with James,” taking care to look him in the eye without spitting in it. We saw fireworks in three states that Fourth of July.

There were still deadlines to meet and clients to serve and I did so the best I could, borrowing a small office in town from my previous employer and closing the thankfully heavy oak door when I needed to. I was fine most of the time. Exhausted and mentally drained but fine. My dad’s death was sad, but I’ve never been one to cry at funerals. Up to that point, I’d never found death to be a particularly bad thing. Usually someone was suffering and it is simply a release. In this case we all knew that he was sick and it was time for him to go even if some of us had a harder time letting it happen. I had coworkers to socialize with on my breaks and they were all very comforting. The worst part was wondering if I would ever be able to function normally again at work. I always knew in the back of my mind that I would. I freaked out about not being able remember editor’s marks or how to make a color separation because it was easier than freaking out about the fact that only weeks earlier I had wished my father dead. But I didn’t know that then. I called on James for support and he always came through.  I told him I wished I was dying. Without a moment’s hesitation he said, “You are. We all are.” And that was that. I even managed a laugh.

I told him I wished I was dying. Without a moment’s hesitation he said, “You are. We all are.”

He placated me with words but never useless platitudes. He questioned my lack of guilt and listened without judgment. He never advised. He simply sighed and said, “Sounds like you need a new perspective, sweetheart.” He was the kind of man who could call women pet names and still sound genuine. I guess it was because he never used the same name twice. Late one night, emboldened by remorse and a superior vintage Merlot, I told him  I would no longer be a victim. He clapped and slapped his knees and said, “That is so sexy.” What a strange and wonderful thing to say. I never felt better.

The day after James died; I went into work knowing full well that everyone would be expecting progress and perhaps even eye make-up. It had been three weeks since my father passed. He was safely planted in the ground under a mulberry, a mesquite and his favorite ironwood. Hence, it was time for me to carry on. As I unlocked the door, I noticed the queasy smell of the sympathy flora kind-hearted people had sent to me at the office. They showed definite signs of neglect and I questioned the tradition of buying something so impermanent for a person who had just experienced such a loss. I retraced my steps backward and silently away from the responsibility of caring for another living thing destined to die regardless of whether or not I cared for it.

Instead of going straight to my work as I had planned, I took a detour to a neighboring cube and said only this. “James died yesterday and now I am dead too.” The sturdy guy behind the green fabric façade took me in his arms and suffocated me so thoroughly I had a thought that if he killed me, it wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen. He wasn’t malevolent. He just didn’t know what to do. I didn’t either. We had shared the kind of things we each felt safe sharing behind a veil of modesty so thin that neither of us had believed it existed until now. In 10 to 15 minute intervals, once or twice a day over the past five years we spilled the plots of our lives like bad movie trailers, spoilers and all. I sniffed, picked my chin up, turned my back on him and went to work.

My screen had been a blur with tears for weeks already. Tasks that should have come easily to me became increasingly complicated. The confidence I had in my own recovery was waning and my mind suffered delusions of permanent disability, my family in financial ruin, destitute, beyond repair or recall and all because of me. This time it went way beyond forgotten symbology or technique. I didn’t open the door anymore. No one asked why. Neal related the story for me so I wouldn’t have to repeat it over and over and over and just when I thought it was really all over, and I crawled under my big cherry desk to carve my name into the pungent underbelly of the varnished wood worn smooth and permanently polished by decades of use; wondering if anyone had ever been under there before, he knocked on my door.

I jumped in fear of being discovered under the desk and hit my head. At that moment I felt stupid for thinking I could end it all in a corner office with a courtyard fountain view. That feeling trumped grief only briefly, but it was something. Something different, something new and I could use new. No one had ever knocked on my door before. “Wanna go to lunch? You’re not eating? I know. Come here.” I never said a word. He held me in his arms as if to confirm the fact I was still there and not just some sylph sent to retrieve the immortal soul of a human he had come to know as Jessica.  He put his head on mine, as if to say, I know you want to run but it’s safer here and I stayed. I wanted to go, but I stayed. I suspect that when I die, it’s going to be just like that. A grip of love so tight that you want to run but you can’t and pretty soon you don’t want to. You’ll just give in, but you won’t know it then. You’ll just look up one day and sigh and say merrily, “Well, this is a new perspective.”

I suspect that when I die, it’s going to be just like that. A grip of love so tight that you want to run but you can’t and pretty soon you don’t want to.

My youngest sister spooked much like the horses after her daughter and I returned from the fields. She shuddered at the sight of us and if she’d had a mane, I’m certain she would have flicked it at us or stomped a shoe. Whatever is that horses do when they’re frightened. I stayed back, allowing them some time to reacquaint themselves with each other. We continued on like this working the ranch day after day for another week until finally one day when I had stopped to take a rest and have a fit of mourning my sister  stopped too and came to me. The wind was blowing furiously again as I sat in the porch swing and stared out into the vast desert, willing myself to the top of a far away vista in search of James.

“The wind always blows harder when you think of him,” she said looking down at her shoes, dusty and worn with bits of tumbleweed still attached.

She could have been a wild animal. My eyes were still wet even in the heat of a summer afternoon in July. The intensely dry Arizona air could not make a drought of my constant tears, more like pools now than rivers. “I know,” I say and rub the goose bumps on my arms. It was 118 degrees in the shade where we stood, hugging each other. For a long time we stayed that way, forgiving each other for past transgressions and as yet unknown future foibles. And then it was over. We went back to work as if nothing had happened but let it pass that something in both of us had been touched and tenderly.

The wind never stopped blowing that day. Sometimes still, a wind not of this earth comes to me in fierce waves and gentle breezes. It caresses my cheek with a kiss like silk pulled across my skin or pillow soft lips. It swells over my entire body causing me to raise my arms in rapture and feel the air force itself between my limbs. With nimble fingers it winds my hair into its grasp and tenderly pulls my head back to expose his favorite part of me, stretching my reality so completely that I question my sanity.

Those are the good days.

4 comments to “Living the Bardo”
4 comments to “Living the Bardo”
  1. I wish I could have met James in person. After reading the story I can see why he’s still a big part of you. I’m sure there is a very real part of him with you still, and forever.

    • Well, thank you for saying so, DH. I think you might be right about that last part. So, lucky for me and for YOU! LOL. 😉

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