A dear friend of mine died recently in her bed on the other side of the continent, in the company of her beloved rescued dog and her deceased son’s two cats. They were her whole family. She had recently left the home she had purchased so that she, her only child, around whom her life revolved, and her aunt, her only other relative, could live comfortably.
But it was never comfortable. Her aunt was a harridan. Her son’s addiction to pain medication (beware what you step on in tropical climates) had worsened, and he couldn’t live safely alone any more. My friend’s health declined. In 2013, she found her son’s body seated upright on the sofa in her living room, dead of what the coroner said was an accidental overdose. My friend fell, and fell, and fell into a dark pit. She was unable to maintain friendships or a reliable social life, and when she died, I knew the names of only two people I knew were her friends. She may have had more; a few others have commented on my facebook post announcing her death with as much of a tribute as I knew to write. The funeral director who wrote her paltry obituary notice had not known whom to contact for information about her life. Her banker, apparently, had made the arrangements. The woman who cleaned for her had found her.
My vibrant, outgoing, take-charge friend had once had a community of friends who had known each other, if only superficially, but the thin thread, knotted only by the few gatherings she had held, where we met once or once again, had broken. None of us were friends in our own right.
By contrast, and what moves me to write this today, a new friend of mine has written several facebook posts to let her wide-ranging community of friends know how her mother is doing in the hospital as the medical team works to figure out why she is in terrible pain. My friend’s most recent post is anguished, raw, and nonetheless, beautifully written; my friend is articulate and able to find words, as my long-time friend could not, and my new friend wants to share her life. She reaches out into her community, knowing that there are many hands ready to grasp hers.
Community is crucial to our well-being.
In 1999, I left my sweet husband. I didn’t want to leave, but some Self was pushing me, and I did. Now, 17 years later, we are – and have been throughout our painful journey – good friends. We, the two of us, are a small union within a larger community of people who know, love, and support us in every way possible.
In the ripping-apart time before we stopped living together, he and I spent a beautiful, warm late summer afternoon in my favorite place in the world: on a rocky promontory not far above the strong current of the Hudson River just above Rockwell Falls, in the Adirondack Mountains.
I lay on the sun-warmed, broad rock, watching the current below me and watched, about 50 feet away, a small brown merganser chick struggle against the current, desperate to climb up onto the rocks opposite where we sat. It swam, fighting the water with every heartbeat. I saw its head submerge once, twice, three times. I had never witnessed any being’s struggle for its life before.
I prayed. I sent up for guidance to help me understand what there might be for me in what I had just witnessed.
I felt these words flow into my mind: “There is a time for heartbreak. It is a time which seeks us at inconvenient times. It may be heralded by the appearance of perfection. Things have never been better. It is a time that waits in ambush, breathing quietly as one breathes through a reed, submerged just beneath the surface. The breaths are full of summer heat and warm breezes caressing skin celebrating safety beneath meteor-charged starfields.
“Just before the heartbreak we revel unaware, thanking all that is for our privilege, for the beauty of a meal. God dresses as a small brown merganser chick spending every ounce of its new life force paddling against strong early summer current. It falters, loses its advance, moves forward one inch in our across-the-river view, and surrenders its body to the river.”
There is a lesson in this, I knew. Oh, God, I asked, what is this lesson? It cannot have been mere happenstance that I sat here in the perfection of a summer afternoon with nothing on my mind except gratitude and watched this beautiful gift show me unconditional love.
What is the lesson? What is the lesson, beyond the fact of death?
“The lesson is simply in your response to what you saw. Lessons don’t necessarily emerge as sentences or even thoughts. Heartbreak gives birth to new worlds unimaginable beyond the womb. This is the womb: maelstrom. Drift, be blown, notice what is inescapable, hold onto nothing, for it will be torn from you in this journey.”
We float on an unimaginable vastness of being. We make boats of every description to stay afloat, hoping to direct our journey. What I know this week is that the best boat we can make holds a community, so that when we fall overboard, there will be more than three people who know each other who will come to save us.