My wife died unexpectedly last March.
We had just arrived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to begin a new life. We had moved the hub of the Zen Peacemaker Order, which we had cofounded, to Santa Fe and bought an old house which needed lots of work. But it had a central courtyard, hacienda-style, and lots of room for our dogs and a big garden. Nestled in the shadows of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, it was a perfect refuge for a couple planning to be on the road for much of the year.
We arrived on Monday and moved into our house on Tuesday. The following Sunday, as we were hanging pictures on the wall, Jishu complained of chest pains. She was hurried to the hospital, where the doctors verified that she had suffered a major heart attack. For the next four days, she seemed to get stronger and better. But on Thursday night Jishu suffered a second heart attack, and she left this form of existence on Friday night, March 20th, the first day of spring, four days shy of her fifty-seventh birthday.
People ask me how I'm doing. It takes a while for me to reply, for it's hard to answer them in words. Finally I tell them I'm bearing witness.
But how do you feel, they ask me.
I'm raw, I tell them.
Do you feel sad?
I shake my head. Raw doesn't feel good or bad. Raw is the smell of lilacs by the back door, not six feet away from her relics on the mantel. Raw is listening to Mahler's Fourth Symphony or the songs of Sweet Honey in the Rock. Raw is reading the hundreds of letters that come in, watching television alone at night.
Raw is letting whatever happens happen, what arises, arise. Feelings, too: grief, pain, loss, a desire to disappear, even the desire to die. One feeling follows another, one sensation after the next. I just listen deeply, bear witness.
I do some work; it's very little in comparison to former days. I am careful about how much time I spend with students and associates, for I know how easy and comfortable it is to let that raw state slip and let myself be distracted by work and talk with well-meaning friends. So I, long accustomed to being on the road, have stayed home. There are only a few people around me.
I live in a house chosen by my wife, reflecting her tastes and wishes. My own choice would be a studio in New York City's Bowery, not a house in a canyon overlooking a river. Those were the things Jishu wanted, and Jishu is gone. So I live in her house--I call it Casa Jishu--and do the things she would have loved. I greet the dawn coming over the mountains, watch the hummingbirds, prune the lilac bushes. Each time I think of the smile on her face had she been here to do these things. Instead I do them, bearing witness to her presence and her absence.
How am I doing?
I'm bearing witness. And the state of bearing witness is the state of love.
Published with permission of Tikkun: A Bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, Culture, and Society. Copyright 1998.