I returned to LA from New Hampshire at the end of June, shell-shocked from my father’s last days, his funeral, the strain of spending two weeks cooped up with my seven brothers and sisters in the house where we were raised. Having always been drawn toward the mystical and the contemplative, I’d converted to Catholicism three years before, but now I saw it was one thing to be told that death leads to resurrection and another to watch someone you love die in agony.
I was scheduled, a week after my return, to make a five-day retreat at a Benedictine monastery. In the interim, I went hiking in the Santa Monica mountains and contracted a virulent case of poison oak. I looked like a third-degree-burn victim; people averted their eyes when I wore shorts. At night, I rose every hour to bathe my welt-covered legs with ice chips, wipe them with a towel, apply Dr. Scholl’s foot powder, and lie back down, praying for sleep. I almost canceled the retreat, but I’d been looking forward to it for months and badly needed to get away. So I got up Monday morning, draped blue ice-gel packs over my burning shins, and drove the Angeles Forest Highway to Valyermo, a tiny town on the edge of the Mojave Desert.
The monastery was like balm to my troubled soul, if not my legs. The hills shimmered gold and green, the air smelled of sweet grass, and the Liturgy of the Hours lent a soothing rhythm to the day: Vigils at 6:00 A.M., Lauds at 8:00, then Mass at noon, followed by Vespers at 6:00 and Compline at 8:30. I woke before dawn and sat on the stone patio in the semidark, watching rabbits creep through stands of artemisia. I spent hours in the garden listening to the breeze soughing through the tops of the Lombardy poplars. After dinner, I climbed the hill behind the duck pond to the cemetery, with its rows of plain stone crosses, and watched the sun set. Every night at the end of Compline, just before we went our separate ways in the dark, the abbot intoned, “May the all-powerful Lord grant you a restful night and a peaceful death,” and he sprinkled us with holy water. Then the Great Silence began, which lasted until after breakfast the next morning.
When the unbearable itching kept me from sleep, I lay in the dark and thought about my father’s death, which had been far from peaceful. In fact, it had been the fulfillment of one of my worst fears: that some hideous disaster would arise from my father’s reluctance to “bother anyone,” his tendency to hang back instead of coming forward, his theory that it was better to hide his aches and pains than to go to the doctor, because the doctor would only find something wrong. Sure enough, the high blood pressure, congestive heart disease, and kidney failure that plagued him had all reached crisis proportions before he did anything about them. What really finished him off was ignoring the open sores on his feet — he also suffered from type-two diabetes — until they turned into bone-deep, staph-infected ulcers. He died with gangrene inching up both shins.
In part, my fear was due to the suspicion that I had inherited my father’s worrisome inability to take decisive action. During his long illness, for example, I’d fretted on the West Coast about whether I should go home and do something — take over his treatment, hound his doctors. But I did nothing besides remonstrate with my mother, who is not exactly the soul of assertiveness herself. The fact that four of my siblings lived within driving distance of my parents and could presumably have stepped in (not to mention the likelihood that any action would have been futile) did little to relieve my uneasiness and guilt. Lying in bed at the monastery, remembering his blackened toenails and swollen, weeping flesh, I wondered if my tenacious poison oak constituted a kind of sympathetic pain, as if, unable to save my father in life, I was determined to suffer with him in death.
Back in LA, my fears really took hold. I began to see that, when it came to my own well-being, I was just as helpless as my father. I thought of all the beautiful places in the world: the Sonoran Desert, the hills of Crete. Yet, for eight years, my husband Tim and I had lived in a noisy, crime-ridden ghetto called Koreatown, where people left their burned-out refrigerators on the sidewalk, and no sooner did the city plant a tree than the neighborhood children chopped it down with machetes.
True, our apartment had hardwood floors, crown moldings, and a garden courtyard; it was also dirt-cheap (no small consideration, given the pittance I made from my writing); and, on my better days, I loved the color and contagious energy of the streets. Still, it occurred to me that I had lived in a variation of this apartment my entire adult life, and the novelty was beginning to fade. I had always pictured myself as a cutting-edge urban warrior, but after yet another night of sleep punctuated by periodic blasts of ranchera music, I was starting to feel less cross-cultural than masochistic.
I was too old to keep up this charade any longer: I was forty-seven, my father had died, and it was time to grow up and move on. So I sat down with the classifieds, made dozens of phone calls, and even, against my better judgment, shelled out sixty bucks to join some rip-off online rental agency. But now that I was ready to grow up, there were no decent apartments anywhere in LA: not in Hollywood or Echo Park or Silverlake, not in Los Feliz or Melrose. I must have looked at thirty different places, and they all reeked of cat piss or had a playground next door or were a variation of the same depressing, sixties-era complex: blinds, carpeting, A/C unit, and hallways smelling of cigarette smoke and old people.
As the weeks wore on, somehow I knew this was my fault: my timing, my instincts, the haphazard, herky-jerky way I did everything. The whole quest was a grotesque joke, emblematic of my total incompetence, my utter failure ever to have made a sane decision, my complete inability to secure the conditions that might afford me a modicum of happiness. Still, I combed the newspaper and put out the call to everyone I knew. I even took to cruising the streets in my filthy Mazda, looking for FOR RENT signs. At night, I lay in bed sweating, listening to the crackheads pushing their shopping carts up and down the alley, thinking, How did I get here? What if I never get out?
My only comfort came from praying the Liturgy of the Hours, as I had along with the monks at the monastery. The retreat hadn’t been my first, but this time, in the quiet of those hills, a barely perceptible interior shift had taken place, a question mark drawn in invisible ink deep in my psyche. The fidelity of the monks who gathered morning, noon, and night in the chapel to pray; the power of the Psalms that so majestically encompassed the human condition: all this had prompted me, however falteringly, to grope a little further into the darkness of faith than ever before.
Of course, my LA apartment wasn’t quite a monastery with stained-glass windows and incense and lilting harp. Around 6 A.M. one morning, just as I was settling onto the sofa with my Psalter, someone pulled up out front and proceeded to lay on the horn. (In these parts, we refer to this as a “Mexican doorbell.”)
“Shut up, you cretin!” I screamed out the window. Then I jammed myself back onto the sofa cushions, made the sign of the cross over my mouth, and hissed, “Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.”
I realized this was not the optimal frame of mind in which to approach God, but I was too exhausted to pretend I was nicer or more tolerant than I actually was. Oddly enough, my poverty of spirit was precisely why, day after day, week after week, the liturgy resonated so deeply. The Psalms of praise were unparalleled in their beauty, but the Psalms of lamentation — with their acknowledgment of the back-breaking burdens and crushing defeats we must endure before we are capable of true praise — really spoke to my heart:
Day and night you give me
over to torment;
I cry out until the dawn.
Like a lion he breaks all my
day and night you give me
over to torment.
Nothing I was reading in the New Yorker or Harper’s seemed remotely as relevant.
Though I was poor, everyone I knew seemed to have gotten rich. I’d call my friends back east, and they’d say, “Oh, I was just walking my Irish wolfhounds down by the trout stream,” or, “I went to see a play last night on the grounds of an old colonial house by the ocean,” or, “Can you hold on a minute? The deer are in the apple trees again.” My college roommate sent me a postcard with an aerial view of sapphire blue water and a wooded island. On the back, she wrote, “We found our dream house in Vermont. Four hundred feet of lakefront property. E-mail me!” I e-mailed my congratulations. She never answered.
Meanwhile, I was holed up in my sweltering apartment, trying to write through the sound of whining helicopters, blaring car alarms, barking Rottweilers, gas-powered leaf blowers, and the demands and remarks of a husband who thought of my writing as a kind of hobby, something I did for fun. On top of this, I wrote in the pantry, a foot from the telephone, two feet from the refrigerator. Every time the phone rang or my husband wanted a glass of water, it was another interruption. I began to picture myself at eighty, stuck in some pee-reeking convalescent home on Hollywood Boulevard, shuffling up and down the sidewalk in a ratty chenille bathrobe and smoking Pall Malls. (I’d quit years ago but would surely take it up again out of boredom and desperation.) My fingers yellow with nicotine stains, my teeth like old piano keys, I’d bark, “Move it, fuckers!” at the leather-jacketed youths who dared to cross my path. Or, worse, I’d bum cigarettes from them, putting on a little vaudeville act, still playing the buffoon.
There was a time when I would have chalked up my situation to bad luck, but now I knew better: it was clear that my friends had the right formula for happiness and success, and I did not. I could have put down roots like they had, but no. As usual, I’d been restless, irritable, discontent. The winters had depressed me (What didn’t? I asked myself now); I’d wanted to move somewhere glamorous and stimulating, somewhere my genius would be recognized. I’d chosen LA, where my writing “ career” was currently bringing in about five grand a year and there apparently was not a single affordable, halfway decent two-bedroom apartment in the city that wasn’t located in the middle of a gang war. As I rejected place after place for being too small, too ticky-tacky, too expensive, I started to wonder if it wasn’t the apartments that were to blame, but me. Was I being picky because, deep down, I was afraid to move? Was I so emotionally crippled I could no longer make the simplest decision? Had I been so irreparably damaged by a combination of genes and environment that I was destined to wander the earth without ever finding a true home?
My dwelling, like a shepherd’s tent,
is struck down and borne away from me;
you have folded up my life, like a weaver
who severs the last thread.
It wasn’t just me: everyone was testy that summer. One morning around two, someone was sitting in his car, gunning the engine, and a woman across the way yelled hoarsely, “Cut that shit out! This is America, you fucking idiot!” Helicopters whirred overhead for three solid hours one night: the next morning’s LA Times carried an article about a middle-aged man who’d killed his wife and three of her relatives before turning the gun on himself. “He was known in his Koreatown neighborhood as a volatile drinker who kept to himself and was sardonically nicknamed ‘Psycho.’ ”
By August, my apartment search still had borne no fruit. “It’s already been rented,” the landlords snapped — if I was lucky enough to reach an actual human being. Ninety-five percent of the time nobody bothered to answer my messages. I began to suspect that people of color were discriminating against me because I was white; even paranoid people have enemies, I told Tim, only half kidding. I had always regarded my neighbors with a mixture of amusement, irritation, and affection, but now there was an edge to my feelings I found frightening. They had become doppelgangers for my inner demons, enemies who were persecuting me, assaulting me, “compassing me about,” as the psalmists described it. I felt caged in LA in a way I never had before. Even the palm trees looked menacing.
All my life, I had subconsciously assumed I would do better than my parents: be wiser, make more effective decisions, live longer. In a way, that summer, I’d been trying to wipe out the “failure” of my father’s death by finding an apartment where I could lead a perfect life. But, searching in vain for a moment’s peace, I saw that there was a limit to what I was going to accomplish on earth, that all my anxious straining could not make things go my way, that I was going to die, too, and that there was no way of controlling how or why or how much pain it would entail.
“Why don’t you go back to Jalisco!” I screamed out the window one afternoon at a paleta vendor who’d been honking his bicycle horn for an hour. Then I burst into tears. I didn’t know whom I felt worse for: the ice-cream vendor toiling in the hot sun, my father, or myself.
That’s when I realized there is no shortcut through the desert of grief.
My soul thirsts for thee;
my flesh longs for thee,
as in a dry and thirsty land
where there is no water.
At dusk, I lie in bed and gaze through the bamboo blinds at the backs of the apartment buildings across the way. As the patch of sky beyond begins to darken, I imagine my neighbors all lying in their beds, too, gazing at the same sky. I imagine the air thick with our memories: of Mexican beaches, Korean mountains, Salvadoran rain forests; and my own memory of the weeping willow I could see from my bedroom window all through childhood, in the house where my father died.
I think about how he faded away at the end, like a photograph left out in the sun, his familiar landmarks — the plaid handkerchief, the way he lifted a liver-spotted hand to smooth his thinning hair, the light in his tired hazel eyes — all disappearing into the ether. In the end, the only thing left between us was our names: Hi, Daddy; Hi, Heather. I was holding his hand when he took his last breath. Right up to the end, he still recognized me.
I try to conjure his face while, beyond the telephone poles and the rooflines, the sun sets in a wash of red. I wonder: Does it really matter where I live? Is any place quiet or beautiful enough to deliver me from my own limitations? Where is the apartment, the city, the kingdom where mercy reigns over terror and doubt?
In a bathroom across the way, a man in a muscle shirt shaves while his wife brushes her hair. Watching them, it occurs to me that there is no answer. There is only the mystery that our suffering — our inadequacies, our homesickness, our achingly fragile bodies that eventually wither away like the grass — is somehow always collective, always shared. In a way we can never hope to fully understand, we bear our wounds for others, and others bear theirs for us. It is where we all meet, in a place beyond all earthly cities.
“Oh, that you may suck fully of the milk of her comfort,” the prophet Isaiah wrote of Jerusalem, the Promised Land, “that you may nurse with delight at her abundant breasts.” Down the alley, someone cranks up a boombox. I stiffen instinctively. Then the strains of a Mexican lullaby, all muted horns, drift out and settle over the block like a well-worn blanket, as if we were all brothers and sisters in some huge, lost family; as if an invisible father were smoothing our brows, inviting us to rest.