Thursday, December 2, 2010

Tenzin's Prayer

Amid my late teens and early twenties, when any nod to my own physical appearance incited an immediate internal rant about my weight, I sought the counsel of the food/love guru, Geneen Roth. Many hours I drove the hills and valleys of my Kentucky home and listened to Geneen weave her tales of failed diets, faulty relationships and that ever elusive bag of M&M's. The latter goes a little something like this:

One day a mother, alarmed by her young daughter's increasing waist, decided to set locks on the kitchen cabinets and ban all M&M's (the little girls favorite treat) from their home. The daughter continued to gain weight. Exasperated, the mother called in a professional. The therapists advice? Remove the locks from the cabinets. Take a pillowcase, fill near to overflowing with peanut M&M's, and replenish at the first sign of depletion. When the little girl realized it would not be taken away, the therapist reasoned, she would begin to eat from 'stomach hunger' and nothing else. After two weeks the little girl had lost six pounds.

I spent much of my childhood bobbing and weaving through various tumults, where safety miraged just outside my bedroom window. In the huddled, desperate space of that adolescent pain, I swore someday a different path. Above any other dream I lusted after, grander than the palatial weddings of movie stars, all my heart ever desired was a family of my own. One day, I will have my own family and I will be safe.

I took to marriage the way an impatient swimmer waits for winter's end. I had been training for quite some time, after all. I stopped working and cared for our children. I made dinner and cleaned house. I deferred to Paul on all manner of domesticity: finances, houses and where to eat dinner. In the name of love, I cleaved unto my husband; God bless that wonderful, tolerant man.
And oh how I thrilled to the sight of my hand adorned by my wedding ring! Its very presence broadcast my unquestionable value to the world. Look now! I am loved! I am wanted! I will never be alone again! I corseted love around my chest, unlocked the kitchen cabinets and allowed my candy filled pillowcase to runneth over.

Along the sometimes bumbling path of our marriage, there were moments of such exquisite sweetness, I thrill to remember them now-and it is good to give account to some here, for they made up the majority of our lives together. Sharing sinks in the early morning hours, Saturday morning snuggling. Birthdays and dinners and bottles of wine near the fire. Nursing each other through stomach bugs and weight gain and finding more love with each new push past selfishness. Laughing at almost everything. We both held mightily to the power of humor to dissipate the greatest of tension. "I'm a human blanket!" I would say as I draped my body over his after a fight, and he never refused the olive branch. It simply wasn't Paul's way to stay angry. These ordinary moments were my life's greatest blessings.

Several months ago, my dear friend Wendy gave me a book entitled Tenzin's Deer. As I began to read, I felt a stirring I knew from experience signaled something important. In the kind of unmistakable skin prickle that begs you to Pay Attention I read on. In this story, a tender-hearted Tibetan boy named Tenzin wanders along the woods and finds the wounded tracks of a felled deer. Touched by what he sees, Tenzin begins to care for the animal, eventually renaming her Jampa, "Loving Kindness". Over a series of several nights, Tenzin's dreams become the blueprint to heal Jampa. Under his tender hand, she soon grows well enough to run and play and eat alongside her beloved friend. Eventually, a startling dream came to the young boy. Jampa had been healed and wished to be released. "Please stop praying and holding me close to you. Please let me go."

It is week six of our eight week hospital stay, but I do not know then how long we'll be there. I know only one thing with increasing certainty: Paul is not getting better. On the website we created I write these words: "For almost six weeks now, you have carried the burden of prayer for Paul and for our family. We are so grateful for that love and support. Would you join me now in asking God for a miracle for Paul? My prayer is that God would heal every muscle, organ, infection and injury..." Those desperate words remind me how clear-headed I was: Paul was leaving me.

In the hospital room, the frantic pace had slowed. The inevitable would come. We would wait. In a moment of exhaustion; physical, mental, spiritual exhaustion-I draped his arm over my neck and fell asleep. When I finally woke, I moved close to his ear and uttered what I believed was my duty as the self appointed One Who Loved Him Best: I let him go. "I do not want you to say goodbye. I want you to keep fighting. But Baby, if you can't do it anymore, if your body is too sick to go on, we'll be okay." I promised to take care of our kids. I promised to keep him alive in spirit. I promised to love him forever. "It's okay Baby" I said, many, many times over.

It would be a disingenuous account to paint myself a Tibetan monk who knows the beauty of love and releases it to its full breadth. My truth is simpler and far less sage. All that I dreamed has died. I am struck the petulant child, longing for what she cannot have. But when I am quiet, when that still, small voice rises up to guide me, I remember Tenzin's prayer. I admit my weakness and ask for strength. I ask God to show me how to love as Tenzin loved.

"At the moment he felt his bravest, (Tenzin) began to breathe with Jamba. As she breathed in, he breathed out. His breath deepened, and he felt as if he was now breathing for her, making it easier for her to leave. He said gently, "Go, beloved friend, to the wild. Do not be held by my love. Go bravely and well and clearly know we will meet again. Return to the earth as a gift."

Friday, September 3, 2010

Independance Day

In the days after Paul's death, there were things to be done; some expected and some I had not bargained for. I had begun mental preparations for the funeral days before I had to. I knew which songs he would want; who would facilitate the service, who I wanted to render the eulogies. What I could never prepare for were the small, imperceptible slights that unglued a thinly constructed veneer; the social security office, for instance. I knew I'd be asked for my identification and his certificate of death. I handed them to the woman behind the desk, trembling but resolute. When she began typing and, without looking up, asked, "What was your husband's name?". I finally heard it. "Was", past tense.

I have written here before that what surprised me most is the inequitable quiet of death, the absence of reassurance or comfort. I must rescind that now. Having passed a year's time without him, I can tell you truly there have been suspicions of something more.

This winter I got characteristically stuck in the mud and tried to turn around in a spot grossly unsupportive of mini-vans. This habit had been a running joke in our marriage. One year, on my way to Christmas service, I made a helpless call to AAA. The driver did a horrible job hiding his amusement with me. There was a night out with the girls when my triple A membership rescued me again. A good thing, since my sleeping husband never heard a single frantic call home. So, on this particular day, I was familiar with what to do, only here's the thing: I had left home without my cell phone. The more I tried to back out of the mud, the more stuck I became. Will you believe me when I tell you what happened next? I question myself, even as I write it. In one quick motion, my car seemed to lift up from the mud and be deposited once more onto solid pavement.

Visiting San Diego in April, I spilled out the details of the previous ten months to my dear friend Jules, her Golden Retriever Luna sitting between us. While I petted her dog and cried with Jules, Luna winked right at me. Not a blink, but a legitimate wink, the exact way Paul had, so many times from his hospital room.

After one particularly difficult grief session with my counselor Claire, I hurried home, realizing all the windows downstairs had been left open in the rain. As I closed one window, I saw something that stopped me. There, wedged between two panes of glass, was a dragonfly. The dragonfly, as you may already know, has become for the kids and I, a symbol of transformation. So there I was, in the midst of working through some painful stuff, looking at a trapped dragonfly. With great gentleness, I lowered the window, hoping to set it free. It didn't move. I gingerly blew on it and watched as it took flight. Could I possibly miss the symbolism? I was holding on so tightly to Paul, keeping him trapped. Mired down with pain, I could not set him free. When I called my sister to tell her what I'd seen, she had a different perspective. "Heidi, is the dragonfly you? Do God, and Paul, want to set you free?" This would make for a better story if I told you that was all it took. That, from that revelation on, I began to release my desire to have him back. But there were still months of anguish and arguing ahead before I could begin to let go.

On the Fourth of July, our neighbor "Mr. Paul" came to my kitchen window as I stood washing the dishes. "Honey," he said, "Are you ready?" I hesitated, uncertain. Later that night, the three of us set sail; Mr. Paul, Miss Ali and I. Paul navigated the boat just past the beach where we swim. "We can sit here until 10 at night if you need to, honey. Take as much time as you need" Ali said. After a few minutes and a few words of goodbye, I walked to the back of the boat and released Paul's ashes into the ocean. "I will always love you". I said. He exists in another dimension, but Paul, and our love for him, remains.

I have often viewed life through a spiritual lens. On the night before my childhood dog died, I whispered goodbye and knew it was the last time I'd see him. I cried in fearful foreshadowing the night my brother ended up in the hospital with a bad concussion. Whether it was rubbing my rosary in rote prayer or raising my hands in evangelical vigor, I have always huddled near Him. My one constant was the awareness of God in, and over, the world. How could I miss Him in the months after Paul's death? The answer is clear to me now. The truth is, when we numb ourselves from the pain-when alcohol or food or people or things medicate the place of pain inside us-we numb ourselves to everything else, too. We keep at bay the very things that might bring us forgiveness, joy and peace. We miss the dragonflies.

This summer I walked the beach. I cried, sometimes in deliberate, scheduled ways. I laughed every chance I could. I admitted areas of excess in my life, those convienent escapes from grief. I spent time with strong, sage people, willing to keep company with suffering. I played with my children. I made dinner and fed my friends. I swam.

After his ashes were emptied, Paul and Ali held me, encircling me with all the love two chosen parents could give. Ali whispered words of comfort. Paul added that my Paul would continue to be with us; in the water as we swam, next to us as we gathered quahogs, washing up onto the sands of the beach. As we turned around and headed home, the night sky had tuned into an explosion of pink. We were struck quiet by the sheer beauty of it. A band on a nearby beach began to play. A bonfire burned in the distance. Showy and splendid, so very Paul.

A few years ago, I stumbled upon a lesser known passage of the Bible. It says, "Call to me and I will answer you and show you great and unsearchable things you do not know." In the throes of crisis, as Paul's doctors gathered to discuss with us the considerable obstacles to his recovery, I wondered about that scripture. I imagined praying that line over every doctor gathered that day-how 'unsearchable things' revealed to those collective, capable hands, might change things.

In my future, not too distant, I suspect there will be a reunion between me and the wooden pews of my chilhood. Or perhaps I will meet with God, as I often do, calling out in the early morning sun on His (Her) sea. Perhaps I might glean some unsearchable things as I walk along the beach. Wherever I end up, one thing I am certain. The same God who sends the dragonflies is holding onto my best friend, preparing for me the greatest reunion I could ever imagine. Because Paul was. Because he is...

Sunday, May 2, 2010

I Still Miss Someone

Oh, no I never got over those blue eyes
I see them every where
I miss those arms that held me
When all the love was there

I wonder if she's sorry
For leavin' what we'd begun
There's someone for me somewhere
And I still miss someone
-Johnny Cash

This is the hackneyed, banal way our lives (as we knew it) ended.

The loud knocking at the door, the sober faced cop.

"Are you the wife of Paul Dube?"
Me, swallowing, "Yes".
"The Paul Dube running the Granby Road Race today?"
This time I only nod, quiet fear beginning to take root.
"Ma'am, your husband has fallen. You'll need to go to the hospital."
"My God," I said, "is he okay?" And only this, as inadequate reassurance, "Hartford Hospital Ma'am, drive carefully, please."

What kind of mad optimism had me believe that a broken leg-surely all my healthy, athletic husband might have suffered-would lead itself to a revival within our home? That a deft blow of humility would cause a cease fire to the fighting between us? But driving to the hospital, a burgeoning hope had begun in me that God had found a way to intervene on our behalf.

We had been away that weekend, the kids and I, safely ensconced in the arms of my family. This is what I said to my husband, the night before he ran. "When this is over (his hunting for self, his navigating his own way), you'll have some making up to do!" Threatening, ugly. Hurting people hurt people. So waking the next morning, remorseful, what did I want more than anything? To cheer him on at that damn race.

In the name of full disclosure, I'm not the wildly confident sort. I've been in love twice in my life and neither one turned out so well, in the end. Paul had been a big surprise, oddly timed but so welcomed. And having waited impatiently for love to come, I was greedy for his attention, perpetually wanting more. In the beginning of our coupling, when affection was generously offered and given, all was well. But as love cooled some, Paul withdrew, taking with him the security of his promised devotion. I grew frantic, he felt threatened. He retreated, I invaded. And on and on and on it went.

So the morning of that race, after a two hour ride home, teeming with self talk and affirmations, I opted to attend my Y event instead. It was my leaning into independence, constructing some necessary emotional space. "It's time to take care of yourself!" I intoned with conviction.

And herein lies the self-accusation I sit with tonight, one year to the date of that wretched run. What if we had been there? Had we lined the streets, shoulder to shoulder against that encroaching evil, would our light have been enough to save him? As he ran, what would the image of his family have meant? Would the tangible reminder of all he had with us been enough to pull him back? Would we have tamed that irrepressible beast that bullied him to achieve and accomplish and push, at all costs?

Have you heard stories of people, one leg earthbound, one leg in the next place, recount a moment of floating above themselves? How they have listened to conversations they had no natural ability to hear? When I am angry (and yes, I am regularly angry now), I almost hope he was privy to that day in the ER. Pray he saw my face when the doctor told me she wasn't sure how much brain damage he had suffered. I want him to have been present to our kneeling prayers, us four, pleading his case before God. Hope he saw his brother breaking down at each tube that willed decay out of his body and the ones that crammed life back in. A road race? Surely there are more noble ways to die...

When death is hypothetical, every type of romantic idea is entertained. The posthumous arrival of anniversary flowers. Vivid dreams of answered questions. Signs, signs, everywhere! But the reality of death, at least as I've experienced it, is this: death is, above all else, deafeningly silent.

I miss him with a longing I am inept to describe here. I miss his voice. I miss his deep laugh. I miss his touch-the hand on my back, reassuring kind. I miss the 'We'll be down in the minute! We're talking about your Christmas presents!" kind, too. I miss every facet of our lives together. The emptiness he left behind is crushing.

Marriage is the stage upon which we act out our deepest fears. We choose (consciously or unconsciously) a cast of familiar characters who might redeem our childhood hurts. We carry into marriage unspoken expectations and grow weary when the partner we've chosen fails to heal us. Much of what we do, or how we do it, we cannot name at all, prone as we are to numbly stroll through life. The courage it takes to unearth the origin of these feelings and behaviors is treacherous business. Some of us, quite understandably, simply give up. But for those who choose to stay the course, we may find that more than understanding someone else, we finally unpack our own baggage, find our own selves. Only then, when we see clearly the extent of our own frailty and shortcomings, can we view with forgiveness the child of God who is our partner. With forgiveness comes freedom.

Ultimately, we got it right. I put aside who I wanted Paul to be to allow who he was to be enough. For eight weeks in that hospital room, I loved him purely, gratefully accepting what he could give in a way I wasn't able to before. And in return? He did as much as he was able: mouthing "I love you", resting his eyes on me until I turned away from the intensity of his stare. For a man who spent much of his life observing, I am certain he was able to see me through the eyes of ethereal understanding.

It isn't redemption. Eight weeks simply does not suffice. But like everything else, what's given must be accepted and made enough, if we are to survive at all.