As we were driving up Montague Road in Shutesbury I had to pull the car over several times as my grief threatened to send me off the sides of the narrow dirt road. I had to stop again as we turned to go down the familiar driveway to my friend Carole’s house with the label “Here” beside the mailbox. “Here” was no longer true. I had received a message from Carole’s oldest daughter Sue several weeks before, asking me to call home. In the over forty years of knowing the family, Sue had never called. In fact, Carole and I rarely spoke on the phone anymore. She had been losing her hearing and it was a chore on both ends to communicate. Instead I would receive notes and postcards at random intervals with Carole’s distinctive personal take on the Palmer method of penmanship evident.
Nicky and I had been preparing to go visit Carole and other friends who live in the western Massachusetts area I called home for over thirty years in just a few weeks. And, on some level, I had been preparing myself for some time to hear that smoking had taken a toll on Carole’s lungs and other systems. But each time I would see her over the years she seemed strong and healthy and so much herself that I’d put that thought away for a much later day. As I dialed the familiar number – one that I probably called every day for what seemed like forever, but was now in my only sometimes category – I had a sense of foreboding. Sue told me in few words that Carole had died the previous day at home and very unexpectedly. She didn’t show up around dinnertime when Sue and Deacon (Carole’s partner) came in from working on the land and they found her upstairs, dead from an apparent heart attack.
The news brought me to my knees, quite literally, and great sobs burst from deep in my guts. I held onto this response until I had hung up from talking with Sue, but then I was overcome. What I had prepared myself for was not to be. I would not see again the living face of my dear friend, nor hold her hand, nor be immersed in the work that emerged from those hands as she made jewelry or painted icons or gardened or worked in sand play trays or created essential oils for bug spray or cleaning or air freshening. We would not wander from room to room in her house or around the gardens, or up the path into her studio. I would not share about Nicky’s and my next adventures or hear about what was currently moving her soul. While the sign on the driveway still said, “Here”, she was not.
And yet, as Shanti and Nicky and I spent the next five days with Sue and Sarah and Deacon and Eena (her most recent dog friend) the paradox was that Carole was everywhere. This experience brought to mind Thich Naht Hanh’s explorations of a line in the Heart Sutra that we had recently been studying: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form”. When something is “empty” it needs to be empty of something and in this case the belief is that we are empty of a separate sense of self: we are all a part of everything – we interbe, so to speak. The dahlias would not be there today if Carole had not planted them, or without support from the sun and rain. Thus, Carole is in the “emptiness” of the dahlias. I could see and experience this in so many ways and on so many levels while there for those few days.
What else can I say about this? The indelible stamp of her life pervaded the space she inhabited. It marked her loves and the land. Her younger daughter Sarah wrote me that she was their “North Star” and this summed up the truth of her power for me so well. Much of what makes me me in this life is rooted in my early young adult relationship with Carole. I learned to garden with her, helping to create soil out of the forest floor of the land that now grows brilliant amazing dahlias instead of blackberry brambles (well, maybe not instead of, but in addition to.) We worked together in the funky business she and her second husband created (which still exists) and then later in a medical laboratory when the store was faltering, where she taught me to be a bench lab technician. I met my longest term partner in the store when he arrived from Iowa and honed in on the transplanted (North Star) Iowans who were running it. Carole and I created a market garden stall with unusual herbs and sprouts and cookies to sell. She sent me off to find work in the counseling center at the university which led to my master’s degree in Counseling Psychology. We learned astrology together and studied Jung and other spiritual and intellectual pursuits. We went to Greece together and searched out the iconography that had begun to draw Carole, and explored Meteora, an inland monastic area that did not call many common tourists. We created a business called Just Pants, based on the form of pants Carole had brought home from Greece during one of her earlier visits to this country that allowed us to exploit our shared passion for textiles.
Just before Nicky and I were getting ready to leave I was wandering the house, touching many of the things she might have most recently touched, reflecting on our time together and apart and how our lives were still held together by common threads. I had said to Deacon – who grows and sells shiitake mushrooms commercially – that it felt to me as though Carole was like the mycelium – an integral part of who I am (and we are), spread throughout my/our body/mind/heart/spirit in ways that would not bear removal even in death. We wept and spoke of her over and over again in those few days, recognizing that no words really worked to address the truth of her being gone and our loss at this fact. And yet, on this last go around of her space, I felt called to an icon she had painted which was placed on a shelf high up in the North room. I recognized it as telling the story of the three Myrrh bearing women who had come to Christ’s tomb the morning after his burial only to discover that he was gone. I burst out laughing. It felt like such a clear message that she was both “here” and “not here” simultaneously, and I remembered a conversation that she and I had regularly when I was wanting to understand, essentially, some aspect of “the meaning of life”. Her response to me – and one I always found frustrating – was that some things are just a mystery. So too, is the passing into another state of my beloved friend.