We hit the cattle guard at thirty miles an hour, zipping across the steel bars like corduroy, and headed up the familiar dirt road. Mountains rose before us. Four miles ahead lay Lama Foundation, the small community that, nine years ago, had taken us in. Megan and I had moved there together, then gotten married and produced a child. Pema had spent the first two years of her life there. Then we moved to town. A year later, Megan and I were separated.
Pema was in the backseat now, goofing off with Ada. Five years ago, traveling in the opposite direction, I had struck those same metal bars and turned onto the highway. Ada had just been born and we had a pot of soup for her family. Birth brings people together. So does death, and today we were headed to a funeral.
“Hey girls,” I said, rumbling up the dusty road.
“This is a good time to get your last giggles out. When we get to Lama, we’re going to want to be a little calmer, okay?”
“Well, Ada, remember your GG’s funeral?”
“Well, this will be sort of like that…” I smiled. “And sort of different. A lot of people will be happy – we’ll be celebrating Elaine’s life. But some people will be sad, and some will probably even cry. It’s a good time to, you know, be quiet. And serious.”
“Well, that’s kind of how funerals are.”
“Where is Elaine right now?” Pema paused. “I mean…her body?”
“I don’t know, pup. She’s probably on her way up in a van or something. Knowing her…well,” and I smiled again. The girls fell to giggling and I let my sentence trail off as I took a bend in the road. The brow of the car now pointed distinctly upwards, and we were gaining altitude quickly. We were no longer approaching the mountains. We were in them.
“…’Mama,’ said Annabelle, ‘Papa, there’s something I have to tell you. We have Tilly May with us.’ ‘We though you might,’ replied Papa.” I closed the book. “Okay, pup, time to get dressed,” I said.
“No, Daddy! One more chapter,” Pema begged. There were only two left.
“No, pup. It’s time to get ready. We have school today and we’re leaving in half an hour.” I stood up with finality. “I want to check my email,” I said, “and the weather. It’s cold outside. Serious cold.” Earlier that morning, I had glanced at the thermometer on the way to feed the chickens. It hadn’t registered above zero. “You should start taking some bites of your breakfast,” I continued, “and get dressed.”
As Pema dragged her feet over to the clothes drawer, I turned on the computer. There were several fundraising newsletters, a nod to my past job, two messages from Megan, which I ignored, she and I having recently had some unskillful debates over Pema’s schedule, and a note from Ada’s mom. Then I saw a message from Mirabai: She is Free. I clicked on the subject line and began reading.
Our Elaine left her body this evening, lying outside in her gazebo, wrapped in her turquoise comforter, as the sun was setting, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains were washed in red, and the full moon (super moon!) was rising, golden.
Asha had spoken to Elaine on the phone shortly before she slipped away, saying that the moon was rising where Asha was in Virginia, and that she was sending her prayers with the moon…
I scanned down the page.
We will bury her at Lama Foundation on Tuesday at noon.
“Daddy!” Pema shouted from behind.
“Look, see? I’m dressed.” Pema spun around to show off her skirts.
“Nice,” I said, “but we’ll need some warm layers too. Now take some cereal bites.”
A few minutes later, I ran into Megan in the kitchen. No longer living at Lama, and no longer married, we still happen to live together. Community life has become so commonplace for us that we almost take it for granted.
“Did you hear about Elaine?” I asked. Megan turned to me with a broken face. She had clearly been sobbing. “Oh…” I said, opening my arms to her in that old familiar way. She and I are both dating other people now, but there is an intimacy intact after all those years.
Megan wiped her eyes and looked at me. “Kara and I are going to go up tomorrow,” she said. “She sent you an email asking if you’d keep Ada in the afternoon.”
I frowned thoughtfully. “Well, I’m probably going to go,” I said. “I want to bring the kids. I mean…” and I smiled, “this is going to be…” and I gestured with open hands and wide eyes, as if to say who would want to miss this? Megan nodded, then took a deep breath. I walked over to the cupboard to get Pema’s lunch, while Megan turned to the faucet. “Oh, yeah,” I said, “the pipes froze.”
The last time I saw Elaine was almost a year ago. Summer was turning to fall and I had stopped by with Pema and Ada after a school day, offering to help with any tasks that required heavy lifting. She had been diagnosed with cancer a couple of years prior, and it was starting to get to the best of her. The year before, I had brought her a load of firewood, tidied up her stove, then hand carried ten pots of water from the kitchen to the hot tub. But, she told me, she didn’t need any wood or hot-tubbing just then. In fact, she had had quite a lot of help.
The social fabric of Elaine’s life was extraordinarily rich, and there was a circle of old friends and lovers that came to her almost daily as she fell ill. When Pema had been born, she was one of the women who stole secretly into the night and cleaned up our house while we were away. She did that kind of thing all her life. So, it was no surprise that she was surrounded by friends just now.
“What I really need,” she told me, “is someone to dig up my dahlias.”
“Sure,” I said, envisioning setting the girls up with a bit of play somewhere in the garden, while I, bolstered by a cup of tea, dug up tubers in the late afternoon sun. Instead, we came in and had a snack, while Elaine, braless in a colorful silk blouse, entertained us with stories about Bali and her youth. I was a little uncomfortable at the braless-ness (I’m something of a prude), but mostly at all her hospitality. Finally, just at the moment I was going to say something, she led us outside.
We had already had a few light frosts, but Elaine’s garden was still gorgeous. Beauty surrounded her in concentric circles, her body, her house, her garden, her community. One saw it wherever she went. When I had first met her, I assumed this only went skin deep, but after a few encounters it was obvious that her love for life went all the way to the bone. She was a beauty queen, and I was frequently charmed, but there was nothing superficial about her.
“Okay,’ she said, “the dahlias are here…and here…and here…” She led me around the garden. Pema and Ada had trickled under a juniper bush with a couple of stuffed animals. “…and here,” she continued, “Oh, and there’s a little one there…and…”
Dahlias, originally a tropical plant, are famous for being finicky. They cannot withstand a hard frost, and in northern climes the bulbs must be dug out and stored inside during winter. Apparently, Elaine had done this all her life and the bulbs we were about to dig up were the product of years of careful cultivation.
Taking a shovel, Elaine demonstrated how to root up the bulbs. “You have to give it enough space,” she said, placing the edge of the shovel eight inches or so from the dry leaves of the plant, “so you don’t accidentally damage the bulbs.” Sinking the shovel deep into the earth, she pulled the handle backwards, carefully lifting the soil beneath the plant, which broke apart to reveal a clutch of pale, golden tubers. “I see,” I said, “like potatoes.”
“That’s right,” she said, “you can even eat them.”
“Yes. They’re like Jerusalem artichokes,” she said, then added, “but we’re not going to eat these,” and laughed.
“Right,” I said, catching her eyes.
“Dada?” Pema asked. “Is Elaine’s body in that van?” Having parked the car, we were now squatting on the ground off to the side of Lama Foundation’s lower parking lot, which is nothing more than a flat-ish section of dirt at the end of a road-ish section of dirt. Three ponderosas, remnants from a wildfire, stood like sentinels above us and the growing body of frigid mourners.
“Yeah pup, probably,” I answered, blowing into my hands as the large white van turned the corner. There was a pink daisy on the grill. Tibetan flags, red, blue, green and yellow, draped over the windshield. I stood up as the van veered in our direction. Pema and Ada rose and took hold of my hands. It had been six months or more since I had seen some of the folks that surrounded me now, but once I saw that pool of familiar faces I had an instantaneous hit of family that put me at ease. Then the van crested in front of us, revealing a silhouette behind the passenger window, Asha.
Asha was a dear friend of Elaine’s. I often saw the two of them share something in their eyes that seemed to border on the erotic. I don’t mean to suggest that there was something sexual between them, just that their loving attention sparkled meaningfully, and bystanders, like myself, were drawn to it, like staring eye to eye with a deer. Asha and Elaine had shared much of their lives together, but now they were old wrinkled women, old wrinkled powerful women.
Lama Foundation is full of strong women, Pema’s mother, my ex-wife Megan, being only one of the newer generations. Each has her niche, but Asha, eighty-two and six-foot-one, is the undisputed heavyweight. Having founded the community in 1967 with her then-hippie husband, now a conservative Muslim sheikh (they’ve since divorced), she is the only person who has seen this community from start to finish. Like any good mother, she is not without her detractors, but no one else on earth could have united the group of us standing there in the cold like her. So, when the window rolled down, and she said, in her plain, matter-of-fact tone, “we’re just waiting for the rest of the people to park…then we’ll go,” my heart lifted, then clenched. I looked around at the hundred or so folks gathered. How long till we stood here for her?
“Did you see the email I forwarded you?” I asked Silke, “…about Elaine?” Having bid Megan goodbye in the kitchen, Pema and I had driven up to Silke’s and were now standing in the warmth of her kitchen. School would start soon and the rest of the kids would be arriving any moment, at which point we’d have to abandon the small talk and face the cold. I only had a second.
“Yes,” she answered.
“I want…I mean…well,” I stammered, trying to find the right words. “I want to bring the kids.”
“Sure, you and Pema can leave early tomorrow. I’ll be fine. Are you taking Ada?”
“Yeah, but…well, what if we all went?” I asked. Silke looked at me doubtfully, but I went on. “I mean, I know most of the kids don’t know Elaine, but…”
“No, I don’t think so,” Silke said, speaking with an authority that I had hoped to find myself.
“Yeah, but…” I continued, still searching myself. I knew Elaine’s burial would be unlike anything else, a passing from life into death not to be missed. I wanted to be there, but I wanted the kids to see it too. I didn’t want to exploit it, but…aren’t funerals for the living? I wasn’t sure. I have attended many funerals in my life, my family being quite large, and Catholic. So, I’m familiar with the polished caskets, the strips of Astroturf, the priests, the catered food afterwards. But the first time I attended a funeral at Lama, this one for a baby, my heart was shattered. These people grieved. I mean, they really grieved. I helped dig the hole - with my bare hands, a shovel and a pick-axe. The grieving parents built the pinewood casket themselves. Everything about it was so…real. I spent thirty-odd years of my life not really understanding, and…the kids…here was an opportunity to…
“No,” said Silke. “It doesn’t feel right in my heart.” She pulled her glove over her hand, glanced out the window, and moved towards the door.
Damn these women and their hearts! I thought. But I knew she was right.
The back doors of the van opened and Elaine’s daughters, her adolescent grandson, and two other men approached. One of them, Patrick, whose eight-year-old daughter stood close by, searched loosely for something inside the van, then walked away holding two tightly coiled lengths of rope. After milling about uncertainly, one of Elaine’s daughters turned from the team of pallbearers and said into the crowd, “We may need one more pallbearer. Does anybody…” She turned her head back to the van as someone tapped her on the shoulder. I wondered if I should step forward, but I had two five-year-olds in my hands. Then, turning back to the crowd, she shouted, “never mind.”
The crowd began parting as the newly-formed group of pallbearers pulled the casket from out the back of the van and set it on the deck. They rested it there for a moment, looking at each other thoughtfully, then hoisted it for the long journey ahead. “Is Elaine in there?” Pema asked, watching the long wicker basket, the first casket she has ever laid eyes on, pass by. I shook my head.
The gravity of the moment sank in as the crowd followed the casket down the uneven dirt road. A tractor could have made the trip, and indeed it had recently, having dug the gravesite, but the van would never make it. Elaine’s final journey would be by foot. A young woman came up to Asha, who, as always, trembled slightly with palsy, and took her by the hand. But Asha had no trouble walking, and there was little question about who was comforting who.
Pema and Ada, unhindered by politeness, pulled me towards the front before I reeled them back discretely. Kara and Megan followed closely behind. Then the drums came out. I hadn’t even seen them, but suddenly several women were tapping out a gentle rhythm to our steps. One walked around with a large basket of hand instruments, offering it to the unequipped mourners. Someone up front began to sing, but as the crowd strung out in two’s and three’s in the road, the rear fell out of rhythm and we all half-laughed, half-smiled at our joyful incompetence.
The first time I met Elaine was in Lama’s kitchen. It was late in the summer of 2009, and Lama was hosting one last retreat before closing for the winter. As a prospective resident, I was constantly meeting old community members, but I couldn’t keep track. It was impossible to tell a visitor from a “Lama Bean”, the affectionate term used for folks who, one way or another, had attached themselves to this unique mountain community, but no longer lived there. I wouldn’t have had a clue if Asha herself had come up to me and stared me in the face, which she did.
But I, of course, stuck out like a sore thumb. Old Beans love to meet the new folks, and Elaine, who had come to help cook dinner, grabbed me as I walked through the kitchen. I say “grabbed”, but it went like this: as I rounded the central table, eyes to myself, presumably on some task (I forget), she turned gracefully into my path, fluidly, carefully, yet quickly and with evident purpose, so that I had no choice but to say hello. Dressed head to toe in colorful silks and flowing tunics, she appeared perfectly put together, and warm, too warm.
“Well, hello,” she said, thrusting her hair to the side with a bright and coquettish smile. But it was her eyes, the whites of her eyes, wide and excited, which seemed to…and her teeth…they were so… Suddenly, I began to feel uncomfortable. “Um…hello,” I stammered, then fidgeted with my fingernails as someone introduced us and, yes, I was thinking about residency, and, oh, you were a resident too. Back when? “Elaine!” someone shouted, over by the cutting board, and as she turned to give them instructions, I quickly made my escape.
“Did you meet Elaine?” asked Megan, later that night in our tent.
“Yeah…” I answered, trying to choose my words carefully.
“She seems nice.”
“Yeah. Well. You know. I think she was hitting on me…?”
“Does anyone want to see Elaine one last time?” Asha said, raising her voice above the murmurs of the crowd. She looked left, then right. “Anyone who didn’t get to see her at the wake?” Having traveled a couple hundred yards by foot, we were now standing in the soft yellow grass beside the gravesite, between two scraggly patches of scrub oaks and a handful of ponderosas. From the mountainside, one can look for miles across the valley below, and far beyond, but all eyes were focused on the wicker casket and the hole next to it that sank eight feet into the earth. Beside it, there was a large pile of dirt, with ten shovels leaning to the side.
Megan cautiously raised her hand. At first the crowd, like Asha, seemed not to notice and after a few seconds someone made a move as if to carry on. I thought Megan would drop it, not wanting to draw attention and make a thing of it. Then I remembered that’s me, not her. “I would,” she piped up, raising her hand a little higher.
There was a silent conference, a moment of shared glances, and the wicker lid, which had been adorned with tulips, lilies and roses, was suddenly off. The crowd surged, just a little bit, then eased back as one of Elaine’s daughters broke from the crowd and knelt beside her mother’s body, pressing her hand to its cheek. She appeared to be about my age, perhaps a little older, as belied by her ten-year-old son. My five-year-old daughter squirmed out of my hand, stepping forward as Megan made her way to the casket.
Elaine’s daughter drew back. Megan and Pema approached, followed by Ada and Kara. Again, the crowd surged and it was clear that many had wished to see her, but, like me, they were too composed to speak up. Good work, Megan, I thought. I had hoped Pema would get a chance to see Elaine, that is, to see her as she truly was in death. But I wouldn’t have said anything. Finally, after several folks had come and gone from the casket, I stood on tiptoes to get a brief view of Elaine’s face. It was calm and serene, if not a little yellow, and her body was dressed in the colors she so often wore.
I leaned back, glancing at Asha on the far side, who stood firmly and patiently. Such wisdom, and strength. Then I looked at Elaine’s other daughter, whom I had met once years ago. “I think she’s some kind of welder-artist,” I told Megan later, flexing my arms in an imitation of the life I imagined for her. For a second, I caught sight of another proud and strong woman, Shanti, holding a large branch from which the prayer flags that had once been draped over the van were now strung, but then my eyes fell on Elaine’s grandson, whose face was in a tortuous pose. There were occasional sobs and tears in the crowd, but, as I had expected, most of the folks were calm, almost happy. Elaine would surely be missed, but this was a group of people so intimate with real life, and real death, that no one was broken by her departure. I felt privileged to be among them. And this little boy too, this becoming-a-young-man, whose eyes were cast down to the earth in a grimace of pain. He stood like a guardian angel over all of us, reminding the wise that pain is so mortally real.
When everyone had finished saying their last goodbyes, a muslin cloth was spread over Elaine’s body and the wicker lid refastened. Asha and several others said prayers, read poems and recounted stories, but it was all casual and consensual, without anyone taking the lead for very long. Like many gatherings at Lama, there was a sense of co-creation in the very moment. There was no agenda to keep to, no director to whom we needed to direct our attention. There was just Elaine, and us.
Finally, it came time to put Elaine’s body in the ground. As before, the pallbearers came together, and the coils of rope that Patrick had produced from the van reappeared. Pema and Ada were now with their mothers, so I watched with mild uncertainty about whether I should help. It was going to take several youthful bodies to lower that casket to the bottom of the hole, that is, in anything resembling a calm and deliberate fashion. But a team of pallbearers quickly consolidated, drawing the casket to the front of the grave, and it was clear that they had strength enough.
With two men holding the ropes on each side, and one more adding stability by grasping a side handle, the casket was first drawn over the hole, then eased into the earth. It was respectful, but not effortless. One man almost slipped, and the casket leaned dangerously forward at one point. These are the kinds of things I miss at most funerals, when, after the appropriate rites are spoken, we all walk away and leave the dirty work to the employees.
With Elaine’s body on the ground, we read over each other’s shoulders, one last prayer printed on only a handful of sheets. Then Elaine’s daughter walked up and took a handful of dirt in her bare hands and crumbled it over the grave. One could hear the dirt strike the basket. Then, suddenly, everyone came alive. One woman doused the grave with essential oils. Another threw in a crystal, or a clod of dirt. A young woman stepped out of the crowd and began striking a series of tuning forks, invoking a bright, miraculous sound. Everyone seemed to take it for granted, not in a nonchalant way, but in a way that expressed – yes, this is exactly what is called for. Everyone seemed prepared, and the crowd surged alive with the outer signs of the inner lives we all, including Elaine, bore alone.
In the midst of all this, Pema wound her way through the legs of the mourners and found me. I smiled. “Daddy, I want the rose petals,” she said. Right, the rose petals, I thought, remembering the paper bags Silke had given Pema and Ada that morning, filled with dried rose petals from her sweat lodge. She had taken them aside before we left, leaving me behind with the other children. I don’t know what she shared with them, but I do know what she shared with me. I don’t deserve this, I thought, smiling, all these wonderful women in my life.
I handed the bags to Pema, who retreated between the legs of dozens of folks, coming and going, dropping their stones or flowers or, as some had already begun to do, shovels of dirt. A woman on the far side started singing, “Amen, Amen…” in a familiar tune, and I took it up. Reaching back into my pocket, I pulled out the heart-shaped crystal Silke had also given to me that morning. Singing softly, so as not to draw too much attention to myself, I walked up to the grave and peered down at the coffee-colored earth, the purple, red and pink petals, the green leaves, a piece of paper – maybe a note – someone had dropped in. I saw the mustard-yellow and maroon petals from Silke’s dried flowers, the hands of my daughter. I saw the wicker basket, woven of willow branches, and the rocks still clinging to the walls of the hole. I saw the clumps of dirt as they continued to rain down from shovels, held in the hands of the people who loved Elaine.
I was one year old when I attended my first funeral, for my mother. She had died suddenly of heart failure when she was thirty-six. Thirty-six years later, standing on the brink of Elaine’s grave, I was now thirty-seven. People came and went, and subsequent shovels of earth slowly began to obscure the wicker basket beneath my feet. Elaine, like so many women before her, was gone. Pema ran up to me. I looked one last time at the little heart-shaped crystal in my hand, and dropped it in the hole.