Peer Gynt (2006-2013) Greatest Cat in the World

Peer Gynt,

My amazing cat, Peer Gynt, died last week.  I called him my boyfriend because he was the first being who came here and stayed, and only after much upset and dissatisfaction on both sides.  He was big and orange and stripy, like a mini-tiger, and fat, and lazy, and lazier and fatter every year.   He complained loudly when he wanted attention, or when breakfast wasn’t served promptly enough.  Sometimes he even pawed at my bedroom door.  He convinced people in the neighborhood that he needed food with his piteous meowing.  They call me up and say, “I found your cat.  He seems really hungry…”  even though he was a bruiser and had plenty to eat at home and, to boot, wore a tag that said “In-outdoor cat.  Do not feed.”

He was an alley cat, the mayor of the neighborhood, everybody’s cat, really.  My neighbor, Lisa, called him “Pussy L’Orange” and loved him, I thought, much better than I did.  She let him sit on her lap and get his cat hair all over her clothing.  My dear friend Tim, who lives down the alley, held Peer for hours and hours a day, letting him sleep on his chest.  He was a protector, a guardian, a friend.  I called him the sleep guru because it he lulled everyone he curled up against into dreamland.  And now he is sleeping in my back yard.  He was not afraid of dogs.  When we brought a 5 month-old Siberian Husky, a reputed cat-killer, into his home, he calmly stared her down and made it clear that he was in charge.  He held his ground when we brought in another, goofy, Husky Puppy, who grew to be 70 pounds.  Peer kept them both in line.  Some people called him a dog-cat, or cat-dog, because he often behaved more like a dog than a cat.

Peer Gynt standing watch over Freya and Baldr

My friend Tim helped me lower him into the grave, wrapped in a lovely old cotton blanket my parents brought back from Wyoming.  It seemed fitting, as Peer was a Western Cat, a fighter, a lover.

The funeral was lovely.  Some of the kids from the neighborhood, who knew and loved him, came over.  Each of us said what we loved about him and then cast a flower into his grave.  Then I read from Christopher Smart‘s Jubilate Agno, which one of the kids actually knew about.  Smart wrote what must be the greatest poem on a cat while confined for lunacy in Bedlam Asylum between 1759 and 1763.

1     For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
2     For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.

19   For having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
20   For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
21   For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
22   For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
23   For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
24   For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
25   For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
26   For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
27   For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.

Peer with his friend, Anitra

I loved my cat, Peer Gynt.

I send him to his grave with lines from Ibsen.  This is the lullaby that Solveig, who has loved him forever, sings to him at the end of the play:

Sleep thou, dearest boy of mine!

I will cradle thee, I will watch thee —

The boy has been sitting on his mother’s lap.

They two have been playing all the life-day long.

The boy has been resting at his mother’s breast

all the life-day long. God’s blessing on my joy!

The boy has been lying close in to my heart

all the life-day long. He is weary now.

Sleep thou, dearest boy of mine!

I will cradle thee, I will watch thee.

Peer on my bed

Grown-up Breakups, Green Tara, and Tupac

It is the oddest experience—to be really angry at someone and yet to forgive instantly, to love someone and yet to know that you need to let them go, to be relieved to have your solitude back and yet to mourn the loss of your former lover, to accept that you’re moving on and yet to keep freaking out about his having left you for someone else.

You say to yourself:

No way is she better than me.  I mean, his taste has really declined.

And then you admit:

…but maybe she’s better for him than I was.

Which leads to the happy thought:

And maybe there’s someone out there who is way better for me, too.

I have been looking for him for such a long time.  This time I’m not settling about anything. I will feel the earth move.  Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for his love is more delightful than wine.  Pleasing is the fragrance of his perfums, his name is like perfume poured out.

I’m glad, I’m glad, I’m so glad and relieved this time to be able to go through this without getting stuck in rigid “he did me wrong” discourse.  Also, I’m glad holding myself with compassion and gentleness and love as I face my suffering. This does not mean I place the burden of my suffering at his feet and demand retribution.  These are my problems.  Look: I choose to respond to this difficulty, this blow to my emotional and financial security with love and grace.  I chose grace.  Why chose anything else?

Suffering, dukha, is unavoidable.  I can’t opt out of the pain but I can choose how I respond to it.  I think writing about it, meditating about it, and crying about it is all an excellent form of ritualized mourning, a kind of kaddish that I am working through.  I’m trying to keep my eyes open.

I was talking to a friend (a friend? more than a friend? there’s always hope!) tonight about how weird it is to be back in the United States.  Everything is more or less the same. The gods dogs are the same, the garden is the same as it always is this time of year, the paintings and rugs and tables and chairs and dishes in my house are the same, the streets are the same, my neighbors are doing the same things, the pile of mail is the same pile of catalogs and come-ons, but I am different.  My body and mind have changed.   I was only there for two months but it transformed me tangibly in a way that I cannot yet describe.  I feel heavier, more rooted to the earth, as though the magnets in my soles had a stronger pull.  If I’m liable to floating off at a momentous breath, then I’m as likely to come come crashing back to the ground again, upright and on my feet.

I like being in my house by myself.  I love it here.  The wisteria and the grape vines are still alive, if parched.  The Echinacea is blooming into the heat.  The rosemary, symbol of the woman’s reign in the household, had held on, a small, scrubby branch.

Today I reclaimed my yoga/meditation room.  I set up an altar with the male and female manifestations of compassionate action—Avalokitseshvara and Green Tara.

 

For me, Green Tara is the most important deity/symbol in the Buddhist pantheon.  “ The Sanskrit root târ-means “to traverse” or “cross over” as in using a bridge to ford a stream.” Green Tara is pictured rising from her Lotus couch, one foot in the world, ready to help, actively involved in the alleviation of misery in the world.  Her name means what the modern Greek word metaphor means: a vehicle for carrying over, like a dolly that you use to move furniture from one place to another.  Similarly, linguistic metaphors don’t name the things they denote, they only transport meaning and by transporting make those things, those concepts, accessible.

Green Tara

Tara moves from one place to another, transports compassion from its abstract realm to the material realm, putting it into action.  A metaphor reaches out, spans a gap and, by connecting things together, makes the immaterial concrete, graspable.

I have been crying.

Crying releases stress and consoles the heart, they say.  For sure, you can’t pretend you’re not suffering or that you don’t need to be loved when you’re weeping.  But you don’t necessarily feel better afterwards.  You feel wrung out, over-infused with intensity, exhausted.  It is good if you can keep laughing. I often laugh after or while crying.  Joy and sorrow aren’t exactly opposed emotions. When you cry you feel vulnerable, and if you’re at all kind to yourself you will give yourself some slack.  Embrace your suffering with all the love that you would bestow on anyone else you love.

Having taken this advice seriously, I can now announce:

Hey! I just realized that I am HOME.

I’m in my house.  Today is my father’s birthday.  I have a gorgeous, large sepia-toned photograph of him in his prime, when he was still handsome. I’m at home in my father.  My father has come to rest at home in me.

I ADORED my father, and also had a lot of trouble getting along with him.  Many regrets.  Still, I’m hereby honoring, toasting, him, thanking him for all that he gave me, for the skiing lessons, the encouragement, for never saying that I couldn’t do anything I wanted to because I was a girl.

Awesome job, Dad.  And I’m not talking about the money, even though you thought that was all anyone cared about.  I cared about you.

Switching away to JOY!!  I have everything I need right here.  My son is spending the night at his girlfriend’s house and

 I am alone in my own private space for the first time in 2 months.

The bathroom is clean, the toilet flushes without running all over the floor, the shower runs hot and cold, no one is watching me come and go, and I have air conditioning.  I can eat all the salad and fruit I want without getting diarrhea  and I am taking food out of my own refrigerator in my kitchen with its ancient linoleum floors.  I can dance around naked if I please.  It is a delightful freedom. I want to call up my friend J not to gloat but to share with her a delicious independence that she will best understand.

If you cannot find a companion who is better than or like yourself

You should make your way steadily, alone.

In the childish there is no companionship.

From the 5th chapter of the Dhammapada

The Dhammapada, or “Verses on the Way,” is a redaction of the Buddha’s teachings.  By “childish” the speaker, allegedly the Buddha, means something more expansive that the behavior and mentality that we expect from children.  He means people who, for whatever set of reasons, have not yet grown to maturity in their thought or feelings, who have not yet become “skillful.”

Later on the Dhammapada reads,

If one cannot find a mature friend,

a companion who is wise, living productively,

let him go alone,

like a king abandoning conquered land,

like an Elephant in the forest.

A life of solitude is better–

There is no companionship with a childish person.

Let one go alone and do no damage,

Like an elephant in the forest.

It is better to restrain the mind alone than to be restrained by someone else, better to conquer one’s own passions than to live tamed by someone else.  Like an elephant, the wise wayfarer governs her or his own passions, endures the insults and arrows inflicted by others. The wise practitioner does not go mad with rage because she or he keeps watch over thoughts and emotions.  She or he finds comfort in friends and in “contentment with whatever is.”

If you are reading Buddhist scriptures you are probably trying to wake up, to see more clearly, to understand the world better than you have so far.  You are trying to find your way out of the trance of reactivity, of emotional distress that leads to behaviors you later regret.  You know that dukkha, pain, is inevitable.  You know that don’t need to make it worse by beating yourself up about it.   And yet you do fall back into the trance, all the time, and you do occasionally wake up to yourself beating yourself up.  So you keep to the path, watch over your mind,  and look for people who are more or as skillful at this practice of discipline.

Have you ever been on a trek or a long hike with a really childish person?  Not a really young person.  Young people can be very old, very mature, very good company.  But I mean someone who is continuously grasping for attention, for reassurance, someone who boasts and struts or whines and manipulates or has to fill every bit of quiet with incessant jabber?  After a short while you begin to feel enervated, tired, impatient.  You grit your teeth, you endure.  You are not looking about you.  Your attention becomes very small, very focused on the source of irritation.  The Buddha says, “be compassionate to and with this person but do not expect much from them.  Walk steadily on.”

These are not the Buddha’s words.  I’m paraphrasing the lines above, which differ a lot from the classic masculine stiff-upper-lip mantras that Tupac Shakur parodies in his “Hold On.”

Hold On, Be Strong,

When it’s on, it’s on.

The same speaker who claims that he screwed up by smoking pot but now knows what’s “going on out there” and that “god don’t like ugly,” and that “you got to stand strong,” is getting high at the beginning of the song.  Thus everything he says has a double meaning.  He plays on the meaning of the word “strong” by identifying it with the aggressively self-defensive stance of the “black male” and the “thug for life.”  Tupac is not endorsing this thuggish identity, he’s putting it down. He’s  also saying that it’s not enough to “hold on” and “be strong,” to stoically endure without admitting to pain.  He’s also not campaigning against weed.  He’s observing that we are all vulnerable, we are all suffering, and we might want to think twice about the directive to suck it up and bear it.  We might want to show a little compassion to our own suffering, which will help us to acknowledge others’ suffering, and jolt us out of the fatal trance of the ego.

So when it comes round, Tupac’s refrain, “Hold on, Be strong” means exactly the opposite of what the stoned speaker says it means.  Tupac challenges the whole “black-man-as victim-of-the white-system” and asserts, “be strong” and “hold on” as a message that is far more complicated that its overt explication.  He urges his auditors to have faith in themselves as agents of positive change.  The Buddha says, “hang in there, endure your suffering, but do not discount it; acknowledge your reality, your dukkha”   Tupac says something similar.  Be strong, but not in the rigid, hyper-masculine manner.

To compare dukkha, human suffering, to a simplistic victim/oppressor mode of thought is to get stuck in rigid black/white ways of understanding reality.  You can’t simply deny it or refuse to talk about it.  And there is no point in going around blaming your ex for having hurt you, attacking defensively, lashing out in retribution.  It solves nothing and it’s childish.

No one is coming to save you except yourself.  It’s not a matter of belief, of abstract faith, but rather of action, of wise movement, of practice, of allowing Tara/Avalokitesvara to step off the virtual lotus of heavenly bliss into the world of suffering.  Step off your high horse of militant self-denial into your suffering heart, and find contentment in the movement, in the metaphor. Acknowledge your pain and be with yourself, alone, like an elephant in the forest. Thus you can

Pull yourself out of misfortune

Like an elephant, sunk in the mud.

Before Leaving for Pokhara

7 July 2011

I’ve been pretty sick for the past few days with a cold, an affliction that has beset many people in Pepsi-Cola.  The Nepalis blame the rain.  I blame the pollution, but who cares?  I haven’t had much energy and my spirits have flagged.  Lying around in bed, trying in vain to sleep while serenaded by carpenters cutting wood on electric saws, blacksmiths pounding metal rods, construction workers banging hammers, and, today, a brass band that struck up a cacophonous beat every 20 minutes or so, depressed me.  I’ve had too much time to think about the breakup with Tim and have dwelled unhealthily on my weaknesses, failures, shortcomings, and losses.   I started to get hold of myself when I realized that I was pre-menstrual and exhausted.  What I needed was a a good, solid rest.

I took a nap and then meditated for about 30 minutes.  What a relief it was to drop into stillness, into the what-is-ness of my life right now, right here and to stop fighting, stop resisting, stop expecting, and, best of all, stop finding fault with myself.  It struck me that I was wasting time.  There is no running away from the grief that I feel for what I have lost.  I am riding that wave.  But I can’t let it overwhelm me.   I am so incredibly lucky, after all.  Not only have I the opportunity to get to know truly unusual and generous human beings such as Kat and her best friend, Maria,  I am also here with my son, my only child.  I came here to Nepal in order to do something extraordinary with him.  I have spent much of the past ten years mourning my distance from him, and here he is now, a young, intelligent, and engaging adult.  We are bonding with one another but also with some of the same people during our travels.  We will only be here for another four weeks.  Every moment with this man, this man whom I love more than any man in the world, is a gift.

I took a harrowing cab-ride with Kat and a driver who seemed to delight in roaring directly toward pedestrians and stopping half an inch from their legs.  He veered into oncoming traffic two-thirds of the way into town.  Kat and I have both adopted the same strategy for managing our fear during these journeys.  We talk briskly to one another and keep our eyes off the road ahead.   We were meeting the group at a restaurant in Thamel, but Brendan and the crew had not yet arrived.  My heart ached for him and swelled when he came swinging into view.   I often worry about how I’ll do when he goes back to the States.

We all go to Pokhara tomorrow morning.  The gang—Brendan, Joost, Peter, Angela, Maria, and maybe also Sophia–will meet at 6 am downstairs before heading together into Kathmandu for the “tourist bus,” a lot more expensive and allegedly more comfortable vehicle than the notoriously overcrowded and filthy regular busses.  No farmer is likely to hop on board and deposit ten to fifteen half-dead chickens on my feet.  Still the road itself is terrifyingly narrow, busy, and likely to be rained out in places.  I am not looking forward to it.  But I am happy to be going with good friends, my friends who are also Brendan’s friends.  It will be heaven to escape Pepsi-Cola and the Kathmandu Valley for a few days.   We all need the break.

Being alone in Colorado

2 October 2010

My mother died on this day 30 years ago.

Being alone in Colorado during the day.

When I’m in Pittsburgh I’m immersed in noise.  City noise–boom boxes and explosive car radios, trash trucks, jack hammers, car alarms, planes, helicopters,  that incredibly irritating back-up sound that goes Beep, Beep, Beep, insanely, driving you insane; trucks driving or idling, for no apparent reason,  buses, motorcycles, leaf blowers, people walking down the street who converse by shouting at one another from either side of the road.  In the 19th century the steam engine was thought to be a kind of devil, roaring through the world and practically tearing people’s ears off.  But it seems to me that the devils of the 20th and early 21st centuries are machines powered by gasoline.

When I “relax” I turn on the television, usually quite loud so that I can hear it over the noise in my neighborhood, and when I go “out” to “relax” and have a drink, I go into a bar where there is usually a television blaring or music drowning out the silence that city people have apparently no ability to deal with.  And speaking of bars.  It’s annoying enough that there is a television to deal with, but what I don’t understand is why the t.v. always has to be tuned to golf or baseball or football?  Why can’t it be Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Six Feet Under or Battlestar Galactica?  Let it be CNN or even that republican machine, Fox News.  Are city bars only populated by sports fans?

But here, where I am now, I hear virtually nothing but the sound of my own breathing, the dogs, three of them, following me here and there, their panting, the cat meowing to be let in the door that he knows he doesn’t usually go through, the wind, if there is any, the very rare car passing by.  If I want to hear something, I can play something on my computer, through itunes.  There’s a t.v. here but nothing on.  Nothing means: nothing I care to watch or listen to. And the radio isn’t much better.  Colorado stations seem to feature NPR most hours of the week, but so much of that programming seems to have to do with authors excessively pleased with themselves, who really don’t have that much to say, in fact.  Or that idiotic program, Car Talk, with the brothers whose laughter is so obviously forced it grates.  They don’t laugh because they’re amused, but rather because they’re uncomfortable.  Or so it sounds.  Why would anyone want to listen to the sound of forced, uncomfortable laughter, when one could listen to silence in one’s car or house?

But how rare is it to “hear” silence, to be able to think for one’s self, in quietude?  We live in cacophony and wonder why it is that we are continually getting sick from “stress.”

I’m not lonely.  There are three dogs here–Bear, Blackjack, and Kea, in order of importance.  Bear is a good friend, even though he begs too much.  Blackjack snores in his sleep and I find the sound comforting.  Kea is always way more excited to see me that I think she will be.

I love being able to do exactly what I feel like doing.  I can walk, dance, cook, and drink. I drink as much wine as I feel like drinking.  I’ve been cooking a lot and finding that I have lost my taste for meat.  It is good to be alone; to be with myself for an extended period of time, in the quiet, without a schedule, without quantification, just being.  I go to be around 8:30 and get up at 5 or 6.  I live as I want to.  It is wonderful.

Being alone in Colorado at night.

I had to go to Hotchkiss this afternoon and didn’t turn back until after dark.   Halfway home I stopped along the road, turned off the engine and the lights, and got out to look at the sky.  A dog at a nearby farm was barking but it fell silent.  So many stars.   It had been a long time since I had seen the Milky Way.

It’s hard to comprehend how we could be “in there” when, from earth, it looks as though it is “up” or “out there.”   And when I remember that it is not a water-cloud, but a star-cloud, and that the opacity of “out there” is more or less how our “over here” looks to the beings on that side of the galaxy, it’s harder to grasp.

Is it like the relationship between Self and Other?  We dismiss or underestimate or simply forget about or try to kill the Other because it is other, because we can’t stand the difference in the color of their skin, or the way they eat, or walk, or express affection, or believe, or vote, or fish.  What we’re missing out on when we allow these differences between to divide us is that we are not “here” and “there” but, rather, together, bound up in the same web, the same world.  There’s a German word for this, mitsein.  It means “being with”  So, it is possible to say, in German, not only “ich bin,” I am, which is a pretty powerful thing to say, actually.  But it is  also possible to say “ich bin mit,” I am with.

As I got back on the road I thought about how insignificant I was, in my tiny little car, soft flesh clothed in an exoskeloton driving along on a capillary.  So often I think of myself as the center of the universe, a “me” an individual, isolated sun, and that what I am doing is of infinite importance, and must come before all other things.  The sky above seemed so vast, so much greater than this personal scenario, this whole world. But then I thought about the complexity beneath the tires on the road, and beneath and beside the road, all the birds and skunks and snakes and lizards and toads, and the insects that they eat, and the hives and burrows that the creatures build,  and the thread-like paths that ants leave, and the smaller ones, the mites, the tiny larvae, all busily going about and around And then I thought about smaller things that you can only see under microscopes, and all the organisms that make up dirt, in which the plants grow.  So I felt better.

And when I got home the three dogs were so happy to see me they danced. Blackjack ran around the yard with his enormous teddy bear in his mouth, and Kea wagged her whole back body at me, and Bear was love-dumb as always.  I laughed at them and said, “Hello, Friends!”

Danse Macabre: Mourning My Mother

So I’m listening to Mahler’s first symphony, which I love and have loved for all of my entire adult life.  Or since I was 20.  When does adult life begin?  Hard to say.  I’m about to turn 50 and still sometimes have trouble understanding myself as grown up.  But what is the 1st symphony about? It is about life, the business of life, the joy and buzzing business of the bees and the flowers and the animals and the fervor of everything that never ends, even when some of us die.

But standing here on the verge of my fiftieth decade frightens me, not least because my mother died of colon cancer when she was 55.  She was diagnosed when she was 54.   There were signs before.  The winter of her 53rd year we were in Sun Valley, and instead of skiing my mother stayed home, in agonizing pain that every one of us, my father, an orthopedic surgeon, my brother, my sister, and I interpreted as gas.  How could we all have been so stupid?  Yet we were.  What do orthopedic surgeons know about the diseases of the internal organs?

So, she died.  By the time we caught it, the cancer has metastasized and spread throughout her body, including her lungs.  She died of asphyxiation, fluid from the cancer building up in her lungs.  It took some time…enough time for us to go on a river-rafting trip down the Salmon River in Idaho.  She had had the first eliminating surgery, and some chemotherapy.  We were all pretending that she was going to recover, go into remission. But she was so short of breath.  And my father knew.  I didn’t.  Not until the very end.

It was yuk.  You can’t say how awful it was so you have to understate it.  I remember driving around the hills of Santa Barbara on the days just after her death, madly playing polka music, which I didn’t actually like all that much, not least because it struck me as a kind of dance of death, that mad refusal to believe in the end, that the peasants of Bruegel or Defoe are dancing.  I was driving in delirium, the furious round and round of the mind that cannot take in what is.

The thing about death-dealing sicknesses, or bills of death, sentences of death, in short, cancer, is that the mind does not go there.  It refuses.  And death or its prognosis never makes any kind of sense.  It interrupts the rational.  It fucks you up.

So here I am witnessing the sentence pronounced on my dear sister-in-being-and-love, MJ, who has just discovered that she has ovarian cancer.  The silent killer of women.  A sort of Jack-the-Ripper of the reproductive organs, a disease for which there are few reliable diagnostic tests, and fewer cures.  When it is found in the body late, as it has been with my sister, the prognosis is not good.

Everyone said that my mother’s cancer was nothing to worry about.  O, people recover from colon cancer all the time, they said.  It’s one of the best cancers you can get.  There are no good cancers.  Each one of the is deadly.  Every cancer spreads like a noxious weed, a plant that, thriving, chokes out the life in which it grows.  And it flourished in my mother.

My mother did not acknowledge this flourishing.  This bitter root spreading throughout her.  Or she did, but thought that somehow thought could eradicate it.  She believed that if she could heal every one of her significant relationships, her connections to her brothers and her children, that miraculously the cancer would die.  This theory infuriated me because it located the source of the cancer in other people while blaming the victim.  It seemed to be a kind of mental torture program masquerading as help.  If she could only fix her relationships, she would recover.  And we were all enlisted in this recovery, of  course.  We weren’t allowed to be negative

I took this philosophy to heart, and tried to be supportive, accommodating, helpful.  I quit my job as Director of State Relations at NYU and moved home to be with her.  I was pregnant.  I needed my mother.  Nothing worked.   She died. But I was not permitted to acknowledge that she was dying.  As a good daughter and caretaker, I was enlisted in a program of upbeat thoughts and morale building.  It was worth a shot, of course.  But I never got to say goodbye, because my mother never acknowledged that she was going.   When she left, I felt it was my fault. If only I had tried harder, had believed more in the possibility of her recovery. If I had had that powerful faith, then it would have been enough.

Yes, I know.  This was an unreasonable fantasy of power.  But we are exhorted in our culture to have these fantasies, to pray, to believe in prayer, and to blame ourselves for not having prayed hard enough when our prayers fail to come true.  I did not believe that she was going to recover.  Was it therefore my fault that she died? Or am I to blame for not having been more “supportive” of the fiction that she committed herself to?

My mother seemed to be the victim of a false consciousness program propounded in books for people dying of cancer–a program that exhorted that if only the mind would change, the body would follow.  This program sold lots of books but also made lots of people who ended up dying of the cancer they couldn’t control anyway feel like losers, like people who hadn’t tried hard enough.  I hate this program.

It seems to me–and how I hope that  will not need to practice what I preach here–that when something happens to us, especially when that thing is a medical condition that we have no control over and cannot understand, that we need to accept what is and step aside from the whole program that tells us to feel responsible for the fact that we got sick and that falsely promises that we have within the power to get unsick.

Now this is not to say that we shouldn’t try to maintain a healthy body/mind connection, or that we shouldn’t eat well and take our vitamins and get plenty of exercise.  We are responsible for our health every day.  But my mother was the healthiest person I knew, a moderate drinker, a light but hardly anorexic eater, and an active exerciser.   She played tennis three or four times a week, walked vigorously for miles every day,  had good friends, a relatively happy family.  As a good if lapsed Seventh-Day Adventist, she avoided fatty foods and alcohol and caffeine and ate loads of fiber.  But she still died of colon cancer.  It wasn’t her fault.  Nor was it mine. Or anyone else’s.

I just wish she had said goodbye, that she had let me know that she knew what was going on and that she had some kind of parting wisdom for me.  But she didn’t. She just left.   And I felt really guilty about it, because it seemed that I had not done everything that  was capable of doing.  If only I had prayed harder; if only I had believed in prayer.

It’s hard.  You have this life, however short.  My younger sister, with whom I have a difficult relationship I guess because we lost her, our mother at such different stages in our lives, directs everyone who receives email from her to live each day as though it were their last.   Nice sentiment.  What if you only had a year, or six months, or two weeks, to live?  What would you do?

My first impulse is to say that I would keep on working on my book.  Or I would try to paint at least one painting, that “tree of life”painting that I’ve had in my head for all these months.  But what if I didn’t have the energy?  What would I do then?  I would like to think that I’d write letters to all the people I love, in order to tell them how much I appreciate them. I would explain what they mean to me, and how they have changed my life.  Maybe I would do nothing.

My mother did not write any letters.  She just left.  But that is not quite right. She had been telling me all her life how much she loved me, how much I meant to her.  What more could she say?  Probably something.  But that was not her style.  She would have frowned, as I would, on some perfunctory expression of love, since she would have known that no singular declaration could possibly encompass all that she felt.

In short, we forgive the dead whom we have love, we make an effort to understand how they went, under what circumstances, and to appreciate them over the course of their lives.  We do not measure them according to their last moments, or years.  We remember them fondly, openly, with love.

Does everyone who leaves us remind us of this primal loss, the death of our mother, the woman who bore us into the world?  Probably.

I don’t have the faintest idea of how to process this new confrontation with death, this reminder of my own mortality.  How are any of us to know that we do or don’t have ovarian cancer, the silent killer of women?  Why don’t we as a nation or world have better tests for detecting this killer?  This, too, is a woman’s issue.  Why should the silent killer go after one of the great woman leaders of my time, my friend and sister, MJ?  How do I know that it has not also invaded my body?  Why don’t we have better technological understanding of this disease?

I am frightened.