The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

From “The Guesthouse,” by Rumi

“Let’s drive through town. We might see some of Jeff’s friends.” An inner pull on my heart as I hoped for a familiar face. But in the next second, a vague apprehension took hold.

We drove slowly and scanned the streets and sidewalks adjacent to the University of Virginia, an area the locals and students refer to as “The Corner.” The familiar red brick buildings designed by Thomas Jefferson had been there since 1819 when he first founded UVa. Expansive trees had likely been there as long. Herringbone brick walkways sparingly crisscrossed the multi-hued green grass. I could see the old hospital, no longer in use for that purpose, and recalled the neuro labs I had attended there twenty years ago. Brain cuttings. Slice, examine, slice examine. Sometimes we found a site of pathology, darkened tissue that aligned with the patient’s diagnosis. But other times the physical brain didn’t match up with the diagnosis. No evidence in the substantia nigra that one individual had Parkinson’s, the diagnosis given based on observable symptoms when he was alive. I wondered back then and I wondered as we drove past, did a resident or even an attending physician assign that label too hastily and look no further? And did the tremors worsen because of the patient’s belief in the doctor? The brain is tricky.

While the scenic university architecture made up the image on one side of the street, on the other side were familiar book stores, the bagel shop, a number of restaurants, and Mincer’s, where students and tourists can buy anything UVa branded. All were adorned with the blue and orange. Our son, who had not graduated from high school, and his “homies” hung out here because they were accepted by the students. Were treated with respect. Probably received a fair number of handouts, too. As my eyes wandered the crowd, looking for smokers, large backpacks, and cardboard signs, my throat closed and my jaw clamped shut. But no signs of J.B., Markus, or Lobo. I let out a huge sigh and placed both hands across my stomach.

Dave offered to pull over and park. “We could walk around some, see if we find anyone.”

“No, not now. We should go on to the house so we can get to Susan’s by five.”

We had moved to Annapolis in the summer of 2015, after retiring the previous December. We were returning to Charlottesville primarily to check on our house, which hadn’t yet sold.

A few minutes later we arrived at Pantops Mountain. It was just minutes from the university and downtown Charlottesville, but the mountain setting created a country-like feel. The property on which our house stood had belonged to Thomas Jefferson, and he had derived the unusual name from two Greek words, pant and ops, “all seeing.” Indeed the views were far-reaching, with vivid sunsets in spring and summer that I always wanted to put on pause.

Once in the driveway my teeth clenched again. The memories here. My open hand reached for my heart. A vision emerged from our first winter in the house after moving from Florida. We were strikingly naïve about the invisible consequences of a snowfall.

“Remember when we thought we were being so clever, and shoveled the driveway at the end of the day?”

Dave remembered. Jeff had been working at a pizza place in town and got home around eleven at night. He started down the steep driveway, which was clear of snow, but now was coated with ice. No broken bones, but lots of bruises. He took it in stride. He was in a good place then, recently discharged from a lengthy hospital stay, long enough for the doctors to arrive at a combination of medications that helped him maintain some stability. For a while.

I took a deep breath as we got out of the car and walked up the steps to the front door. The interior held no furniture. No, only impressions and reconstructed memories. I welcomed some, took them in with a smile. But the protective barriers of tense muscles and shallow breathing warned me to banish others. Another deep breath.

“I’m going to replace some air filters, then pick up branches in the yard,” Dave said. Yes, let’s get to work.

I got the vacuum and dust rags and started in. The cobwebs had multiplied profusely. I swept them and the dead spiders away. A once-over with the Murphy’s Oil in the family room. Windex here and there. After an hour, the odor of cleansers had replaced the stale scent of a vacant house. We locked up and left for Susan’s. We would stay in their guest house.

Susan and Neil live on 50 some acres in Keswick, just outside of Charlottesville. They built an actual “tiny house” across the driveway from their larger but practical home, partly for their son and his fiancé to stay in when they visit. Also, dedicated conservationists, they wanted to demonstrate that they could build a low-carbon, environmentally efficient, solar-paneled home. The 350 square-foot structure is minimalist in its footprint, but the interior is all comfort and beauty. Plumped pillows, tassels on lamps, carefully chosen paintings and mirrors. This was Susan’s doing. She had even hand-stenciled a rug.

With Susan’s warm greeting I felt tears spill onto my cheeks. Her arms encompassed me, held me. She and Neil guided us to the tiny house and we put our luggage inside. Dave and Neil stood outside talking about building materials and Susan and I walked into the kitchen in the main house. I settled into my favorite cushioned chair in the corner and allowed the houseplants to show off their new spring tendrils. Even the familiar antique angel sculpture hanging in the window seemed to be welcoming me.

I had always savored my time with Susan. She had patiently taught me how to make jewelry, even string pearls. She delighted in the birds just outside the window beside me, the foxes that roamed their property, and everything she could grow in the ground. I absorbed her enthusiasm for planting, composting, and generally giving life to new beginnings.

Conversation flowed easily. We talked about her son’s upcoming wedding, former colleagues in a psychology practice where we had both worked, her jewelry making.

“What do you think?” Several pearl bracelets were draped across her graceful fingers. “These are for the bridesmaids.”

“They’re lovely. Isn’t Kate fortunate to have you as her wedding planner/mother-in-law!”

“Tell me about Annapolis.” She was walking toward the stove to make us some tea.

Did I say anything? About Annapolis, or anything else? I only know that at some point within the next few seconds I lost my mind. Literally. Well, no. Not literally. But I lost track of my mind. I was not in contact with reality. It wasn’t as though the earth shook, or thunder crashed. I wasn’t afraid. I was puzzled.

“Where am I? I don’t know where I am,” I said to Susan. We’ve been friends for over twenty years, but I didn’t recognize her in that moment. I was just putting the question out into the air.

“You’re in Charlottesville,” said the air. I sensed someone sitting down beside me. “You and Dave came to take care of some things with the house. We’re in my kitchen. You’ve been here many times.” A glass of cold, what? lemonade, perhaps was extended to me, but then set on the counter.

“Why am I in Charlottesville?”

“I’m going to get Dave. You stay right here.”

And then there he was, sitting beside me. Was he talking to me? Did a minute pass, or was it five? Maybe ten? Then I heard him talking to our daughter on the phone. He listened then relayed her directions. “Smile, “ he said to me. “Can you smile?” I complied. “Raise both arms over your head.” I did it in a sort of robotic way. I didn’t question, or even wonder why he wanted me to follow these commands.

He handed me the phone. “It’s Staci,” he said tenderly, a gentle albeit concerned smile on his face.

“Hi, Mom. Do you know who this is?”

“Of course. Staci.”

“Yeah, it’s Staci. How are you feeling, Mom? “ Soft compassion in her voice.

I think I said, “Okay.”

“And where are you?”

“Charlottesville.”

“Yes, You’re at Susan’s house, right?”

I paused. Then, “Yes.”

I think there were some other questions in here that I don’t recall.

Then my daughter cautiously ventured, “Mom, do you remember going to Denver a couple weeks ago?”

“I’ve never been to Denver.” I said. I was sure of that. But of course I had flown my granddaughter back and forth from Denver before she was old enough to fly alone. Again, this memory was concealed behind the black-out curtain in my mind.

“Yes, Mom. You and I flew to Denver a couple of weeks ago.”

“No, I didn’t go.” I don’t remember puzzling over why she might be saying things that were not true. So vague it all was. Yet I believe I felt an opening here. An anxiety, my skin tingly, my hands shaking. A tiny crack in my shell gradually widened. I wrapped my arms around myself, cradled my frightened self as if I could soften what was to come.

“Mom, we went to visit Jeff. We were there with him in the hospital.”

“NO,” I yelled. Raw fear rendered me light-headed. I had the urge to get up and run, but I knew my legs wouldn’t support me.

Then I saw him. I remembered being there with my son. I saw him lying there unconscious, the IVs, the oxygen, all of it came and hit me in the heart.

I was sobbing. “I remember,” I told Staci. “I remember. Oh, God. My Jeffrey died.”

“Yes, Mom. I’m so sorry. Jeff died. You were right there with him. You were wonderful.”

*          *          *

Impressive. What the mind can do. That tricky brain. It surprised me to find that I was susceptible to this mental deception. It’s not uncommon, I’ve learned. Brought on by severe stress, there is a temporary loss of function in the area of the brain that provides us with a sense of self, perspective taking, and integration of somatosensory information. In my case this dysfunction gave me a brief reprieve from my painful, traumatic memory. Then of course I was slammed with remembering, knowing all over again the reality. I lost my son. Perhaps I needed this to wake me up to real grieving.

“Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows.”

Slowly, I opened the door.