“Go see Garrett today,” my inner voice urged.
I had been putting it off. In fact, I’d felt uneasy around Garrett ever since he’d come down with brain cancer a year ago. It had happened so quick! One minute we were cooking corn for 4th of July, the next, he was in the hospital. Now he was dying, two minutes up the hill from my house, having vainly endured multiple surgeries, recuperations and rounds of debilitating treatment.
We’d run into each other numerous times along the way. He’d be out-and-about, a scarf on his head, on the mend from God-only-knows what horrible cure, looking remarkably fit. I never knew what to say. A breezy, “Hi, how’re you doing?” didn’t cut it. “Good,” he’d answer. I’d smile and then, a respectable moment later, turn away. It felt awful.
Is this how people were going to act around me when I was sick?
I felt the same way with Tim Kretzmann, who also, for months, had been marching through his own private hell with prostate cancer.
“What do I say?” I asked Bailey, chopping some carrots in the Expanding Light kitchen one Sunday. “There’s got to be something better than, ‘how’re you doing!’ He says, ‘fine,’ but we both know he’s not really fine, yet he probably doesn’t want to relive the gory details for my sake!”
Bailey sympathized but wasn’t much help.
Two days later, I ran into Tim in the mailroom.
“Well!” I smiled jovially. “Quite a life you’re having these days!”
“Yeah,” he drawled. “I wouldn’t wish it on the worst dog.”
When I reported back to Bailey, she agreed this novel approach was an improvement, though it hadn’t led to further conversation, and I’d gotten out of there as quickly as I could.
Now Garrett had days to live, and I still hadn’t visited.
“Go see Garrett. Today.”
“Oh, all right!” I mentally replied.
It was sunny out, mid-morning. When I walked in Garrett’s house, clean and remarkably well-tended, his wife, Sylvia, and his sister-in-law were bustling about. Sylvia greeted me warmly.
“Garrett’s brother is bathing him now. Why don’t you play Garrett some music, then go sit with him.”
I pulled out the piano bench and played Swami’s sonata, in three movements.
“Okay, you can go in now,” Sylvia said when I was done.
“More music?” I offered.
“One more song,” she said. “Then go sit with him.”
Down the dim hallway to the bedroom I went. There was Garrett, curled up in bed on his side and snoozing, facing a garlanded statue of Master. A chair had been strategically placed.
The room was serene. Sunlight bathed the floor. Birds chirped innocently outside. The mountains glowed purple in the distance, and Master, in his porcelain permanence, outstretched His arms and smiled.
Reluctantly, I looked at my friend. Half-covered in a sheet, a towel on his head, Garrett breathed comfortably in and out. His face was puffier than I remembered, but otherwise he seemed normal and well-nourished. Nothing at all to indicate death was imminent. Certainly he was in no pain. That part of the process apparently was over.
And had it been worth it? All those months of presumed agony, just to be here on death’s door anyway? You have to wonder. If I were Garrett, knowing then what he knew now, would I let them do what they did? Hearing him softly snore, cutting right to the chase appeared an appealing option.
I looked up at Master and closed my eyes.
“Master, help him,” I prayed. “Help him make this transition.”
I thought of my own, long-departed partner.
“Kenny, help my friend. Show him what he has to do!”
As I prayed and sat, prayed and sat, a powerful feeling came over me, impossible to describe.
An hour later I made my way out. The women were in the kitchen. Garrett’s brother, in the living room, worked on a laptop.
Early next morning, word came that Garrett had peacefully passed. I couldn’t believe it! He hadn’t looked that bad! Shortly they announced a service would be held the following day. Folks were welcome anytime now, they said, to come pay their respects.
“Go see him again,” the voice prodded.
I didn’t want to. I’ve learned, though, it pays to listen when my voice speaks like this. I also don’t like being chicken. I don’t like watching myself avoid things I think I’m supposed to do. So I went, at exactly the same time of day I had before.
Again, the women were in the kitchen, but they didn’t see me come in, and no one else was around, so I crept to the back and stood in Garrett’s doorway.
Sun poured in like before. Birds chirped. The mountains glowed purple, and Master gleamed in white. A white spread covered the bed with Garrett centered flat on his back beneath it, rose petals forming a trail from his upturned feet to his head, which more resembled a wax sculpture than anything.
The comforting part was, this life-like statue was clearly not my friend. Wherever Garrett was, it was certainly not inside that.
What disturbed me was how quickly it had happened.
How much of what we see in others is not at all their flesh, I thought.
I took my chair, next to Master, and closed my eyes.
And remembered the horses!
I’d been at my desk mid-morning, years ago, when two, 800-pound horses galloped across the front lawn toward the road. Deer were common. Riderless horses were not.
I knew they were Garrett’s. They lived in a corral just below my house. This was the first I’d seen them unattended, though, and everyone in the neighborhood was probably at work.
What to do?
I got on the phone and several calls later found Garrett, who shortly after rolled up in his truck.
How do you catch a horse?
Garrett looked singularly unplussed.
“You have to speak ‘Horse,’” he smiled, grabbing a handful of carrots. “They don’t go far. Let’s walk to the meadow.”
Soon enough they came into view. Casually, we continued in their direction. At first, they moved further, but Garrett combined a quiet horse-call with some form of telepathy and, carrot-assisted, finally managed to attract the more docile of the two. He stroked as she nibbled, and when one carrot was no more, we began strolling toward home.
“What about the other one?”
“He doesn’t like to be too far from her,” Garrett said knowledgeably.
This glimpse into the mind of a horse was fascinating! Cats, I understood. But horses were so big! They scared me, even the friendly ones. And, obviously, they played by different rules. Just try getting a cat to come home with a carrot.
“Horses are followers,” Garrett confided. “They’re always looking for a leader. They’ll push, to see what they can get away with, but if you let them know who’s boss, they’ll follow.” As the other one did.
I opened my eyes.
Garrett hadn’t moved.
Several more times I closed my eyes, for various lengths. Each time I opened them, there was Garrett, motionless. I don’t know why I half-thought it might be different. Maybe because, though he wasn’t in that bed, I was still feeling his presence in the room, aware of me, and our bizarre circumstance.
Tears welled up, but I choked them back.
Why was I crying?! For Garrett? He was happy to be done, I was sure. If I was going to cry, it should have been yesterday! But Garrett hadn’t needed my tears! He’d been fine. Was I crying for myself? That didn’t seem right. Garrett and I were friends, but I hadn’t known him well enough to be this upset. Perhaps I was mourning my own mortality — when I should have been happy to have concrete evidence, pun intended, that I’m not this physical frame.
Come to think of it, who was Garrett, this person I thought I knew?
Yesterday, as I had sat, Sylvia had slipped me their wedding album. Here was Garrett, 25 years ago, on that most special of days, full of vitality and hope, the future stretched ahead, bright with promise! And there were my other friends – Dave Bingham, Ananta! – unrecognizably slim and trim, laughing and eating cake in some long-forgotten time and place.
The Garrett I know is just the tip of an iceberg, I had thought.
Would that the sleeping form in front of me could have woken momentarily and handed me a condensed version of his life.
“You want to know who I’ve been?” I pictured him saying. “Read this.”
I imagined myself lying in that bed. What was I going to hand my own well-wishers? What would I want them to know?
I tried getting out of the house as quietly as I’d gotten in, but Sylvia and Maria were in the living room assembling photographs.
“Jack! After the service tomorrow, we’re going to have a potluck,” Sylvia said. “It would be great if you could play. From 11:00 to 2:00. Garrett would love that.”
I couldn’t speak.
“I mean, I don’t know, you’re probably working.”
I was afraid to open my mouth. “I’m not working,” I bleated at last, then hurried out the door, choking back tears and wondering, again, what was bothering me so much, and why I was refusing to give in.
Early next day, I looked at my repertoire and figured out what to play. It had to be uplifting, upbeat; respectful, not somber. No minor keys, or very few. Dare it be festive? Isn’t that what Garrett would want? And what his mourners might need?
At 10:45 a.m., I picked out a floral shirt and walked up the hill. In front of the house, tables and chairs were set up in welcome, not a soul in sight.
Tentatively, I walked in.
I was early, but I hadn’t expected to be the only one there.
I was alone with the body, I was pretty sure.
Tiptoeing apprehensively down the hall, I slowly turned the corner.
Sunlight poured in. Mountains glowed. Master beamed. Rose petals led up.
He still hadn’t moved.
I forced myself to look at his face, powdered and frozen, then sat down and closed my eyes.
What to say!
“Garrett, bless this music,” I asked. “Flow through me. Use me as a channel today to reassure and comfort your friends. May they feel, through me, your love and concern for them — and your joy. Above all, your joy!”
I sat, then went out to the living room and played “The Divine Romance,” followed by “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” “The Blue Danube” had just begun when the first guests floated in. It couldn’t have been more perfect! Master waltzed with them in the clouds. I played Swami’s sonata again and then continued in a light but poignant vein for the next couple hours, ending as we’d started with the sonata and “Blue Danube.”
Someone came out from Garrett’s room and said they would forever associate “The Blue Danube” with that moment.
When I stepped outside, the buffet was half-eaten and only a handful of people still milled about, among them, Ananta and Maria. I resisted the urge to tell Ananta I’d done a double-take when I saw him in the wedding book. The truth was, none of us were getting any younger, and I had plenty of my own stuff to untangle.
While there was still time.