I want to tell two stories concerning the loss of loved ones. The second loss involves something I call a spirit thread. The first one does not. The difference between the two is huge. I’ll be quick with the first, because I’ve told this story many times before.
When I was a boy, my family matriarchs believed we would burn in hell forever if we professed any faith but Seventh-Day Adventism. But the churchgoing practiced by members of that faith made me feel like a kind of Joseph held captive in Egypt. The end of my captivity came shortly after the death of my oldest brother. I was thirteen at the time; John, seventeen. He was my best friend, my protector, the noblest of big brothers, and he’d been born with a congenital heart defect. After three failed surgeries his heart became too shredded to be repaired yet kept faithfully beating. This was hard on those who loved him. Though his doctors pronounced his doom, John held on month after month. He contracted a staph infection but stayed alive for weeks even then. I went to visit him often during this awful limbo. Each time I visited, his inability to launch into the sort of blithe, quirky conversations we’d always enjoyed, and (yes, I was this superficial) his increasingly appalling appearance, made me flee his room soon after I got there. I’d then huddle on the floor in the hospital hallway, burning with shame because I was too weak to remain at his side.
One evening after I’d bolted out of John’s room in this way, down the hall marched a stalwart young Adventist fresh out of seminary, Bible under his arm. This man had never met my family and didn’t know my brother’s prognosis. He was what certain weathered old priests call a “faith monster,” his confidence in his belief system blind and total. When he saw me hunched on the floor, he asked if I was John Duncan’s brother. I stood to be respectful and allowed that I was. He then swooped on me like a sparrow hawk on a vole, seized my shoulders, gazed into my eyes, and said, “Faith can move mountains! If you pray for your brother hard enough, with a pure-enough heart, you can save! his! life!”
When my brother died two days later, you can imagine what I felt: I hadn’t prayed hard enough; hadn’t been pure enough of heart. My doubt-laced faith had failed to move the necessary mountains.
That moment in the hospital hallway has never left me. A zealot with intentions as pure as any suicide bomber’s had stuck the knitting needle he called “faith” in my heart. It stayed there, hurting like hell for years as I raged against any such faith, behaved wildly or just plain badly, and excused whatever I did with my pain. But then one day I realized something vital: I wasn’t helpless. I pulled the seminarian’s damned knitting needle out of my heart — and began to write with it. The first, and logical, thing about which that blood-stained needle chose to write was my missing brother. But the second thing that early wounding moved me to write about surprised me: an ephemeral thread, the existence of which I had intuited since early childhood. A thread in which I place great faith despite my early, seminarian-inspired raging against faith.
Mountains and waters have called to me from the moment I set eyes on them as a young boy. Smaller rivers and streams especially led to mesmerizing glimpses of an interior wild corresponding to, and made accessible by, the exterior wilds through which my favorite rivers ran. Throughout the purgatory of public school I pined to explore this connection to the utmost. The day I graduated from high school, after getting drunk at the All-Night Party with everyone else, I acted on that longing and drove into Oregon’s Cascade Mountains, where I hiked in to an isolated lake and stayed beside the water there for ten days.
Mountains and waters have called to me from the moment I set eyes on them as a young boy. Smaller rivers and streams especially led to mesmerizing glimpses of an interior wild corresponding to, and made accessible by, the exterior wilds through which my favorite rivers ran.
In the company of three wisdom texts, I fasted for the last seven of those days in hopes of establishing contact with . . . I knew not what. A truer self. A spirit helper. An unscathed world inside the world. I didn’t see another human being. I got hungry, skinny, and weak — and sometimes the loneliness surpassed the hunger pangs. On Day Four of the fast I felt I was shedding a lifetime of poisons, physical and spiritual. On Day Five, though very weak, I began to feel strangely lighthearted, and I remember thinking at one point: Who needs more than sunlight, clean water, and spirit? Though the next beautiful girl I saw shot a large-caliber bullet through that beer can of an insight, alone at the lake on Day Six I felt a lack of desire, and an accompanying peace, unlike anything I’d experienced since testosterone had entered my body. And on Day Seven of the fast, sitting on a slope looking southwest, I watched a thunderstorm approach, let it take me, and when it struck, my being somehow fused with it, carrying my mind away out over the lake and forests and mountains. Then, on the drive home to frighten my parents with the sight of a six-foot-one, 130-pound son, my fast-breaking meal: a small box of raspberries from a farm stand. Ecstasy!
Chasing a True North touched in that first serious solitude, I sought greater solitudes, taking a job the next summer that allowed me to spend three and a half months in a Wallowa Mountain cabin, eight miles from the nearest road. I had five wisdom texts with me this time. I spent that summer scrambling tirelessly over the easier peaks and high ridgelines, and the vistas, pristine waters, wildlife, and wise words handed out so many sublime experiences that I was gripped, as the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh puts it, “by the feeling / That through a hole in reason’s ceiling / We can fly to knowledge / Without ever going to college.”
Little surprise, then, that the year after my Wallowa sojourn, I quit college to make a pilgrimage to India, where all hell and heaven broke loose within me. A beautifully useful kind of lovemaking began in India that is still being secretly made. To speak of it directly feels wrong to me, because, as Saint Thérèse of Lisieux put it, “To find a hidden thing, one must hide oneself; our life must then be a mystery.” What I can say about India is that I returned firm in my conviction that, between the David James Duncan who will be credited with writing these sentences and a nameless attentiveness de-selfed by wonder and love, the de-selfed self is the only one I believe is truly here.
Returning to the States, I began a life of hard physical work and, in my spare time, fiction writing, preferring to indenture my body to keep my spirit and imagination free. And when I grew befogged or cynical or disillusioned by my degrading (but not unbearable) blue-collar labors, I learned to hasten to higher elevations, or down into river canyons, or into various forms of prayer, or into the most profound words I could find. And, mirabile dictu, the internal joys I’d first encountered in the East made their way slowly west.
One such joy that ended up bearing a lot of fruit: I sensed something extraordinary hiding inside my boyhood passion for fishing. I’d heard at church that the kingdom of heaven is within me, but our preachers proclaimed a faith that excluded everyone I knew but a small fold of yeasayers. Whereas the first time I walked up a trout stream, rod in hand, I was struck all day, and on thousands of days to follow, by a suspicion that mountains and rivers are myself, turned inside out. This truth had been presenting itself in spirit-thread form since earliest childhood, but due to the influence of stone-cold religion, and to the scientism, realpolitik, and social and hormonal chaos we were legally forbidden to escape in school, I had trouble catching hold of this promising thread. Then one day I fell into an extraordinarily defining experience.
I was twenty-three, three years back from India. I fished wilderness edges in those days: places where roads ended and uninhabited regions began. I would begin by outdistancing any other fishermen on the creek or river until it was just the wild water and the canyon and me.
Emulating a fishing mentor of mine who was famous for catching the largest fish in places where other men caught little or nothing, I took a long evening hike into a wilderness edge in the Cascade Mountains, deployed a single-egg hook and an incredibly light line — three-pound test. And, at sunset, I hooked an epic fish, a summer steelhead so ridiculously powerful that I could no more have landed it than I could have stopped a train with a lasso. But mere contact was bliss. To prolong contact, I released all pressure on the line and let the steelhead do whatever it chose. It then threw me into a state of extreme wonder by choosing to do what was not just natural to it, but so extranatural that the word supernatural might apply: as if my hook, line, and rod weren’t even there, the great fish calmly continued its migration from the Pacific to its high-mountain birthplace.
As evening turned to moonless night, that steelhead swam majestically upriver into blackness while I fumbled by feel over boulders, trying to keep up with it. The only one of us now risking injury was me, not this mighty fish. The predator-prey, fisherman-quarry paradigm melted away. My companion’s great tail strokes, pulsing up the line into my rod, hands, body, became the pulsing of the river’s own heart. I grew so effaced by steady shocks of wonder that the fish’s primordial confidence began to enter me. An invisible but palpable water-being was telegraphing its trust of night’s blackness and white water’s power to a land-traveling, weak-swimming light-lover. Yet I fell into a state in which danger and darkness didn’t matter a whit.
When at last I chose to end my connection to that seeing-eye fish, the line broke so gently it was as if it had never been there at all. As I began feeling my way downriver toward my distant and forgotten car, my life then became a mystery, as Thérèse of Lisieux suggested it must. In that impenetrable night, borrowing a wild courage that far transcended my own, I had hidden myself, and so begun to find something hidden. Despite having broken the physical line, I still felt an unseen thread linking me to the vanished steelhead, to the river, mountains, and ocean that had created and empowered and protected it, and to some other kind of Companion: an Allness that somehow became palpable through the medium of the darkest night I’d ever braved.
Five years later, in revising the manuscript that became my novel The River Why, I dubbed the unseen Companion “Nameless,” and called the unbreakable spirit thread “the line of light.”
It turned out I wasn’t the only one who knew of its existence. Early Coptic monks called it “the indestructible connecting line.” Rumi called it “the cord of causation.” Plato called it “the fastening of heaven.” The forest rishis who set down the Rig Veda linked the atman, or “soul,” to the word sutr and called it the sutratman: “soul-suture.” What a wonder to have been bodily connected to a metaphysical universal by the coldblooded courage of a steelhead! And it’s a connection that, as those Coptic monks attest, forty years later remains indestructible. To this day, when I pay heed — or, more accurately, when I jettison this “I” and become the naked attentiveness that remains in its place — I still feel the Nameless pulsing.
Indestructible line! What a breakthrough for a fisherman!
I ’ve nearly set the table for my second story of loss, but first a word about birth. I’ve been laboring for seven years on a massive novel titled Sun House. What’s more, I’m carrying twins: Sun House is in two parts. Part One is titled “Moaning Is Connected with Hope,” words first used by Christendom’s greatest poet-saint, John of the Cross. It was love at first sight between me and that sentence. I hope most of us have heard, and made, more erotic moans than any other kind, but as life goes on we experience other moans: of the terribly injured; of the deathly ill and dying; of despair in the face of terrible news; of mortification at the realization that we’ve committed some unforgivable mistake. The fact that John of the Cross seems to make no distinctions here — the fact that a man who was confined, abused, starved, and beaten unto moaning, the fact that the spiritual jailbreak described in The Dark Night of the Soul must be connected to those moans — gives the statement tremendous credibility. Where is my consciousness when I unthinkingly moan? Somewhere that connects me, this incomparable saint hints, with inviolable hope.
The second half of Sun House is called “Infinite Guest” — an obvious play on the title of David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest. My Sun House editor, Michael Pietsch, was the editor of Infinite Jest, and I find its author crossing my mind often — or crossing something deeper than my mind. I never met that other three-named David, but I’ve felt Michael missing him so acutely that David has sifted into my prayer life, such as it is, and now sits on the other end of a spirit thread of well-wishing. He was an inimitable genius and a terribly troubled man, no question. He was also very self-aware and articulate about what haunted him. He struggled with a belief that his generation is enslaved by its sense of irony. He writes, “Make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit ‘I don’t really mean what I’m saying.’ ” In an interview he told literary critic Larry McCaffery, “Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving . . . the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.”
For reasons grounded, I think, in a love for wild nature that helps me accept my own nature, I am not at all afraid to sound sentimental or naive to all the weary ironists. In fact, I make a point of it. The scene in which The River Why’s protagonist has a mystical vision of that “line of light” sure enough horrified some weary ironists. But the same scene resonated with thousands of other readers because of their own analogous experiences. It’s an odd Catch-22: If we feel the Unspeakable and then try to speak of what we felt, we sound like fools. But if we feel the Unspeakable and don’t speak, we feel like ingrates. I’m inclined toward gratitude. So, foolishly, I speak.
In the defense of fools everywhere, let me add that my awkward speaking has occasioned decades-long exchanges with wonderfully alert people: Buddhist and Christian monks, lay contemplatives, artists, poets, wounded healers, hunters, fishers, farmers, and benign ragamuffins of all kinds. And when we’ve been foolish enough to whisper, in our poems or prose, of unseen spirit threads linking us to an unseen guileless Presence that seems at times to open the gates of heaven, still other shy strangers have come like deer out of hiding to whisper of their own such experiences, and a sweet lexicon of gratitude and mystery has, in fits and starts, come into being. Hard to express though it is, I believe America needs this lexicon to save its very life.
Now on to my second story of loss.
In March 2013 I was preparing a keynote address for a Boise, Idaho, writers’ convention when my mother entered home hospice care in Lolo, Montana, where we both lived. Because her situation threatened my ability to attend the convention, I had to e-mail the man who was arranging it. But I did not feel capable of conventional language. Nor was I willing to say something like “Maybe if Mom dies fast enough I can still attend!” The demands of the situation, an unseen thread suggested, required the greatest possible attention to precisely what was unfolding. So, off to a literary-convention organizer sailed this e-mail:
i’m at my mother’s place in lolo, on day 15 of her home hospice. yesterday i crossed the street to explore a little bitterroot river locust grove and bottomland that nobody ever walks, because private homes hem it in. i hadn’t gone 300 yards before i’d spooked 21 whitetail deer out in front of me. also found deer-hair-filled coyote scat. and a fawn’s entire rib cage, stripped down to an oversized off-white thumb piano, with a single beetle running down a long thin key.
Fortunately for us both, the organizer was also a friend, Cort Conley, a poet all the way down to his wounded heart. Instead of worrying about the possibility of my not appearing to give the keynote, he simply grabbed hold of the spirit thread and immediately — I mean ten minutes later — sent me a poem by Ted Kooser, beginning:
Mine is the craft of loss, but I am no better at losing than you. My skill is in finding the edges of sorrow and folding them in, as in the art of origami. . . .
As my mother headed earthward, I focused my attention on the small lake beside her house; on walks among the deer and fawns and carrion; on the birds that kept arriving from the south; on the hospice workers and my siblings who, together, created a web of care more nurturing to all of us, my mother most of all, than any theological or hospital protocols and pronouncements I can imagine. Meanwhile Cort, other friends, and I conducted a long-distance conversation consisting of little but poems, which I then shared with the family members who enjoy poetry. One day it might be lines from Jane Kenyon:
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned in long grass. Let the stars appear and the moon disclose her silver horn. Let the fox go back to its sandy den. Let the wind die down. Let the shed go black inside. Let evening come. . . .
The next it would be W.S. Merwin:
All day the stars watch from long ago my mother said I am going now when you are alone you will be all right whether or not you know, you will know . . .
In the midst of these exchanges, for three weeks and four days, the mass of wonderful contradictions that was my mother lived on, becoming an object of meditation, and nearly an object of worship, for my siblings and me. Let me describe some of her contradictions for you.
For a quarter century or so she wore a sort of blondish-grayish-platinum wig to conceal her thinning hair, but at the same time she became as emotionally honest as any person I’ve ever known. Late in life she was a surrogate mother, counselor, or loving friend to many ragged people, but at the same time her passion, which she pursued as avidly as I do steelhead, was going to garage sales, where she scored spectacularly useless tchotchkes until she cluttered her house so severely that I could hardly walk through it without breaking things. She died the proud owner of four twenty-gallon bins full of plastic flowers and a gigantic print, displayed on her living-room wall, of the actor Anthony Quinn’s hideous self-portrait. She loved bling and glitter and wore clothes covered with it, yet often remarked that, if she were a man, she would have spent her adult life roaring around the West on a Harley. To prove it, she bought herself a Harley — a toy one, four inches long.
I’d heard at church that the kingdom of heaven is within me, but our preachers proclaimed a faith that excluded everyone I knew but a small fold of yeasayers. Whereas the first time I walked up a trout stream, rod in hand, I was struck all day, and on thousands of days to follow, by a suspicion that mountains and rivers are myself, turned inside out.
Her name was Donna Jean, and because she was living alone when she got to Lolo, she decided to hide her gender by listing herself in the phone book as D.J. Duncan — my initials. So any nut who wanted to talk to me reached my mom instead. This was undoubtedly better for them. One time a guy called her from Colorado and bellowed, “Sorry I’m drunk, but I need to talk to David!” Donna calmly asked, “Why is that, dear?” He explained that he was reading my book My Story as Told by Water, in which I write about what it means to be a “river soldier.” The man then bawled, “I’m tryin’ t’ be a river solider, too! But I’m not doin’ a very good job!” It would have been well beyond my capacity to console this poor bastard. But somehow my mom did.
Another time, a woman who’d recently lost all three of her sons in a plane crash tried to call me about a fundraising venture in honor of her boys, but reached Donna Jean instead. And because my mom, too, had lost a teenage son, she talked for an hour to this woman, who dubbed Mom “DJD the Elder” and me “DJD the Younger.” She then remained the Elder’s friend for life, and my friend to this day, and went on to raise three daughters and a passel of fine horses.
Another phone story: My younger brother Doug, who is dyslexic and decidedly not literary, moved into an apartment over Mom’s garage and, as her strength failed, often answered her phone for her. When he fielded calls meant for DJD the Younger, he guarded my privacy with such gruff absolutism that, on the day the Lannan Foundation phoned and asked to speak to David James Duncan, Doug said, “He doesn’t live here!” and hung up on them. When they called back and asked if he knew me, Doug snapped, “Sure, he’s my brother!” and hung up on them. When they called again and explained that they simply wanted to give me some money — seventy thousand dollars, in fact — Doug roared, “Yeah, but what kind of hoops are you gonna make him jump through to get it?” and hung up on them a third time. Thank God my mom straightened that one out.
DJD the Elder was a lifelong conservative who voted for Nixon twice, then was so alienated by George W. Bush’s agenda that throughout her eighties she listened only to alternative radio, Bill Moyers, and MSNBC. A devout Seventh-Day Adventist most of her life, she was also the most adoring American-born fan of the Dalai Lama I ever met. On her deathbed she never mentioned any aspect of the Trinity in my presence. But one day, out of the blue, she said the word, “Reincarnation.” She then looked at me, nodded, and whispered, “I think the Tibetans have it right.”
Going back a couple of years: At about the same time my daughters, Celia and Ellie, left my wife and me in an empty nest, DJD the Elder had begun to move with the tentativeness of a toddler, to speak with an increasingly childlike directness, and to need someone to steady her. So I got to spend three more years walking around with the fragile hand of a small, wise person clutching my arm. On our last road trip together she and I drove to the Oregon coast from Montana. I had to rent suites the whole way, because my demure mom snored so loud I couldn’t sleep in the same room even with earplugs. At our suite on the coast, she gave me a day off to fish, and that evening I dragged an eleven-pound hatchery steelhead into the tiny cocktail sink in our shared sitting room and cleaned it. The sink and counter soon looked as if I’d committed a murder, and my mother laughed at the sight. All that incongruous gore in our tidy suite! A highlight of our trip home was when I told her I’d always wanted to drive aimlessly down the dirt roads among the countless vast wheat farms of the Palouse. Mom said she’d always wanted to do that, too. So we threw the maps in the back seat, took the next exit, and got completely lost amid a rolling, horizon-to-horizon sea of wheat.
For more than a decade DJD the Elder was keenly aware that her body was, as my friend William Kittredge likes to say, “headed for the wrong side of the grass.” She loved Kittredge’s locution. In fact, one warm day during her last summer, I caught her staring at the lawn in her backyard, looking so preoccupied that I asked what she was doing. “Oh,” she said, “just thinking about all the people I love on the ‘wrong side of the grass.’ There are so many now I can’t even look at grass without wondering what they’re all up to under there.”
Another day that summer I walked in on her napping on the couch. When she awoke, she said, “Oh, it’s you. I wasn’t sure I’d see you when I opened my eyes. I just went drifting again.”
“Drifting?” I said. “What’s that?”
“I’ll tell you,” she said, “if you promise not to rush me off to an ER or something.” I promised. “All I’m saying,” she then explained, “is that sometimes I feel myself sort of leave myself in a way that makes me think, Whoa! If I keep heading this way, I won’t be here anymore!” She smiled at the thought, then assured me it was not a stroke, a health problem, or an aspect of illness. “It feels mysterious,” she said calmly, “but natural. A couple of times I’ve ended up on the ceiling, looking at myself lying down here on the couch.”
I’m not normally a Bible quoter, but I told my mom her “drifting” reminded me of the Book of Hosea; then I fetched her Bible and read to her from it. It’s a violent little scripture, Hosea, full of strife and cursings and vexations, till it unexpectedly drifts ceilingward, like so:
Therefore, I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. From there I will give her vineyards and make . . . a door of hope. There she shall respond as in the days of her youth. . . . On that day, says the Lord, you will call me “My husband,” . . . and I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife.
I wish you could see the expression on the apple-doll face of my ancient Adventist mom as she heard no less an authority than the Old Testament proclaim that the Lord was going to lead her into wilderness and give her vineyards — which implies wine, for which she had a tolerance as low as her enthusiasm for it was high — and that He was inviting her to call Him “husband,” which implied you-know-what, and that “she shall respond as in the days of her youth,” which implied whoa-whoa-wow! My Bible selection left the courageously drifting DJD the Elder sensing that she was about to grow more appreciative and reverent and sensitive to all kinds of wonderfully wild feelings. It also left me more pleased with that troublesome text than I’d been in years.
When my mother decided to stop fighting for her mortal life and take a gamble on the Book of Hosea, I was on a Sun House writing roll. It bothered Mom that her dying might be interrupting my momentum. To ease her concern, I’d sit by her with my laptop, serving as her secretary as she bade her friends farewell by e-mail, but also, on request, reading pages of my novel to her. There was a particular bit that delighted her inner biker: a fictitious Willie Nelson song. In the world’s worst Willie imitation, I sang my mom a verse:
My cowboy pride and long-lost bride Left me so lost and confused. Hopped on my Harley, turned up Bob Marley, And rode to church for Good News. But when the news was her body Squeezin’ past me through the pews, I prayed Mercy! Please don’t curse me, Sweet King of the Jews.
What a catharsis, watching the same mother who used to go ballistic if we couldn’t find our good shoes before she dragged us off to Sabbath school, now deep into hospice, shaking with laughter over this shameless malarkey. “More!” she said. Who am I to refuse the dying?
Hear me, Creator, it’s You who made her And You who lured me in here. My tree of knowledge says she’s my college, And I’m enrollin’ in there. Reception line, chills down my spine, My gaze gets lost in her hair Her blazin’ eyes, her rump and thighs, O Lord, I’m walkin’ on air!
It’s an odd Catch-22: If we feel the Unspeakable and then try to speak of what we felt, we sound like fools. But if we feel the Unspeakable and don’t speak, we feel like ingrates. I’m inclined toward gratitude. So, foolishly, I speak.
Here’s part of what I love about spirit threads: words that once inflicted only pain can become a heart wound, which then becomes both guiding scar and guiding star, transforming a perceived enemy into a genuine, if accidental, teacher. “Faith can move mountains,” that seminarian in the hospital said. “If you pray for your brother hard enough, with a pure enough heart, you can save his life.” Those words taught me via pain that, as writer Anne Lamott has it, “The opposite of faith is not doubt: it is certainty.” But what better preparation could I possibly have had for Eihei DÅgen’s Mountains and Waters Sutra? DÅgen is the thirteenth-century master who founded the SÅtÅ branch of Zen Buddhism. And thanks to a hospital-hallway faith wound, a Cascade Mountain fast, a Wallowa Mountain summer, a rebirth in India, and a seeing-eye steelhead leading me through wild water, boulders, and blackness, DÅgen’s 725-year-old dharma talk and my spirit trajectory collided like arrows in midair:
Mountains, right now, are the embodiment of the Ancient Buddha way. . . . Mountains do not lack the qualities of mountains. Therefore they always abide in ease and always walk. You should examine in detail this quality of the mountains’ walking. Mountains’ walking is just like human walking. Accordingly, do not doubt mountains’ walking even though it does not look the same as human walking. The Buddha ancestors’ words point to walking. This is fundamental understanding.
“Faith can move mountains,” a zealot once told me, then ordered a boy who was crushed by confusion and impending loss to save his doomed brother with miraculous prayers. Yet that wound fused with a thread that thrilled me, decades later, when I learned that mountains do indeed walk; that the Tetons in Wyoming, for example, grow about an inch and a half a year — eight feet in my measly lifetime! The German who first discovered continental drift and theorized the movements of the tectonic plates was named Alfred Wegener. When he presented his ideas to the Royal Geographic Society in London, he was derided as a fool. Only in my lifetime has the reality of mountains’ walking been studied, measured, and partially understood — proving Zen master DÅgen a better scientist than the Royal Geographic Society.
On her deathbed she never mentioned any aspect of the Trinity in my presence. But one day, out of the blue, she said the word, “Reincarnation.” She then looked at me, nodded, and whispered, “I think the Tibetans have it right.”
Come ride my spirit thread with me for a few minutes here. It turns out the walking of mountains is an effing miracle, born of the fact that our Earth is a shard of an ancient star. It turns out mountains don’t just walk, they firewalk, afloat on the planet’s molten core. It turns out mountains walk so vigorously we find seashells on summits that have awaited our touch since those mountains were ocean floor. It turns out the seminarian who seared me with words about mountain-moving initiated a shifting of tectonic plates within me. It turns out that, with the knitting needle he stuck in my heart, I was moved twenty years later to write about my brother and “save his life” through a memoir titled “The Mickey Mantle Koan,” which restored vital pieces of him to memory, and when all sorts of people — including Mickey Mantle himself — liked that memoir, I then felt moved to pen a work of fiction, The Brothers K, that dove so deep into the magic and bewilderment of big brothers and ball-sport and Bible-crazed families that a thousand readers sent me letters describing their own brothers, sisters, parents, war experiences, religious and spiritual struggles, heart wounds, and guiding spirit threads. It turns out this vast interactive field effect created such a profound sense of resolution that maybe thirty years after John died I had a vivid dream of a dark-brown girl of fifteen or sixteen, wearing a white blouse and a colorful skirt, walking down a dirt road, her hips swaying as she passed under trees from which lemurs peered, making me think: Madagascar. It turns out this girl’s coy smile left me sure she was thinking about a boy, because John wore that same smile when he was thinking about a girl. It turns out that, because I’d been trying to penetrate the way mountains and people both walk, I noticed even in mid-dream that this girl’s walk had a languid ease that reminded me of my long-vanished brother’s walk, and though I’ll never say she was my brother (“The opposite of faith is not doubt: it is certainty”), her bearing was so familiar and her being so at peace that I’ve felt nothing but serenity whenever I’ve thought of John ever since. It turns out I don’t know if faith moves mountains, but I do know that mountains sure enough move. It turns out I don’t know whether “praying hard enough, with a pure-enough heart,” saves those we love by helping them come back in, say, Madagascar, but it’s certain that imagining and writing hard enough, with a pure-enough heart, helped me carry grief for a brother to a deeply fulfilling end. It turns out that peace-infused former grief fused with a thread that created so much strength and faith and trust and familiarity that, last spring, as my siblings and I tended DJD the Elder during home hospice, we did not slump helplessly in a hospital hall or get soul-molested by clerics or submit to despair. It turns out we stood by her bed in her small home on a small lake and served till a soul and body parted ways, and her minimal moaning was always connected with hope, and her flight was as moving as any music I’ve ever heard. It turns out that, on the day she lost her ability to swallow, the birds called swallows arrived en masse at her little lake and began feeding on the mayflies that were hatching. It turns out that the afternoon after the swallows’ arrival, a cold front hit, heavy snow began falling, and I feared the birds might starve, but at dusk the insects swarmed the lakeside houses of the neighborhood, drawn to the warmth leaking from doors and windows, and the swallows — again en masse — found them there, hovering in the darkness against human homes, and began picking mayflies off the siding, glass, and eaves with such focus that my sister Katherine walked among the birds, experiencing a marvelous avian-human border as their wings brushed her clothes and rustled her hair. It turns out that, after studying and translating The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Robert Thurman summarized the Tibetan belief about death thus: “All beings are. They never are not. They are either alive or between. There is, hypothetically, a split second between life and the between that is properly called death. A boundary, a line with no width, something ultimately not there except as an arbitrary border.” It turns out that Tibetans and Mother Nature and swallows and mayflies and the explosion of renewed life that enveloped my mother’s dying all agree that the opposite of life isn’t death after all: it’s unmanifest life. It turns out it was I who found the little lakeside house that lured DJD the Elder to Lolo, Montana, from Maui, Hawaii, a trajectory she especially liked to describe to Hawaiian friends since lolo in Hawaiian means “crazy.” It turns out that, on the day the realtor unlocked that house and I got ready to try to sell my mom on it, I didn’t have to open my mouth, because as the front door swung open, we looked straight through the picture windows to the lake behind, and a flock of Canada geese launched up off the water, and Mom turned to me and said, “I think someday I’d like to launch up from here, too.” It turns out that twelve years later, as she was sure enough launching, a daft mother mallard landed outside Mom’s glass bedroom door, walked over to a rock-covered flower bed, and laid four eggs among the cold, snowy stones over four days. It turns out that, during those days, my mother occupied a border between life and the between and sometimes spoke from that border, once asking me, “And are they coming with a ladder to bring me on up?” which moved me to answer, “Yes, all the way up.” It turns out that, when she grew too weak to speak but not too weak to nod, I asked if it would be all right if I mowed what for twelve years had been her lawn — though in the confusion of pronouns at the time of a life’s unmaking it was becoming her children’s lawn — and she faintly nodded, and when I went out and started mowing, my brother Steve, who’d stayed at her bedside, said the roar of the engine caused her to smile, and “a peace came over her.” It turns out that, a few days later, when she’d lost the ability to react to anything, the hospice preacher offered to send over a free harp player who could time his music to our mother’s dying breaths, and Steve told the preacher, “Oh, that’s OK. If Mom seems to need more peace, we’ll just have David start the lawn mower and walk back and forth outside her window.” It turns out that, amid a heavy spring snow flurry, many more geese, and my mother, did launch from her home by the lake, and after we’d said goodbye to her body, I walked out at dawn, collected the mallard eggs from the cold rocks despite the snow that covered them, and sent them to a chicken-fancier friend with an incubator, and when one egg proved viable, I thought I might name the duckling Madagascar — only Madagascar died trying to fight her way out of the shell, as so many of us do. But it turns out that, after my mom was gone, I mowed her lawn twenty-two times in twenty-two weeks before we sold the little lakeside house, and all twenty-two times, when I started the engine and glanced toward my mom’s beautifully empty bedroom, I smiled, and a peace came over me. It turns out that, after every mowing, I’d sit on DJD the Elder’s grass beach beside the lake, and with her on the other side of that grass, boy did I understand the way she used to smile at the lawn. It turns out that, on that same beach during those same twenty-two weeks, no fewer than three broods of baby mallards were born and raised, twenty-one Madagascars in all. It turns out I’ve never doubted that Earth and DJD the Elder have both been my mothers, but in receiving a plethora of beautiful death poems and unmanifest-life poems in the weeks after DJD the Elder launched from Lolo’s Lake Crazy, I came to feel that a third mother to us might be the spirit-threaded lines poets gather like eggs abandoned in cold stones, and try to incubate, sometimes causing something warm and deathless to make itself felt. It turns out I don’t know squat about the afterlife, though DJD the Elder is in it someway, somehow, but I know there’s an invisible thread some of us follow, and a line of light connecting me to a steelhead migrating upriver through the dark night of my soul, and a thread connecting me to a tree-lined road where a dream girl with swaying hips heals my brother-grief by simply abiding in ease and walking, as mountains also do. And it turns out that a perfectly inanimate tchotchke gnome that DJD the Elder scored for a buck-fifty at her last garage sale now resides, under lavender and raspberries, in DJD the Younger’s garden, manifesting something that, in the right light, I want to call life.
This essay is adapted from a talk given at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology on May 14, 2014. Parts of the talk previously appeared in Portland magazine.