Grief and Wonder

Friday, January 15, 2016

The call came in the dark in the hour of sleep when you don’t know your own name. It came from a voice so fragmented that I thought at first it was two animals baying down the phone line. I kept asking: What? The howls merged into simultaneous barking and screaming, like a fox. I pieced together that it was my dear friend. I’ll call her Amelia. Someone had died. I thought it was her dog. She never said no, but her voice roamed guttural octaves far beyond no. In my bed, in my tiny cabin in the woods, I felt her anguish wrench me out of my skin, an implosion of self exiting from suffering. For a moment I floated above myself and watched my physical self, a disheveled sleeper awoken, one foot on floor, one in bed, one hand on phone, one on throat. Two cats tucked into observant loaves beside me. Hovering, I felt free to go. But I knew Amelia’s call was the slender rope belaying her on this tragedy, so I came back into the body and got into my car and hurried the thirty minutes down the unlit country road, dodging windfall from a rare summer storm, the dismembered leaves and twigs from orchards and vineyards strewn across the street, snapping bonelike under tires squealing around bends. I replayed our conversation. There had barely been words except those mutilated mostly beyond recognition. Yet we had communicated in a primal dialect spoken since before our species spoke, the language coded into the DNA of mortality.

The someone was her teenage daughter. I’ll call her Zoe. She was traveling overseas. A sweet, hopeful girl with a new lip piercing, a pixie haircut, and a fun plan for life. She’d fallen from a high place at night where she’d been photographing the fluorescence of city lights. Later, her developed rolls of film revealed she’d been doing that all along her European route: capturing the urban chiaroscuro.

Three days later Amelia and I attended a Tibetan healing session. We were longtime practitioners of qigong, and we frequently sat in on these strange interludes held in rented Scottish Rite Centers and Odd Fellows Halls, where a hundred or more people in folding chairs, eyes closed, as directed, listened to the ululations of a master of Tibetan qigong energy healing. During the hour or so the sessions lasted many people cried. Some wailed theatrically. A few laughed, often explosively. Afterward, when our eyes were open again, the master would call on select people from the audience and ask what they had experienced and listen with a bemused smile as they related tales of rainbows and joy.

I’d attended many of these sessions, though I was never sure why, since my experience of them was mostly horrible. Whereas others cried or laughed, I felt bone-rattling rage, the kind that didn’t seem fair to unleash on a room full of people with their eyes closed. I was ashamed of the furious tornados that spun me every session. I didn’t know how to handle them. Eventually I invented a coping mechanism that involved standing silently in the back of the room and thrashing my arms and legs in forced violent seizures that alleviated the horror of my hemorrhaging goodwill.

Three days after Zoe’s death I took up my familiar place at the back. Amelia sat far away, out of sight behind a partial wall that separated her from the room. When the session began and the master sang his soft Tibetan, I immediately saw, through my closed eyes, Zoe. She wasn’t dead, she wasn’t unhappy, she wore her usual slightly impish smile and an aura of radiant health. In my vision, as clear and real as anything this physical world offers, I held out my arms and Zoe walked into them and turned around and backed herself butt first into my lap and I hugged her and kissed her and cried with happiness as she snuggled against me. I really did feel her warmth in my arms. Which really were wrapped around her. But eventually I also felt guilty. Zoe belonged with Amelia. Go to your mom, I said, and in my vision I watched her walk across the room peopled with closed-eyed keeners to Amelia, who was not hidden to my closed eyes. Zoe knelt before her mother and put her head in her lap and radiated upon her mother unbounded love and received from her mother unwounded love. Then, as I watched, the girl began to shrink, smaller and smaller, until she was only a fetal pinto bean of herself, in which tiny form of potentiality she twirled her way back inside Amelia and set up shop inside one ovary.

After that a portal opened above me, literally a hole in the ceiling of the dimension of the room where I was sitting, and a profuse waterfall of white light dumped onto me. It was light. But wet. Except not. It was whiter than any white we know and lighter than any light we perceive. Yet heavy. Its incandescence was infused with emotion. Not just infused. It was the physical force of tangible love. A weightless weightiness of pressure from a buoyant and unconditional love that bypassed all my physical barriers to bathe every pore, every hair follicle, every cell of my skin, to pass right through my separateness and breathe itself into every laboring bodily organ and tissue. For the remainder of the session I sat inside this Niagara of endlessly dumping platinum love with my hands open and turned upward, with my head tipped back, mouth open and smiling, so that every molecule of that which had no molecules would come down and wash through my stains and scars and refloat me in an amniotically perfect ocean of love, absent of forgiveness because its absolute force was absent of judgment.

Afterward the master called upon me. He knew. I babbled the usual euphoria. He smiled bemusedly. On the drive home Amelia told me of her experience, even bigger, grander, and more explanatory than my own. She had seen and understood the entire workings of the universe. We were humbled and deliriously grateful.


Later, as a hospice volunteer, I began to encounter this unlikely coupling of grief and wonder among the dying. Everyone dies. But many die too soon, too fast, too painfully, too alone, or too unprepared. Their anguish is a complex constellation of dark emotions pinned like black stars onto their black night: fury, heartbreak, bitterness, guilt, exhaustion, anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, depression. Yet even unto this void creeps wonder. Sometimes only in the last hours or even the last minutes. But from the moment that a sickness-without-treatment crosses the boundary into the surrender to dying, wonder approaches, slipping into the room like a change in the weather, like a rising of the barometer that pops the senses wide open. Suddenly the hospital bed and the bedpan and the morphine lollipops, the smell of the insides of the body leaking out, the sounds of deteriorating lungs, are no longer the focal point upon which all attention converges. The mood, among the dying and those attending the dying, shifts from concern to love. From family and friends, this pure love plays out as stories, memories, caresses, often laughter. From the dying one, this pure love comes as light, a translucence not of this world, broadcast through the eyes. If the patient is still fully conscious, then his or her open eyes shine with an inner brilliance to which we all fly, mothlike. More commonly the dying person reaches this place only in the last hours, minutes, or seconds before physical death, at which point brown eyes or green eyes, flickering open, reveal luminous fires of amber or peacock. It doesn’t always happen. Or else it isn’t always observed. But when it does, it’s always utterly breathtaking to behold. Yet since this is only one of many novel experiences overwhelming the emotional circuitry of family and friends, the moment of translucent wonder often goes unremarked.

But it haunts them. Working with the bereaved—one on one with individuals, or as a co-facilitator of hospice grief groups—I heard about it afterward. Mourners pondered the lustrous eyes, the wonder and beauty of them, but also the perplexity. Whence that wild transcendence? And how could ordinary irises become incandescent beacons? Unanswered, these questions of inner light compelled their memories, just as the white waterfall compelled mine: mantras to be replayed and meditated upon, marvels as counterweight to traumas. Bright lanterns along grief’s abyss.


Earlier I’d encountered a backward version of this coupling of grief and wonder, first in my work as a nature documentary filmmaker and more recently as a writer. Since I was a young adult, I’d spent my life sitting (or floating) in wild places and experiencing firsthand a small preview of the perpetual parade of marvels rolled out with every ticking second of daylight, moonlight, fog, tide, eclipse: diving in the fizz of melting icebergs; shooting the heat of an erupting volcano from a helicopter with the door off; listening to the midnight nocturnes of tigers. When I wasn’t in the wild places, I was in dark places—editing rooms or writing cocoons—spending countless weeks and months replaying the wild experiences in celluloid or memory and dissecting their minutiae frame by flashback. By force of repetition these wonders became mantra, too: the close-up of a killer whale’s inquisitive eye; a crocodile gentling the vice-grip of her jaws to crack open her eggs and free her hatchlings; snow on drought. Each moment was experienced molecularly a thousand or more times, magnified and illuminated on real or remembered flatbeds, parsed in slow motion, backward, zoomed in, zoomed out.

I’d first fallen in love with these wild wonders and only later came to witness their downfalls, one after another, victims of mortality or evolution or the rise of my own dominant species. The killer whales suffered a rapid population decline in linear response to increasing levels of persistent organic pollutants in their tissues and dwindling salmon stocks. The crocodiles lost their nesting islands to rising sea levels and hurricanes. All this became part of the mantra—edited, replayed, reimagined, regrieved.


Loss was darkness, and if I couldn’t escape it, I vowed to explore it. Waiting underwater night after night for corals to spawn en masse, I experimented with doing something that went against all my self-preservation instincts: turning off my light. Most of us who dive at night become comfortable with it because of our dive lights, those powerful torches that highlight everything within a beam and allow us to blinker ourselves to the impenetrable darkness beyond the beam. What we can’t see, we don’t look for.

But on the bottom I began to flick off the light. The darkness was electrifying, a physical force of dread. Inside it my true helplessness became inescapable. By the standards of the ocean I was not a swimmer but a drifting, sinking, plankton, deaf, blind, and speechless, unable to smell or taste. My last overloaded sense, touch, transformed my body into an exposed nerve flinching at the flicker of currents. Inside this nearly complete sensory void the stage of my mind performed a panic theater complete with invisible visions and hyperventilating anxieties. Terrified, I’d become convinced I couldn’t breathe, even though I could feel my own exhaust bubbles percolating up through my hair.

And then, just about the time I’d be ready to bolt for the surface, the lights would come on. Not my dive light, but the glow of bioluminescent, fluorescent, and phosphorescent organisms. Faintly shining greens, reds, purples, oranges, and blues emerged, in edges so fuzzy it was easier to see them in my peripheral vision than straight on—the same way we see delicate nebulae and galaxies in the night sky only by looking from the sides of our eyes. But there was no color in this peripheral vision, so I invented a flickering kind of vision: locating the glow by not looking at it directly, then glancing briefly and directly for a glimmer of color. It was a mesmerizing process, like hunting the ethereal, and it allowed me to see muted shades that might be the edge of a brain coral or a squid or a fish or a string of bioluminescent pearls left by male seed shrimp to attract females. Or even a shark. Quieted and focused, the theater of my mind observed this hypnotic piece of performance art—which had been playing out underwater all along—its light visible only because I’d braved the intensity of the darkness.


As a hospice volunteer I also became aware of impediments to grief. There were many artificial lights, so to speak, that mourners could willingly or unwillingly turn on to avoid the blackness. Some survivors staved off the terrible discomforts of grief by intensifying their work schedules or their pleasure schedules, or avoiding other grieving family and friends, or all of the above. Now, in group sessions, maybe years after the death or deaths, pent-up grief chased them down with paralyzing force, turning off contentment, ease, joy. Some mourners felt stymied from the moment of death. They couldn’t cry or feel much of anything. Numbness is normal in the early weeks or more after a death, but this species of stalemate felt more like anesthesia. Worse, at least some of these disheartened grievers desperately wanted to mourn, to commemorate through sorrow. Some begged for tears.

And when the barometer rose in group or individual sessions, as it always did, popping open the senses of sufferers to insight, relief, laughter, and resolution, the unbereaved couldn’t feel much of that, either. Worse, they came to feel swindled out of the marvels of dying. Listening to their fellow grievers recount beautiful imponderables, they couldn’t capture the mystery. If they had beheld the lucent eyes of their own beloveds, they were unmoved and bereft of questions. I came to see that grief and wonder were linked. Inoculation against one immunized against the other.

I also came to see that the world is full of grievers, most invisible to most of us: the spacey people in cars, those staring blankly at grocery store shelves, the forgetful, the teary, the exhausted, the irritable, the workaholics, the alcoholics, the angry. And it isn’t just people grieving a death. I began to suspect that we’re all in mourning for what we know is happening in our world: the dwindling species, the felled forests, the corrupted atmosphere, the poisoned waters, the compromised food, the stymied rivers, the suffering of peoples, and the suffering of nonpeoples. In the way that patients become eligible for hospice care upon a diagnosis of “failure to thrive,” most of the seven billion of us know, on some level, that our planet falters. Wherever we live, we see the world we were born into changing. Before our eyes and in our own time, Earth, our original life-giver and care-taker, is sickening, maybe unto our death.

Just as with the hospice groups, some people are grappling with this grief with all its torments, hating it and wanting it over. Some are escaping into overwork or evading through overpleasure. Some are medicating against the pain. No one wants to be a griever. Everyone wants to instantaneously cross to the other side of the insight horizon. But there’s no shortcut. Until grief is fully illuminated, everything becomes crepuscular. Only when the heart is fully opened to the wild grief will the wild wonders fully return and healing begin. Earth, in its widow’s weeds, awaits our attentive sorrow.  


Three years after Zoe died, my father died. In his last hours I saw his eyes open and the gray-blue of his life gleam with an inner light of pure luminous sapphire. It was utterly breathtaking, the same light as the waterfall, only in the blue spectrum, a gush of the undiluted brilliance of love that still lights my way.

The day we received his ashes my mother and I walked at dusk to the bench in the neighborhood park in Washington, D.C., where the two of them had watched many a sunset. It was late June. The sky was pink and moist draining to gray. I’d been pondering since my arrival a week earlier why I hadn’t seen fireflies, whose show I greatly missed living in the West. Now I marveled at my mother’s mourning ritual invented on the spot: circling a huge sycamore tree and chanting something in a wordless language I’d never heard from her before while peppering the ground with a portion of my father’s ashes. I was moved. But also worried that other park-goers might object to stray cremains underfoot. Yet when I looked up there was nothing to be seen. We were alone.

And then we weren’t. Rising from the ground came the summer’s first fireflies popping into flight, dozens, hundreds, thousands, weaving a connective tissue of blinking light, a wafting semaphore of mating and baiting and rebirth. The intensity of this shimmery nightfall was stronger than any I’d ever known. Strong enough to veil my head from my feet, as if I were suddenly afloat on the waves of a bioluminescent sea . . . my grief buoyed by wonder . . . my wonder supercharged by grief . . . my heart swimming and drowning in awe.

Friday, January 15, 2016