This is the final post of a four-part series of posts. Part 1 can be found here.
An Escalating Sense of Urgency
The ocean waves keep crashing in. They surge up the beach, only to be drawn back down again by gravity. Each set of waves climbs slightly farther or less far up the beach, depending on whether the tide is flowing or ebbing. How high any particular wave will reach is unpredictable. But the trend of the tide is unmistakable.
* * *
In March of 1980, Douglas celebrated his fiftieth birthday. Not long after reaching this milestone, one of his sustaining beliefs — that he was riding an incoming tide and that the story which had led him here was unfolding as it should — took three significant hits. Following these jarring dislocations, Douglas started to wonder whether the tide might have already turned against him and was now beginning to ebb.
The first hit to his self-assurance came on New Year’s Day of 1981, when Stan decided to take a long walk. A new year was beginning and Stan needed to think about his life and his relationship with Doug. They had been together for 25 years. Every relationship has its challenges, especially if your partner happens to be Douglas.
Stan didn’t tell Doug where he was going when he walked out the door. When he didn’t come back, and didn’t respond to any of Doug’s calls, Douglas came looking for me. He was highly agitated and assumed the worst: Stan had frozen to death out in the woods; or he had left Douglas and wouldn’t be coming back. I tried to tell Doug that these were unlikely scenarios, but his fears had already run away with him.
When Stan returned several hours later, tired but refreshed from his long walk, Douglas had realized that he didn’t want to — and probably wouldn’t be able to — live alone. Stanley’s walk day sobered him up. It showed him that even something foundational could change overnight.
The second psychological body blow came the following spring. It was May Day and we had all gone to Roanoke to run errands in Doug and Stan’s big passenger van. They had bought it for such a purpose. This was back when none of us at ALM could afford to buy or maintain a personal vehicle.
Another passenger on that trip was Kathy Miller. Her close friendship with Doug and Stan went back twenty years, to when she had an apartment next to theirs. Following a longstanding plan that the three of them had worked out together, Kathy took early retirement from her hospital job, hired a neighborhood carpenter to build her a cabin at Transdyne, and moved in.
We returned from Roanoke, shared a simple supper, and then went our separate ways. Early the next morning, Doug and Stan arrived at ALM. Drawing me aside, they said that Kathy had died during the night. They weren’t sure what they should do next. So I went over to Transdyne with them. Kathy was sitting on her couch. Her eyes were open and she was still in her Roanoke clothes. It looked as though she were meditating. But a massive heart attack had claimed her as soon as she sat down and rigor mortis soon set in.
The final seismic shock to Doug’s belief that everything was unfolding as it should came in January of 1983 when Gert rejected him. Gert and Paul had moved to the neighborhood in 1980. So had several other retirees. Their homes were just below the hill where Doug and Stan lived.
Gert had been looking for a spiritual teacher and was immediately drawn to Douglas’ charisma. He, in turn, was more than happy to accept her as a student/disciple. The complementary roles they played for each other seemed workable for several years. She called Doug and Stan her “monks on the hill.” She even sewed gray monks robes for them to wear, complete with cowls. Gert’s house became a social center for that end of the neighborhood.
Douglas was in his element — teaching, probing, listening, correcting. It couldn’t last, of course, for Doug and Gert were too wedded to their respective roles. They were unwilling and/or unable to shift Doug’s role from guru to mentor and to friend, as he and I had been able to do. Once Gert discovered a few of his human flaws, the Douglas on her pedestal came crashing down. And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put idealized Douglas back together again. So she instead put him out of her life, completely and irrevocably.
The cumulative effect of these three seismic shocks was two-fold. First, it confirmed Douglas’ core belief that the world was a mutable and hurtful place. On one of his biographical cassette tapes, he said that, “everything I have touched in life has come to an end and busted up. All things — even worlds — bust up. It’s sad; but seemingly necessary. And in a traumatic sense, I’m all for it.”
Even more telling was his spoken aloud stream of consciousness one Thursday afternoon. We were studying the religion chapter of Seth Speaks. Douglas seemed almost unaware that he was translating his feelings into words.
“The earth has done nothing but hurt me. So let go of it. There must be more. But I’m afraid of it. If you can’t stay but are afraid to go, where does that leave you? You have nothing.”
The second way that Stanley’s walk day, Kathy Miller’s death, and Gert’s rejection impacted Douglas was that his sense of urgency escalated dramatically. Something must be done to salvage the story; to remind people of their deeper ideals; to reawaken them from their slumberous pursuit of so many external activities and responsibilities. So in June of 1983, Douglas did the inconceivable: he moved to ALM.
* * *
Douglas is on his knees in our small sleeping alcove. Next to him is a quietly radiant Joyce. He’s peering into a test tube standing on the little desk at the foot of our bed.
“Well, I’ll be damned!” he exclaims.
I smile at his apparent consternation.
By now, Doug had been living at ALM for several weeks. His determination to come for an extended visit had stunned everyone. It’s hard to imagine someone less suited to living in community than Douglas.
But he had been feeling that this place was dead in the water. (This was, by the way, a classic Douglas blend of clear perception and subliminal projection.) A jolt was needed; an electric shock to re-start a stalled heart. Maybe by moving here he could provide a catalytic jolt. He didn’t expect it would be easy for anyone. And it hadn’t been.
“I’ll be damned!” he says again, staring at the distinct ring that had formed in the liquid at the bottom of the test tube.
I continue to grin, clearly hearing his unspoken thought:
“This is not at all what I expected.”
He smiles, congratulates Joyce and me, and returns to his work in the garden. Then he goes home to Transdyne to “be patient and wait.” Several psychics had given Douglas this cogent piece of advice. It had tormented him for years.
The test tube Douglas had peered into was a pregnancy test kit. It confirmed that Joyce and I had finally conceived a child. After showing me the good news, Joyce had asked me to bring Douglas down so that he, too, could see it.
In mid-April, Doug receives another surprise. The baby who’s born on Good Friday turns out to be a girl. He had somehow assumed it would be a boy. But he will always feel a special fondness for Lauren.
The Dream Is Dead
It’s sometime in the mid-1990s and Douglas is in his mid-60s. He and I are walking back toward ALM after another Thursday afternoon at Transdyne. He will now and then accompany me if there’s more to talk about. This time, however, he’s mostly quiet, which is unusual for someone with a well-developed gift of gab.
Then, out of the blue, he says, “The dream is dead, Robert.”
“It’s not dead,” I say. “It’s still alive. I can feel it.
He shakes his head.
“No, the dream is dead.”
We walk on in silence. I don’t know what else to say.
* * *
How do dreams die? How can a sturdy foundation that once supported your full weight give way beneath your feet? What happens when you can no longer hear the whisper of reliable inner guidance? What happens to the bird dog who has lost his sense of smell?
Douglas and I have always had divergent but complementary interpretations of what is needful in these times. We have also been fire-keepers for each other. In the days before matches, before flint and steel, whether a small nomadic band could have a hot meal, or sleep warm during a winter’s journey, depended on being able to keep small embers alive from one fire to the next. It was a survival skill.
Finding Season of Changes in Norfolk had fueled Doug’s fire. His well-aimed question to me about the Essenes had re-kindled my fire. That’s what all those Thursday afternoons were for: we were nurturing each other’s enthusiasm; keeping each other’s fire alive.
Now Douglas’ fire had gone out. His dream was dead and it couldn’t be resuscitated. Even though his heart was still beating, he had lost his path with heart.
I would later come to believe that Douglas died three times. His first death was the death of his dream. After he lost his dream he started to eat lots of candy, to became dependent on some unwise medications, and he generally lost interest in taking care of himself.
Doug’s second death arrived just after he turned 69 years old.
* * *
At 8:10 p.m. Monday evening, on March 22nd, 1999, I get an urgent phone call from Stan.
“Robert, get over here quick. There’s something’s bad wrong with Douglas.”
I drive over to Transdyne, run upstairs to their sleeping loft, and find Douglas sitting on his chair, gazing straight ahead with unseeing eyes. Stan has already turned off the tiny 12-volt T.V. they had been watching. He has also removed a glass of wine from Doug’s trembling hand. The glass was halfway to his mouth when the stroke had seized him.
How strange, I think, that so many of our encounters with the unforeseen arise out of our everyday routines. I had just spent Thursday afternoon with Douglas. On Saturday he and Stan had gone to Roanoke for the Saint Patrick’s Day parade. Now, on this fateful Monday, Doug’s raised glass of wine can no longer reach his lips and all the normal routines have become a thing of the past.
The new normal arrives on the scene with flashing red lights. I help the rescue crew get Doug down the tight staircase, onto the stretcher, and into the ambulance. Then they’re off to the emergency room, with Stan not far behind.
Douglas will live for another year, but he will never walk or talk again. He who had been so good with words, whose mind had been so agile, whose speech could enlighten or infuriate, will never speak again. And he who had valued his independence so highly will become completely dependent on others for even his simplest needs.
Two shimmering synchronicities hover over that traumatic Monday evening. The first is a note Douglas sent me nearly a decade before, when he was still surfing a rising tide of self-assurance and self-righteousness. Here’s how it begins:
“There are ever two choices. Never more, never less. Each choice has many variations, but basically there’s a merging or a non-merging; an understanding or a non-understanding.
“In the Jesus play, he offered the choice: crucify yourself or crucify me. They chose to crucify him. Today that choice is still ours. The Jesus play is Now. The parallels are identical. Look at them and match them, for the same basic choice is now — in this time — once again being made.
“You know I speak truth. You know I do not lie. You have asked and I have given. In one choice He is crucified; in the other, self is crucified. The present dilemma is the trial of self. My self is dead, and has been. Is yours?
“Peace. I love you. I care. I give you myself.”
Then Douglas adds a footnote. Perhaps it was prophetic.
“Stan has not read this,” he continues. “But somewhere in the process of my writing it, he brought me a card, saying that ‘something’ had moved him to go get it; that it was pertinent. I had not seen it before.
“He said the card came from Mrs. Field, the wife of a deceased minister. Stanley had helped her care for her husband in his last days. He’d had a stroke and was struck speechless, bedridden, and incontinent. Stan helped her keep him clean and helped him communicate. He died with gratitude to Stan, and she still remembers Stan after many years.”
Douglas would also be felled by a stroke. He, too, would be struck “speechless, bedridden, and incontinent.” And Stan, who would drive to Salem Rehab daily to be with Douglas, would help the staff there “keep him clean” and would “help him communicate.” I’m sure that Douglas, like Reverend Field, “died with gratitude to Stan.”
The second synchronicity from the evening of Doug’s stroke concerns the need for what he called “an emergency crew.” Douglas used this phrase fairly frequently. He wasn’t talking about a medical emergency crew, but about a team of people who could respond to spiritual emergencies. From his own harrowing experiences, he knew that chthonic eruptions from the underworld are often misconstrued as being psychotic rather than cathartic.
It reminded me of a passage from the guidance that we received in Virginia Beach in 1973.
“Now know that what you are experiencing at this time through choice, many others shall experience not through choice, but through pure cause and effect. And there will be many that will not understand what is happening and think that they are going crazy; and experience many things of a psychic nature that will only enhance this thought. And many shall not be be able to stand it in themselves.”
Thus the need for an empathic and well-trained emergency crew.
The final thread in this tapestry of synchronicity is that eleven years after helping the rescue crew load Douglas into an ambulance, I will follow a totally unexpected but clearly discernible call to become a member of that crew. And one of the volunteers who ran the call that night, Patti, will later become not only a good friend but also my rescue chief.
Don’t Screen Him Out
Doug and I are sitting together on a sunny afternoon. I’m reading aloud to him. It’s almost like one of our Thursday afternoon sessions, save for the location and Doug’s stroke-induced inability to speak. We’re in a small visiting room at Salem Health and Rehabilitation Center. Douglas came to Salem Rehab after the hospital finished stabilizing him. He’s been making friends here.
Another resident of the nursing home sees us from the hallway. She maneuvers her wheelchair so that she can push open the glass door and join us. She looks first at Douglas, then at me.
“You his friend?”
“He’s a good man.”
I nod again.
“What’s your name?”
“Robert. What’s yours?”
“Shirley. He’s a good man. He has a lot of friends here.”
“Yes, he does.”
Douglas always gives his pointed-finger greeting to everyone we pass each time I wheel him down the hallways. Most of his fellow residents smile back, or nod, or wave.
“What’s your name?”
“That’s a good name. He’s a good man. He has a lot of friends here.”
“Would you like to join us? I’m reading to him.”
“No, I’ll be going so you two can read together.”
She turns back toward the door, then pauses.
“What’s your name?”
She nods. Then, using her wheelchair to re-open the door, she continues making her rounds.
* * *
This final story is in a similar vein. Douglas has just celebrated his 70th birthday. It’s mid-April, 2000. I’ll soon be driving to Massachusetts to take another 10-day Vipassana meditation course. This will turn out to be the last time that I will see Douglas before his dies.
It’s early evening. I’m sitting on his bed because he’s still in his wheelchair. I’ve asked the nurses to help settle him in for the night, but they haven’t gotten around to it yet.
I’m reading to him from his own copy of The Nature of the Psyche, by Jane Robert. Many years ago he had listed the passages that spoke to him most strongly. Those notations are on the back of a bookmark that’s still in his book. I choose one of them at random.
You come into the condition you call life, and pass out of it. In between you encounter a lifetime. Suspended—or so it certainly seems—between birth and death, you wonder at the nature of your own being. You search your experience and study official histories of the past, hoping to find there clues as to the nature of your own reality.
I stop reading when Douglas, with a nod and a glance, attempts to draw my attention to his new roommate. I look over my shoulder at him. The man is lying in his bed — eyes closed, mouth open, gaunt face, shallow breathing. He looks a lot like my grandfather looked just before he died.
I turn back to the book, puzzled. I can’t ask Doug why he’s pointing his roommate out to me because the stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body also rendered him speechless. So I resume reading.
Your life seems synonymous with your consciousness. Therefore it appears that your knowledge of yourself grows gradually, as your self-consciousness develops from your birth. It appears, furthermore, that your consciousness will meet a death beyond which your self-consciousness will not survive.
Douglas interrupts me again, this time with a more emphatic jut of his chin. Suddenly I understand what he’s trying to convey. He’s saying, “Stay awake, Robert! Broaden your focus. I’m sensing something in this man. Bring him into the circle of your awareness. Don’t screen him out! Who knows? You might have something to offer this person; he might have something to offer you.”
Douglas had done this with me repeatedly over the years, with cashiers, sales people, doctors, nurses. His Geiger counter was always on. If he got a reading off someone—some hint of the deep inner longing that he was always searching for—he would definitely explore it. If I was with him, he expected my full cooperation; even if he had to nudge me in order to get it.
“You want me to bring this guy into the circle, don’t you?”
So I adjust my position on his bed until I can see both of them, and raising the volume of my voice, I continue reading. Douglas gives me a lopsided smile of approval and settles back to listen.
You may think longingly, and with an almost hopeful nostalgia of the religion of your childhood, and remember a system of belief that ensured you of immortality. Yet most of you, my readers, yearn for some private and intimate assurances, and seek for some inner certainty that your own individuality is not curtly dismissed at death.
Then it’s time to go. I lean over, give Douglas a hug and a kiss, and tell him I love him. I leave him sitting in his wheelchair, waiting for someone to put him to bed. After a final reminder to the nursing station, I go down the hall, out the door, and into the gathering twilight.
“Be patient and wait, my friend,” I murmur. “This won’t go on forever. Be patient and wait.”
This is a small bouquet from the large garden of my memories of Douglas:
Standing Up To the Drill Instructor
Dreaming Of Transdyne
The Bookworm and the Symposium
The Tuesday Night Group
Seeding Wax Statues
Intercepting a Punch
A Thousand Thursday Afternoons
An Escalating Sense of Urgency
The Dream Is Dead
Don’t Screen Him Out