Thursday, February 7, 2008

The secret signal

Marcie and I were, to the day that she suddenly was knocked down and unable to walk, hopeful of her recovery. Certainly, her condition was not good, her setbacks disheartening and her episodes frightening.

But her brain metastases had been shrinking, the cancer had disappeared from other parts of her body, and there was a glimmer of hope. There was also more than a touch of desperate, stubborn and fierce determination from us both. We were alike that way.

But it did not mean we avoided preparing. We did what we could in case she did die, and we let other things that were too hard simply go.

But one night, up in Julian, when Marcie's tired legs had given out in a restaurant and she had been tucked in at the little bed and breakfast we had taken a break at, we talked of what would come after.

It was so difficult a weekend that I journaled it in my reporter's notebook, especially her touching words.

"I don't know what comes after you die," she said. "Maybe nothing, maybe Hell or Heaven, or maybe something more pagan. Maybe we're reincarnated."

She squeezed my hand and I listened, the dark making my tears invisible but my gulps and breathing telling on me.

"I hope there is something after," she said.

I did not know what to say. I have no answers. Faith and belief are not knowledge and I hold more in doubt than I do either of those. But I did think of something to say.

"So if I die first," I said. "I'll send a sign so that you know there is something and I am there."

She squeezed my hand and this time her own breathing gave her away. It was ridiculous, but she understood I wanted her to live, outlive me, or simply not to die without me. I had said it before, long before she was sick

We clung together and let the sadness pass through us. She finally spoke after she cleared her nose, and she tweaked the conversation.

"How should we signal each other?" she asked, squeezing my hand again and sliding herself back into me in a close spoon.

I gulped but maintained and I said, trying to break the tension, "Maybe email?"

She laughed her tired, chemo-strained laugh and rasped "No, honey, seriously. What will our signal be?"

I considered it for a long time. I am a romantic, and she was to a degree as romantic as I was. But both of us were skeptics of most things supernatural and intangible.

Except for ghosts.

Both of us firmly believed in hauntings after a strange sequence of events at our apartment in downtown San Diego. At first, the shower curtain whipped open in front of Marcie while I was showering, both my hands in my hair, covered in shampoo.

I had thought to admonish her, but she was in the hallway looking bewildered. I put on my dirty clothes and we stayed outside for a few minutes until we decided we were being impractical. I must have brushed it open with an elbow.

The next day, during an argument in the kitchen, the stove fell open and we both watched the cookie tray rattle out. We reasoned that away as well. And we reasoned away a remote sliding across the table and onto the floor, and the closet doors opening and cabinets closing.

We admitted once we moved to Humboldt that the place had been haunted.

"No whipping open the curtain to the shower, okay?" I said.

She "hmm'd" and sighed. "I will move something and you will know it is me moving it."

"Really?" I asked. "How about trying to talk to each other? Can we do that?"

"Yes, honey," she said. "I talk to my friend from New York who committed suicide once in a while in my dreams, but that's not easy to tell if it's real or not."

I pondered this, and my dream about my old cat Garfield Siamese, who had popped in to say hi a few times in my own dreams, my dead relatives and their appearances. They all seemed so real. But it was hard to tell.

"Well," I said, tugging on her hip a little. "I won't care if I know it's real or not, you'll be required to resume wifely duties if you visit my twisted dreams."

She laughed at first, but I had miscalculated and the unintended reminder of her state and inability to engage me in our heretofore most bonding act made her cry. I soothed her.

"I will send you my poems in email," I said. "And you won't be able to tell, because if I know I am dying, I will set them up to come on certain days."

"You'll never have to do that for me, honey," she said. "I wish I knew how to do that for you."

We went quiet and I stroked her. She slept the sleep of the exhausted long before I could close my eyes in the dark of our mountain retreat. When we woke, she brought the subject up once more.

"When I die, I will haunt you until you know there is something to look forward to," she said. "If I don't, then I will see you in your dreams and I know that will never be the same, but it's something."

I hugged her and I loaded her into the car. We took the long way home. As we wound our way through the hills, I considered a sharp turn or two gloomily. I pulled over after I took one of several far too quickly.

She had not commented as I had sped through them, but when I pulled over, she did.

"Honey," she said, taking my hand and sobbing. "I know you want to be with me. But you have to live how you are supposed to or it might not happen."

I held her hand and closed my eyes, squeezing the tears from them for a second. "I wasn't trying to kill us, I was just thinking 'what if,' and I guess I wasn't paying much attention."

She shook her head and she mouthed, "I love you" silently. "Be careful," she croaked.

When we got home and I helped her into the house, she laid down and watched me from the couch as I carried in our things. She patted the seat next to her when I closed the door. I sat.

"You are my brave man, and I already know you love me and will be just devastated without me," she said. "But you have to live even if I don't, because you are closer to me than anyone and I want you to be happy again someday."

I could not hold back my tears. I did not want to consider life without her, even if I had accepted she could die, the aftermath was such an enormity that I wondered (and still do) whether I could carry it at all.

"You are a rare man with a pure soul," she said, breaking my heart with each word. "You can't hide anything, you just say what you have to and share what you have in your heart. It's a precious thing, really."

"You took so long to open up, and I can't have you just shut down again over this, because I would feel terrible," she said. "You can't just clam up and hide yourself, because I want someone else to experience you, just how you are now, because I think I helped you get this way again."

We spent the afternoon on the couch, snoozing under a blanket and waking for little snacks, until I helped her into the shower and then to the bed.

And so, last night, as I dreamed, I went to a computer and logged into my email account. I watched the messages load and clicked on one that read "I love you, honey."

I sobbed in my sleep as I read a beautiful poem I cannot recreate, not typed but written on my screen in her hand, and I pondered how she had figured out sending timed emails, or who she had scan and email them, because I forgot I was asleep.

And when I awoke in the middle of the early morning and walked into the bathroom, my foot caught a mesh bag that I had put off to the side, far out of my path, but somehow in it now.

I stopped and put it back, and wondered how it had stood up in its own, but reasoned Seamus was to blame. But I did stop as I returned and felt a chill down my spine, and I asked, gently "Baby?"

And though I received no answer, I am still haunted beyond my skepticism, and this is signal enough.


Lana Banana said...

You know, my father died when I was ten and I was devastated (killed by a drunk driver). In fact, I don't think I've ever really gotten over his death . . .

And anyhow, I couldn't be more of skeptic if I tried. But this past Christmas, I became a little less skeptical . . . I turned thirty on the 25th and threw a big party for my family. It was wonderful and fun and fabulous, but when they left I found myself really missing my father, more than usual.

There are so many great things that have happened over the years that I felt a deep longing to share them all with him. I sat in my living room and cried. Looking over at my fireplace, his photo caught my eye . . . I cried harder.

And then, no lie, the book he gave me before he died fell off of my bookcase and landed on the floor, face up, open. The book was The Prophet by Khalil Gibran.

I walked over to it and looked down, it'd fallen open to "Death" . . .

If you've never read The Prophet, read it.

Here's what it said:

Then Almitra spoke, saying, "We would ask now of Death."

And he said:

You would know the secret of death.

But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?

The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.

If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.

For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.

In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond;

And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.

Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.

Your fear of death is but the trembling of the shepherd when he stands before the king whose hand is to be laid upon him in honour.

Is the shepherd not joyful beneath his trembling, that he shall wear the mark of the king?

Yet is he not more mindful of his trembling?

For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?

And what is to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?

Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.

And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.

And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.

Frank, Marcie was right. LIVE! There is pain, but so too shall there be joy. Perhaps not now. Not yet. But someday.

And as for the sign . . . Who is to say?

I think what I experienced was real. I believe it was my dad's way of saying that everything is OK, that he's there (here), that he's been with me all along, and that he loves me . . .

In the end, though, Frank, the signs that matter most were the ones I gave my dad . . . the ones that you gave Marcie . . . in life, that let them know they were loved. Those were definitely real and those were the ones that counted most, I think . . .

At any rate, sorry for this long, rambling post. I just wanted to commiserate. I would have emailed you, but technology sometimes gets the better of me and I couldn't quite figure it all out and get my laptop to behave.

Glad you didn't stay away too long.