Perhaps it’s the time of the year (All Hallows Eve and Day of the Dead) or the terminal diagnosis of a friend who’s a wonderful author and way too young to end her Earthwalk, but I’d like to tell you three stories, two from the past.
The first story is about Frances, a close friend many years ago. She was a brilliant theologian of the liberation variety and a colleague who argued passionately over dinner and acted her beliefs. She made it through one battle with breast cancer, but the second diagnosis was not good news. She spent a couple of months in the hospital undergoing treatment and I was fortunate enough to live down the street and visit her, if not every day after classes, multiple times during the week. I’d rub her feet, something she relished because it wasn’t a nurse doing a blood draw. Sometimes, another friend, Chamu, would accompany me and we’d read to her from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, not a strange choice because it’s really about living and Chamu could handle pronouncing the names. I was probably the last friend to see her before she slipped into a coma. Her last words to me: “Blanket. Cold.” Broke my heart.
I’d scheduled a workshop for teachers at another college in northern Ohio for two days about how to form a Core Curriculum that emphasized interdisciplinary learning, something Frances and I were passionate about. I thought about cancelling, but decided to do it for Frances and asked that i could communicate her passion to these educators. As I was driving back to western Pennsylvania, the clouds over broad plains were incredible. I saw a foot, a big fluffy foot floating in the sky, tailing me all the way home. After her funeral on a cold day, at least I remember being cold, the college hosted a wake and I ended up talking to one of her good friends who’d flown down from Toronto. She said, “I don’t know why I’m telling you this, except you look like you won’t laugh at me. On the flight, I was looking out the window and I swear I saw a cloud that was the head of Frances and she smiled.” And I told her about the foot.
The second story is Chamu’s. Another brilliant woman who held two Ph.D.s, one from the University of Madras on Eastern philosophy and one from Ohio State in Western philosophy. We argued philosophy too, but quietly and with deep probing. She was also diagnosed with breast cancer, and it was back to the same hospital, the same ward, after classes were finished for the day. One day I walked into her room and found Gandhi incarnate. She’d cut her beautiful, long hair and then gotten the barber to take the rest. Bald, same round glasses, same sense of peace. We laughed the deep belly laugh of old friends. But lordy, I missed her beautiful hair.
She survived, went back to teaching and I ended up in New Mexico. We stayed in contact by email, but when she received another diagnosis, she returned to India and I lost contact. I’d built a prayer pole on my land, a tall sapling topped with colors of the directions and surrounded by large rocks that represented people I was praying for. Chamu had one, a deep lavender with a straight white line through it. One day, a couple of months later, I moved her rock a little bit and discovered a neon green snake looking up at me. And I knew Chamu had passed to the next level of her evolution.
The third story is mine. These two women are not the only close friends I’ve lost over the years, but somehow, I never tell their stories. A story seems so tenuous. While Frances was always a burning fire to me, Chamu was the river she’d told me about that flowed beneath the Ganges. They are also a cloud-foot and a neon green snake. I wish I could draw some conclusions, give you a satisfying ending to these three stories — but I can’t. Heaven or Nirvana? One-shot life or reincarnation? I’ve no idea. To me, life and death are mysteries, not ones I need to solve. My own lesson from these extraordinary women? To carry in my own spirit, the flame and the flow.