Joe sits on his bunk, legs dangling over the edge, and grins from ear to ear.
What’s going on here? Could he have possibly gotten this much better overnight? Could he be healed?
I make coffee, quickly, frantically, pour him a cup. I place the mug in his hands, covering them with my own. His hands are icy cold.
He sits on his bunk, legs swinging, sips his coffee. I sit down in the chair, waiting. My hands are shaking, his are not.
Joe gazes at me with a calm clarity I can’t recall feeling in recent months.
“Do you get it now?”
“Get what?” I say.
His grin is impish, condescending. And he’s speaking normally.
“About Surrender. What can happen when everybody surrenders.”
“You mean that last healing…”
“You let go of your plans for me,” Joe finishes my thought.
“I did. And now you’re…here. It’s a miracle.”
“Yes, I’m healed. My mind is healed. And more important, you now know the last step in what you need to do for healing. Are you ready to do another healing?”
“Absolutely,” But why, if he’s already healed?
Joe carefully places his coffee cup on the floor next to his feet. He lies down on the bunk, tossing off the top of his sleeping bag.
“No, Joey, you need to stay warm, your arms and legs are so cold,” I stand up, reach for the sleeping bag, but Joey swats my hands away, not letting me pull it over his nearly blue limbs. His eyes are closed. He seems suddenly so tired.
How can he be so cold and so hot at the same time? Something nags at me, something I can’t quite remember…. I need to figure this out, get some fresh air… I tell Joe, “I’m going outside for a few minutes, I’ll be right back.”
Still in my p.j.,s I pull on my snow boots and slip out the front door with my steaming coffee. I turn the corner of the cabin, and come to a full stop. There are more tracks in the snow, fresh ones, circling the cabin. Kindling bucket is full again. Guardian angels?
I stand in the snow, close my eyes, listen to the quiet. Puzzled. Why did Joe want to come here, to this isolated cabin, so far away from clinics, hospitals, doctors? What was he thinking?
It’s hope. When nothing is certain, hope is an option. When all else fails, go for the long shot from center court just before the buzzer.
Or maybe something else. At home, Nellie took him to the E.R. when his breathing changed. He’d been at the clinic or in the hospital nearly every day for the last six months, for treatments, transfusions, to balance body chemistry, to stop hours or days of hiccups, for yet another surgery, to have tumor-honeycombed bones pinned and set.
Once his heart stopped in the E.R., and they cracked a rib pounding on his chest. The Hickman catheter got infected and had to be removed, then reinserted in a new incision. Joe’s doctors were brave high-tech heroes, dedicated to keeping him alive at any cost, to him or to them. He asked for more, and they found more.
Joe’s hospital room was usually crowded with family, friends, people who love him, people who go out into the hall to cry and hold each other and then return to tell jokes and tease him about his hair.
Here, he has nobody. Just me.
No home, no devoted wife, children, no hot tub, no boatbuilding shop, no playhouse he built, no honeysuckle draping the back porch, no rose bushes along the path, no wildflower garden in the back, no rocking chair by the window, nothing familiar. Just here, this little primitive cabin in the middle of nowhere.
I take a deep breath and pull light through my hot spot, fill up the egg. I don’t seal it.
I’m ready to go back in.
Joe’s knees come up, his head turns toward me. “Addie?” His bone hand out to me. My feet quick to his bed.
“I’m here,” I say.
My lips on his forehead, the sweet salty damp, my teeth pushed together hard, arm curved around the top of his head, my back bent crooked, doesn’t matter.
It’s getting on toward late afternoon. Joe’s been sleeping. He wakes up. Gradually, his eyes focus on me.
“What do you need?” I ask him.
“Do you want me to tell you that story about when you were born?”
His eyes blink Yes.
“It’s my earliest memory,” I say. “I was five years old, kneeling on the floor next to the rocking chair. Mom was holding you and you were wrapped in a soft blue receiving blanket. I could see the top of your head, light colored hair all over, your head round as an orange, the soft spot on the top of your head moving up and down when your heart beat, your hands like pink stars. Mom’s hand lay on your chest and flashed colors from her gorgeous opal ring. She was singing ‘Baby’s boat’s a silv’ry moon.’ You were so tiny and so beautiful, and I was thinking, ‘He’s finally come.’”
“I was thinking, ‘Now we can start’.”
I straighten up and look down at Joe’s face on the pillow.
Joe’s arms lift toward me, then flop back onto his chest.
He’s trying to give me a hug.
I help him, lift the hollow bird bones of his arms, and put them around my neck for a brief embrace. His hands stroke my hair and neck, pat my face the way a baby pats its mother’s face, pats where the tears run down around my mouth, his hands slip down my arms and he pats my hands. Our faces are so close, our eyes inside each other’s eyes. Our foreheads touch. We are joined.
Inside me a soft silent howl begins, twisting through my chest and stopping my throat.
He struggles to form clear words: “For—fi.”
I lay my hand on his throat, touch his jaw with my fingers.
1945. The year he was born.
My fingers on his throat know what this is.
“This feels like…” I say.
“…being born?” I say.
I lift my forehead off his and sit back.
I hold his hand, let him pound the air with my hand, his tight grip crushing my wedding ring into my finger, the way I crushed Giff’s fingers during last-stage labor, during transition, that bearing-down pure focus of delivery.
He needs to rest. Or maybe it’s just me that needs to rest. So what I do is sing the baby boat song.
I kneel next to his bunk, lay my hand on the crown of his head, and sing.
“Baby’s boat’s a silv’ry moon,
sailing in the sky
Sailing o’er the sea of sleep,
As the clouds float by.
…Sail, baby, sail
out across the sea.
Only don’t forget to sail
home again to me.”
His black eyes softened and filmed by suffering look past me, huge, fixed on the face of the Mother, safe in the arms of Love, hearing a familiar song…
“Baby’s boat’s a silv’ry moon, sailing in the sky…”
Once again I can only witness, kneeling in wonder, my newborn brother’s fontanel pulsing hot beneath my hand, my heart catching up to the quick steady beat.
A phrase from another song begins in my mind, floats in and out, familiar. “Watch with me angels, watch with me tonight.”
The phrase becomes a prayer, a mantra, a plea.
He sleeps again.
Joe wakes up, his hands moving, the motions brisk and rhythmic, directing music in quick time, making an emphatic point, his hand a three-fingered fist.
I hold his hands and talk to him, try to connect him with his world. I tell him Giff has finished another layer of epoxy on the boat they are building.
Joe struggles to focus his eyes on me, frowned with effort.
“He’s gotten that far?” he says, then loses the focus.
His eyes film over, the color gone to milky, the pupils beginning to roll up. Inside where I feel him I know he is becoming more and more himself, not less.
He is working again, his body tense and focused, his fingers curling and uncurling against my palm.
“Have to get weaker first,” he says.
“Do you see a light now?” I ask. He nods a small nod, but my questions narrow it down.
“Is it far away?”
Small head shake. No.
“Can you go toward it?”
The light is near, but he can’t go toward it.
“Are you in the light?”
Yes. He is bathed in that light that I can’t see, but can only feel. I feel soft sprinkles, shimmering snow flecks.
He rests, his eyes half-closed, pupils rolled up, mouth slack, breathing hard.
Kneeling, my hands hold his hand, my hands feeling what he feels.
Slipping away from my body. Joe slipping away from his body, feeling “This is it!”
Then remembering. Remembering what it was to be Home. “How could I have ever forgotten?” In my body there is great spaciousness, ease of movement, fluidity. No solidity anywhere. Joe is moving faster, sliding into Home, I’m sliding too, my body still kneeling on the floor, my self moving beyond body, rushing, expanding, leaving, eager, breathless…
This is as far as I can go with him. I have to stay here, he has to go on.
I’m back, kneeling on the floor, holding Joe’s hand.
He’s waking up from the dream he’s been dreaming.
I want to wake up from this dream.
I touch Joe’s hand and feel his urgency, his hard labor. I remember end-stage labor, the transition, remember how I couldn’t quite get it right, until I thought about toothpaste.
I lean in close and say in his ear, “Joe, I think it’s like squeezing toothpaste out of a tube. Can you do that?”
His eyes open, the film dissolves for just a second and his eyes are dark, clear, focused, and he is looking at me.
Joe is awake.
His face contracts with effort, a little squeeze, two loud gasps.
It all stops.
The room is quiet. There is only the vibration of the air, the silent hum.
Joe’s mouth opens and contorts, his lips twisting and lifting away from his teeth, then goes slack.
His spirit passing by on its way out.
His heart has stopped pounding in his throat.
His body still, the tension gone from it, the tendons of his neck loose and soft.
There is no light or air left in this body.
He is edgeless. Joe is not in there.
The palm of my right hand tight over my chest and left hand low on my stomach, I hold onto my insides with both hands.
I crawl onto Joey’s bunk, stretch out on my stomach next to his cooling body, pull the sleeping bag and let its salty damp cover me and sink warm into my skin. I listen. Did his spirit linger, could I hear it, sense it, touch it?
He was gone.
Scent of peppermint soap and sweat and something else, the weary harsh smell of sickness and death. My arms wrap around his limp pillow, still damp with his salt, I pull it close and push my face into its damp and reek, press it against the ripped openness of my belly. A wail starts up low and deep inside, animal sound, scrolls up to a high lament, head thrown back, throat stretched straight and corded and long, sounds moving up through my throat and out my open mouth until my breath is gone, then again sucked in fast and harsh, a howl hung there, a song in the cold air, thinning out, breath jerked in fast, again, cry reached through the ceiling out into the air, out into the navy blue sky, up to crescent moon, cradle, boat, the sound pulsing, the throb of a living heart, softened, slipped down and down into low crooning, a breath in, then started up again, lifted back into wild lament, loss, mother for child, love for love, high and long, howl for ripped-open red raw torn away and for some ancient loss, a sound as primeval, innocent, unself-conscious as the howl that started with spiraling down out of heaven, out of the heart of God.
I stop. It’s not just me howling. There are others, not just one or two, but three, or four, or six.
Wolves have picked up the lament. I can rest.
I listen to the cacophony of sorrow. It’s all around me tender and unabashed.
Breath finally all gone, my body limp, only sounds left come low from deep belly, softened to coo of the mourning dove, small sounds, coo until all emptied out nothing there now but the shattered empty dark. Dark inside me, inside the cabin, outside in the navy-blue sky. Still and silent and dark.
I stumble to the door, and the vomiting begins, green bile bright against the snow. My body wrenches itself into convulsion. Emptied of pain and agony and dying and death, hope desperation longing loneliness desertion betrayal abandonment. Churning again of its own volition, dry heaves, violent shakes and twitches, I vomit until all empties out nothing there now but dark.
Shapes, shadows, circle the cabin. I am not afraid.
I am shivering, shaking that’s not from being cold or scared, but the kind that happened only once before, after giving birth—a kind of uncontrollable allover palsy that nothing can soothe.
I return to the cabin, and slide into the chair next to the bunk, my arms falling off the sides, and stare at Joe’s empty body while I wait for the shaking to stop. They say the spirit stays for awhile, and one shouldn’t leave too soon. But Joe’s spirit is gone from me, already far away. The white aura around his body fading. There is no one in the room but me, no sound in the room, just that silent hum.
A-flat, The sound of the universe. The sound of God.
Staring at Joe. His body empty, and mine too. He had lost everything but that, the flesh that remains. Now the devastation is complete. I have lost everything, lost my brother, lost my faith, lost my connection to Jesus and God, lost my “job”—healing Joe—failed at my job, in fact, and I’ve lost my feeling of being connected in the Universe. This feels like total devastation.
Into the emptiness comes a vision from ten years earlier, before the concept of devastation had such a personal quality. Joe and I were climbing a cinder cone in Northern California on a warm summer day, the trail in a slow upward spiral. We stopped to drink some water and looked down on the volcanic devastation. At our feet were clusters of small purple flowers nestled in the naked black cinders. Far down the rock slope lay a deep blue lake off to the right, ringed with the green of trees and vegetation.
“So much for devastation,” I said. “They said after Mt. St. Helens blew up it would be decades before Spirit Lake was anything more than a toxic brew. But then bacteria appeared out of ‘nowhere’ and ate up the acid in the lake. Then when the acid was gone, something else ate up the bacteria and other life forms showed up. In a couple of years, the lake was healthy.”
“Looks like Mother Nature does a pretty good job of healing herself.” Joe took a long drink from his water bottle and turned to look behind us.
“What is that?” he said.
He pointed down the steep incline.
A bright blue cloud shimmered close to the surface of the cinder slope.
The cloud became tiny blue butterflies, thousands, millions maybe, moving as one, flickering upward. We stood for long speechless minutes watching the splendid dancers spangle the black cinders with sparkling fluttering blue.
Some mysterious grace, that sends a cloud of blue butterflies to flutter up the slope of a dead mountain, or bacteria to revive a dead lake.
I touch Joe. No more molten lava, just cold, still flesh. So cold.
I watch for awhile. Pull my sleeping bag off my bunk and wrap myself in it.
Watch with me, angels.
The cold wakes me first. Where am I?
Early light outside filters through rustic cabin windows.
Joe! Where is he? Then I remember. Joe is lying on his back on his sleeping bag, his face peaceful and still.
But Joe is dead. He died last night, sometime late.
I sit with it for a moment, then pull on a jacket and go outside.
Wood. Kindling. This was the day Mike would arrive, to take Joe out.
I pull back the woodpile tarp and find the kindling bucket nearly empty.
No matter. I need to pack things up inside, get ready to go. Get Joe ready to go. How?
I hear voices, and look up. Two men were coming out of the woods, one of them pulling a long sled, one carrying a bucket.
I shield my eyes from the bright rising sun. It couldn’t be, but it had to be. Giff.
The two men trek across the snow. Giff sets the bucket down and gathers me into his arms. “So he’s gone?” he whispers. I nod, letting my tears soak into his coat.
“Last night. Late.”
Giff releases me and picks up his bucket, which is full of kindling. He empties it into the empty bucket in the wood pile.
Mike gives me a brief pat on the shoulder then pulls the sled close to the cabin, goes inside and closes the door.
“It was you,” I say.
“What was me?”
“You were the guardian angel who kept my kindling bucket filled.”
Giff just smiled.
“You’ve been camped down below, haven’t you?”
“Can’t be a guardian angel from a distance.”
“So you checked on me?”
“Every day, every night. Checked for smoke coming out of the chimney.”
He broke his promise. I try to be mad, but can’t.
How can anyone ever resent having an extra guardian angel?
A black crow lands on the woodpile and fixes one glossy eye on mine. Remember? he seems to be saying.