This is a piece I wrote several years ago about an important teacher in the Olympia community. She passed away in July 2008 and she was really, really fabulous.
The Fear of Love
“Only love can quiet the fear/ of love, and only love can save/ from diminishment the love/ that we must lose to have.” –“The Fear of Love”, Wendell Berry
Elizabeth is dying. Like that.
I write her letters and leave them in my journal. “What do you say to someone who is dying?” T. asks me.
We all shrug. I ask no one, how well do you have to know someone before you’re allowed to mourn them?
I met Elizabeth last August, when I was breaking and she was safe. Someone who could not hurt me, I thought.
I’ve known her just under ten months, which is not much. You can’t learn your own garden in such a short time—you won’t know the length of the seasons or which greens will taste the sweetest in October. You won’t know to cut the tomatoes down in time and the frost will seize them before you are ready.
The truth is, I don’t know her. She is my teacher, not my friend, and I have only been able to give the quiet gifts of the student: to listen, to treasure and challenge the words, to make use of them and pass them on.
It strikes me that this is not enough.
The cancer has gone wild in her, like blackberry bushes on the roadside. Except, as she reminds us, these cells have always belonged to her. She teaches this, that we do not become other than what we are. We cannot be invaded, because there are no borders, just points of resistance–pushes and reaches. The first day I met her, she said, “Desire is in our arms, Luke; when you want something, you have to reach for it. What you don’t want it, you have to push away.”
The thing is, she’s not dead, not yet. She still comes to class every Monday, she says it’s the only thing she won’t stop. We drive there to the studio in groups and linger outside in the chilly dusk before she has arrived. I wonder if we all hesitate with the same anxious question: if tonight will be a class without a teacher. If tonight she will be gone, or simply too sick, in too much pain to continue coming here. In either case it will be the same meaning: her life will have parted from ours.
J. is standing in the kitchen, talking about the people she’s loved who have died. All disappeared in sudden bursts of violence. Alive and healthy, then gone forever.
She says something then which surprises me. She says is grateful. This time there will be a goodbye.
Sometimes these last few weeks while I am falling asleep, a moment of her talking will catch in my head. I’ll see her sitting in a chair across the room of soft, light-filled colors, suggesting, questioning, helping me learn this simple and yet monumental project that is living in a body, breath by breath. I turn away from these flashes. It’s too much because there is nothing to follow. Every conversation that was begun is now complete, and the memories are a closed circle. Done.
I think of the box of my grandfather’s returned to me, letters in ragged envelopes lying inert in the hands that had so confidently sent them away. These recollections of Elizabeth. When she dies, I will be the only one who owns them. The dynamism of engagement, gone, will these words become dull and earthbound, shrink to something that can fit in an old shoe box, rattle around against its limp brown sides?
I read something T. gives to me. It’s talking about vows of poverty made by religious acolytes. It says the poverty spoken of is not about martyrdom. When you choose poverty, it says, it means you don’t own anything, but you can use whatever you want.
I take long baths in the evenings. Dark room, dark sky, one candle burning low. These are the hours that are borderless, that darkness reveals. I imagine the cancer in her body, and see it like fingers of starry black universe, seeping down from the sky, curled around her organs, through her viscera like night. I imagine that it doesn’t hurt her.
This is what I believe, what my body believes. This faith: death, it’s not our enemy. It’s not the rider who comes unbidden, snatches and departs. It is the lover. It is more than capacious. What is the word that means both freedom and intersolution; departure and also return; end, change, infinite?
Life and Death can’t be opposite, there is no such thing as uncreation. You cannot prove it to me, neither with poetry nor with computation, I know this. It is what we do all day long. Exhale, inhale. Circle into circle.
I don’t own anything. Not my self, not my skin, skeleton, liver, pancreas. I do not own my heart. I don’t own these words, I don’t own my memories, I don’t own the chair I sit on, or the letters I’ve sent, or the letters I’ve received. I don’t own the light from the lamp, or the night outside my closed window. Nor any story I tell about Elizabeth, nor any face of hers I feel I’ve known. Not even this grief.
She says something, one Monday when I’m putting on my jacket to leave class. I make a joke to a friend about not getting too attached to her keys if she’s only going to lose them. I don’t know if I’m trying to talk about death or not.
Elizabeth catches my eye. She says, “Luke, if you don’t let something in, you don’t get to lose it either.” She says this as if the losing is a gift.