Around election time in November, I signed up for a Saturday series of webinars on “Forbidden Conversations” (Death, Sex, Money) from the extraordinary therapist and author Esther Perel. In advance of the first session on death, she sent an awareness survey that started with:
“My first experience with death was (age)____”
Okay, Cambridge, Mass. age 6, when I stepped off a curb onto a busy street at my mother’s “okay.” The five of us under age 7 had been playing in a park just off Mass. Ave. At the light she told us to wait until she said it was all right to cross. When she said “okay,” I skipped out into the street. I heard my mother scream. A Giant Hand had already immobilized me. Cars whizzed past, in front of and behind me. At least one car poofed and slapped my blouse but the Giant Hand held me Exactly There And Not One Inch Further, which turned out to be aligned with the dashes of a lane-line. After a lifetime, the cars stopped moving.
My mother and brothers and sisters piled into the crosswalk and we finished together on the other side. I didn’t know what adrenaline was at that age, but I could feel its surge through me, as well as my mom.
“Why did you run into the street?” she yelled.
“Because you said Okay!”
“I was just saying Okay Get Ready!”
“But you said OKAY!”
I did not explain to any of my family how a Giant Hand kept me safe. Back home on Putnam Ave. that night, in my bed under a slanted attic ceiling, I understood I had almost been hit by one or more cars that afternoon. That would not have been good for me. All I could do was wonder about the Hand. And how it showed up exactly when I needed it.
Decades have passed and I am none the wiser about it, although I can imagine various interpretations. The Hand was the part of me that never sleeps, my very spirit, integrated with my fleshy self and not ready to call it a whole life yet. Or the concept of a higher power, however I’ve understood it over the years. Or the very love that anticipated my mother’s scream.
I’m not sure those are even different things. My experience was simply a hand that held me on that lane-line.
That was the first of a few near-deaths. Age 22, the tip of a machine-gun pressed against my sternum by an Italian policeman on a train between Venice and Florence. A group of police banged through the car, saw my face and demanded my passport. I didn't know yet that the leader with the machine-gun mistook me for a wanted American woman, sympathetic to the Red Brigades. And since a border-agent weeks earlier in Yugoslavia had smeared a visa stamp, they perceived me as doubly suspicious. Another, kinder officer understood the smear, convinced the gunner to relax, then came close to apologizing, after the metal left a hole in my sweatshirt. “It’s a, case of, a, the mistaked identity,” he said. "An Americana, terrorista, escaping Polonia, uh, Poland. Scusi."
Only later, in bed at my hostel, did I fully appreciate that the weapon likely held bullets, and a simple lurch of the train could have pumped them through my heart.
Age 30, almost overcome by toxic smoke in the stairwell of my apartment building in DC. A woman on a lower floor had fallen asleep with a lit pipe on her plastic sofa. My next-door neighbor was a hypnotist, and had a client "under" at the time.
He, his awakened client, and I ran through the 6th-floor hallway from one smoke-filled stairwell to the other side. As we flew I had the strange thought that our hall usually smelled like cooking organ meats and yellow-cake mix; this chemical burning was the worst smell I’d ever met in my 30 years. I opened the far stairwell door first, judged it less smoky and started down the stairs. Within a few seconds, my brain was already oxygen-compromised. I slowed down, then turned around to see a pale rectangle through the plastic-smoke. ‘Door,’ I thought. Wouldn’t it be so much easier just to sit down right here, just stop now and let it be? It would. I almost did sit down, which would have been so much easier. 'No,' I thought. Every ounce of will I could muster pulled my legs back up those stairs toward the pale part, where my neighbor and his client had hesitated with the door open. Back in our apartments and still on the 6th floor, a fireman appeared at my window.
He leaned inside and waved me out. “Come on! Now!” On the hook-and-ladder he climbed down right below me, nuts to butts, talking the whole time, “you’re doing great,” everything he’d learned in fireman school.
All I could think, all 6 stories down in a cold, November rain: “My sister is going to kill me.” I’d picked up my bridesmaid’s dress, now hanging there in my apartment; how would I get the awful stink out before her wedding?
Gentle reader, ALL this flapped through my thoughts in just a few seconds, when I opened the survey for the first Forbidden Conversation. Then I read the rest of the sentence: “My first experience with death was (age)__ … when _______died.”
OH. She meant: my first experience with someone else’s dying, not my personal rendez-vous with death from arm's length. Okay.
That would also be, as it turned out, age 6 in Cambridge, Mass. My mother’s grandmother died, we kids’ “GreatMommy.” I could picture her, even smell her, GreatMommy. A warm, generally delighted woman, who tolerated us tiny, loud people and loved the moment when our mother walked through her door. I loved watching that moment. My strongest feeling, at hearing she had died, was sadness for my mother, since she was sad. Next came a kind of anxiety, since she would have to fly to Washington, DC for the funeral. We would be left in Cambridge with our father who was a “fellow” at a “Yard” which meant a kind of student; we didn’t see him much. So we didn’t understand very well how we'd fare under his distracted care. Just like whenever our mother was in the hospital giving birth again, and he would make us lunch, and the lunch would be strange, but there was nothing we could do about it.
When our mother returned from the funeral, I remember asking her if GreatMommy were up in heaven now. “Yes, she is.” I had a slightly clearer understanding of heaven than of death, because of paintings with angels. That answer seemed to end our conversation. My mother had much to do, having been gone for a few days.
I put on my list of things to think about: how come most angels in paintings are chubby little kids, not grownups? Were they the kids who got hit by cars, maybe because the Hand was busy somewhere else? Or did everyone have their own Hand, like their own complete Guardian Angel? I worried again that I might roll over in my sleep and crush my own angel, and then I would be down to just a hand, and maybe it would be busy, next time I needed it.
Also to think about: how were these mysterious helpers assigned to each of us, and did they have a choice? Did they know we were coming, before our mothers went into the hospital?
Dear Readers, this is why I don’t get as much done as I plan to, on any given weekend. The very first question on a pre-seminar survey -- only partially read – will venture through buried pockets of brain pouches that seem worth my time, for some reason.
The week leading up to the first Forbidden session on Saturday, November 7, was also full of psychic overload, I realize now. And not just from many months of pandemicoping. The results of the presidential election were in limbo, with mailed ballots still being counted. The outcome felt as critical as any election in my lifetime, a lifetime that has already lasted longer than I imagined it would. As Dr. Perel began the introduction to the day’s content, my phone started lighting up. What was that noise, from down the hill, just my imagination? I’d set my phone down nearby and could see texts like “BIDEN!” and “BREATHE AGAIN.” Holy Nellie! Seriously? I didn’t quite believe it, and decided I would not yet breathe differently, since I was focusing on the first Forbidden Conversation, underway.
As described by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (~ CE 731), both before-life and after-death are like the “wintry tempest” outside a supper hall.
Life, he wrote, is like a sparrow flying through the hall, warmed by fire and company and cooking food. What’s outside is unknowable. (Bede was a monk who, as a youth, was one of only two survivors of a plague that swept through his monastery. New DNA evidence shows it was likely bubonic, a precursor to the more famous plague that raged in Europe 500 years later. Unusually cold winters in the years prior to Bede’s time had led to famine, migration, crowding, and the company of fleas on rats, carrying Yersinia pestis. Not that I’m thinking about a mutating epidemic during this unusually cold winter! Or about sparrows -- and cardinals and mourning doves -- searching for seed in my snowy yard.)
After the Forbidden seminar on Death finished that Saturday, I headed outside toward the woods. For the most part I kept the election news on a mental shelf. The days ahead would play out its impact. I was still thinking about an exercise a speaker described, where you place an empty chair across from yourself, and talk to someone who has died. Actually have a conversation out loud, in chairs. Sounded meaningful and worth trying, with more than one person I could think of, whose side of the conversation would have to come from my imagination.
I texted a friend who’d also been in the session. “Have you ever done the chair exercise with your sister?” who had died years earlier. “No, I haven’t! Maybe I’ll bring her with me today,” as he headed outside himself, miles away and right there with me.
Good thought, I thought. I decided to bring my father with me to my woods. He had died exactly one year earlier on November 7, 2019. We didn't say much, as was our way when both of us were alive. But we were both present for the conversation.
Wondering today if that chair exercise might be worth trying with myself, as if I were both here and already gone from a body. What would I say to myself as an Other, who had already flown out the far side of a warm supper-hallway and into the wintry unknown? What would she say back to me? Could I have already met her, in the shape of a giant hand?
Just writing about the kinds of wonderings I’ve kept to myself since I was very young, now renders them less forbidden for me – such a freedom, a flight. I’m grateful to you, gentle reader, for hanging in there as I try to put these wonderings into shapes. Just little black marks on a computer screen, that wing their way out and into other forms, to sit in their own chairs.