Saturday, September 7, 2013

To Barbara, A Year After Your Death

Dear Barbara,

It has been nearly a year since you died, on September 12, one day after the anniversary of 9/11, and five days before my 31st birthday.
The day before you died, I made a meal for the ashram where we were both staying: squash enchiladas, a variation on the sweet potato enchilada recipe that I made up myself, and that I have served at various times in my life to convey community, comfort, and thanks. I made this meal for the ashram on the edge of the beautiful Kootenay Lake because I was about to leave, and I wanted to show my thanks that they had provided what I needed when I needed it: a place to rest after what had been a really tough year.
And then, in one single hour on a clear night, it became tougher still. I stood next to you as you struggled to breathe, willing the time to pass and also to stand still; willing the ambulance to hurry and simultaneously willing your throat to stop closing up in response to something you ate.
You knew you had severe food allergies; we all knew you did. There was nothing we or you could pinpoint that would have set them off, but it had happened all the same. I was the one standing next to you when you went unconscious; I told you weren’t alone as you gasped for air, and I told the people running in and out of the room trying to help that all you wanted was to breathe; that really there was nothing else that would make you comfortable as we hoped and prayed the ambulance would make it in time.
It didn’t.
In the days following your death, we talked in many groups and instances about you; about how you had already touched people with your gentleness and life; how you were so glad to be there, and how somehow you must have known; that you must have been ready to go on some level.
I listened to peoples’ opinions of this, and I stayed silent, even as tears slid down my face. The truth in that room with you was much different; never in those 45 minutes I spent mostly alone with you did you ever look like you were ready. You fought for every breath you could, and your fight for survival has stayed with me, even now.
It is something I had always wondered at: humanity’s struggle to survive; the desire to cheat death, when it is not actually possible: ultimately, it is a game none of us will win.
When others said afterward that your death reminded them how precious life I was, I nodded in understanding, but that was not the message I took from you. Instead I felt that what you had offered me was voice. At one point, you could not tell anyone that all you wanted was to breathe – not a blanket, not an oxygen mask – and when I seemingly read your mind and conveyed that, you gave me a look that momentarily did stop that clock.
I thought your message to me was that I could be a voice; that I was meant to help others by saying things that they could not say themselves. I thought I was destined to write a book that would facilitate others’ journeys; I thought my role was to take what I had learned and put it out there so that other people could gain strength and wisdom from it.
It is a year later, and I am something like 5,000 miles away from the ashram on Kootenay Lake. I am currently writing that book – editing it now, actually – in Panama, where I fled after realizing that whatever comfort I had hoped to find at home was not ultimately what I was looking for; that the people there that I thought needed my help were not only not interested and didn’t need my help, but that in trying to help them, I was ignoring myself.
It is only now, Barbara, that I think I really understand what our short time together was about. At first I thought I was the one that gave you something larger, something that I dearly wish every person could have: someone to stand next to them at the hour of their death and tell them that they are not alone. The gift you gave to me, however, was tenfold the comfort I gave to you: when I thought you were telling me to be another’s voice, you were telling me that I needed to find my own: that ultimately I was the one who needed saving; I was the one who needed to be heard, and I was the only one who could hear me.
It’s taken a whole year to figure out how deeply my own voice has been buried; how sunk in the mire I had lost my own needs. The book that was once meant to give others strength has instead given me strength: the holes I have wished to fill for others are being filled here, for me, with my own revelations and healing tears.
I am not sure if I’m in a different place than I would have been if you and I had never met, but I do know this: that I am a better person for what you gave to me, and what I gave to you.

Rest in peace, my friend,

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