Talking to the Dead
Updated: Jan 24
“Thirty-six hours after she died, they brought her into the room. Leaning over the body, Anne felt the area right over the heart and it was warmer than the surrounding area. There is no medical explanation for this.”
Mindful, I savor a last long slurp of my ramen noodles. Such a Zen dude.
My concentration is disturbed by the ringing phone. I get up from the table and answer the call. Anne is calling from Maine. Her voice shaking, she sobs; “Janice is dead. An unambiguous suicide. Her pain is over. Can’t talk now.” She quickly hangs up.
I am not surprised. I knew Janice and I know how very little it takes for a person to fall, land hard, and lose all desire to get back up. What finally drives a person over the edge can be a feather of a feeling that sends the whole edifice tumbling. Janice was always fragile and for far too long she danced at the edges of her life. Any control we have over ourselves is not so absolute that suddenly, one day, we may go further than we intended. We misjudge how well we can lie about the state of our own heart.
Sitting back down at the kitchen table, my Zen composure gives way to an insensate mindset that seems to be my default setting. I am more numb than sad. I try to ascertain what I “should” be feeling. Should I be crying? Should I be angry? Should I try to recall fond moments I spent with Janice? Call someone? But I feel nothing. I am stunned, and although there are rhythms to grief, I don’t know them. In some way, I feel as though I failed.
Janice and I were once lovers. Looking for relief in a relationship, I entered her orbit and was drawn in, partly due to the gravity of her physical attractiveness and partly due to the lack of any solid gravity in my own world. I floated too close and she caught me. It was a less than perfect match from the start, not that it mattered to either of us. Both non-drinkers, having consumed our allocated lifetime share of alcohol, we looked for alternative ways to fill the ache inside. Janice focused on food, bingeing, purging, and dieting, and I focused on Janice. I knew I could save her. It became my job.
When I perceive, rightly or wrongly, the repercussions of another’s trauma, I try to understand, using my own experience, how the wounding may have shaped them. I am invariably a bad estimator as to the depth of the injury felt by another or the shape of the distortion. I just see the struggle and it always seems to call out a desire to help, to make a difference, to untwist the twisted.
Our relationship became a lachrymose drama wherein I regularly rescued her then got angry at her response. I ultimately felt exploited and abused. I played the role of savior and Janice was a consummate victim. Like most victims, she often felt trapped, helpless, and hopeless. She believed she was at the mercy of life and was generally unwilling to take responsibility for her circumstances largely because she didn’t believe she had sufficient power to change.
After a two-year performance in this screenplay and weary of my role, I broke off our relationship. It had become like trying to make friends with a squirrel by relentlessly chasing it. Janice moved to Maine hoping, I suppose believing, that a change in scenery would help. We seek solutions outside ourselves in an attempt to mitigate our suffering. Janice was like that, when a solution popped in her head, she went with it, but none of her efforts took away her deep pain. At best, she was sometimes able to transform her hysteric misery into a baseline level of despair and loneliness that she considered normal, a common unhappiness.
I don’t know if Janice ever obtained an accurate clinical diagnosis of her condition. God knows she shopped enough therapists and psychologists in an effort to understand herself. What I came to realize is that Janice suffered acutely from dysfunctional interpersonal interactions and then devised theories about why she suffered. Based on her theories, sometimes infused with other people’s ideas, she developed or subscribed to various treatment regimens to ease her suffering. As each attempt ran its course, Janice would invariably launch off into another scheme of wellness; fasting, chanting, the sacraments, exercise, keto, you name it, always applying external remedies on internal wounds. It was all very interesting and oftentimes difficult to fathom. I was supportive but inwardly held little hope that her efforts would be effective.
Janice once shared with me that her earliest memory was of age four when her father sat her down on top of her mother’s coffin and then bent down to kiss his wife goodbye for the last time. She recalled the tears streaming down his face and the crinkle sound of her plisse dress on the metal of the casket. Ever after, she carefully selected her clothes for their quiet softness. After she told me this story, she said, “But you wouldn’t understand, you weren’t there.”
“You wouldn’t understand, you weren’t there” was her mantra. It was her way of saying you can’t understand, that nobody understands. It was different for her. To know how she felt, you had to have been where she had been. Like she was special, like nobody else ever suffered like she suffered. Her little private convulsive self would eventually be the end of her.
Countless times we had the same discussion with the same result. The subject of food comes up and Janice changes the subject, hangs up, or flees the scene.
Planning to go out to dinner, Janice calls:
“I can’t go out to dinner, I’m not feeling well. I just threw up and I’m going to bed.”
I ask, “Did you eat anything that may have made you sick?”
“No, I haven’t eaten in two days, just liquids.”
“That’s not good. You should have a bite to eat to help settle your stomach.”
She shouts, “I’m not hungry! I told you I’m sick! You never listen!”
Janice gives me a ride to the Auto Service Center to pick up my car. Getting in her car, I glance down and notice dozens of mini-Snickers wrappers on the floor and under the seat.
Jokingly I say, “Did you eat all those?”
She replies, “No, a friend ate them and trashed my car.”
“Nobody you know. Why do you want to know?”
“It’s really none of your business. Besides you wouldn’t understand.”
Then, silence for the rest of the ride.
Dropping me off she swears she didn’t eat any and drives away.
My curriculum vitae testifying that I am well equipped for the job of rescuer relies almost exclusively on the phrase, “I have been there”. It also provides additional details of my experiences with obsession and addiction, mostly comic, some tragic. But Janice refused to believe that “I understood” no matter how eloquently I described my own encounters. It was immensely frustrating and I struggled to make her understand that she was not alone, not unique. I finally gave up; I was exhausted with the job. I don’t know when I first sought a form of unpaid casual employment focused on “saving” other people, but it’s long past time to quit and retire. The work is tedious with little reward or sense of accomplishment. No matter how hard I try, the people I seek to save fall all too quickly back into their old ways.
As an example, five days ago I picked up Eric from his fourth detox/rehab. Last night he called from Kensington (drug-central Philadelphia). He wanted cash. I hung up. He will call again. I’m not sure I will answer. I am beginning to understand that my actions may be both unrealistic and inappropriate. Of course, I mean well, but as I continue to ignore the limits of my ability, I repeatedly fail to save those who cry for help. Even if I make myself a martyr to my zeal, it does not excuse the fact that my zeal may well be unwarranted.
I tried to love Janice but it became too demanding. She made it difficult, not out of malice but out of fear. I have heard it said that in the heart of another human being we are never in strange territory. But what if one is a stranger to their own heart? What hope is there of leading someone out of the shadows if they cannot or will not take your hand? What remains is only the trying and finally, the releasing. I had to let go. I failed to save her in a contest that I could never have won.
When someone says “you saved my life”, I believe they misspeak of the miracle. I cannot, of my own volition or ability, save anyone. I do not have such power though I am sometimes deluded into thinking I do. This has been a hard lesson to learn and even harder to accept. I may be a conduit for the grace that saves but never the source. The source is God or whatever you choose to call the omnipotent energy that sustains all living things (of course if you don’t believe such a source exists, this entire discussion is fruitless).
As to whether, when, or how healing grace is made available, I cannot say. Our ways are not God’s ways. But the personal aspect of saving others lies in our vigilant efforts to maintain a spiritual condition whereby we ‘might’ be a channel, an example, or convey a word of hope. Even if our striving falls short, God oftentimes uses poor tools to accomplish His ends. Nevertheless, even when a channel is open and grace is available, the choice is left to the individual to clear a space within to receive the gift. We cannot decide for others, nor will God.
“Love always wins.”
“Love conquers all.”
“Love will save us.”
These are nice Hallmark sentiments that have their place, but they are predicated on the belief that to love deeply is to be able to transmute the object of our love. Like Cupid’s arrow, we shoot love at what we wish to transform whether that target is a mental/emotional issue, physical illness, financial burden, or a desire to get love in return. But our efforts, however heroic, are never assured of success. The only guarantee is the transformative power of love to change the lover. As it is said, it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. I am better for the love I offer, regardless of the outcome.
When my daughter Megan was ill, I often asked others to pray for her, hoping that I might achieve “critical mass” and force God to release a healing grace. Just thirty-five more voices lifted to heaven, ten more candles lit, another prayer circle, another trip to the communion rail, fifteen minutes whirling as a Sufi dervish. But theurgy runs in company with magic. The efforts may be blessed but are not automatically curative nor should they be believed to be. True faith requires no assurance that things will turn out the way we want. We have experienced too much to expect that. We pray, love, chant, and spin, because we can.
Love is not a magic wand to be pointed at targets. It’s a pulsating radiant gown we wear and its brightness is how we live. The author Joseph Chilton Pearce said that “unless what you think, say, and do is in harmony, you fracture every child you walk by”. So it is with us.
As a young Catholic boy, the saints were who I wanted to be like. I was even willing to be a martyr if the occasion presented itself. I still have my copy of “Lives of the Saints” and continue to draw inspiration from it. But in the rationalist secularism of the twenty-first century, saints have been tumbled from their pedestals and are seen only as relics (literally and figuratively). They are viewed as historical and hysterical folk whose living example has been lost or ignored. Concepts of purity, obedience, sacrifice, and devotion, which characterized their lives, are no longer esteemed. Obsession with self, the flexibility of beliefs and identities, an ever-critical rational voice that makes life meaningless, and a media focus on carnal love have taken their place.
I, for one, am trying to be a saint.
Yes, it sounds as silly and as impossible saying it as it does to you hearing it. But I believe that we are all called to be saints. If we heed the call, and every religion has its muezzin, the world might well glow like never before and every child we walk by, every living being we encounter, every tree and plant along the way, and the earth itself may be healed.
Although I gave up on the relationship with Janice, I never gave up on her. The Tibetan Book of The Dead suggests that after the last breath, the soul lingers in a liminal space called the Bardo for an average duration of forty-nine days and a minimum of one week. During that period, one can speak to the loved one and they can hear you. As such, I offered prayers for Janice’s journey and for the purification of any negative karma she or I may have engendered. Then I told Janice this very same story that I have just told you. I spoke of her warm heart. I sensed that she understood and that she is well on her way to a new life in paradise or a good rebirth whatever may be.
She also informed me that I was never a saint but to keep trying.
Detail from "Love and Death" - Richard Müller (Austrian, 1874–1954)