Following the diagnosis of breast cancer three years ago, I imagined that I was experiencing a flaring of love for life. In fact, as I reflect on it now, that was not altogether true. I mistook a fear of death, a fleeing from death, as appreciation for life. So as the years have passed since this diagnosis, I am drawn to examine, beneath the fear of death, a possible underlying fear of life. I am groping to understand what it might mean truly to love life—to rest in the stream of life as it changes, including all its disappointment, disability and loss.
From its gutted cushions, my grandmother’s chaise longue exhales billows of feathers, cotton and dust. My eight-year-old daughter Caitlin hoots and leaps around the attic. Our dog Cleo has burrowed into the feather belly of the chaise. Through the attic skylight an exchange of foul threats assaults my ears. The angry voices of my next-door neighbors escalate in another fight. After a day of editing, household errands and a neighborhood meeting, I don’t know if I can tolerate this onslaught of chaos. One more mess to clean up, inside the house or out, feels unbearable.
After stomping back up to the attic with the vacuum cleaner, I shout down the stairwell toward my husband Patrick, “Were you both waiting for me to come home and take care of everything?” Yanking the heavy vacuum this way and that, I think acidly, “If I get cancer again, everyone’ll be sorry.” Lately, I scare myself with my secret threats. I find myself remembering with longing the help offered by family, friends and colleagues when I was first diagnosed. Conjuring up the spiteful specter of cancer, I take retribution; I anticipate support; I imagine rest.
Now as I squat on the floor to gather feathers, a memory comes to me of this chaise—its elegant silk brocade intact—when it resided in my grandmother Juliette’s bedroom. Intended for repose in the boudoir, the chaise longue has, since the era of Louis XIV, invited the lady to abandon herself to dreams. Gran Juliette’s chaise, tucked between her dressing table and her poetry shelves, has touched my imagination ever since my girlhood in Manhattan. Five years ago, after having been shipped from friend to friend, the chaise arrived, scuffed and frayed, in our home here in Berkeley. I didn’t dare look at it. It felt haunted by the imprint of Gran Juliette, who, twelve years earlier, had died on it.
Tonight I sense I can’t avoid it any longer. Caitlin and Cleo have long since gone downstairs. Alone with the chaise, I step closer to take a good look. The stuffing is oozing out of the holes in the upholstery, the box springs are laid bare. Once luxurious and particular, Gran Juliette’s day bed is now decomposing into anonymity. I am filled with grief.
After vacuuming the tattered remains, and scouring it back to its skeleton, I am drawn to lay my body in the neglected cavity of the chaise. I tentatively lower myself onto the prickly seat and sink back into the arms. I run my fingers through the homespun ingredients: goose down, cotton, burlap, horsehair, walnut frame. In the lining, I find one of Gran Juliette’s hairpins. I think of Gran Juliette draping herself on the chaise, two hairpins in her mouth as she coiled her bun.
Caressing the rusty hairpin between my fingers, I remember the story of Gran’s final afternoon on the chaise. Reclining, just as I am now, she asked her housekeeper Gretyl to find Edna St. Vincent Millay’s first book of poems, Renaissance. My grandmother, of cultivated Austrian Jewish heritage, took pride in her diction. She said Tuesday as “Teeoosday” with a long “e” and tomato with a short “a.” Holding aloft the thin leather volume, she recited aloud:
“O World, I cannot hold thee close enough!”
In the arms of the chaise, I try to understand Gran Juliette at 86. I love the idea that, after several broken hips and two cataract operations, she still was aching to embrace the world in which she had lived with passion and flourish, where she had ridden horseback and waltzed, taken countless voyages, marched and written letters of protest. I remember when I was three, how she skipped with me down Fifth Avenue, and when I was sixteen, how she took me to the Parthenon, the Oracle at Delphi and the Theater of Dionysus. It does seem in keeping that, in preparation for her death, Gran Juliette should stage this final drama, singing out Millay’s rapturous lament in the plush comfort of the chaise:
“My soul is all but out of me, let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.”
As I reflect, I become uneasy. On that last afternoon, was Gran Juliette, like Millay, tormented by the beauty of the world—of which she felt she couldn’t get “enough”? Now, lying here on the tattered remains of the chaise, I wrestle with my own demands of the world, my own yearnings. Were Gran Juliette’s feelings in her old age in any way like mine in the wake of cancer? Did she resent her family and friends for not attending to her needs “enough”? When she was infirm and fragile, did she ever blame the world for demanding more from her than she felt she could offer? Most of all, as I lie here I wonder: Did she ever truly learn how to find rest on this chaise longue, to find rest in her life? I wish I could sit down at the foot of the chaise now, as I did when I was a little girl, and ask.
The day after the debacle with the chaise, my neighbor Grandmama Darlene loses herself again, wandering the streets of the neighborhood after the taxi driver drops her off from the Alzheimer’s Program. Twice before, the taxi driver had come knocking on our door. Can Mrs. Jackson stay with us until Donna, her grown granddaughter, gets home from work? He has had strict instructions never to leave off any of the patients unattended, particularly not on the street. This third time, I invite Grandmama Darlene to join me upstairs or in my back garden, as she had on the previous occasions. “No.” This time she is adamant that she won’t budge.
Trying to be gracious, I haul one of our garden chairs up onto her porch for Grandmama Darlene to sit on. But she shakes her head and settles on the top step. So I sink onto one of the steps below. I feel the heat of the boards the late spring sun has warmed. Some young men with a blaring boombox amble across the street toward the tumble-down pink fourplex, known years ago as the “crack house.” I watch a tall woman dressed in a halter top, hot pants and heeled sandals, smoking a cigarette out front.
Unaccustomed to sitting out front—being so intimate with the street—I become increasingly agitated. At the same time, I notice Grandmama Darlene relax. Clear in her memories, she tells me about having come to Berkeley from Texas so her husband could work in the shipyards. “Since we moved to this house here, Dee and Donna fought so much—you know Dee’s drinking—that we had to ask Dee to move out.”
“I know,” I say. I have been kept up countless nights listening to those fights and, on many occasions, have felt compelled to call the cops to help bring about a temporary peace.
“You know Dee is Donna’s daughter,” she continues.
I interrupt, “Don’t you mean Donna is Dee’s daughter?”
Grandmama Darlene chuckles, a generous ripple of a laugh. “Yeah. That’s it. I get so mixed up these days. I can’t keep straight who is who.” She includes me in this laugh and allows me my comfort in noticing her confusion. In one long peal, she forgives me, herself, her unreliable faculties as they dissolve.
We sit in silence for a bit, listening to the cars speed down the street. A balding pasty-faced man in a business suit parks his Buick out front and disappears into the pink house, followed by the woman in the halter top.
“Do you ever get a yearning to go back to Texas, to see your family and friends from long ago?” I ask.
“No,” she says. She settles more comfortably, leaning against the frayed shingles of her house. “No, I’m not going anywhere. There’s nowhere in the world I’d rather be than right here.”
I keep thinking about Grandmama Darlene and my own Gran Juliette, about how each, in her own way, sought rest. Resting on her front step, Grandmama Darlene sits with apparent serenity amidst the clatter and confusion of the street and the confusion of her mind. Seeking rest on her chaise longue, Gran Juliette read poetry. On this chaise, she recited her farewell poem—in preparation for a final rest. It occurs to me that meditation can be described as taking a deep rest: resting the mind in the moment without fighting things as they are.
Over the years of practice, I have come to appreciate that this rest does not come easily. It takes unshakable commitment, courage, energy and discipline. As I think of Gran Juliette facing her own death that last afternoon, I imagine that she must have drawn on just such qualities: unflinching commitment and courage in order to turn towards the unknown. She must have summoned all of her energy and discipline to be steadfast despite the urge to pull away. When Grandmama Darlene finds rest on her step, she must also draw on these qualities: a commitment and courage to ground herself amidst the crossfire, the ongoing dangers of street life. She too must muster energy and discipline to sustain her kind presence—despite the dissolution of her faculties, despite the violence that surrounds her.
I decide to try an experiment. I put my meditation cushion in the skeletal remains of the chaise and sit on it. It has been weeks since I have been able to get myself to meditate, but my interest is reawakened. Through the attic skylight I hear the sounds of the street—drug whistles and arguments, traffic and children’s laughter. Here, I sit with Grandmama Darlene, finding her ease out on her step. And I sit with my Gran Juliette on this chaise where many years ago, ensconced in plump new pillows, she found her brand of rest through poetry and dreams. I pay homage to each of these grandmothers, and I meditate.
Beneath my sitting bones, I am aware of the chaise. As I settle, a mist of cotton and goose down rises, sticks to my clothes, teases my nostrils. With a jolt of horror I realize that I am sitting in a decaying carcass. From inside, I am experiencing its dissolution. Isn’t this a form of charnel ground practice? I ask myself. Since the time of the Buddha, monks have practiced in graveyards in order to develop fearlessness, steadiness and energy for insight meditation. For me such charnel ground practices have a magnetic pull. This has been true ever since I sat at my father’s bedside over twenty years ago and witnessed his death from lung cancer, and more urgently now since I have taken on the task of facing my own cancer.
After experiencing a surge of energy during this meditation, I decide to take this on as a practice: to do my meditation with my grandmothers here in the chaise for an hour every day. As the sittings continue, I find to my delight that, instead of resistance, I feel interest to return each day.
One afternoon as I sit, a conversation from a walk in Tilden Park with my mother three years back shuttles into consciousness. As we round a bend dense with blackberry brambles, my mother whispered, “I’ll tell you something that I never told you before. There’s more to the story of Gran Juliette’s death.” She paused, then met my eye. “When Gran was lying on the chaise breathing but unreachable, the doctor insisted that both Gretyl and I leave the bedroom. He then went briefly into the bedroom alone with Gran. Before he went back to his office, he sent me home and told Gretyl to stay out of Gran’s room. Several hours later, Gretyl called me. ‘Your mother is dead,’ she reported.
“It wasn’t until the following day that Gretyl told me what happened following that call. After Gran Juliette had been lying dead on the chaise for some time, she suddenly moved her head. She raised it up and said, ‘I did it.’ According to Gretyl, Gran Juliette said this distinctly. Then she lowered her head, and never moved again.”
“Of course!” My mind leapt. “Gran Juliette decided to take a pill. That’s why she was able to recite the perfect farewell and then die.”
“No,” my mother said, “I think she meant, ‘I willed that I would die and now I have.’ ” She paused. “Of course, I don’t know what understanding she may have had with the doctor.…”
In the days following this meditation, I try to imagine Gran Juliette on the chaise struggling to figure out a way to relate to her life: to endure it, clasp it to her, to end it. I am consumed with questions and flip from feelings of hurt to anger to fear. Was Gran Juliette responsible for her own death? Wouldn’t she have wanted to say good bye to me and her other grandchildren? Did she become so caught up in the limitations of her life that she only saw those limitations? Even though she was mobile and had her faculties intact, did life become intolerable for her? She had always lived with such panache; she was my inspiration. How could Gran, of all people, ever have rejected life?
Holding these questions, I sit each day in the arms of dissolution. One sitting is insufferably hot. As I sit, I feel itching under my chin, burning in my lungs. A wave of heat rushes through my limbs. And my whole 51-year-old woman’s body is soaked with sweat. My shoulders ache and my head is constricted. I think to myself: I can’t tolerate this. Abruptly, I realize that there is a way out: I can cut off my awareness; I can stop sitting.
Just as I am beginning to consider breaking off the meditation, I think of Gran Juliette on this same chaise. I imagine her distress, with a crooked back, a twice-fractured hip, and eyes recovering from surgery. It is only natural that she might have felt that the only way out of the suffering in her life was to stop living.
And I tell myself: If I can’t sit here in this hot attic, allowing myself to experience the discomfort of body and mind, how can I expect Gran Juliette to keep living despite the discomforts of old age? Challenging myself in this way, I am able to keep on sitting.
After I sit, I find myself longing to reach back in time to assure Gran Juliette: there is an alternative. You don’t have to die to find rest. With a start, I recognize that this is what I am trying to tell myself. I don’t have to flirt with a recurrence of cancer to find peace. And realizing this, I release Gran Juliette, at eighty-six, to will her own death if that was what she needed to do. At fifty-one, with an eight-year-old daughter, a husband, friends and neighbors whose lives are interwoven with mine, I make a different choice. I remind myself that rest is not something someone can simply offer me but rather something I can learn to find in each moment of awareness. I form an intention to rest in myself as this world in its full heat—with its poetry and tenderness, its gutted cushions and chaos in the street.
As I sit today, I bring my attention back to the chaise dissolving around me—fibers made by insect larvae; fibers of cotton, of jute, of hemp; horsehair; walnut wood; the first plumage of young birds. I feel beneath the skin of my face to Caitlin’s face—fresh and tender, the rosy skin taut on the bones. This is the face I often imagine myself to have—like the newly made chaise, with plump cushions and snug upholstery. And I become aware of my own aging face, the face of my elders grandmothers Juliette and Darlene. I sense the looseness of my skin, with its creases in the cheeks and under the eyes. I feel the rigidity of my spine. Can I rest in this?
Returning to my breathing, I become aware of how exhausted I feel in my body and mind from so much fighting against life’s ongoing change. Then, as the moment opens, I rest in this exhaustion, and in my ease.