Recently I was visiting with a storyteller friend, and as we often do, we started talking about an idea for a story. The subject was loneliness. He described how his greatest sense of loneliness came at the time that his first marriage ended in a divorce. He remembered sleeping alone in an apartment. It was one of those garden apartments sited near an access highway. Most of the tenants were twenty-five to thirty years old and just getting started in life. He was fifty years old and deep into becoming the successful writer/storyteller/teacher he is today. He remembers lying in bed at night and reliving the memories of his family in happier times. Over and over his mind relived nights of eating dinner together as a family, vacations when they went skiing, and visits with the grandparents at Christmas time.
I understood and shared my similar memories of living alone after my divorce. I remembered lying in bed alone and, without giving a thought to my action, I continuously found myself reaching across the bed to touch my wife. This habitual act, grounded in twenty-six years of marriage, led to the beginning of a story. It was not a story about divorce, but a story about death. For me, at that time twenty years ago, it seemed to me that my partner in life had died and I had to figure out a way to go on living. For a storyteller, the best way to exercise the daemon called loneliness is to create a story about the experience. So the following story, Monkeyshines & Miracles, was written.
On May mornings in Pennsylvania the birds start to sing by five o’clock. Bob loved to lie in bed and listen to the sounds coming through the open window. Robins were the first to greet the new day, a chorus that started before the first light. Soon a beautiful, solo song of a mocking bird from the top of a white pine tree near the old barn rose above the chorus of robins. This was followed by the piercing trill of the red-winged black bird calling from a perch in the willow tree down by the pond. Spring is a time for mating and nesting. It is a time when even an old man can participate in the joy of new beginnings.
The patterns of life we repeat involuntarily, we repeat them time after time without thought like the robins, the mocking bird and the red-winged black bird singing on a spring morning. As was his habit, Bob’s hand reached across the big, double bed to touch Mary’s body. Half way it stopped. Bob needed to change this old pattern of life. Mary was dead, buried during the cold and snows of early March. Bob pulled has hand back and turned on his side to face the open window. There was a balm in the spring air, a salve to heal the death wounds and help to form a new pattern of life.
Getting out of bed in the morning can be difficult when you are sixty-two. It is like starting a car on a cold, winter morning, you need to warm it up before heading down the road. Bob climbed out of bed and went to the bathroom, then downstairs through the kitchen where he picked up his mat, and outside to the flagstone patio. Slipping off his shorts first, he stretched his arms and arched his back; slowly through a series of exercises he loosened his body from his neck to his feet. When his physical body was ready, Bob settled on the mat to exercise his mind. Facing the sun that now reached around the willow tree and across the pond, Bob closed his eyes and absorbed the warmth of the sun. He noticed a cool breeze touching his bare skin. He listened to the call of the mourning dove, the hum of a bumblebee attracted to the rhododendron in bloom by the patio. From the distant edge of a newly planted corn field, he heard a crow calling to a mate.
Suddenly a flood of thoughts smashed against the wall Bob had constructed in his mind and the words poured out…Mary, Mary, Mareee, he cried out loud. How can I live without you? You are my reason, my safe harbor…you tell me when it’s Monday…you remember the details of our lives!
Bob could not stay seated on the mat, he staggered to his feet. His heart felt like it was being squeezed, an unrelenting pressure. In these moments of pain and despair, he had only one response, he had to rebuild the wall, fill the chinks and cracks where the thoughts escaped to terrorize his daily pattern of life. He grabbed his shorts, went back into the kitchen, and put on a pot of coffee. He turned on the radio to a sports talk show to catch the scores. While the coffee brewed and the radio filled the house, Bob went upstairs to the bathroom to shave. All of these patterns of daily life helped build the wall, to hold back the pain of loss. When he finished his toiletries and dressed, he went back down to the kitchen, poured a cup of coffee, turned off the radio, and headed back upstairs to his work room.
Work is another way to wall off the pain of losing someone you love. For most people you get up and go out the door every morning. You occupy your mind with building houses, selling shoes, or teaching school. You get away from the places and things that remind you of your sorrow. For Bob, this was not possible. He worked at home. His office was the upstairs, front bedroom of the two hundred year old Bucks County, Pennsylvania farmhouse. Like many such farm houses in Bucks County, a past owner had added a modern kitchen and a master bedroom over it. And unlike many of these old houses, this farm house was set back from the road with a small pond for fish, frogs and ducks to inhabit. It had been a wonderful place for Mary and Bob to raise their three children.
The front room office was in the oldest part of the house. It had a low ceiling; and the thick stone walls and two small windows lent a feeling of seclusion, a place to hide away from the world. The wall without a window in the room was filled with a book shelf that reached nearly to the ceiling. Opposite the bookshelf there was a window and under it a work area constructed from an old wood door sitting on the two speakers for Bob’s sound system. The CPU sat perfectly between the speakers; and on top of the door there was a computer monitor and keyboard, the tape deck for the sound system, and small writing area. By the front window that looked out to the pond, Bob had positioned his old, brown leather recliner and a reading light. The chair was covered with a beige afghan to add a few more years to the life of a treasured friend. The worn, wide, pine board floors of the room were covered with several throw rugs from some distant port of call. The walls were accented with an assortment of prints, drawings, and maps; all snippets related to some story, or set of stories Bob had created over the years.
Bob put his coffee cup down next to the keyboard and stooped down to boot the computer. While the machine came to life, Bob sat down in his chair, sipped a little coffee and waited for the beep to tell him it was ready to work. He started to think about the story he was writing for a planetarium program. When he heard the beep, he made a couple of key strokes and the script was before him; slowly he read the story and drank more coffee. As was his habit, he did not start his work with writing; instead after he had gone through the rough draft, he got up from the computer and went over to the recliner by the window. Bob sat down, tilted back and closed his eyes. The story was about the phases of the moon and a girl who must go into the world of the dead to bring the moon back to life. Mistletoe was important to the story—but how? Bob’s creative process did not begin with words; no, stories grew out of a process of visualization. He sat in his chair, eyes closed and close to sleep, but not asleep, Bob saw the story he wanted to tell.
The ability to visualize was present for Bob from an early age. He remembered as a child telling his mother about the places and people he saw in his mind. She warned him not to do that, it was not good to live in a world of fantasy. She would say: “World needs people with a backbone, more than people with a wishbone”. Bob was nearly thirty years old before he began to honor his imagination and play like a child again. And this led to his life’s work of creating and telling stories first for children, and finally for people of all ages.
Bob focused on his story; he saw mistletoe growing around a tree, an oak tree; in Celtic myths mistletoe has the power to protect, to ward off death…then as before, a crack, a fissure appeared in his wall that protected him from the sorrow, and thoughts of Mary came pouring out…Mary, Mary, Mareee…always so competent…so able to see life simply…how I depended on you: to pay the bills, invest the money, to decide what we could afford and not, to care for a sick child….even when you got the cancer, you made the decisions about how to face death…I felt so lost…those last days you turned inward, no touch of your arm, no wipe of your sweated brow seemed to comfort..suddenly, in the midst of his sorrowing, Bob stopped. He felt a presence in the room. He tilted the recliner to the upright position, opened his eyes and saw Mary before him.
An aura of light, soft and blue-white surrounded Mary at sixteen, the age when first they met. She looked like the photograph from the picture album Bob kept by his bed, like the memory that had consoled him though the long weeks since Mary’s death. Impulses ran through Bob: first a desire to go to her, to touch her, to smell her, to taste her, to recapture those first moments of their love: then he felt the opposite impulse. What he saw before him was not his Mary, the fifty-eight year old woman racked with pain and reduced to a bare eighty pounds at death. The end result of Bob’s swing of emotions was a stasis; he sat motionless for a moment, staring at the apparition before him, then he closed his eyes again and leaned back on the recliner.
Reason crept slowly back, surmounting a mountain of emotions. Bob told himself that the vision out there, on the other side of his eye wall, was a hallucination, the product of a grieving mind. When he opened his eyes again, it would be gone. But why was it there? Maybe in some way it was real. Maybe she had come back because she needed his help. Slowly Bob sat upright and opened his eyes again. The vision was gone. He was left with the hum of the computer waiting patiently for his input. There was the sound of a distant car on the main road. Sunlight was streaming through the window beside his chair. He glanced at the clock on the work desk. An hour had passed since he started the computer.
The power of his mind to play tricks, mischievously real tricks, sent a shiver through Bob. He held out his hand. He could not stop it from shaking. He needed something to break the spell cast upon him. He got up and turned off the computer and headed back down the backstairs to the kitchen. There he turned on the radio again. A sports writer was talking about the reasons for the Phillies early season swoon. As Bob poured more coffee, he considered activities to distract him from this morning’s experience. He could work in the garden outside. No, that was Mary’s garden, the work she loved best to do. He could go for a bike ride, an hour of hard riding; it would exercise his body, but not free his mind from thought of Mary. He could drive to Princeton and hit the bookstore, check out the reduced books, maybe stop at the library to pick up a couple of books. Yes, that felt right, Bob turned off the radio, emptied his coffee cup in the sink and picked up his car keys.
Driving to New Jersey, Bob listened to classical music on the university radio station and reflected on the different ways he drove from his home in Bucks County to Princeton. Mary often complained when he took too much time, or he got lost trying to find a new road to Princeton. Why could he not settle on one road, the shortest and best, and drive it every time? His answer was always the same: I guess I just don’t like right answers! Bob smiled as he remembered this minor contention between Mary and himself.
And like driving to Princeton, there was nothing systematic about Bob’s browsing through the “reduced for sale” books at the University store. There were always a couple of tables in the basement with books stacked back to belly. He might have followed an orderly exploration of row after row of books. Bob preferred a more hit or miss approach; he glanced at the spines of the books. Sometimes it was the color; sometimes it was a word that caught his attention. This day it was two words, “Otherworld Journeys”, that popped into focus. Bob reached down and picked up the book with a blue-gray dust cover and read the front: Carol Zaleski, Otherworld JOURNEYS, Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times. Below the title for the book was a visual: a prone figure gazing at an apparition hovering over it. The credit for the picture read, “The Soul Hovering Above the Body” by William Blake. To Bob it looked like a female figure hovering over a male. Bob took the book to the cashier, paid for it, and headed back to his car to return to Bucks County.
Back home, Bob ate a little lunch and then went up to his office with the Zaleski book in hand. The nature of the day’s experiences confounded Bob. When he felt confused and needed to find some understanding, he felt certain music supported the process. He went to the tape deck and popped in a cassette of Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu, then took the book to his recliner and sat down. Through the open window the shrill call of a blue jay mixed with Chopin. Bob turned the book over and over in his hands as he pondered: Should I open it to the first page and start to read? Is there some sort of direct communication from Mary that I am to discover in the book? Maybe she has a question that I can help her to answer? Suddenly Bob remembered a childhood practice of randomly opening the Bible to find some meaningful passage of Scripture. God was thought to guide the trusting hand. Bob chuckled and thought: Mary, Mary, my reasonable and always direct Mary, you would not approve of this.
Bob closed his eyes, held the book at arm’s length and opened it. When he opened his eyes again, he brought it back to reading distance and saw that it was page eighteen. He read, “Rehearsal for death, in this sense, is an acknowledged purpose of the mysteries. Thanks to ritual preparation, initiates will not be taken by surprise when their last hour arrives. The landscape disclosed by death will look familiar to them; they will know which path to choose in order to arrive as the transcendent state of being.” The last words trailed off as Bob read aloud the last sentence; then silently he reread the last words again: They will know which path to choose in order to arrive at the transcendent state of being. Bob closed the book and leaned back in the recliner again.
In a loud voice Bob called out, “All right, Mary, who is helping whom?”
“Daddy, who are you talking to?” Bob startled, his body jumped involuntarily; he sat upright on the recliner and opened his eyes. He saw his daughter Molly, she was peeking her head around the half opened door to the office.“Are you all right?” she inquired with a concerned look on her face.
“Yes, yes, I am fine”, said Bob as he stood up to greet his daughter. She came forward and they embraced clumsily.
“Are you sure you are all right?”
“Yes, yes”, said Bob, “I just drifted off to sleep. You know how it is with old men napping in the middle of the day.” Bob still had the book in his hand. Casually he moved to his work area and put the book down, the back cover up. “What brings you to this neck of the woods?” he asked cheerily.
“Mother had a recipe, a mix of chemicals she used to clean her silver Jewelry. I wanted to see if I could find it written down somewhere. Do you have any idea?”
“Try the bedroom”, said Bob, “the drawer under her night stand, a lot of her stuff is still where she left it. I think that’s where she kept her jewelry business.”
While Molly went to the bedroom, Bob went downstairs to the kitchen and made some tea. He was sitting at the breakfast table with his cup in hand when Molly came down the back stairs. She had a small wooden box in her hands.
“Daddy, do you want to keep this jewelry cleaning stuff of Mother?”
“No, no, you take it, I can’t remember the last time I cleaned my earrings. In fact, you are welcome to her jewelry, just leave the wedding ring.” There was an awkward pause, and then Bob continued, “How are the kids…and Derek?”
“Fine”, said Molly as she came over to the table and sat down.
“Did you find the secret formula?”
“Yes, Mother had it typed on a three by five card and taped to the machine.”
“What else would you expect; want a cup of tea?
“No, it’s almost time to pick up Mary Margaret from nursery school.”
Bob turned to look at the clock on the kitchen wall. It was almost 2:30 p.m. When he turned back, Molly was bending down to give him a kiss. “You be good, I will give you a call in a couple of days. Little Derek is having a birthday party next week. Maybe you can tell the children a story?”
“Yes, yes”, said Bob as he kissed his daughter, “I would like that.”
As Molly went out the back door, she stopped, “have you been taking your heart medicine?”
“Yes, yes Mary, I take it every morning”, he replied sarcastically.
“Well, someone has to look after you”, said Molly as she disappeared out of the back door.
Bob chuckled as he finished his tea and put the cup in the kitchen sink. Without hesitation he went up to his room, picked up the book, a legal notepad and pen, then came back downstairs and went out to the patio. Bob settled in a canvas backed lawn chair in the dappled shade of a Silver Maple tree. He opened the book and started to read: In nearly all cultures, people have stories of the travel to another world, in which a hero, shaman, prophet, king, or ordinary mortal passes through the gates of death and returns with a message for the living. For the next three hours Bob read and scribbled notes on the pad.
The sun was below the western tree line when Bob put down the book and notepad. He went into the kitchen and turned on the radio. The Phillies were losing four to one in the second inning. While Bob listened to the ballgame, he warmed up some chili made the day before yesterday, toasted some bread and buttered it, and opened a diet coke. The fifteen minutes it took to eat his supper was enough time for the Phillies to mount a comeback in the third inning, but it did not deter Bob from his purpose. When he was done eating, he turned off the game in the middle of the rally, put his dishes in the sink, and went back out to the patio to pick up the book and notes he had made earlier.
It was nearly dark when he came back inside. He turned on a light and headed up the backstairs to his work room. He went over to the recliner and sat down without turning on a light. From outside he could hear the robins calling; they were also the last birds to grow quiet at night. He opened his notepad in the last light of day coming through the open window and leaned back in the recliner.
Slowly he read his notes: The gate of dreams is the gate of death…only human beings guide their behavior by a knowledge of what happened before they were born and a preconception of what may happen after they are dead…in the encounter with your deeds in the other world, you are turned inside out, your hidden faults, sins, shortcomings are exposed for all to see.
Bob closed his eyes…Mary, Mary, Maree…what can I tell you…look around you, look for a guide. Look for a path that leads you. You may see a light, somewhere in the distance, look for the light! If you see creatures, monsters, frightful and terrible, they are part of you, you are part of them. You cannot run from them, you must face them, walk toward them, and walk through them!
Look for your guide Mary, be willing to follow…there may be other obstacles: fire, darkness, a river to cross, a river filled with all of the ugliness humans have created. Look for a bridge to the light on the other side, your guide will direct you.
Mary, I can see it! There is the bridge…you are on it now…don’t look down, go on, go on, I can see the light on the other side…I can’t go any further…I have to turn back, go, go, go!
Yes, yes, I want to fuck you! I want it all! No, get away, leave me alone! I confess my desires…I am weak…I am afraid. Lord I take your name in vain. I fear madness. I am not a believer. Help me! Forgive me! I ask not my will, but thy will be done…I, I, I, free me from I…help me to find the middle ground…where love is…where grace abounds!
Those who have come close to death and returned say that our human senses are slow to come back to consciousness; and that the sense of smell is the first and strongest sign that you are not dead. That morning Bob opened his eyes when he smelled the aroma of fresh brewed coffee coming up the backstairs. He tilted his chair upright and his notes dropped unnoticed to the floor. The sounds of morning filled his ears to mix with the smell of coffee; robins called to each other as they looked for juicy worms in the green lawn outside Bob’s window. From the kitchen below Bob could hear Mary scolding one of the children as she prepared breakfast. Bob stood up and started to the door, and then he stopped: it was not Mary making breakfast for the kids. He realized now, Mary was dead and his kids were grown adults.
Cramped from sleeping in his chair, and feeling his full sixty years, Bob slowly made his way down the backstairs to the kitchen.
“Daddy!”, it was the voice of his daughter, “come have some breakfast with us.”
“Molly, what are you doing here so early in the morning?”
“I was worried about you. You seemed so distant, so strange when I stopped by yesterday. I thought you might enjoy having breakfast with your daughter and grandchildren. Come, have some coffee. I’ve made blueberry pancakes, your favorites. And after you eat, you can tell us all a story. Right kids?”
Twenty years after writing the “Bob Story” as my wife and I call it, I am happily married and have been for sixteen years. And my friend is also happily married to the woman he loves deeply. That daemon called loneliness has been exercised, expelled from both of our bedrooms. Every morning when I awake, I reach across the bed and touch the body of the woman I love and I know I am not alone in this world. It is good to be loved and to sense that grace abounds if you know where to look for it!