Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Libby's Bench

Weeping with the cherries by the grave of a friend I barely knew,
Canada Geese dancing their ancient dance of love on the water,
April sun warms our backs like a benediction

I entered the gates intending to take a walk among the blossoms. The Lexington Cemetery is always beautiful, but especially now, In many ways she is the most precious jewel in our city's crown, and her stewards treat her with the dignity and reverence she deserves. In summer, she is a wash of light and shadow as the dense, cool leaves guard both visitors and residents from the burning July sun. But now, before the leaves have pricked through winter covers, the slopes are veiled with the pinks and whites of the early spring. 

I woke up early. My usual time. My morning appointment had called last night to cancel, and I intended to make good use of the extra time. I expected to be alone when the alarm sounded, but instead I was greeted by an old friend. Depression has been mercifully quiet for a few weeks. I always treasure the times when he stays away, hoping maybe he's finally lost my number. But he never really does. Instead, he came to me with a head full of numbers.

Bank balances.
Months since this.
Years since that.

Even my blood pressure meter seemed determined to frustrate me, returning error after error before finally reporting a level so our of line with my "Normal" that I knew it was out of whack.

Someone once asked, "What's therapy for, if you already have all the medications you need to stabilize your brain chemistry?"

Yeah. It's for mornings like this one.

Negotiating the early stage of a depressive episode is like walking across a frozen pond in March. You think you know most of the places where the ice is thinnest, but you're never sure if the step that was safe yesterday will send you cracking through into the frigid darkness today. I've fallen through many times. I don't like it down there. There was a time when standing frozen in place was an option for me. No more. There's no cavalry coming. There's only one way off the pond for me now. So I began to quietly shuffle toward the shore, one tiny step at a time.

Start the coffee
Record daily metrics: weight, BP, Hours of sleep, Body fat percentage
Check the day's schedule
Make the bed
Dress for first class
Morning Meds
Bank Balance
Email, Facebook, Journal

Each sliding step is part of a mindful routine. I wonder, do healthy people do all this stuff without thinking?. When you're sick, you have to tip-toe through each task, listening for the warning signs of thawing ice. Grief for lost love? Crack. Slide back a foot, and take a deep whiff of the fresh coffee grounds. Anxious about work, the bosses' plans, my own success, my clients' progress? Snap! Stop, reach a toe to the left, and feel the peppermint of the soap as it lathers on your chest and arms. Frustration at the puffy feeling in the knee that is better today but still not 100% even though I have two miles to run wtih the kids tonight? Crunch! Touch the yielding of the mushrooms as you slice them carefully with the big chopping knife.

When unreality threatens to trip me by the leg, my best response it always to find the closest, most real thing I can find and embrace it. The Shrink calls it "Mindfulness." Depression and anxiety don't want you to be mindful. Maybe that's where they get the expression "out of his mind." The sickness wants you lost in a world or shouldn't-haves and what-ifs. The tyranny of the things you can't change. The crushing squeeze of the Then and There. Mindfulness drills you down into the Here and Now. It asks "What's really happening? And what is the best thing for me to do right now?" That's important. Because when you're crossing thin ice, it really doesn't matter how thick it was yesterday. You need to know what's happening this very second.

So I tip-toed through the morning, congratulating myself just a little every time I managed to change directions each time I felt the footing start to give way. It might be a dark thought. Or a wave of nostalgia. Sometimes, it's just a deep, uncontrollable sob that starts so far down in my chest that I can only open my mouth and let it out with a single grunting cough. But one by one, I managed to get through them. Step by step, I made my way to the shore. Safe. For now.

I made a plan. Class in the afternoon. Run in the evening. And in between, I would find someplace, anyplace beautiful and just be there. Last night, before bed, I had been thinking about the weeping cherries at the Cemetery. I would go there, and try to walk some of the soreness out of my aching knee.

 I drove to the ponds, my favorite spot, and parked next to a sign that warned of deep water and banned swimming and fishing. Because who wouldn't want to spend the day splashing around in the water down at the graveyard? A huge Canada gander eyed me suspiciously as I stepped out of the car and slipped my backpack over my shoulders. There were probably thirty geese lounging on and around the water. Scofflaws, obviously. I greeted the big male with quiet respect, and then we each waddled off in our own directions.

I snapped a couple of pictures, hoping to catch something of the beauty of the day, but I knew that they wouldn't really catch it. You just can't squeeze a Kentucky April into a little digital box. There's too much color. Too many textures. The fragrances are too rich and the music of the geese and the water and the breeze through the blossoms is just too complex to be abstracted down into a sentence or a snapshot. And just as I was rounding a bend where an old Elder arched tall and strong out over the water, I saw Libby's bench.

I had known Libby. We weren't friends. Not really. We went to the same church. She sang in the choir. I remember learning that she had cancer. The colorful bandannas she would wear, always laughing and smiling. The way she would hold her kids in her arms. The way she insisted on enjoying life, no matter how hard those last few weeks were going to be for her. I remember thinking how strong her husband seemed to be, and wondered what his secret moments must be like. And I remember her funeral, a resurrection mass, a joyful remembrance of a woman who turned her life and death into a gift for everyone who knew her.  Her stone is here, by this beautiful pond, and nearby is this bench. It's a place where people can come and sit and enjoy the loveliness of the place for a little while. It's Libby's gift to anyone who needs it. Today, she offered it to me. 

There in the sunshine as the fountain splashed and the geese scolded and posed and preened and teased one another, I finally let the tears out. I cried for everything and nothing. I cried for Libby's husband. For my wife. For the courage and suffering of the warriors I have known who fought cancer to the death. For my own sadness and failures. Other visitors passed by, diving slowly, snapping pictures of the geese and the blossoms and the sun on the water, carefully avoiding the big man on the stone bench whose broad back and shoulders shook with grief for the loss of who knows what or who. 

To my right, a pair of geese courted delicately. Elegantly, even. She, feigning indifference, as he rose up tall, puffing up his handsome white chest for her benefit, or else scooting across the surface of the water with neck outstretched and wings spread menacingly to warn off any other young males who might be too interested in his sweetheart. After several attempts to win her attention, he made his way to the stone wall where he sat in the sun, licking his wounded pride, and pining for her from afar as she rolled and splashed alone in the water, just out of reach. Though she seemed to be quite unaware of his presence, whenever his attention wandered to a distant movement or a particularly tiresome ruffle in his own feathers, she would give her tail a shake, snapping his ebony eyes right back to her like... well... like a lovesick goose, I suppose. The last time I saw them, she had finally allowed him to sidle in beside her. They paddled off together toward the opposite shore and what I hope will be a long and happy ending for both of them.

On my way back to the car, I picked up a food carton someone had left lying beside the road. The same big gander who had greeted me when I arrived nodded approvingly as I dropped it in a steel trash can. "Thanks for your hospitality, Old Man. Take good care of the place, will you?"

He didn't answer, just gave the tiniest of Canadian smiles out of the corner of his bill, then stood his web footed ground as I started the car and drove off into the April sunshine.

They aren't always easy, these days of spring thaw. But if you step carefully, keep your eyes open, and accept the gifts you are given... you never know what treasures might be waiting on the shore.


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