October 8, 1989 – 16 Months After
I’ve come to the cabin to close it for the season and a chair in the yard is as far as I’ve gotten. I love fall. The colors are ripe, the air peaceful. The golden light filtering through the leaves says, “Rest.” The cycle of life is in charge.
Things die. Transform. Prepare to be reborn and begin again. The naturalness of it is comforting, the completeness reassuring.
Death. How hard we make it for ourselves to go gently into that awareness.
I’ve thought a lot about death these last sixteen months and right now sitting here beside the cabin looking at golden ash, rust-colored oak, and the tall white birches that always thrill me, I can find no fear in my heart. Mostly, it is wonder, at the glorious predictability of nature. A season I love returns, again and again. This I can count on.
“This winter of your life will pass, as all seasons do,” says a page in the book a friend sent.
I think I’m an autumn woman, or at least in an autumn phase. That feels right just now. Maturity. A time to harvest and reflect. To begin the process of integrating life’s experiences in a way that brings wisdom. Next month I will be fifty-six, exactly twice as old as you were when you died. Astrology says those are big years: Twenty-eight and fifty-six. Completion years.
Saturn, whose energy astrologers say is about self-definition, takes twenty-eight years to complete a cycle and we can predict exactly where it will be and when it will be there. I get the same feeling of wonder when I look at a tide table, knowing it’s that predictable, however far ahead we care to look. Such big energy, all that. What about the energy we call life? The mystery we call spirit?
Last night I was at a gathering and a woman told of being with her father when he died, how she “literally saw his spirit leave his body.”
I go off to chat with neighbor Perry about what we think is going to happen to the lake level, watch him do end-of-season chores, pulling boats up onshore and such. Some aggressive wildlife has been systematically chewing up the float under the small raft and building a nest or something with it, even hauling branches and leaves to the topside in some mysterious architectural intention.
Something about fall invites memories. We store them like honey and apples. Autumn sun seems to have a different feel: mellower, more temporary, as if, coming upon a sheltered place that is unexpectedly warm, I am urged to stop a while and put the memory of it in my bones, to last the winter.
I have brought an envelope with me today, for just such a mood. I return to my reflecting spot and open the memory packet.
On top is a small card, ecru-colored, with a delicate painted rose. In flowing calligraphy it says, “Slowly, gently/A flower unfolds/So too, /The Soul.”
A birthday card from 1984:
“Dear Mother, I am so proud of all the work and growth that you have done this last year.
You are truly such an amazing person.
I am so glad and so proud you are my mother.
Happy Rebirth day &
Extreme Amounts of Love, Charles”
PEACE says the hand-drawn watercolor word on a Christmas card from 1986. I open it to a childhood photo of you that I have, inexplicably, preserved inside this card. A red-haired three-year-old leans against a tree trunk in a softly shaded landscape, staring pensively into some distant unknown.
I remember another photo that I recently shared with my writing group. You were about eight, in a cub scout uniform, holding a pet hamster, gazing out a window. I am struck by how the look is the same. As early as that, I think, you sensed things the rest of us did not. A calm pensiveness, some unfathomable connection to understanding beyond your years.
“I have tried,” you wrote twenty years later, “to pay attention.”
Inside, your Christmas words to me begin, “My radiant mother—” Tears come now as I remember that fall and winter of 1986 was a time when a depression illness was again consuming all your energy. Still you could find such words. “Thank you for being there for me. I believe in you . . . but most of all . . . I love you. Charles”
And the last, a Valentine card from 1988. The previous fall and winter had been dramatically different. Creativity was flowing, you had found yourself as an artist and poet, you were deeply, happily in love with a wonderful girl.
“Smack!!” begins the note inside. “Spring and its magic are just a wee bit in the air here in Oregon. Daffodils and crocuses are poking their little green heads up in the back yard. I feel in harmony with spring this year—new things growing, feeling life, feeling good, feeling strong . . . I am off skiing this weekend with twenty (yes twenty) others at an arranged Valentine day gig at some cabins in the mountains . . . massive group dynamics with many folks I haven’t seen in a while . . . I love you so very much.”
When I packed away some things of yours a few months after you died, I came across a Valentine’s card I had sent you, several years before. Even now I am drawn to its soft colors. The human-looking form has wings and is wearing a robe in softest rose. She holds aloft a star the same color as the robe. “Long ago . . .” say the words above her, and inside, “. . . . an angel caught a falling star, and love was born. Happy Valentine’s Day”
We are born. We die. We catch a falling star.
There are lots of red crispy leaves lying in the driveway. I remember how, when you and your brothers were small, we used to rake them into huge piles and how much fun it was for children to dive in. How we took home movies of this fall ritual and then later laughed as we did the usual funny business of first looking at it forwards and then running it backwards so that the leaf pile ejected feet-first small bodies like some kind of missile launch. And we would all giggle and run the film again.
I remember a clear vision I had right after you died and later, over and over, the picture in my mind so clear that even now I need only close my eyes and the image is right there. I am holding a huge completed jigsaw puzzle. It has a backing on it, like small children’s puzzles do, a surface with the outer boundaries defined. This puzzle’s backing is thin, so that when something, in my vision, seems to strike a blow to the underside, the pieces go flying in all directions.
But then, immediately (and it happens exactly the same each time), the effect is as if the home movie camera stops and runs backward. All the pieces retrace their trajectory and come zooming back into place. Hundreds of little pieces with jigsaw edges, hurtling suddenly and perfectly back into place. Back into the big picture.
There was a peculiar sense, in those early days after your death, of everything “falling into place.” Even now I am at a loss to put the feeling into words, but the experience of it was enormous. As if in that moment when the gap between mortal and immortal is bridged, we glimpse for an instant the place our tiniest of tiny pieces has in the cosmic order. Something like that.
For some unknown reason, an image from a television show I saw years ago comes into my thoughts. A young woman, whose beloved husband has died suddenly, is returning to their home with their toddler son. She walks in the door, gently puts the baby down in a playpen, and then quietly wanders around, touching things—a table, a window sill, a pen, a plant, her own blurred reflection in a windowpane.
“So this is what death feels like,” she says.
I remember when Drew and I pulled up in front of your house on Walnut Street that summer day in June. Fresh in grief, the news of your death only hours old, we had been mostly silent on the drive from the airport. I felt like me was somewhere in a deep hollow cavern, encased in a thin shell of some sort that surely must have looked like my normal body.
I got out of the car and stood looking at the familiar, warm brown house with the door you had been so happy to come upon accidentally one day at a “door sale.” A quality door, to sand and varnish and hang carefully on shiny hinges. A welcoming door, that stood open through all the days ahead as your beautiful heartbroken friends came and went, came and went, day and night.
Every detail is vivid in my mind. Beside the front walk a graceful flower garden, that you had recently completed. Large stones of interesting shapes carefully placed as background for red, gold, and orange nasturtiums in full bloom.
Three steps up, across the porch, through the open door and there was your living room, just as I remembered it. But no Charles this time to say, Hi Mom. No Charles, ever.
Someone was talking on a telephone. (For days, someone was either talking on the telephone or it was ringing. Except in the middle of the night when I could sit alone on the couch and feel the stillness.) On a living room chair I recognize a quilt, the piece quilt that your grandmother made. I’m sure you must have wrapped yourself in it when you, too, sat sleepless. I go to it now, put my cheek against it and curl my body into the chair. I close my eyes and try to feel what is left. A smell maybe, an energy. A connection.
So this is what death feels like.
I have no idea how much later I moved and, knowing I couldn’t bear to go any further into your house yet, went back outside. Strange that I have no memory of anyone else during this time. Other than your friend Alan on the phone, taking calls. I must have had the grace of some time alone.
Outside I remember being drawn to the flowerbed. I lay down on the grass beside it and pressed my cheek and nose into the earth. There was something peaceful about being cradled by the earth. As close as I could get to you right then.
The sun shone on my back, my nose buried in the strong grass smell. No one seemed to be around. Where had Drew gone? I had no memory of him since we stepped from the car. Should I be worried about him? I felt strangely “light-bodied,” like I was somewhere else, where feelings like “worry” don’t exist. Worry is in the head. I was in my heart.
I had wept quietly on the big plane from Minneapolis, cried when I hugged Drew in the Seattle airport, wept silently again while staring out the window, holding Drew’s hand across an aisle in the tiny plane to Eugene.
Now the tears had stopped and a great quiet filled me as I lay there in the grass. When I sat up, I was facing the burgundy red Japanese maple that sheltered the front porch, where a sagging much-used couch faced the street.
I thought about how you had pointed out the bush when you first showed me your new house, how we both marveled at its color. An all-year autumn color, like the nasturtiums, like your hair.Sometime later I went back into the house. Alan was still on the phone taking messages and he handed me some sheets of paper with names and phone numbers. The reverse side of the green paper invited people to Gordon’s thirtieth birthday party, on St. Patrick’s day, here at the Walnut Street house.
I thank Alan for doing all that and walk on into the kitchen. It feels grimy, dishes piled in the sink. Something is wrong here, I think, something has been wrong for a long time . . . but I know I don’t have the strength to do anything about it. I pass the bathroom and think about a phone call when you were talking to me while soaking in the tub, turning into a prune you said. And your present to me last Christmas: eucalyptus bath oil, a candle, and a tape you’d made, labeled “Bath Music.”
I stop at the door of your bedroom, that bright high-ceilinged room with your drafting table by the window. Something is wrong here too, but what?
I vaguely notice that a whole wall where photos of people you love had been taped up before, is almost bare now, leaving only the globs of mounting tape. But in an enlargement over your bureau three faces smile at me. The picture of three brothers in bright mountain air, your arm slung over Drew’s shoulder. It’s on the wall over my kitchen sink at home as well.
Only much later do I begin to understand that the energy, the smell that lingers here is of pain, and sleepless nights, and despair. Some horrid demon of disease that has inexplicably returned to the dark corners.
Sometime in the afternoon your friend Erika comes by offering to help. I hand her some money and say, just go buy some packages of healthy soup. We’re probably going to want soup, and some good bread.
Later (the phone still ringing, messages on green paper), Drew says he is going to the airport to meet his dad. Sometime after that I am standing just inside the front door when David comes up the walk. He reaches out to me and we hold each other and cry. I notice that his wife, Lori, is there too, and in the torrent of emotions there is a glimmer of surprise. I’d forgotten to expect her. She hugs me and says, “I loved him too.”
David says, “Let’s go for a walk” and we head up the hill to the park. We talk quietly—immediately—of events. David had arrived at the Greensboro airport where he was met by Ted, a close friend and colleague, along with the president of the center where David works. They took him to a private room at the airport and the first thing the president said was, “David, this is going to be a long day.” My first thought, David tells me now, was, “I’m being fired.” Half an hour later he was back on a plane to Eugene.
I tell him of the early morning phone call, the three words “and he died.”
He reaches out to me instinctively as my voice chokes on the words and we pause there on the sidewalk for a minute.
“I don’t know where he is yet,” I say, feeling bewildered. “I need to see him.” David abruptly stops walking. “I am not going to look at the broken body of my son!” I say nothing. I know I will do what I need to do. Later.
We talk of you, gently, lovingly, about how through it all you never gave up, and for the first time in countless years there is shared feeling. On the way back from the park, we hold hands.
We are met by Drew, who tells me excitedly that he has already found a Buddhist group. Remarkably, they are just up the street. Many times over the following days, I walk up the block with him to sit before the gohonzon and chant. The fifth prayer is for the deceased and we fill the small room with the rhythmic sounds, age-old energy for enlightenment.
But for now, there are some pressing, immediate needs. Green paper messages are accumulating. Officer so and so from the Lane County sheriff’s department, Sacred Heart hospital, your bus at the impound lot, “Angel” wants to retrieve his backpack . . . Jim in Boston. (How can I reach him, talk to him? We’re all here and he’s out there somewhere, alone with it. I don’t even know who has reached him, told him.) And friends, yours and ours, hearing and hurting, wanting to help.
Suddenly the biggest need I have is to know. What happened? What accident? Who was there? Who can tell me how my son died? And again, where is he now?
I find a number on a green paper. Officer Barclay. I call the sheriff’s office and ask for him. I ask David if he wants to get on the extension. A crisp voice comes on the phone. (A year later I see him walk into a courtroom and I think, “I would know him anywhere.”) I ask him if it would be possible for him to come to the house, talk to us. I understand he was the officer on the scene. . . . No, he says, he won’t be able to do that but yes, he could talk to us on the phone. Charles’s van had collided head-on with a pickup. The van had crossed the centerline, came right at him, according to the other
Was there anyone in the car with Charles? Yes, a hitchhiker. Injured, in the hospital. The other driver is in the hospital as well. I hear the barely controlled anger in this stranger’s voice. Is he suggesting that this was somehow your fault? Our Charles? Who wouldn’t dream of hurting anyone, who doesn’t even drink coffee, let alone anything that would cause an accident.
. . . The hitchhiker, Officer Barclay says, who was picked up only five minutes before, said something about “the guy acting crazy.”
A chill goes through my body. Who is this hitchhiker?
The pick-up driver’s account is that the van came straight at him, the Voice on the phone says. The driver saw the van begin to swerve over the centerline and keep coming on the wrong side of the road, that he tried to take “evasive action,” pulling farther and farther out on the shoulder until finally there was a head-on collision, between the driver half of each vehicle. The pickup flipped over into the ditch and the van spun around and came to a halt in the westbound lane. It was a flat stretch of road, says Barclay, no other cars, no witnesses. He is full of purposeful officialness. Official times, official locations, official judgments. He has no interest in whether this makes any sense, in who this Charles person is.
There were no braking marks, he assures us. Was he wearing his seat belt? I practically whisper. No, says the Voice, firmly. (Almost two years later I actually read the medical examiner’s report. Bruises on the body, it says, very possibly from a seat belt.)
I force myself to ask: What was the actual cause of death? He was dead when we arrived, comes the answer. Details would be in the medical examiner’s report.
Who is the medical examiner? I ask. Where can I reach him? Where have they taken Charles?
How badly are the others hurt? we ask, how soon were you on the scene?
A few more questions, a few more terse answers. I hang up and dial the number on the paper for Sacred Heart hospital. A more gentle voice there reads us the medical terminology from the examiner’s report. And in layman terms? I ask. Broken neck, he says. Died instantly.
I hang up, shaking. David comes down from the upstairs extension. His face is white. “I’ve been expecting this phone call for years,” he says. I stare at him in disbelief, speechless at the acceptance.
Surely I fled to the outdoors, to somewhere. Or maybe that was when Bridget arrived, driven home from Mount Rainier by one of your housemates, Hal. David met her, hugged her, held her. Then, as she clung to me, shaking, I remember thinking how thin and fragile she felt. “I didn’t know a little body could hold so many tears,” Hal said.
People, embraces, phone calls, many faceless now in my memory. Finally, I hear Jim’s voice on the phone, hollow and stunned. He will rest overnight and fly back from Boston tomorrow, he says. He had gone there to be in his fraternity brother’s wedding on Saturday. He assures me that he has a friend with him, that he is okay. Heather is with her parents in Connecticut, having been in New York on a business trip.
Months later I learn that through some terrible misunderstanding Jim ended up calling Yleen in Minneapolis to find out why people were trying to reach him. Another worst fear realized. He gets the news on the phone, in the middle of a crowded Boston airport. Alone.
A young woman finds me standing in the back hall by the washer. Can I help, she says. I’m trying to wash the sheets, I say, for Charles’s bed. Later I go with Drew to the gohonzon to chant. Mostly I just cry.
Mercifully, night comes. I hear some comment from David about suicide and something in me snaps. “If Charles chose to leave, I respect his decision,” I say tight-lipped. “Enough is enough!” Yes, says Lori, enough is enough. They are leaving for the motel and she asks if I am all right. “I don’t like where Charles is!” I say, leaning into a doorjamb.
Eventually I close the front door but the porch light stays on.
I crawl into your bed with Bridget and hold her hand until she seems asleep. I can tell that nothing in my brain is going to shut down for sleeping. There is no robe in my suitcase so I take your warm jacket from the hook in the hall and go to lie on the couch in the now-still living room.
The last phone call with you (was it just last Saturday night?) is rerunning in my head. You and Bridget hadn’t left each other in such a good place.
“You know, Mom, we just get all tied up in knots because we’re trying so hard to take care of each other.”
“She’s young, Charles. There will be other children. It’s a disappointment but those happen.”
About your fall in the woods, “I keep wondering why, just now, I got this big wound to my heart chakra.”
“Maybe it just is, sweetheart. Maybe you just slipped on a log. Period. Like maybe Bridget just had a miscarriage. Period.”
“Yeah. Maybe I don’t have to keep asking ‘why?’ about everything.”
And this imbecile on the phone is expecting me to believe that, four days later, this beautiful young man is purposely running his car headlong into an oncoming pickup? What has happened here? What, God, what?
When will there be the time or strength to get to the bottom of this? My son is lying in some morgue at Sacred Heart Hospital. . . .
I hug your jacket around me as I look out at the familiar rooms. Help me, Charles, I say. I know you are here, I can feel you. I believe that at some level, we all choose to leave and I can accept, even, that some people choose consciously, and we call it suicide. But this “choice” is not you. No way. You would never choose to leave in a way that endangered anyone else. It is the very circumstances of it that tell me this was not Charles “choosing.” What then, dear God, Spirit, Buddha, Universe . . . what then is it?
I look at the pad I’ve been writing on since I got on the plane. “There is something bigger, bigger, bigger,” it says at the top of one page.
“His struggle is over,” says another page. “My darling Charles, my darling Charles—Be at Peace, Be at Peace, Be at Peace.”
I must be able to connect now, I think, to let him in, to let my feelings happen. I know he’s here, and he will help me.
Somewhere before dawn appears, somewhere between curling into a ball on the couch and sitting on the porch looking at the full moon shining on the nasturtiums, calm returns.
Perhaps remembering Tuesday morning’s dream helped. Three nights ago now. (I remembered the dream on the plane and I see a note about it on my pad.) A short, simple dream, the memory of it vivid. You were a newborn and I was holding you, breast-feeding you. That’s it. That’s the entire dream. Thirty-six hours before you die, I dream about you as a newborn.
The sun has moved and fall’s sudden afternoon chill forces me inside. As I pause for a moment in the cabin driveway, I think of you and your good friend Bob, hot and sweaty on a summer day, helping me build the retaining wall that surrounds me. Round pillars, railroad ties, and heavy stones, designed as we went. Strong, healthy bodies. Laughing. Stopping often to stand back and admire the progress. The pine we transplanted is seven or eight years taller now. It stands alone, looking vulnerable. Of course, I muse, we all are. Everything is.
In the book of signatures at the mortuary, a friend wrote: “Our loved ones are like tall trees in the forest; while they stand, we hardly notice the beauty, shade, and protection they offer us. When they fall, they leave an enormous hole in the sky.”
I think again of your drawing of a grove of Old Growth trees in the Oregon forest. You cared so much about those trees, it seemed right to hand copies of the drawing to the people coming to remember you at the memorial services.
I wonder now how I was able to make the necessary phone calls at seven o’clock the next morning. I only remember it felt urgent. Sacred Heart hospital. Yes, the body is ready to be released. The mortuary. What are the procedures, the options? (Somehow, sometime you had told Drew that when you died, you wanted your ashes to go to a special peak in the Bugaboos.)
What about seeing him, what about getting him out of that place? David, at the motel. Reporting on my conversations. His voice is tight and choked. Thank you for making the calls, he says; I know that was hard. Calling the mortuary back to make an appointment. Relying on that peculiar place in the brain (or is it the backbone) that takes over when something has to be done. “Please go get my son.” Of all the words, the hardest ones to say. I force the words out, my throat closing around them.
A few minutes later I am sitting numbly at the dining room table when David bursts through the front door, looking totally distraught.
For an instant, I don’t understand what’s going on. Then I do. A collapse is happening. My first instinct is a motherly one, wanting to protect Drew.
“He’s upstairs, David, asleep.” As he bolts toward the stairs, I try again. “Oh, don’t wake him. He needs this sleep!” I doubt David even heard me as he ran up the stairs to the bedroom where Drew slept. I hear a door close, and then David’s sobs, echoing through the silent house.
Is “numbness” the only word I can find to describe the state that allowed my body to stay upright? No. Some connection, something deep and determined and guided that has no easy name—that Something sustained me and saved me. Perhaps the name is Love.
As I walk into the cabin and turn on the electric heater, I look around at this small nest of mine. The pine walls, the high sloped ceiling, the tiny bedroom, the simple necessities, and best of all an entire wall of windows looking at the woods. Friend Mary brought me here after meeting the plane when I returned from Oregon. Some wise, nurturing inner voice had told me what to ask for. First a stop at Katie, the massage therapist. And then to the cabin, to be alone. Blessedly, quietly, alone.