This story has been playing out in my head the past few weeks. I’d hoped to sit down and write a short story about it, but I can barely finish my basic responsibilities these days, rather than embarking on a new kind of writing. But still, I want to get it down before the thought has moved on forever (a vocational hazard, it seems) so here I am offering up something in its least evolved form…again.
What happened the night of May 23, 2014? Vernon was involved in a terrible accident, but he survived for a couple of years: yes, we know this. When Maki first wrote a letter to the other driver, he wrote: “The dad I knew died that night.” Ever since I read that, the concept has rattled around in my head as a possibility. What if he did die that night? Or next-best, what if it was a soul-changing, near-death experience that he was never able to communicate to us. I remember reading books, while Vernon was in his coma months, written by people who had died and come back, who had reached Heaven and returned to tell us how loving and beautiful it all was… written with the urgency of letting the rest of us in on the secret of the Whole Thing: life/death/earth/heaven/humans/consciousness/God/eternity/all-of-it. On Vernon’s awakening, I’d ask him really weird questions like: “Ok, did you talk to God? What did you see? What’s it like in Heaven? Is there a Heaven? What have we got wrong? What have we got right? Come on: give us a crumb…we’ve been waiting here!” And there was nothing but a crooked-eyed stare of pure bewilderment. Obviously, I was the crazy one.
But what if he DID die that night? That’s the story I want to try to tell. Here it goes:
God: Hello. You hit your head pretty hard there. Can you still feel it?
Vernon: Yes…I’m so embarrassed. Is it as bad as it looks from up here?
God: It’s bad…well, on earthly terms, it’s bad. But if you come with me, you’ll see its not so bad. The fact that you are still feeling it though…well, you are one of the rare ones.
Vernon: One of the rare ones? What do you mean?
God: Well, most people when they get this far…they don’t feel any pain. Are you sure you still feel it?
Vernon: Well, it doesn’t hurt that much, really. There just seems to be a lot of blood. But what hurts…you’ll think it is stupid, probably.
God: Would you be surprised to learn I don’t think anything is stupid?
Vernon: I just am so embarrassed. This isn’t how I meant to die. I mean…Alli hated the Vespa. She didn’t get on my case about it, but I could tell she was annoyed. And I loved it anyway. I couldn’t help it…it just was this dream machine for me. Something I always wanted to have. This symbol for my life. You wouldn’t understand…or well, actually now that I see you, I bet you would. But to die on it? To even get HURT on the thing is bad enough. I wish there was a way for her not to know. Ugh, and the kids.
God: It’s a little late for that, but we do have a few minutes. She doesn’t know yet, but will soon.
Vernon: A few minutes? Great…what can we do?
God: How’s that headache?
Vernon: What headache. I feel great. Wait! Does that mean I’m dead?
God: Well sort of, but not really. You are definitely dying. Here’s the thing: when most people get to this place, they feel ready. There is a reason it’s “YOUR time,” but sometimes people don’t want to. Take a look, do you want to enter into this place? The choice is yours.
Vernon: Wow! That is incredible. So. Much. Muchness…I don’t have words.
God: You don’t need them.
Vernon: But my family…I just hate to leave them like this.
God: Are you sure? You want to go back to them instead?
Vernon: I don’t even want to look at the goodness you have to offer because I am afraid I’ll forget my family.
God: You will never forget your family or your life.
Vernon: No offense, all I can think about is my family.
God: You can go back to them. You do have this choice. But you need to know that it won’t be like before. You are changed. They will be changed. You can return to them for a short while, but you will be in another form. This is part of the universal chemistry of things that I don’t think you want me to explain now. Are you sure that’s what you want? You may never hug your children again. You may never ever live in the same space as them. You’ll never make love to your wife or kiss her the way you used to. It will be very hard on your family, but it will strengthen them too. Are you sure this is what you want?
Vernon: But if I die now, what happens to them?
God: The family will have some time of shock and betrayal, but they will spring back. People have been leaving their families in death since the beginning of death. They will be hurt, and they will miss you, but they will spring back in ways that surprise them. Humans are great like that.
Vernon: Then…is it selfish to want to go back to them…even if things are different and hard?
God: Just by asking that, I think you know your answer. Do you have unfinished business?
Vernon: I don’t know. Maybe I do. I’m just not ready to leave them. Can I have another chance?
Ambulance sirens sound as the lights fade out. End of scene.
(I found this today as a saved image on Vernon’s computer.)
Apparently, I’m not finished writing about the mustard fields in audacious “Super Spring” we are having. Yesterday, Justine asked if I’d take her up for a hike. She must have heard me talking about the yellow hills every single day this month. I know its a special spring because of the rare rains we’ve had. I also know that I might not see it like this again in my lifetime. I tell that to Justine: “Pay attention! Remember this.” But she might not—because apparently most people remember very little before they are seven years old. Can you remember being specifically six? I’m sure most people have a couple memories, but it takes something pretty unusual to ensure the memory sticks. On that note, do you remember how much energy you had? Here’s a reminder:
I’ve loved this spring so much with all its green and yellow. It’s changed the landscape…which is exactly what I needed after feeling like a stranger in a stranger land after Vernon’s ordeal/death. One thing I keep returning to in my mind these recent months is that nothing stays the same. People lose their lives over trying to keep things the same, and it doesn’t work. Something I miss about other places I’ve lived is the concept of dramatic seasons, in which nature changes in front of your very eyes. The changes are much more subtle in Southern California: you mostly have to be sensitive to the light in order to really notice. But this year we got it. Cycles of new life and the clarity of decay. Sometimes seem brightest just before they die, as we found was the case with Vernon. I am seeing the brown sneak into the landscape already. The hills are still beautiful, if not more so because their glory bloom is fading. I value the life/death I see in the hills. The tax of enjoying such beauty is knowing it won’t last. What was a bright blaze of glory these months of spring, helping me pretend I lived somewhere new and exotic, is fading again—but gloriously so. What once was bright and smooth and vibrant like a gorgeous swath of velvet is now looking worn-down, patchy but well-loved. Velveteen Rabbit hills.
Maybe I’m hypersensitive right now, but its hard for me not to see the world full of death and decay anymore. I think about it more. I recognize it in everything. That said, I think about life a lot too. I see how children grow and change so quickly. I understand that I may or may not be around for them for a long time. I think the kids understand that too, though they don’t like to think about it. Life is full of life, but for some of us, we see the death of life more clearly.And because of that, the life is so much more precious. So much more of a privilege than we understood before. So bring on the change, I just want to admire it while it’s happening…and not be so afraid of what’s coming. We are meant to go through seasons. These are gifts we get to unwrap again and again…as long as they are there. As long as we are here.
The best part is, when the glow of one season turns to the brown dearth of boredom in another…we know that even that won’t last. There are always signs of new life for those who notice them. These things are intermingled. One springs from the other.
Nothing Gold Can Stay—by Robert Frost
Nature’s first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf’s a flower; But only so an hour. Then leaf subsides to leaf. So Eden sank to grief, So dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can stay.
I had to go to the Civic Center/Courthouse this morning to manage some business paperwork. This is the same building that Vernon and I first got married in….with Maki as our 4 year old witness. I remember taking a break from work in order to do the ceremony. We stopped and got rings from the trinket machine at Toys R Us. I didn’t dress up, but I did wear a new white summer blouse. (I wrote about the day here.)
There were so many girls in white dresses today. I felt a little funny taking care of my boring business, while betrothed couples waited in the queue behind me. I imagine if you need a boost of romance in your life, you might take your lunch break on the local Civic Center grounds. There are certainly a lot of couples with the light of Possibility shining in their eyes! Each with a different past and future, sharing the present: an official commitment to life with their mates. But surely some had been married before—maybe divorced, maybe widowed. Some were already in long term relationships and finally taking this step. Some might be spontaneous, some saving money. Some of these marriages might not last. But in this moment they expect them to. Or maybe not? Maybe some were marrying for convenience or a Green Card. It’s not for me to know. But to get to witness the joy of the day, in passing all these strangers, is a soul-filler for me.
By the way, I still wear my real wedding ring (not the plastic one.) I sometimes wonder how long society would approve of my wearing it. It feels too strange to take it off yet…and ultimately, it makes my life less complicated too! 🙂 On that note…a public tip: If you wonder if it is too soon to ask a widow/widower when they are going to date again…the answer is: it is. That is for the widowed person to tell you—if she or he wants to—not the other way around.
I transcribed some poetry for Justine last night. The first is a story she likes to hear (and retell) about a dream her dad had when she was still in my womb. The second, much more than a nursery rhyme. I’m saving these here so her childhood self can one day speak to her older self. Children are resilient, but I don’t believe in dismissing their grief. She talks about Vernon the most, I think…she says she is afraid of forgetting him. So I put pictures in her room of the two of them together. She doesn’t even remember when most of them were taken. But though she will tell people that Vernon has died, she doesn’t like when anyone implies she doesn’t have a dad. “I do have a dad,” she says. “I’ll always have my dad.”
Daddy saw in his dream
that there was a baby girl,
who came out of mommy’s tummy—
She came up to him and snuggled with him.
When mommy’s baby arrived,
“That’s the same baby girl from my dream:
She had dark eyes.
She had dark hair .
And her voice sounded the same.
She was the same little girl in my dream.
She looked just the same.”
Daddy, Daddy gone away—
I miss him, but I know
that I will see him another day.
*picture above from the narrowest slide in England.