Ready. Or Not.
Giff isn’t in bed beside me. I throw the covers back and head for the kitchen, where I smell cooking.
The garage/shop door is open. I step in, to get my backpack. It’s not there, but Giff’s blue backpack is still propped against his worktable. Is he still going to insist on being there with me?
My red backpack is leaning against the front door frame, my boots sitting next to it, the red jumpsuit draped across the top.
Lovely cooking smells coming from the kitchen.
“Pancakes?” I say to Giff.
He continues to flip pancakes on the griddle. “You’ll need carbs, for the cold and your activity level.” I listen for his tone. Sincerity? Yes, but with an edge of grim.
He takes syrup out of the microwave and sets it on the counter with the butter, and gets out two plates. Pours me a cup of coffee.
What is he up to? All this nicey-nice, after last night?
“Giff…” I gesture at the garage door.
He glances up and shrugs. “Just being…prepared. Just…in case.” I’m doing this my way.
“I don’t understand this, Giff. You were beyond angry at me last night. Why are you being so reasonable? Did you have an angel visitation or something?”
“No, I just don’t want to fight about this.”
I let my face drop to the counter. “So you still think you’re going with me. You are the most stubborn person I have ever known,” I mumble.
Giff slides a stack of pancakes onto a plate and sets them in front of me.
“Not unless you don’t count yourself,” he says.
I gather myself for another go-round. Butter my pancakes, slow things down.
“Here’s the deal,” I say. “Last night I wasn’t sure where my certainty came from, but I knew I had made a promise that couldn’t be broken. I had a vision in the early morning hours, and remembered.”
He turns another batch of pancakes. “And?”
“Joe and I, we were young, maybe five and ten, and we had made an altar in the woods. Remember that woods across the road from our old farmhouse?”
“Yeah, I remember. Cedar trees, and fir.”
“We weren’t supposed to go in there alone, but after Mom turned Joe over to me, I figured we could pretty much do what we wanted to.”
“So you went in there…”
“We built a lean-to out of cedar branches, and made an altar out of a stump. Gathered things to put on the altar and called them sacred. I was very into defining what was sacred and what was not, in those days.”
Giff doesn’t turn around.
“Then some crows hopped on the altar, and Joey and I were talking about how crows were sacred. I told him when we die we can come back as another human, or as an animal or a bird. Like I read in Mom’s books, and like our neighbor Mrs. Clatter explained to me.”
“Do you still believe that?” Giff asks, sitting down with his breakfast.
“I do, most of it. Mrs. Clatter was a Native woman. She told me that sometimes a crow comes back as a human to give knowledge about healing to the Native people. I believed her then, and I believe her now. About healing.”
“You already knew about healing,” Giff says. “Now, you’ve just given up on yourself.”
I bristled. “Well, who wouldn’t, after all the times I’ve tried to heal Joe and failed?”
“What about the times you tried and succeeded? Joe’s told me about a couple, when he was a kid. When you put your hands on my knees, the pain goes away. Joes says the same thing—your healing touch always helps, his pain goes away”
“When we were kids…it was different.” I remembered the hospital the night after Dad died, Joe’s coma, the doctor shaking his head…
“Now, Joe says his pain gets better. But then he gets worse,” I said.
“So you call that…failing?”
“I do.” I tackle the cooling pancakes. “I sure don’t call it healing.”
Giff eats, and doesn’t respond until his plate is empty.
Then, “I wonder what Joe would call it,” he says.
“I’ll ask him,” I say. “We’ll probably have time to talk about such things. Mike said he was lucid, eager to see me.” How much time would we have? I realize I’m no longer hungry, and push my plate away.
Joe stacks our plates and takes them to the sink.
“So where does the promise thing come in?” he says.
“When Mom turned him over to me, I was young—too young—but she trusted my inner Knowing to be able to keep him safe. As long as I can remember, I’ve known that I’d be with him to the end, and at the end.
“While we watched the crows strutting around on our altar, Joey said he was going to come back as a crow after he died. So I said I would, too. We said we’d always be together, just him and me, even when we died. We’d be together, the two of us, in life, in death, and after death.”
“And that’s the promise you can’t break? About crows?”
“No, the pinky promise was what sealed it. We made a pinky promise. It’s the most sacred kind of vow.”
Giff turns and walks away, shaking his head. “I don’t get this,” he says. “You were just kids! And why does it have to be just the two of you?”
He turns back and stands in front of me. “I said this: ‘You were just kids!” This is what I meant: We made a promise to each other, too, when we were married. To love and protect. I take that promise very seriously.” His eyes tear up. “How can I protect you if you keep insisting you have to go alone, because you promised?”
I put my arms around him, soak his heat into my own body. He is trembling. “We made another promise, too, remember? We added a word to our vows. Trust. We promised to love, honor, protect, and trust each other. It was so important to each of us; it’s what the word honor meant—to trust each other’s Knowing, each other’s sense of what’s right for ourselves, without interfering.”
“We made a promise,” Giff says, “and that’s why I’m giving this up. But I still don’t get it.
“But you have to respect my promise, too,” I said.
“You could send me.”
“That isn’t keeping the promise. That’s saying, ‘I’m too scared to keep a sacred contract—a pinkie promise, Giff—the most sacred of all. So I’m sending a substitute.”
Giff tears up, the corners of his mouth tremble. “Hardly a substitute. I’m one of his best friends. Next to you, he’s been my best friend. I don’t get why it has to be just the two of you.”
“Remember I told you about when he was in a coma, near death? He was fourteen.”
“Right after your Dad died.”
“People were in and out of the room all the time, and he was so far gone the doctor said he probably would never come out of it. In the middle of the night, finally, it was just the two of us. I had promised him I’d be with him when he died, just Joe and me.”
I had to pace. Refilled my coffee while the full memory came back.
I was in the dim quiet hospital room with Joe in the bed. Rain spitting against the window, with breaks when the stars came out. I closed my eyes and said a prayer, asked for an elusive Divine Intelligence to be present, asked for help in trusting that, no matter how this came out, whatever happened would be right for Joe. Prayed without really believing, and kept praying until I finally believed. Believed that what was right for Joe would be—would have to be—acceptable to me, too. Prayed until I felt the familiar warm energy begin to vibrate in my hands.
I closed my eyes and imagined a big Easter egg with me inside it. Light poured into me through my hot spot and filled up the egg with a watery bright glow. I remembered the little fairies painting the outside of the eggshell with thick, sticky evening-sky indigo blue so nothing bad could get inside my protective shell.
Inside my head was silence. Stillness, no thoughts.
I placed my hands carefully around Joe’s bandaged head. After a few minutes the flow of energy started as it always had. Time went on, or maybe stopped. I did the step-aside and waited, watching from the corner of the room as my hands flowed heat into Joe’s head for what might have been minutes, or hours.
While my hands held Joe’s head and I watched, I was startled by a smudge of orange light that appeared on Joe’s pillow. The light hovered, then elongated and shaped itself into the radiant figure of a man, leaning toward Joe on the bed.
I wasn’t alone. From where I floated in the corner I could just make out what I recognized as Grandpa’s dear face. Grandpa was here. He had made himself known to me once again, just as he had when I was five years old. I wondered why Grandpa had shown up now, after all these years. Perhaps he was here to get Joe, take him to wherever the dead are. Maybe it was time for Joe to be with Dad. Or maybe it was like my friend and mentor Magdalena, the Finnish healer, had taught me: he only appeared when it served an important purpose, to let me know that there was no death, that I was loved, that I wasn’t alone. The glow of Grandpa’s orange aura seeped into my bones and warmed me like sitting close to the embers of a beach bonfire. I watched for, hoped for, Dad’s ocean blue-green aura to come in too, but it didn’t.
My arms cramped, and the flow stopped. The orange aura faded and then there was nothing but the smell of body odor and Pine-Sol and my Grandpa’s pipe smoke that tasted like chocolate inside my throat. Joe hadn’t moved, hadn’t flickered even an eyelash. I collapsed into the chair by his bed and fell asleep before I remembered to ground myself or burn off the energy as Magdalena had taught me.
When I opened my eyes again it was night; spits of rain whipped against the dark windows and rattled the frames. Someone had turned on an overhead light in the room. Hospital noises murmured outside the room, soft conversation and footsteps passing in the hall. My back and neck hurt from sleeping in the chair, my hands buzzed and tingled, and I had a headache. I leaned over and pressed my hands against the floor until the buzzing stopped, as Magdalena had taught me, then sat up and closed my eyes, stoked up a white-hot fire inside and let the excess energy burn off and drift out the top of my head as white smoke.
Joe’s eyes were open, looking at the ceiling. A tear moved slowly down toward his ear.
I leaned forward, my breath coming fast. “Joe?” I said. “You awake?”
He turned his head on the pillow, this time looked at me instead of through me. He didn’t speak.
I jumped out of my chair, reached for him, then held back, went to the foot of the bed and turned the hand crank to raise the head of the bed until Joe was sitting up.
“Are you awake? Talk to me, Joe, talk to me.” I leaned on the bed and squeezed his hands lying limp on the covers. After a moment, he squeezed back. He was awake! Something that had gone quiet and still inside me leaped up and danced a joyful jig.
“Joe, you have to talk,” I said. “They won’t let you go home until you talk.” His aura revived, an outline of transparent red close to his body, and began to expand as I watched, inching outward against the white pillowcase and sheet.
He didn’t answer. His eyes were huge and dark green and so full of hurt I could barely look. I crawled up over the end of the bed and knelt on the covers to get close in his face. “Joe?” I said.
Joe’s shoulders convulsed with a choking half sob, half laugh.
“What?” I said.
“You look like something the cat dragged in,” he said.
“I put my hands on his head, did my healing touch, and he came out of it. So maybe that’s it. He remembers the promise, and I just know I have to keep that promise.”
When I reached for Giff again, he held me lightly, talking over the top of my head.
“I think I get it, now. This is just between the two of you. The end of the story, or the next chapter, but you have to do it together, and alone.”
He sighs. “And I don’t want to be there when he goes. I’ve said all I need to say to him. We’re good with each other. Complete, if it comes to that.”
“So you trust me now, to do this alone?”
“What choice do I really have? I made a promise, too.”
We hold on for a long time, while the enormity of what is happening washes over us and leaves us weak.
“But…but I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do,” I say.
“It’s a huge thing you’re agreeing to. You know how to do it, you’ve done it before. Walking someone home.”
Now I’m shivering. Giff holds me tighter.
“I’ve done it before, but never with someone so close. I just can’t be that objective. I mean, it’s Joe…how can I?”
“Who better? You know how, you teach that principle at your Center…what is it? About Love and death?”
“‘Since Love is eternal, death need not be viewed as fearful’,” I recite.
“So why are you afraid?”
“Love may be eternal, but so is death. I can’t bear the thought of losing him.” I sink against Giff, weak in the knees.
“But you’ll be there with him. That’s what he wants, what he needs. Your healing touch, your love, your serenity, your presence.” He leans back and looks at my face.
My resolve and determination shatter into shards around my feet. All I want is Giff’s comforting, capable presence.
“I want you to go with me, Giff. Maybe build fires and cook.”
“No, Joe’s sending Big Mike away, said he didn’t want people to witness it, and he asked for you.”
“I think I understand what Joe expects,” he says. “It’s about your healing touch. He still wants you to heal him. This is …it’s …your last chance.”
I walk to the patio door and gaze out at the dirt-filled flower pots. “No. That’s not it. He’s accepted his death and just wants me there with him. I’m not going there to heal him. I’ve been trying to heal him for…what…almost three years now? And why? There’s something missing in my healing touch. Something that isn’t working. I don’t know what that missing factor is, but clearly, I can’t heal Joe, or I already would have. I’m not sure I ever should have even tried.”
“Anyway,” I say, my back to Giff, “it’s too late for that now.”
“Too late?” he says. “Do miracles have limits? I would have thought you’d say it’s never too late for a miracle.”
Sturdy green spears a couple of inches tall are up in one of the large flower pots. Daffodils, already. “No, I don’t think I even believe in miracles any more,” I say. “I’m going there to be his companion while he lets go of his life. Going because…because I promised, and he can’t be alone. Maybe I can help him die, but I can’t help him get well. Not anymore.”
I come back and sit on my stool at the counter
Suddenly I am too tired to think or move. Anxiety ripples through me, turning my muscles to water, and my head drops onto my folded arms.
“Can’t,” Giff says. “I’ve never heard you use that word before.” His hand cradles the back of my head.
“I don’t even want to talk about Joe getting well, I just have to get myself together to go up there and be with him.” My voice is muffled by tears and my sleeves.
I want Giff to go with me. But I can’t let him go with me, not now. Especially not now, after the fight, the vision, and remembering the promise.
We clean up the kitchen, and talk about anything except what is going to happen today. Giff’s latest commission, to build an entertainment center for a widow who hopes the piece of furniture will encourage her grandchildren to visit more often. My work at the Attitudinal Healing Center, now temporarily in the hands of the Board, with Mom helping.
Mom! I should call her…tell her what’s going on. But I know what she’ll say. “He’ll be fine. You’ll heal him.” I didn’t need to hear that again. I’d call her later. After.
Giff comes in from the garage with the small white-spotted blue enamel coffeepot, and finds a place in the top of my pack for it. He grinds French Roast coffee and fills a plastic bag, tucks it inside the pot.
“Sweetheart, I so wish you could go with me,” I say. “I don’t know what I’m doing now, don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”
He smiles with one side of his mouth. “I know. There’s nothing I want more than to be there. But Joe just needs you right now.”
“You’ll be all right,” Giff says. “Sometimes you don’t even know how strong you are. You don’t see how you stay serene in the face of other people’s pain.”
Giff has switched sides. And I trust him as I always have. In this moment, I trust him to know better than I do what’s true.
“I’m not serene. I’m scared. I can’t do this.”
“No. You know better than that. You’ve made a sacred promise.”
Looking at him, seeing the confidence in his eyes, I can believe in his belief, if not in myself.