Sample Chapter

(This chapter was first published in the Summer 2003 edition of SageWoman Magazine, where I have been a regular columnist since 1995.)

Sisterhood

I have just picked up a jar; then I turn quickly, my arm flying out. The cap on the jar flies off, spilling sauce onto the rug. Instantly, three women wet cloths with water and kneel to remove the stains.

That response, that immediate noticing of what I needed as if it were the finale of the same motion that produced the need: how can I describe my gratitude? It was as if these three women were the embodiment of the Triple Goddess herself, cradling me in her many arms.

My husband had died one week prior—in the early morning of a heart attack while asleep. This sudden loss, which hurled a thousand-pound weight into heart and belly, was now being dreamily if temporarily cushioned by sisterhood, this ancient global community of women who sustain each other in birth and death and transitions in between.

On January 4, 2003 I arose from sleep at around 8:30 in the morning. On my way down the hall to the kitchen, I passed by Jeff’s bedroom’s open doorway, and, repeating the half-conscious daily ritual following his first heart attack five years ago, paused briefly to be reassured by the sound of his breathing. How many times had I imagined the day when the body would be still, when the breath no longer rose and fell in that large hairy chest? How many times had I rehearsed time’s slowing down, that long walk to his bedside, my stunned stare at the familiar face, now strange.

The eyes and mouth were half-open; the skin a mottled blue-grey.

I could feel my mind skitter as my eyes jerked, back and forth, up and down. Ach! Suddenly all the rehearsals had yielded this performance, this reality. Jeffrey, my beloved husband of twelve years, was dead. Dead. Not here. Not in his body. The body was stone still; though the fold in his neck was warm, his hands and arms were chilled.

I can see now that all those rehearsals were an unconscious attempt to inoculate myself against horrific shock.

Of course the attempt failed.

I thought I knew shock. At times I’ve even billed myself as a sort of shock expert, a shock therapist. But I did not know shock. Nor did I anticipate how my own body would flash freeze in the same instant my mind shot out in startled panic.

I’ve always wondered how I would react in an emergency not yet faced. Looking back, I feel somewhat surprised, given my penchant for solitude and self-reliance, that what I wanted, needed, most right then and there was a woman’s hand, a woman’s touch, her calm and reassuring presence.

And here’s the rub. I was in Bloomington, Indiana, thousands of miles from both my blood sisters and long-time female friends, most of whom lived in Jackson, Wyoming, the town from which Jeff and I had moved, only four months earlier.

I was in a new town. And my husband had just died.

Oddly enough, by the munificent grace of the Goddess, I knew exactly who to contact. I was not alone. Herb and Perry arrived twenty minutes later, and spent the entire day with me. I “slept” at their house that night and the next, and they have basically been on call for me ever since.

I say “slept” in quotes, because that first night was entirely sleepless; an eight-hour-hyperaware-vigil-staring-into-the-void; I was in limbo, suspended between heaven and earth, unable to rise and join him in his joy nor to descend into the familiar comfort of earth: that First Night, without a wink of sleep, eyelids closed and eyeballs behind them a startled-endless-wide-awake was, I can name it now, The Agony.

Looking back, I realize that this couple’s arrival the morning Jeff died had been set in motion four months earlier. We had invited them for dinner and I greeted them at the door. As Perry crossed over the threshold my eyes shyly sought hers, and then suffered a sudden shearing, the moment splitting into before and after: for there she was, this large vulnerable soul I remembered—from where? And how long ago? As I remarked to Jeff later, while washing dishes and still enveloped in that rare, full feeling of group camaraderie, “Perry is utterly familiar; I know her.”

And now here she was, four months later, once again crossing our threshold with her husband Herb to support me on the morning that my husband had suddenly, shockingly, died.

I now sense that first evening encounter with Perry as the opening note of a divine choreography, so much do I honor the perfection in the process of Jeff’s long, slow release from this life and embrace of the next.

I call it a “long, slow release,” because, though he died suddenly, there had been clues in the months prior that something miraculous was afoot. Jeff had been deliriously happy to be back in school at the ripe age of 55, learning yet another new language, the language of the law. Then, on vacation with me in Massachusetts for Christmas, he had been in an astonishingly open, expanded state while sitting Buddha-like on the floor and quietly following the quixotic lead of my two-year-old granddaughter, Kiera; her very own “Papa Jeff.” A few days later, he told his father that he loved him after their last lunch together in New Jersey on his way back to Bloomington. After his emergency angioplasty on January 2, I had walked into his hospital room (having flown immediately from Massachusetts) and discovered him still expanded, serene, illumined—decidedly atypical behavior for a heart patient. Finally, our last evening together on January 3, only hours before he died, played out truly as the finale, a time of playful affection, hanging out on our big old couch together, rubbing and touching and gently joking, murmuring “I love you”. . .

Now, in the early morning of the very next day, I discover he is dead. And, after that first half-hour of total panic and confusion, I have called in my new friends, Herb and Perry, both professors at Indiana University. Herb had been a classmate of Jeff’s at Princeton, over thirty years ago. When Jeff decided to come here to law school he contacted Herb, and they renewed their friendship. That first magical dinner with them, soon after I arrived in town, was followed by other dinners, especially after I left again—at Jeff’s request; he wanted solitude during his first year in law school—to spend the winter in Massachusetts with my children and grandchildren.

And now, within minutes, they responded to my call on a morning that signified both the end of my familiar life and Day One of an unknown future. What were the protocols for this day? What to do, when?

Herb took charge of finding a compatible firm for cremation and for issuing the death certificate. Perry took charge of me, sitting by my side as my system reacted to the thudding reverberations of shock, keening loudly and wildly, mouth stretched into a giant O. And she held me as I rocked myself, trying vainly for the comfort that only his body could give. And she sat quietly and with full presence as I chaotically paced the floor, rubbed my face, rushed to the bathroom with runaway diarrhea.

I then asked Herb to go home and find appropriate books for us to read from in a private ceremony for Jeff; I wanted an eclectic service that would include major religions without adhering to any of them. He returned with the Bible, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the traditional Jewish siddur. We made an altar on a beautiful Buddhist prayer rug and placed a candle in the middle with photos of Jeff around it, interspersed with his crystals and little Inuit animal sculptures. Then the three of us sat in a triangle around the altar and meditated; we read to each other from the Psalms, from the Bardo for those who have recently passed over, and recited Kaddish. And we each spoke of Jeff, who he was for us, his effect on our lives, our great love for him.

Herb had arranged for the cremation people to come at 4 p.m., so that there would be time to wash Jeff’s body and for me to spend some time alone with him.

Neither Perry nor I had ever washed a dead body before. Yet I knew we were meant to do this. Such an age-old ritual felt totally familiar. And doing it with another woman felt absolutely right, essential.

We washed his body with soap and water, then rinsed him with water diluted with essential oils of sandalwood, sage and juniper; finally, we dressed him in a beautiful long robe. I had asked Herb to read poetry during this ceremony. Since most of Jeff’s little sculptures were of animals, Herb decided to read from the “Jubilate Agno” by Christopher Smart, a poem that celebrates the atonement of all nations, languages and creatures, and takes joy in the antics of the author’s cat named “Jeoffrey.” Naturally, one of our cats chose that time to enter the room and cavort among us for the entire washing ceremony.

I swear I could feel a smile on Jeff’s face, too, as Felix jumped up on the bed, casually sniffed his body, jumped in front of the book Herb was reading from, and just generally had a very good time.

That feeling, of having a very good time, was a subset to what I can only describe as a species of ecstasy to which I had gradually surrendered as the day went along. I sensed my own participation in Jeff’s awe and wonder at the indescribable beauty of worlds beyond. (And yet, for the next three days, I was also, like a child who has had a numinous experience, afraid of the dark; for once I did not force myself, like the good little soldier I have been all my life, to confront this fear and march myself down into the basement. Instead, I allowed the fear, watched it like a mother would watch her child until the fear dissolved.)

Of course I was on the phone the next three days, responding to the grief and shock of friends, mostly women, a number of whom said they would drop everything and fly to my side, should I say the word. I did choose two for this comfort: my sister, Kathy, and my dearest friend, Claudia, both of Seattle. They helped me bundle his clothes for Goodwill, clear out his law books for resale, clean up his room and his office so that I could move into them. Then, on the day before these two loving beings were to depart, we invited Perry over for lunch. That was when I whirled around and the cap to the sauce flew off and they were all right there, responding to my need. For over two hours the four of us sat on the living room floor bathed in winter sunlight subtly sifting through diaphanous curtains. We were quietly, with full attention, listening to each other’s lives. We were doing what women, everywhere, do. Being women in community, present for each other, both witnessing and participating in the joys and sorrows of the days and hours.

I cannot thank them enough for their presence in my life as I walk into the Great Unknown.