Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Bell

"I have always looked upon decay as being just 
as wonderful and rich an expression of life as growth."
Henry Miller

When I'm in trouble I fall in love.

          Before my mother dies, I fall in love with her cardiologist, who is small and brusque, an unsmiling middle-aged married man. I know exactly when it starts, right at the juncture of when I lose all hope of saving her and when I hear him repeat the same unanswerable question everybody asks, "How is your mother?

          Instead of replying "She's the same," or "She's been having nosebleeds," or "Her GP says it's gall stones," I curse. It comes out before I know what I've said. When he looks up at me, I spit out my frustration with all the tests that sap my mother's strength and lead nowhere, with all the specialists who assure me, "She's just depressed," and "Change her diet," and "Make her get out of bed."

          He says to me simply, "I'm taking over."

          I can't count the number of times I replay this scene in the weeks to come. When he calls my cell phone a few days later with some kind of bad news, he says, "Don't lose heart." He commands it at first, in an accent that could be Yiddish or South Philly, and then he says it again more softly. Love enters my body in the sound of his voice. Or maybe it's just love that I need, pressing, pushing, whispering.

          He waits in a tension of silence, patient and wholly present, so unlike the others. I'm determined not to weep or let go of the moment too quickly. He lets me hang up first. Afterwards, bent over my shopping cart in the middle of Target, I press the little phone against my cheek and cry without a making a sound. The red cart is stuffed with Christmas decorations and a bright assortment of bed pads, new sheets, and adult diapers.

          When my mother dies, I fall in love with her lawyer, who is also small and brusque, a primly dressed, middle-aged married man. The lawyer's voice is deceptively sonorous. He drives a sleek, new, silver BMW and I'm pretty sure he's elegantly attempting to evict me from my mother's home, where my children and I have lived for two years, in some misguided effort to uphold the letter of the law. He is accustomed to giving orders, to being right and interpreting rules and morality for lesser minds, and he is always, always certain.

          On a bookshelf directly behind him, in his many-windowed office that overlooks the heart of town, I vaguely notice a photograph among the rows of leather-bound legal tomes. A blue hummingbird perched on the hand of an imposing gray-stone Buddha. How out of place it seems, I think, and fake. Maybe he's trying to soothe nervous clients, the way some offices play muzak.

          After our first few meetings, I tell him I can't talk to him. We have to understand each other and I just can't understand him. It's like talking to a wall.

          It starts when he sniffs, "I always thought I was easy to talk to." Right away I feel eight separate muscles around my mouth go slack.

          When he contradicts me again about something, in that military style he favors, I lay my head on his desk as if it were a pillow and accuse the blank wall.

          "Like that—don't talk to me like that, just don't, don't, don't." I lift my head to look at him, sounding, I know, like I'm snapping. "Can't you just make it sloppy so I understand what the hell you mean?"

          "So, then," the corner of his mouth quivers in a lopsided smile. "You want me to talk dirty?" I'm done—in my world of trouble, that's all it takes to make love rise like sap.

          I prefer very tall men; I can't help it, I always have. But I prefer, above all, men who think well and who are confident but possess the humility that comes from caring deeply about something other than just themselves, who can laugh at themselves—passionate men who enjoy being loved as much as I do but who are, somehow, calm, far calmer than I am—men who take me seriously, except when they're laughing at me, which is all part of their being calmer—men I feel I can help in some special, mysterious way—because I want to be indispensable, of course.

          These men, where are they?

          Not married men or rich men, not ambivalent or inaccessible or overly needy men, not lawyers or doctors or men with prestige, nor men who are much older or much younger. But when I'm in trouble—when there is a sudden, shattering intimacy—all the rules break.

          I never fall in love with my mother's oncologist. Sure, he looks like Teddy Roosevelt, but worse than that he's never promised me the Moon or made me laugh. Our only intimacy comes in the hospital at my mother's deathbed. He pulls up a chair and leans towards me, over the bed railing, across my mother's unconscious body. Over her intermittent gasps and gurgles—I count to 16 between each breath—and over the sheer, physical effort required of me to block the idea that this man has failed us, I hear him as clearly as if he were whispering straight into my ear.

          "I'm telling you this because I know," the oncologist says slowly, as if we have all the time in the world. "I had to do the same thing for my own mother. When my mother died I never left her side, just like you, and now I regret it. After Mother died, the hardest thing for me was this," his hand gestures towards my mother, between gasps, but his eyes stay on me. "This is how I remember her," he says.

          He goes on talking to me the same way he might address his reflection in the mirror. "The image of Mother's suffering has replaced every other memory I have of her. Still, after all these years. Do yourself a favor, dear, and go home, get a couple of hours' sleep, or just take a walk.  Go down to the cafeteria and get a cup of coffee. You do that for yourself, so you can remember her as the person you knew. Mother would want that."

          Okay, maybe I loved him just a little. Like the oncologist, nothing could keep me away from my mother and, like him, the last images are all I have left. Just the same, I worry that I may have withheld less of my love from the cardiologist and the lawyer than from my mother.

When my mother was first diagnosed with cancer, about a week before her death, I wrote about how it had changed the way I looked at her.
Myeloma is a very beautiful word that means cancer of the bone marrow. It is a type of incurable blood cancer, like lymphoma, and the oncologist believes my mother has both of these cancers. Her sternum, where it was split and sewn back together with wire after open-heart surgery two years ago, is alight with neoplastic activity, according to the radiology report, as are the bones of her lower back. 
Since I found out, I sometimes picture my mother as a landscape. I gaze down at her now as I have occasionally peered down at the bluish lights of Newark Airport's runway at night, as we make our descent. With the same reverent mingling of nausea and exhilaration, I make myself look, now at the Earth, now at my mother, their welcome indistinguishable from their warning.
          During the last months of her life, when I had stopped kissing her, I would ask myself Why? Why this obstacle to love? Now that I'm on the other side, the answer comes easily. I was making the necessary preparations; as she was leaving me, I was leaving her. If we're very attentive, we might notice how often we do this.

On a counter outside the oncologist's office, where I set up appointments for my mother's bone marrow biopsy and a skeletal x-ray, there stands a flesh-colored, pocked lump, about the size of a child's head. The lump is mounted on a small, tapered pedestal, like a bust or a trophy. It's an archetypal image: an oval balanced on a small cone.

          Of course, inside a specialist's office, it's not uncommon to find detailed plastic replicas of anatomical parts. These replicas can be pulled apart to expose layer after layer—muscle, tendon, ligament, bone, and so on—and then put back together again like a puzzle. This is one way doctors help us envisage our hidden, otherwise inconceivable, demise.

          But this lump on the pedestal is much more primitive than those clever, miniature artworks. Barely formed, its dimpled flesh is as ugly as it is impervious. It won't come apart, either; it just is.

          Next to the lump is a stack of magazines I pretend to thumb through: under People Magazine, a radiantly smiling couple in a kayak gazes out from the cover of Living with Metastatic Cancer. Afloat in a calm river, the lovers are framed by an abundance of unfallen autumn leaves. I want to be inspired by the graceful image of holding on without clutching—as no doubt I'm meant to—but it strikes me as ghoulish. My lack of appreciation makes me feel I'm not the right person for metastatic cancer, or for bravery. It's what I don't see in the picture that troubles me: the skull beneath the smile; the bare bones of the tree when the last leaf falls; the river rushing on.

          The nurse hands me the prescriptions just as I work up the nerve to turn the tumor around, hoping to find some kind of descriptive plaque. She gives me a funny look. Maybe I'm just superstitious, but I'm embarrassed to ask. I pat the tumor on its head.

          "Why does an oncologist display a model of a lump at the check-out counter?"

          "That?" she says. "It's an ostrich egg. It belongs to the doctor and it's been here as long as he has. Why he wants it here, I have no idea. You'd have to ask him that."

          When I shake my head, she raises an eyebrow. "A tumor? Really?" She stands up and cradles the egg with both hands, rocking it back and forth like a baby. It rings sweetly.

          "It's also a bell," she says.

What formed the first cosmic particles leading to our human existence, and what came before that? What came first—and before that, what? How was God formed—or, rather, how does that first something emerge from nothing? It can't. But it must. What comes before the beginning? At the heart of our existence is this embarrassing, unsolvable mystery and we refuse to honor it, as if what can't be proven has no meaning. We go mad if we accept the mystery, and we are mad if we don't. We need to understand, we need a reason to believe in our own lives—even if the best we can do is make up stories.

          A tumor, an ostrich egg, and a bell are the elements of my parable about love and death. In the weeks following my mother's death, I see a lawyer and a mortician, celebrate Christmas and return the unused hospital bed and wheelchair, throw out the new bed pads and diapers, drag the dead tree out to the curb, pick up the box of ashes, and still have time to research ostrich eggs, tumors, and bells. I can make something satisfying with these leftovers; it's like making an omelet.

          Like any omelet, we start with the egg, of course, the source, the base, the beginning, the symbol of life and rebirth across cultures; in Hindu cosmology the egg is the source of our universe, containing within it the yolk of a miniature sun. Once upon a time, there was life.

          The malignant tumor is a deformation of this egg: the body is composed of trillions of normal, living cells that grow, divide, and die in an orderly fashion. Normal cells divide only to replace worn-out or dying cells, or to repair injuries. But cancer cells grow out of control. Instead of dying, they clone themselves into new cells that are capable of invading other tissues. Damage isn't repaired and the cell doesn't die. It just multiplies. This is the foundation of the Zen koans through which our intellect is shattered into a sudden, visceral insight about the nonduality of life and death. The paradox of the tumor is that immortality and death exist in the same organism. Once upon a time, there was life and death and they were were inseparable.

          Ostriches are legendary for their powers of procrastination, as am I—for burying our heads in the sand to avoid the unpleasantness of reality. In fact, this is a misconception. It turns out that ostriches scratch deep pits in the earth for their nests, to conceal their giant eggs. During the incubation period, adult birds tend to the eggs, nudging them with their beaks several times a day. The ostriches appear to be burying their heads, when really they are attempting to ensure the survival of their offspring. Once upon a time, there was life and death and they were inseparable. This made us afraid.     

          An ostrich's first response to fear is to flee, not fight. Now it looks like they are abandoning their eggs, but remember that ostriches are the fastest-running birds. They lure predators away from the eggs, which remain unharmed, and most predators are quickly lost in the chase. Once upon a time, there was life and death and they were inseparable. This made us afraid, so we strove to keep them apart.

          The bell in Tibetan Buddhist tradition represents the linked feminine qualities of emptiness and wisdom. The dorje (what strikes the bell, similar to a clapper) corresponds to the dynamic masculine quality of compassion. Together they represent the static and dynamic aspects of nature; bell and clapper signify the unity of wisdom and compassion in enlightenment. Once upon a time, there was life and death and they were inseparable. This made us afraid, so we strove to keep them apart, but we would always fail. 

          The sound of bells is thought to repel the forces that impede enlightenment while summoning the divine; their sound is an offering and an invitation to all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Their ringing also represents emptiness because of the way sound is present and then gradually vanishes into the air, leaving no mark. The bell's empty interior and fleeting sound suggest both voidness and awareness. Once upon a time, there was life and death and they were inseparable. This made us afraid, so we strove to keep them apart, but we would always fail. Take heart: Only the things we don't understand have real meaning. 

The cardiologist, the lawyer, and the oncologist probably wouldn't recognize their portraits here, and I provide no portrait of my mother. I offer no proof of their existence, nor of mine. Still, I live for these moments of connection and awareness, when the bell rings.

          The only one of these characters I'm sure to see again is the lawyer who, more than likely, believes me to be cognitively impaired and mentally unstable. I should be sitting in one of the leather chairs in his waiting room, but instead I examine the pictures that hang on the wall. I recognize the same framed photograph displayed in his office, only this one is bigger and, up close, the subject turns out to be a blue morning glory. It's a marvelous study in perspective, a close-up of a deeply weathered, undulating wooden fence that disappears into the vanishing point. In the foreground is the tender blue flower, open as a bell, twined around the fencepost in morning light. Buds twirl in the shadows. The photograph is signed by the lawyer.

          I know I'm supposed to care about protecting my home and, of course, I do care deeply. But perhaps there are times when, if I am honest, what I care about most is having another moment of compassion, where all barriers disappear into one sustained note.

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