At the end of my last blog post, I said that I would focus next on how the dramatic moment of Orpheus’ looking back tied in with my magical thinking after Laura died. It turns out that the connection is much simpler than I’d been making it and than what I’d been intending to write. Hence, the two weeks to face the simple truths that had been staring me in the face.
In the month after Laura’s death in January 2010, I began to wonder whether it might be possible to comfort her again at the moment of her death by becoming fully present in the moment, in the now. Later that year, when I read Joan Didion’s reflections on the death of her husband, I understood that this was my form of “magical thinking.” As I turned to follow up on the last post, I realized that I didn’t need some pseudo-philosophical rumination on death-time-meditation to explain my fascination with Orpheus and Eurydice. What I’ve been doing is much simpler to explain. My speculations on “now” have been distracting me from two experiences that are really what I’ve been processing through the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
First, there’s another myth about a descent into Hell to save lost souls. The myth of the bodhisattva of compassion, Guanyin, When I first saw it in 2005, the movie King of Masks brought home the power of Guanyin through its story of an old man and an orphan Chinese girl (sound familiar?). In my blog post about compassion, I summarized the movie as follows:
Although some of the Mahayana texts, such as the Lotus Sutra and Flower-Ornament Sutra imagine Avalokiteśvara as an all-powerful being encompassing universes, there are many stories of Guanyin as a weak, powerless little girl who brings compassion into the world. Such is the vision of the director Wu Tianming in his 1996 film The King of Masks.
East Asians probably recognize the Guanyin trope very quickly in the story of the little girl Gou Wa (“doggy”). Even if not, there are traces of Guanyin throughout the film. The old man Biàn Liǎn buys a statue of Guanyin/Avalokiteśvara to bless his search for a son to whom he can pass on the secrets of his trade as a performer. At first it seems as if the bodhisattva has not done her job when Biàn Liǎn discovers that he really bought a girl, who bears the marks of beatings after previous deceptive sales were uncovered. We also see scenes from the classic Chinese opera of Avalokiteśvara’s descent into hell and follow the life of the androgynous singer who plays that role and who ultimately helps Gou Wa save the old man.
King of Masks is now available for streaming on Amazon Prime. Before I saw this movie, I had become interested in Buddhism as a philosophy. Through Guanyin I began Buddhist devotional practices, beginning with learning how to chant the Da Bei Zhou, the great compassion mantra to Guanyin, which I still chant almost every day. I find the flow of Mandarin words, which I do not know, takes my mind out of its self-involved busy-ness. (About two years ago, I tried to translate the Chinese characters for this mantra and discovered that the literal meaning of many of them does not make sense in the mantra. They just imitate the sounds of the original Sanskrit mantra. So I stopped trying to think of the meaning of each word in the chant.)
A statue of Guanyin riding a dragon, the Chinese image of life force, faces me every time I enter my apartment. Statues of Guanyin and her alternative form Avalokiteśvara greet me on the bureau in my bedroom. One would think that I would have made the connection between Avalokiteśvara’s descent into hell to save all the souls there and Orpheus by now. But no, I was too much in my head and not paying attention to my heart.
While I was not paying attention to Guanyin, I have been trying to bury the other experience beneath my fascination with Orpheus’ journey to rescue his wife. Long time readers of this blog know that I’ve written extensively and in great detail about Laura’s illness and death. I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone about this other experience for a few years after Laura’s death. I couldn’t bring myself to write about it until last year, more than seven years after she died. I thought I had put that into a blog post, but I couldn’t find it anywhere on the site. Not even in the draft posts. I finally found a copy in a backup file on my computer.
Here’s what I wrote, but never posted until now.
The following incident happened one afternoon in December sometime after the clinical trial at the National Cancer Institute had started. For reasons that will soon become apparent I did not record this event in my journal, much less publicize it in the Caringbridge blog. I never shared it with anyone until 2014.
That afternoon I read to Laura after lunch out in the living room. We had started The History of Love because my niece Erin recommended it. Even though we liked the beginning of the book, we both kept falling asleep. Laura wanted to get into bed for a nap. I helped her in the bathroom and then put her into bed.
I remember the closeness and body warmth of helping her into bed. The soothing feeling when I straightened the covers over her. I stroked her forehead gently. Carefully. She had always been very sensitive about my hands anywhere around her face. Now she did not want her black watch cap disturbed. I kissed her on the forehead. Her eyes were open. I looked at her intently and said, “You know I love you always.” Without hesitation or struggling for words, she said, “Sometimes.”
Her tone was quite definitive. I was startled and hurt. I wanted to have a farewell confirmation of our love, and she slapped me in the face. I couldn’t question her about what she meant. It upset her terribly to be questioned about anything she said. She felt as though she was being criticized for her aphasia. “Sometimes” occurred a week or two after she said “That’s disgusting” when I told her I was going to do taiji. Yet the possibility of dysphasia, that she was just using the wrong words, did not occur to me until more than a year later. I found it, and still find it, hard to believe she was just using the wrong word. That would be too convenient.
Then I started examining my own conscience about those “sometimes.”
- Was she talking about: my going out on family leave which she adamantly opposed?
- not reading to her enough?
- doing housework when I should be sitting with her?
- reading for myself when she couldn’t?
- watching TV out in the family room when I thought she had gone to sleep?
- letting Anne Mei take long showers (one of her pet peeves, since her bed was the other side of the wall from the shower)?
Who knows. We’ll never know. In one of my father’s favorite Irish jokes, Mike and Mary have been married 50 years. Mike is dying. He is upstairs in bed, having had the last rites earlier in the afternoon. Mary is down in the kitchen. Mike is still well enough to smell what she’s doing. “Mary, I could sure do with a wee bit of that ham,” he calls down. Mary replies, “No. The ham’s for the wake.” Laura would have called this story “eyedy dyedy,” one of her favorite terms for Irish saccharine. When she said “Sometimes,” however, she was probably talking about times I acted like that Mary.
There are a million explanations of and rationalizations for what Laura said. The simplest and most direct is that “sometimes” is literally true. No two people who live together for 15 years love each other every single minute of every day. Laura may have been failing physically when she said “sometimes,” but she still had a sharp no-nonsense mind. I was looking for romantic bullshit, and she was having none of it.
Deep down, I keep wanting to go back into the hell of that moment and change it.
Perhaps “simple” is not the word for how these two experiences explain my search into the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. They’re both quite complex in themselves and in my psyche, but they’re both directly to the point.