John disappeared from the club for six months. What happened to John? I asked when I noticed he hadn’t been around in a while. He’s in the hospital, very sick, the only hope an experimental treatment.
I went to the hospital to visit, but there was no visiting. The sign on his door was definite. The nurse said it wasn’t a good time for visitors.
It was that way for months. No visitors, no exceptions. Then I heard his mother and his sister had come to town. What did that mean?
Several months later, one Sunday morning I was at the club. Someone was standing at the juice bar, thin, didn’t recognize the face but something about him was familiar. I stared at him, thinking I know this person but unable to name him.
It bothered me all morning. I hadn’t heard John’s name mentioned around there for months, and it didn’t look like John. John was big, this guy was slight. That’s not John, or is it? I really wasn’t sure. I couldn’t tell.
I later found out that was one of John’s first days back. John had been more of an acquaintance to me than a friend until he was out of the hospital and back to the world. Then John and I became good friends. He appreciated that I had come to visit.
One day we were sitting around the club, and I asked him about the hospital. That’s when John began to open to me his experience in the hospital room.
I was there six months, John said. I thought I was going to die. I think everyone thought I was going to die. I did die a few times, he said. They had to bring me back.
What was it like? I asked. Dying, I mean. It was like you read about, John said, a lot of light, friendly faces and a Presence, safe and not at all scary. I remember floating up above the bed and watching myself from somewhere near the ceiling, and I remember being kind of recalled to my body. That’s the only way I can describe it.
I’ll tell you this: when I was lying there alone in the hospital, dying, I could hardly remember the attitude that saw me through things, the way I used to be. It was gone.
That was the worst part about it, everything I thought I knew was gone. Emptied out.
I went in with all my spiritual resources intact, or so I thought, John said. But there came a time when it all went right out the window. I was going to die and I wasn’t ready and I was scared and pissed and all the serenity I thought I had was gone. Completely gone. I was an empty well.
Then my mother came from Florida. She sat next to my bed for weeks, most of the time I was incoherent. When I wasn’t, I asked her to tell me that she loved me. My sister came and I asked the same of her, tell me, I asked her, what is it that you love about me? Be specific. And they told me. They told me how they loved me, they reminded me how they have always loved me, why they loved me, what it was about me they loved the most, they recalled our entire story together, over and over. That’s what saved me. They loved me well.
Specifics. They recreated our story together. When I couldn’t do it for myself, they did it for me. Does that make any sense? Pretty soon I was no longer afraid. It was the most amazing trip.
Then John told me a story that he had heard from his friend Janet.
There is an old man in summertime who sits on the bench in front of the court building every day and says hello to her. He is always there, nattily dressed, a skimmer hat perched on his head. He always smiles, always nods hello to her. Then one day he isn’t there. And the next day, and the next. Janet looks for him. A few weeks of summer passes and Janet wonders what happened to her man.
Then one day he returns. He nods and smiles and for the first time she says something to him. Where’ve you been? I thought you had gone away.
No, missy, he says. It’s been too hot out here lately, so I’ve been sitting over there, across the street, inside the lobby of that building. I could see you from there, the whole time. He smiles and Janet imagines him watching her, smiling at her from within the lobby of the air conditioned building across the street. She pictures herself looking for him the days he didn’t appear and imagines him watching her frustration and sadness at not seeing him. I’ve been watching you. He smiles.
Yeah, said John, that’s what happened to me. That’s just the way it was with me.