For the next ten days I called people in my address book and reserved time to come to their houses just for company while they went about their business and I tinkered in the kitchen or garden. To get there I walked for hours from one suburb to the next to save on subway fare, and that in itself was helpful. Sometimes I passed churches, and even went inside so long as they were empty. Back at my building, who knows how the tenants and reptile made out, getting home at night? I wasn’t there to let them in; at night I slept on various sofas, then in the morning walked back to town.
One high-level executive in another city, one who would not be pleased if his private charity were named in a public forum, heard about this. He called his boss at midnight, describing the situation as “…a family medical emergency. I don’t know when I’ll be back. You’ll have to take over the 7:00 meeting.” He got on Amtrak and checked in to a bed and breakfast up the street from me. Then he spent three days taking me out walking in the local sanctuaries and parks from early morning until night. I don’t remember a word of what we talked about; it seems we didn’t talk much at all. But the day after he left, I found a personal check from him for a sum large enough for a year of therapy, with a little note to not give up on getting help. Every evening during his stay I would pack up the kitchen knives, the scissors, the nail file, and the razor blades in a big yogurt bucket, and he would take the items back to his b & b room for the night. I’d watch him walk away, a dignified man clutching a little paper bag of sharps. For the first and only time his confident athletic type-A posture looked burdened and bowed. “He looks worried!” I thought, in amazement.
My therapist was ablaze with dismay. “Why didn’t you TELL me when you called??” he exclaimed, waving his hands. He spent that 50 minute session teaching me phrases to use on the phone: here is when you use the word “crisis,” this is what “urgent” means, these are all the symptoms that constitute an emergency. He listed the signs and phrases over, making me repeat them back. Next time he left town, he told his office partner “If she calls when I’m away just to say hi and see whether any appointments are open in the next couple of weeks, get her in here.”
“He sounds worried,” I thought, amazed again.
At home, at 6:01 one morning our easy-going jolly building engineer pounded and hollered at the door of my neighbor’s unit across the courtyard. As he told it, he let himself in, unplugged the radio, pointed in my neighbor’s face, and said “Nyet! Police!” After that the broadcasts toned right down to a side murmur of white noise. That evening I heard knocking and looked up from my book. A young woman was visiting our neighbor. She waved for my attention, pointed to the radio and her ears, and covered her eyes in a pantomime of shame. I waved at her with a double thumbs’ up.
Les & Sybele knocked on my door to say goodbye. “You were the only White tenant that was friendly to us,” they said. “We’ve had enough of this city, and we’re going back home to Detroit. We’re going to Management now to give notice. Would you like our apartment? Come have a look.” Their apartment had a lovely curved bay window area with an east view of trees and sky. It was smaller with only one closet, and so the rent was lower. I moved right in, and then heard of a better job working with Russian. The cool fall weather started, and soon I was chasing garbage trucks at dawn again, snatching geraniums and hanging them in the windows. A 12 Step friend gave me a cockatiel to hop from plant to plant and follow me from room to room. I still wasn’t ready to try talking to more any Catholic priests, but did want to start worshipping again. There was an active Metropolitan Community Church downtown with an excellent pastor, and right away I made a new best friend who lived right up the street. That was a good year.
But first, there were those ten days.
When they were up, I finally felt ready to spend a night at home and go back to housekeeping. Early one day at sunrise I ventured alone out of my room down the empty streets to the Reservoir. There at the water I took out my Irish whistle and began to play.
I have no explanation for what happened next.
A man of average height, about 30 years of age, appeared out of nowhere. He was not just cutting across the grass in a straight line toward the subway station, like a commuter. He was not jogging. He wore loose light-colored pants and a white tunic top; perhaps he’d been practicing some form of martial arts. And he came bounding, literally leaping with his arms open, over the grass to me.
“I heard beautiful music,” he exclaimed. “May I have your blessing?”
I looked at him, all attention.
He had close-cropped hair and a beard. He was wearing a black velvet kipa, or yarmulkah. And unlike many Jewish men who cover their heads in religious observance, he reached over and gave me a hearty handshake. His hands were strong, square, and as calloused as if he laid bricks all day. He stepped close, hands at his sides, and bowed his head waiting.
Not knowing what to do, I rested tentative fingertips on the black velvet and said “Blessings of…” Now what? I looked around. It was a strikingly lovely morning. The peak of summer was just tipping toward the richer sweetness of autumn. The still Reservoir reflected masses of waving fuchsia flowers that might have been loosestrife, and masses of bright gold button blossoms that might have been tansy. “It’s the… purple and the gold in the flowers,” I told him. “And these two Canada geese walking by, that aren’t afraid of us at all. It’s blue in the sky to water, and green underfoot.” At those words the glass wall between me and the world faded away. The pieces of the world as I named them came accessible again, real and close enough to touch. “It’s all blessing,” I trailed off. “Just being here.”
He nodded, placed his hands on my hair, and began to pray.
I stood there with my head bowed, feeling apprehensive about him and self-conscious about what this must look like to anyone passing by. But no one was, and to my relief I at least recognized the opening words: “Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam…” He had a fine deep cantor’s voice, ringing out in the quiet morning. Even the heat and weight of his hands seemed to gather something in my mind back into place.
He stepped back, looking radiant.
“Well now,” I said. “Hello. I’m Mary.”
“Right. Like my mom,” he beamed. “And it’s Miriam.”
I blinked at him, still puzzled. But his brown eyes were crystal clear and alight with discernment and joy. What flashed to mind was that magazine again, all the accounts of baffled relatives and friends describing criminal A__ or B__ or C__, the guy they thought they knew. And all the accounts had one thing in common: they never said “He used to bound through dewy fields at 6:00 a.m. in a kipa, praying in Hebrew and blessing everyone in sight.”
He reached out and took my Irish whistle.
He first blew one low long note. Then he blew a waterfall of notes, all at once, with their sharps and flats, as if he’d broken open a kaleidoscope and flung the colored facets in the air. Then he reversed the whistle and blew in the wrong end, a hollow toneless rush of empty air.
“God,” he said, giving the whistle back to me, “IS Who IS: One in perfect solitude and perfectly alone. And God is all notes and all voices at once, all consciousness in union. And God is no-thing, the vacuum of space, the dark and the emptiness inside you. When you thought you had nothing left.”
Then he bounded away, back over the grass where he’d come from, somewhere toward the athletic fields and the University. “Amen!” he called over his shoulder, saluting with his right hand high.
I watched him go, and walked home to start my life again.