Friday, September 19, 2008

Letter to Mom, February 26,1986

Let me relate how Jackie and I coped with her sickness.

You may remember us talking about "wa," the Japanese term for a hard-to-define sensation of personal grace, an area within you that harbors the soul from the awful mordant surprises of life. It's there in all of us, by degrees larger and smaller depending on how much it's exercised, like a muscle. It's not there to deny one's pain or fear but to defuse it, to render it manageable, isolated, contained and ultimately powerless. It somehow ties us in with all of existence, with everything that's ever happened and everything that will happen, let's us look at ourselves from a very lofty vantage point, refreshes us like a psychic splash of fresh spring water.

But essential to this concept is the absolute belief that our lives here are a very tiny part of an infinite whole.

I think the most virulent feature of psychic pain is its omnipresence, the way it looms over everything, travels with us like a silent enemy and lies in wait for us at every turn. But that's only because we let it. In isolating it we've beaten it, like a vicious criminal behind bars without possibility of parole. No one can deny he's still there and as vicious as ever, but we no longer fear him. If he'd been feeding on our fears, he'd die.

Long before Jackie was sick we used this principle to help us through trying times. On a daily, weekly, monthly basis, depending on the amount of stress, one would tell the other to "remember your wa." I can't tell you how much that helped. Blurry fears would come into sharp focus and I could see the little whimpering creature, its fangs and hairy arms and bloody talons no more than a silly costume I had wrapped around it.

When Jackie was diagnosed, we honestly believed she'd live. That belief alone carried us through the early period. But when we knew she was going to die, our concept of "wa" again became critical to us. Even then, writhing in agony and with a fear of death so strong it had an odor, she could step back from herself and regain her "wa" so the pain and fear could become bearable. Not that she could then dance and sing, but by putting the pain back in proportion to her whole being, she could dominate it, realize how small a part it played in the infinite future she could so clearly see. And that's why her "wa" helped her: she could see with more than just her eyes.

Your pain is very real and very potent. You'll never stop missing Jackie or wishing she was still here. Neither will I. Missing our loved ones is our monument to them, the highest honor we can pay them. Memories of pleasant times and wonderful places will always haunt you, as they do me, but hopefully in an eerily beautiful way. And you feel other people's pain as much as your own, a selfless and admirable trait, but one that needs tight discipline to keep it from overcoming you. You, more than anyone I know, needs to develop this sense of "wa." Put your sorrows and pain in their place, know their dimensions and the infinity inside you that- dwarfs them. Feel Jackie within you.

I’m very sensitive to your pain, Mom. I understand it. I don’t mean to preach or sound as though I have the answer. I’m just trying to tell you what I’ve learned in the hope that it may help you. There is peace and tranquility inside us and I call it “infinity.” Look for it. You are a sweet and wonderful woman and I love you.

P.S. Our figurines arrived yesterday intact. They’re absolutely beautiful and we can’t wait to display them under my homebuilt manger next Christmas. I’m going to try to rig up some subtle lighting inside the manger to cast a sublime feel to it. Thank you very much.

Letter to Mom, January 22, 1986

I just finished reading Stones For Ibarra. I understand why you wanted me to read it.

I've tried to address directly in my writing the questions that Jackie's death raised. But I've always had to stop; I can't get beyond its grisly side yet and write metaphors about the carcass that lay beside me.

For example. this paragraph:
"'Some day we'll all be unnecessary,' he thought,looking at her lying stiff-legged on the bed. It had been a long night. Where the dark had left any openings the sound of soft, guttural scratchings and mournful groans had flooded in. He had paced the room all night pleading with her to stop but she, of course, couldn't hear him, He remembered bringing his face up close to hers and seeing the hopelessly cracked lips and the short, short hair, bristly and mean, and her half open eyes staring through him. He had held a cup of water with a straw. He had put the straw in her mouth but she wouldn't clamp down onto it. He knew she needed water. He had to keep the fever down. He had screamed at her, "drink, drink, goddamnit!" but her eyes hadn't even fluttered. She couldn't hear. She couldn't drink. It was Easter Sunday and the smell of fresh flowers and warm earth was in the air."

And then...where could I go from there? Though I wrestle with trying to bring to print the… the what? You see, even here, I can't describe what it was she went through. I'm still too close, the range of emotion is too wide, and the underlying "meaning", if there ever was one, is still obscured by an impenetrable barrier of disintegrating flesh. Life is more dear to me than ever but that thought alone isn't enough to send me into paroxysms of inspiration. So I sit here, frustrated, having to approach by oblique metaphor an experience I'd rather tackle head on, then pick it up off the ground, shake out its meaning and stare at it until it lowers its eyes and submits.

Harriet Doerr wrote about death as if she were a stone that could speak. I don't see any other way it can be done. Death silences its victims and numbs its survivors, leaving around the body an anesthetizing haze and a vacuum that leaves all breathless. Her matter-of-fact tone was so right. When death looms we talk about it in everday language, as though we're planning a vacation or a trip to the store. And everyone knows how absurd it sounds. Jackie’s statement, “I want to go home to die," is so taut, the underlying psychology so confused and brokenhearted, the true meaning so beyond comprehension, that it's almost imbecilic to think that those seven short words could even begin to convey what it really means. But, of course, words are our only tools for expression, however inappropriate or inadequate they may be. Maybe if telepathy were possible and our emotions could flow between us like tides, unsullied by the mechanics of language, we wouldn't cry anymore frustrated by our inability to show truly how much we love someone. Maybe that's not so good.

We are doing well in Wolftown. As I told you before, every time I look at the pineapples in the foyer I think of you. That's a lot of thinking. I reckon we'll have to wait and see about the launch. We're planning on going down there anyway to go sailing with Bob. Since you'll probably hear something before we will, please let us know. Corey is doing very well. We still chuckle thinking about her experience with Santa, her unabashed joy, and her question, "How did he know?!"