October, 1994. “I’m starting to get scared again,” Tim said.
We slumped on the hard chairs in his surgeon’s waiting room. Again. The last MRI showed tumors in his gall bladder.
“Me too,” I said. Might as well admit it.
He stopped paging through Sports Illustrated and dropped it on the table. “I need you to talk me out of it when I get scared, tell me my story when I forget it, so maybe you can fake it, pretend like you’re not scared. Okay?”
“Well, Tim, they’re still taking stuff out when you get tumors, so that must mean they have some hope for you. They must believe in miracles, too.”
“Not really, it’s just all they have to offer. They cut something off, take something out, I get some respite for awhile.”
He leaned forward and dropped his clasped hands between his knees, his head down. “Let’s talk about something else. Chelsea, for example. She’s going to her first junior high dance Friday night. And I’ll be in the hospital having my damn gall bladder out.” He drew in a deep shuddering breath. “I won’t get to see her in her first real dress-up dress.”
“What if I bring her here, or Irene brings her here, before the dance, just so you can see her all dolled up?”
He dragged his arm across his eyes. “No. That would ruin her first date, she’d never forget it. I don’t want her to see me that way.”
I shook my head, unable to speak around the huge lump in my throat.
I was in over my head. August was dying, Tim was apparently dying, they both turned to me for healing or comfort or companionship. I had nothing to offer. When I pawed through my mind for some kind of received wisdom, something from the Course or even from Mom, I came up empty every time. Maybe I was just like Mom: struck dumb and impotent in the face of real pain, real trouble, real world.
One morning on our way to a chemo treatment, Tim upped the ante on healing, for me.
“After this chemo, I might need some more of that Reiki, that healing you do with your hands.”
“Reiki is channeled from Spirit, I don’t have a thing to do with it. I am not a healer.”
I had to be emphatic; the pressure increasing the way it was, from Tim and Alex both.
“You keep saying that, but all I know is, when you put your hands where it hurts, the pain stops.”
“That’s the Reiki, not me.”
“Whatever. Your hands have healing power, whether you like it or not. Maybe you’re resisting it too much.”
“I’m not…” But I was resisting being labeled a healer.
“I mean,” I said, “what I’m resisting is taking on that role, that label, that… responsibility.” I tried to keep my eyes on the road while talking to Tim about something important. Not that we hadn’t had similar conversations before.
“I’m willing to use my Reiki training for pain relief,” I said. “But I am not a healer.”
Tim laughed. “Okay, if you say so. Hope you get that turned around someday in your mind.”
“Tim, every time I use Reiki on you, it helps with the pain, but it’s only temporary. How can you call that healing?”
He sat up straight in the passenger seat and leaned forward to look at me over his granny glasses, eyebrows raised. That look of his.
“If you were living in my body, with my pain, you’d call it healing. That’s enough for me. Maybe if you could accept what your hands can do, using them could give more than temporary relief.”
“See, right there, that’s where the obstacle is!” I said. “If I accepted and believed I could heal—which I do, sometimes, but it doesn’t last—and then, if I failed…it would just be unbearable. If I tried to heal you of melanoma and you got worse and died…well, it would just kill me, too.”
Tim laughed again. “Always with the melodrama. Nobody can kill me. I’m apparently dying without that boost, and if I thought ‘someone’ could kill me now, I might even welcome it. If I thought God could kill me, I’d want to kill God, for dragging it out so long. So I don’t even think God is trying to kill me. And I’d never, ever, think that could happen from you trying to heal me.”
He leaned back and gazed out the car window for a long time. We were in Portland suburban traffic now, the pleasant drive from Mt. Hood behind us.
Turning to look at me, he said, “It’s all about intention.”
* * *
Alex was driven by a need work on his pottery, working constantly, while he still could.
His studio was a large square room attached to his house, with a separate door to the street. The walls were all glass, a hodge-podge of mismatched windows, small narrow panes, large square panes, some with paint-peeling old wooden frames and some with simple aluminum frames, windows tiered on windows, odd spaces filled in with colored glass. The natural light was so intense the room didn’t need overhead lighting, even on a gray day in early fall. One wall was floor-to-ceiling shelving, with a door into the kitchen in the center of the wall, shelves over the door up to the ceiling. On the shelves were rows of pots and vases and bowls, greenware drying so it could be fired, and bisque waiting for glaze. One shelf held finished pottery, glowing with color and sparked with streaks of gold and silver, ready for his Saturday Market booth. A clay-spattered pink velvet love seat angled from the shelves to the back door that led to the kiln shed.
In the center of the room was a high square table covered with canvas and splotched with clay and glaze. On the table, small glass baby food jars held colored glazes and metallic powders. An assortment of brushes stood in a large Mason jar. A fat vase stood on a paint-smeared lazy susan, ready for glaze.
Alex sat at the table on one of the tall wooden stools, his heels hooked over the rungs, and turned the lazy susan slowly. His brush glided waves of pale lavender onto the vase. I sat on the other stool, leaned my elbows on the table, chin in my hands, and watched him work. How I saw him was the way I had seen him many times before. His dancing eyes. Black fur eyelashes. His heavy silver crucifix, without the dead Jesus. Olive-gold skin.
His gliding brush. Graceful hands…dark coins of Kaposi’s Sarcoma spotted his hands and wrists and his smooth caramel face.
The largest reddish-black K.S. lesion was on the point of his high cheekbone, under his left eye. He scratched it with the tip of the brush handle.
“I guess you can tell I’m no longer HIV-Positive.”
I sat up straight. “You’re not?” I said. “I thought…”
Alex looked sideways at me, holding his brush away from the vase.
“You thought these K.S. boogers all over me meant something?” he said. “Well, they do. I’ve advanced to full-blown AIDS. They have a name for it now. Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. It’s a syndrome. Like they don’t even want to call it what it is. A deadly disease.”
A wave of blood heat started in my heart and did a slow spiral up to my face.
The jar of brushes gave me something to fiddle with and rearrange. I slid a blue-handle brush over to be with other blue-handle brushes. Arranged all the brushes by color. Red, blue, gray, white. Gave the bleeding some time to slow and stop.
“This diagnosis means I have some serious work to do,” Alex said.
I picked out a gray-handle brush and twirled it through my fingers like a baton, tricky business.
“What kind of work?”
“Healing,” Alex said. “That’s where you come in.”
“Oh geeze,” I said, “I know nothing about healing?”
“You know everything about it.”
He finished the lavender and dropped the brush into a jar of water.
“You just don’t want to admit it,” he said.
Lavender swirls spread out in the jar.
“Hand me that black-bristled brush,” he said. “What do you think, pink next?”
“Yeah, pink with the lavender, that’s nice,” I said. I poked through the copper-topped baby food jars, found a pale pink, and pushed it toward him.
“That one,” I said.
Alex opened the jar and looked into it. “This will be a rose color when it’s fired,” he said. “In fact the lavender will be a lot darker, too. Is that what you want?”
“Even better,” I said. “Soft rose with that lavender.”
I played with the baby food jars. “What all did my Mom tell you about me, anyway?”
“She says you’re the one who knows about physical healing, not her.”
That was Frances, passing this hot potato over to me.
I tried to keep my voice even. “That pisses me off,” I said. “You turn to her for spiritual guidance, but when the chips are down she decides something like AIDS is not part of the deal. Not a ‘spiritual’ thing, apparently.”
Alex dipped the black-bristled brush into the pale pink glaze, stirred it.
“Judy, you don’t ‘get’ your mother, do you?”
“What do you mean? I don’t understand her?”
“Right. You don’t.”
“And you do?” The brushes needed rearranging again, by height.
Dancing eyes. “Better than you!”
He moved the jar of brushes away from my hands. “Look, it’s obvious. Your mother is afraid of death. It takes one to know one, and I see it clear as anything. She just can’t deal with the certainty of death. I’ve heard her say she’s going to live to be a hundred twenty-five years old, then just transcend without actually dying.”
“Like Elijah,” I mused. “Ascending to heaven in a chariot of fire. Or a whirlwind. Something like that.”
“Yogi in Sanskrit means to harness a horse to a chariot,” Alex said. “Your lovely mother is a yogi.”
“She probably thinks it’s her ticket to heaven, without having to die to get there.”
“She might even pull it off,” he said. “Wish I could stick around to see it. But I can’t. It’s obvious I’m going to die, and soon. There’s no way out, no delaying, no stalling. I’m okay with death for me, but Frances isn’t okay with it for anyone. I’m preparing for it. She doesn’t even want to look at death in any form. Doesn’t want to look at me. To her, I’m walking death.”
“But she told you I knew about physical healing.”
“Frances told me she won’t give energy to the reality of AIDS. She says you’re the one who knows about physical healing, not her. You healed from metastatic cancer.”
My voice sounded explosive. “But that was me. I can’t… I wish…Alex, if I could heal someone else, don’t you think I’d do it? I’ve been using Reiki on my brother, and he’s getting worse. Putting my hands on him helps with pain, but it doesn’t heal him.”
“Is that what he says?”
“Well…no, he says I don’t have a clue…well, never mind what he says. I am not a healer.”
Alex’s lesions made me want to scratch my face. My fingers twitched. I collected some scattered pottery shards into a neat little pile and began to stack them into miniature cairns.
He stirred the pink glaze leisurely, lifted the brush and watched the glaze flow into the jar.
“Judy, I know I’m not going to get well. This isn’t about you healing me, or even teaching me how to heal myself. It’s about you teaching me how to die.”
Like I knew anything about dying. Like anyone knew anything about it. Maybe the Tibetans, maybe whoever wrote The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
“But, why me? What do I know about dying?”
He dropped the brush into the pink glaze and gazed at me for a long moment.
“Because…there’s something about you, something reassuring. I’m not scared when I’m with you. And because you faced death and got well, you know what that’s about.”
“Only for myself, not for someone else. I could teach you about surrender, maybe.”
His gleam smile, throwing colors around the room.
“That would be okay, too.”
“I’ve got to think about this,” I said. “I don’t know what you’re asking me to do. Be your friend, be here through whatever is coming? Yes. I’ll do that. Is that what you’re asking?”
“That would mean a lot to me, you being there to the end, walking me to the door. Helping me do what I have to do.”
There was more. I could feel it. He’d be asking me to heal him, soon.
“Maybe I’ll have a miracle, like your mom says I should expect.” Alex brushed pink glaze on the fat vase, tiny brush strokes edging pink up against the lavender. “What do you think?” he said.
“I love it,” I said. “My favorite colors.”
“No, I meant what do you think about miracles?”
I jerked, knocked over one of my cairns. Rebuilt it, using great care to balance a large yellow shard on a smaller turquoise one.
“I think…that I don’t know much about miracles. My miracle, at least, required a benevolent divine intervention.” I said. “But I don’t know how to channel that to another person, that divine intervention. My relationship with the Divine is a bit…challenged these days.”
“Okay forget about divine intervention,” Alex said. “Frances says true healing is healing of the mind. She says that’s the miracle. She says heal your mind, and your body may follow.”
“So you’re thinking that’s the work you have to do? Heal your mind?”
He dabbed pink glaze under the rim of the vase in light, short strokes. His long-sleeved black turtleneck was streaked with pale pink, yellow and light blue.
“Seems like it. Seems like it might take a miracle to reach some kind of peace with this. I’ve accepted it, but that doesn’t mean I’m relaxed about it.” He turned the lazy susan to study the finished glaze. “The miracle would be healing my mind, which seems to be in worse shape than my body. If my body followed…well, that would be gravy.”
My eyes drifted up to the 12” statue of St. Jude on the shelf with the greenware. The statue looked a lot like images of Jesus, wearing a yellow robe and a green wrap draped from his shoulder to his opposite thigh. The patron saint of desperate causes.
“Healing your mind—yes I did that, as much as I could. It ended up being about surrender.” I said. “But you probably understand this better than I do. What does that kind of miracle mean to you?”
Alex sprinkled gold dust onto the glaze in a spiral, turning the lazy susan. “To me, it means letting go of the iron will that I use to keep going, the struggle to make myself well. It means letting go and trusting that I can’t do it myself, that there’s some kind of wisdom bigger than me. Maybe a wisdom that knows our own best interests better than we do.”
“You’ve just described surrender. I think you’re already most of the way there. Surrendering to the Wisdom that knows your own best interests.”
He scratched the scab under his eye with one finger. “Don’t I know my own best interests?”
“No,” I said.
How did I know that? Maybe because I didn’t know my own best interests, either. I didn’t know if it would be in my own best interests to have or not to have the ability to heal others, with my hands or any other way. But if I could help Alex…or Tim…
Alex leaned back and slid down from the stool, laughing. “I guess I don’t,” he said. “Right now it appears that what’s in my own best interests is to die of AIDS.”
He slid the lazy susan to the side of the table and dropped his brush into the jar of water.
“And that’s why my mind needs healing,” he said. “To be completely at peace with that, all the time.”
He left the vase to dry and headed for the kitchen. “You want some tea?” he said.
I followed him through the living room. A Sheltie dog lay next to the wood stove in the sitting room, its head on its paws, gazing at the feet of a life-size statue of a saint with a crown of twinkly lights and a bubble light taped to her hand—one of those old-fashioned Christmas tree lights like a glass candle in a holder, with bubbles that rise in a liquid when it warms up. Alex stopped and watched as I leaned over to pet the dog. It didn’t move.
“Stuffed,” Alex said. I jerked my hand away.
“Old man Leonard had the bar down at the corner, that dog was always there with him, lying next to the stove. Had him stuffed when he died, couldn’t bear to part with him. But then old man Leonard died.”
The bubble light leaned a little to the side. Alex fixed it and pressed the tape back in place on the statue’s hand.
“I didn’t want him to be just tossed in the trash, all that excellent taxidermy, that love. I carried him home from the bar and put him here on my hearth. He keeps watch over St. Rita.”
I didn’t know where to put my eyes. From the living room I could see the rear end of a white-tailed deer mounted on a plaque in the bedroom.
“I was raised Catholic,” Alex said. “I love saints. St. Rita’s my girl, the patron saint of tumors, and loneliness.” He straightened St. Rita’s crown of twinkle lights. There was a large black spot in the middle of St. Rita’s forehead. The paint was peeling on her blue robe.
An enormous buffalo head dominated the wall in the front hall.
“You like taxidermy?” I said.
“Love it,” he said. “It feels…sacred to me. When it’s done right. Preserves an essence of the being that lived in that body.” He stooped to pet the Sheltie. Its glass eyes stayed fixed on St. Rita’s feet.
“Check out my chickens,” he said, and went into the kitchen and filled a bright blue teakettle from the faucet.
“Wow,” I said. “This is the most spotless kitchen I’ve ever seen. Looks like you shined everything up, not a thing out of place. Nothing like my kitchen,” I said, looking around.
On a broad shelf in an alcove next to the deep stone sink was a taxidermied rooster and a hen, their black and white feathers and the rooster’s red comb brilliant against a small bale of straw. Their heads were down, pecking at kernels of dried corn scattered on the shelf. They looked real. I touched the rooster’s shiny black tail feathers. They were real. But not alive.
I tried to act as if stuffed chickens in the kitchen were normal. “What kind of chickens are these?” I asked. “These black and white ones? I forget.” Like I ever had known. Growing up on the farm, we had only had regular brown chickens.
Alex set the teakettle on the stove and used a propane clicker to light the gas flame. “Silver Spangled Hamburgs,” he said. “I love their colors. In Brazil, they’re used to cast out evil spirits.”
He got out mugs and spoons.
“Speaking of Brazil, there’s a healer there I’ve heard about. Calls himself John of God, like Saint John of God, but the saint was 15th century,” Alex said. “I heard he healed a guy of AIDS. If I had the money to go to Brazil, I’d go. Would love to get me some of that balada, the singing, the dancing…”
He stood there holding mugs in one hand, spoons in the other, lost in thought.
“But I’m probably not up to the trip. Or the balada, either, for that matter.”
I was still thinking about St. John in the studio, patron saint of desperate causes. And St. Rita in his living room, saint of tumors and loneliness.
He set the mugs down on the counter. “I think John of God is like those evangelists who touch a person’s forehead and they fall down.”
“Do those people stay healed after one touch?”
He got down a box of teabags from the cupboard. “I don’t know,” he said. “Seems like it would be more gradual, might take several times, just like going to the doctor.”
“Makes sense to me,” I said. “If the healer is mostly like a battery charger or something. Then your body would need time to heal itself once it got jump-started.”
The possible outcomes for Alex seemed pretty limited. Or was that just a belief talking, a culture-driven idea that AIDS was incurable, no matter what? What if someone believed he could get well from AIDS? What then? And that person supposedly healed of AIDS by John of God. If that could be true, if such a healing could happen for one person, such a healing would be possible for anyone.
“You have a healing touch,” he said.
Finally, there it was. He was asking me to heal him.
I turned my hands palm up. There was a wart below my left ring finger.
I picked at the wart. “My guide says I have healing energy in my hands. That’s why I took Reiki training. Tim says my hands have healing power, too. But it doesn’t heal him, just helps with the pain. But the relief doesn’t last.”
“You don’t even believe in yourself,” Alex said. “Maybe you need some small successes. What have you got to lose?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m dying anyway. I know that, I’m not asking you to heal me,” he said. “I’m talking about practicing—seeing some small healings, maybe, so you can start believing in your ability. How will you know unless you try it?”
Alex turned to drop the teabags into the mugs and pour boiling water, then carried the mugs back into the studio, with me following. He handed me a mug and we sat down on the pink love seat. He looked at me without saying anything, his eyebrows still raised, the lines going across his forehead. I looked down at my hands.
I swallowed some tea, burned the roof of my mouth, set the mug down hard.
“I’m not a healer!”
“You could practice on me,” he said.
I sipped tea, burned my lips.
“Alex, please. I hate to let you down, I love you, but I can’t do that,” I said. “This is some really serious shit.”
“What have you got to lose?”
“What do you mean?” Everything, I was thinking. Even the little bit of faith that I do have in my ability to help, to give healing energy.
“I’m dying anyway, I know that, I’m not suggesting you could heal me,” he said. “I’m talking about practicing—seeing some small healings, maybe, so you can start believing in your ability. How will you know if you can do it unless you try it?”
Inside, I was shaking. Ask Within, ask Within, ask Within. My inner voice was pretty rusty lately, from disuse. I cupped my hands around the mug of hot tea and closed my eyes.
No. It was my Inner Voice.
I asked again. No. Not the right time.
“If you need proof,” Alex said, “that’s the only way you’ll ever get it. By trying.”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t want proof?”
“No, that’s not it. If I even tried it once, then there’d be no going back.”
It would be the camel’s nose under the tent flap. Before long, the whole camel would be at rest inside my tent, its legs folded under it, head up, watching me, blinking its long eyelashes, chewing its camel cud, comfortable.
“Chicken!” Alex said, his eyes and his laughing mouth, colors everywhere.
My heart slammed shut in fear. I closed my eyes again, hauled my heart open, wedged a stick sideways to keep it that way. Opened my eyes.
Alex with his laughing eyes. Love streamed out of my open heart and wrapped around him, bright ribbons weaving a maypole.
I leaned toward him, weaving ribbons.
“No,” I said. “This isn’t the right time.”
Alex set his mug down on the work table.
“Thank you,” he said. Tears made his lips tremble. “You are a blessing, no matter what.”