South Serengeti, July, 2016
Some time after sun rise,
Three lionesses swim through
the tall, buff, grass.
Save for three lioness-length disturbances
Surfacing and disappearing and resurfacing
Their rustles audible only just before
They part the curtain of Serengeti
and step out into the ashen boundary
the wake of daily control burns
“Oh, they are all three very young,” our guide whispers
Watching them cross the narrow dirt road in perfect unison
cavalier calculating unafraid
They halt at the well-worn bank
of a meager mud-blackened pond.
My daughter and I are close and still
We listen to their pink tongues lap
She smiles and mouths wow
Brown eyes widen
The lionesses crouch
feminine feline forelegs
like the tops of swamp reeds
into the footprints of lesser beasts
who have the good sense to clear out early.
Is there a tacit understanding
Between the children of dead fathers?
My father died our guide says
he was raised by women
in his village near the base of Kilimanjaro
He tells us
He does not show his scars
He does not tell us what it means to a young man.
He does not reveal what it means
To listen to flies in the heat
Before walking the trail to dinner
He does not reveal what it means to
listen to birds keeping time
like long ago clocks
or what it means to watch a starling
take flight and disappear
into a yellowing sky
or what it means to stare at a straggle of zebras
grazing and ever grazing
or what does it mean to be one year shy of fifty
and be somewhere far from home
or what a leopard means when his eyes and teeth
seem to say
these are my teeth
these are my eyes
this is everything you will always lose.
he will only say
get down, please
he will only say
hold on please
and I want to show you the wild dogs.
It’s been nearly three years since I last saw Harlan, since I last touched one of his broad, strong, calloused hands, since I last heard his voice. Every day I think of him, and every day I am grateful to have had the privilege of becoming his wife and the mother of his beautiful children. It’s easy (and sometimes dangerous) to elevate our lost loved ones to the point of beatification, but those who had the good fortune to know Harlan Masuda understand, in his case, it’s entirely appropriate.
I write this on February 9, 2017. February 11 looms, as it always does. I expect it always will. Tomorrow, I will, once again, look back at the text from February 10, 2014, and what would be our last written exchange:
“Hi Marnie, Will you be my Valentine? Harlan”
“Of course. If you’ll be mine!” (With lots of heart and kiss emojis)
But this post isn’t about moments in the past really, and I don’t want to go down that road. The narrative of the shock of tragedy. There’s been more than enough of that.
I want to ask you to do something–anyone whose eyes are taking in these words–whether or not those eyes ever had the good fortune of taking in Harlan in his physical form. I want to ask you to do something for me, and for everyone around you.
I want you to be Harlan for a while.
I know that sounds weird and “complicated grief”-y
Stay with me. I’ll explain.
One of the phrases I repeat to myself when I’m freaking out or struggling (at least once a day lately), came to me via a fellow Buddhist poet back when I lived in San Francisco and I was single, and I had time for things like writing poetry.
“Where there is no Buddha, be the Buddha.”
Joe, the Buddhist Poet, included that line in a poem he wrote about a baseball game. I thought he’d lifted it from a Sutra, translated it from Sanskrit or Pali–because he did stuff like that. All these years later, I’ve never found a single reference to this line in any sutra, or heard it mentioned in a dharma talk. It really stuck with me, and I think Buddhist Poet Joe must have made it up.
Buddhism is different from other faiths in lots of ways. For one, it does not contain creation stories, for two, it does not encourage or elicit the “worshipping” of a God or deity. To make a very, verrry long story short. Buddhist practitioners practice becoming the Buddha. Practice. Practice. Practice. Fail. Fail. Fail. Practice. Practice…
It’s really hard. And it’s not really hard.
Or…if this makes more sense: I ask you to add Harlan to your Pantheon, to remember him, even if you didn’t know him. So, on the advent of the Fourth Buddhist year of his passing, I wanted to share with you some things about Harlan Masuda consider, to hold in your heart, and to share. Then, if you knew him, and you have some more to share, please post on the “In Memory of Harlan Masuda” Facebook Page.
“Giver’s Gain.” Harlan used this phrase to “explain” his open-hearted willingness to always help someone. When he ran into a friend of his who had lost everything due to addiction issues and was living “outdoors,” he always greeted him as if nothing had changed. They’d chat and laugh a little. Then Harlan would quietly, almost invisibly, hand him $20. That was it. No pitying. No admonishing. No prodding. Just happy to see him, just quietly giving.
“Not cuz I gotta’ cuz I wanna.” Never perform any task with an aura of obligation. If you really don’t want to do something, don’t do it. If you do it, do it with love and enjoy it. If you have to do yard work all day Sunday, put your earbuds in and do it with your whole self. You stay at a party until it’s over and then you help stack chairs and sweep up. You always kiss or hug everyone hello and goodbye. Even if it takes forever. You do presentations every year for your kids’ classes and show them how the “Big Bucket Truck” goes up and down and show them the danger of touching power lines by frying a (toy) troll or two. Every year. Until they quit asking.
Actions and energy are the true tests of character–Harlan was a man of few words. He was a person who got things done, and who exuded the warmest, most open energy I have ever witnessed. He would walk into a situation and just start helping without being asked. He sussed things out, sensed where he could be the most useful, and would just join in. I still marvel at his ability to do this.
“Suck it Up.” Man, Harlan did not suffer crybabies (the only exception was our daughter. If she as much as pouted, he would do whatever the heck she wanted). This rule definitely applied to me. I am not the most detail-oriented person when it comes to non-text related things. When I pussed out on something, left something undone, or forgot a step in a process, he’d just smile, shake his head and say, “Sloppy work, Masuda.” Not in a mean way, but in a way that made me rethink my, ahem, attention to matters. He climbed poles and crawled in tight spaces with live electrical things. He wasn’t afraid of anything, really, except spiders. He really hated spiders.
Two days after we brought Jackson home from the hospital, he decided the hedge needed trimming. He was on a ladder and he slipped a little and, essentially, cut the entire top of his thumb off. As in, the top of his thumb was hanging on by a thread. I freaked out and said something soothing like: “I HAVE A TWO-DAY OLD HERE AND WHY WERE YOU CUTTING THE DAMN HEDGE?” He considered my bizarre non-sequitur for a moment, then walked into the kitchen and wrapped the whole thing in a paper towel until the blood stopped spurting. Holding the paper towel firmly over his severed thumb, he wrapped it with black electrical tape using his non-spurting hand and his teeth. He went out and finished cutting the hedge, came back in, sat down at the kitchen counter and drank a beer. He held our new baby carefully, so as not to get any seeping blood on him. An hour or so later, he sewed the tip of his thumb back on. I think he used fishing line, but I’m not sure because I left the room when I figured out what he was going to do. It held on, and healed eventually, but it left a serious scar. He didn’t try to get it straight, and, again, I think fishing line was involved. My mom (who witnessed this and knows I am not lying) and I dubbed it “Frankenthumb.”
Be humble and polite and smile often. Harlan was not picky, he was not quick to anger, and he was not judgmental. I am pretty much all of those things, so you know, it worked out. One time I said, “You know, it bugs me when we’re at a party and we have to call our kids over to pray to the Heavenly Father when we’re not even Christian.” He said, “It’s no big deal.” I said, all haughtily like I do,”Well, let’s have everyone chant or something at our next party.” He said, “Why would we want to chant at a party?” Dead pan. If he didn’t like something, he’d say “I don’t really care for it,” but only if someone asked. In Harlan’s case, this applied to food, mostly. There were people Harlan did not care for. If he did not care for you, he would not pretend to care for you. He never worried about speaking up at work when something was “bullshit.” He did not respect people who turned their backs on friends or coworkers, or acted like they were better than other people. He didn’t judge them or be rude to them or talk about them. He’d just kind of write them off. He was a proud IBEW union man and he “did not care for” overpaid, loudmouth bosses or “scabs.” He would not care for Donald Trump. If he saw Trump in person, he would probably knock him out. I never saw him hit anyone, but he could benchpress a bajillion pounds or something like that, and he would definitely pound that smug f**k into the ground, given the opportunity.
Where there is no Buddha, be the Buddha.
Humor. Make it Count. Again, Harlan wasn’t a talker. He had no problem with silence. But when he said or did something funny, it was very, very funny. His timing was impeccable. There’s a bunch of one liners I’d like to share, but there may be kids around so, trust me. When Harlan threw in a one-liner, that joke had some serious legs.
Be curious. Ask Questions. Harlan always wanted to learn everything about stuff. He wasn’t nosy about people’s personal lives or feelings. He always wanted to know how people did things. He never read a novel in his life (when I was teaching To Kill a Mockingbird to some Freshmen, he wanted to read it and take all the quizzes. When I gave him the first quiz he got all nervous. Then he broke down, “Okay! Okay! I only read the Cliff Notes!”) He always had several “how to” books stacked by the bed, though. When we traveled places, he connected with everyone. I think Harlan was the most “in his element” when we were out of the country. Language barriers probably helped him communicate more fluently. He was fluent in smiling and gesturing and exuding openness. We have so many pictures of Harlan with strangers in other lands, and, in every single image, the stranger is always smiling as widely and openly as he is. It’s a strange and unlikely phenomenon. They never seemed bothered by his questions or requests for pictures; even Parisians got a kick out of him–shuffling around like he always did, with his backpack and shorts and black socks. Nothing fashionable or sophisticated or savvy about him at all. Just super excited about being a guest in their country and showing the world what aloha feels like, rather than telling the world what it means.
Hug for Real. Harlan was a big man. When he hugged you, he enveloped you, and the hug felt like all the light of his love was connecting with yours. I couldn’t see his face when he hugged me, but when he hugged the people he loved his eyes would close and crinkle up at the sides, and he would smile. It wasn’t “for” anyone–it was how he felt when he hugged people. Our children, my friends, my parents, his sister, his brother, his friends. Always eyes closed. Always smiling and glowing from within.
Do it with Gusto or not at All. When Harlan cooked dinner, which was often, he drank a few cans of Coors (again..nothing fashionable or sophisticated) and called it “Kitchen Stadium.” He put on music and danced around with Skylar. He spoke in a french-ish accent when he plated the food and told us what it was. “We have a leeetle breaded ah mahi ah, with zeee rice and zeeee brown but-air sauce.” He loved to fish, and he loved bodysurfing. He took a picture with every single fish he ever caught. I think the best day of his life was when he and Jackson brought in that 55 pound ono off Mala Wharf. He knew these moments were important. He loved sentimental songs–the sappier the better. On our first date he sang me “Crystal Chandeliers.” Maybe he did that on all his first dates, but it worked on this one. “All I have to offer you is me,” he sang. And I was like, ummmm, okay!
Throughout our almost-fifteen years together, he played guitar and ukulele almost every night and sang, even if no one was listening (I always was, even if I was busy cleaning the kitchen or sitting on my stupid computer). He’d sit on the table in the backyard, and pet Lucky, and call for us, when all the three of us were zoning out on our computers or other devices…
“Come out and look at the moon! It’s so bright and we’re all together and life is beautiful!”
So tonight go out and look at the moon. And hug someone with your eyes closed. And sing even if no one is listening. And give someone your whole self. And where there is no Harlan, be Harlan.
Something terrible happened to my family. The kind of thing people “can’t even imagine.”
“I can’t even imagine.”
This was one of many mantra-esque expressions which arose during the weeks after my husband’s fatal accident. It was uttered by people who meant very well, but who (understandably) wanted to distance themselves, except themselves, from tragedies such as this. These four words italicized, emboldened and underscored how exceptional our sudden loss actually was. I assumed these people had, at least once, watched the news, seen a movie, or read a book. If so, they actually would have imagined–seen in their minds’ eyes, as I had–a lot of really tragic things. The message in that seemingly benign mantra presented as:
“Your family’s situation is so bad, it’s completely unimaginable.”
“You really can’t even imagine?” I almost asked one of these kind, well-intentioned people. Instead, I said to myself, “Oh, that’s why they’re called “sympathy” cards, not “empathy” cards.”
I’d always wondered, actually.
Then I thought “Maybe there should be two separate categories of cards: “Sympathy,” for customers who can’t imagine, and “Empathy,” for customers who can.
Then I thought to myself, “It must be time for my Ativan.”
I wanted to ask those people how it felt to not be able to imagine it at all, but I never did. It’s rude to pose abstract philosophical questions over casseroles and chicken katsu, over cookies and macaroni salad, in the midst of so many flowers, embraces and tears. Instead, I made like a jellyfish and let the tsunami of love carry me through those weeks. So much sincere kindness from people we barely knew. So many parents who, during the first weeks, sent their children to spend full days and nights in our home, to make sure my kids knew their friends were with them no matter what. Smiling, laughing, carrying on. Allaying for them–and for me–an unspoken fear bundled in the loss and grief package: the fear of being defined by tragedy. The fear of forever otherness.
“We’re going to be okay.”
That was my mantra.
“We’re going to be okay.”
The five-word emergency kit of clichés. The moment the most horrible words I’d ever heard, the exact moment the the unimaginable words made the seventeen-inch journey from the cop’s lips to my ears, to my brain, to my heart, these five words seemed to mobilize like a small, but mighty troop of Special Ops soldiers. They came in a whisper first, right after the the unimaginable words pushed themselves from my broken heart to my throat to my lips. They came just after I’d watched (in my mind, I can see the words as physical text. Black. Times New Roman.) those other words hover in the emptiness between my mouth and my children’s ears, embedding themselves in their minds and their hearts.
It’s not true.
Holding them. Holding them so close.
Yes. Yes. Yes. It is true and we’re going to be okay.
We’re going to be okay.
We’re going to be okay.
What other choice is there?
In the weeks and months that followed, I cried. Twice I cried hard in front of them. Once, while driving my daughter to ballet, a truck exactly like my husband’s passed us. We had just pulled out of the driveway. The driver wore a fluorescent yellow shirt exactly like my husband had worn every day to work. The driver, in fact, looked exactly like my husband. I saw my daughter turn and crane her neck as he passed. My heart couldn’t bear the moment. Those who have been through tragedy understand the feeling. The heart ruptures and you think you’re going to die. But I knew the kids would be okay as long as I was okay. So I said,
“That man looked like daddy, huh? I miss him so much.”
“Are you okay?”
“Do you want to go to dance?”
Routines meant “okay.” Laughter meant “okay.” Talking about missing daddy meant “okay.”
Stuff like this probably meant “not okay:”
After I dropped her off at dance class, I drove through the neighborhood searching for the truck and its driver. I didn’t think (at least consciously) that the search would lead me to my husband. I thought that I would locate the asshole who had the nerve to drive a truck exactly like my husband’s and wear a work shirt exactly like my husband’s and have a shaved head exactly like my husband’s and drive through our neighborhood? What monster does something like that?
I didn’t find the truck or the driver, thank goodness.
Even so, definitely, “not okay.”
When I got home, I broke into tears in front of my son, who was at the table doing homework. It was something I promised myself I wouldn’t do. Promising anything while grieving is not a good idea.
Without hesitating, without looking at me in horror, without saying a word, my twelve-year-old man child got up and hugged me. That was it. He hugged me and I cried. Finally I said, “I’m sorry. I just really miss Daddy.” Then I wiped off my face (I did have the wherewithal to skip mascara. Nothing says “not okay” quite like a mascara-induced Rorschach test streaming across your face), kissed him on the forehead and made dinner.
Less than two months after my husband’s death, I had to travel to the small island of Lana’i for work. I’d first met him on Lana’i and lived there for a school year. We traveled back and forth by ferry every weekend–alternating between Maui and Lana’i–for the better part of nine months. We fell in love deeply and quickly. Nearly every inch of the island held a memory of us. I tried to fortify myself, repeating “It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay,” but I was terrified. I began crying the moment I arrived at the harbor in Lahaina. I managed to get through the day of meetings without breaking down, but on the return ride, as night fell, my chest began to ache. It started as a dull ache but escalated into an acutely painful stabbing sensation. I thought I was having a heart attack and tried to figure out what I would do if I needed an ambulance pick-up at the dock. Then I thought about who would call my best friend, who would then go to the house and tell the kids. Then I said (I whispered it to myself, out loud #notokay), “Get it together, Marnie. Pull it together. No dying.”
That seemed to do the trick.
This became mantra number two: “No Dying.”
Days moved by. I was in shock and, I suppose, the kids were as well. It was hard to tell. I watched and listened and even smelled for signs of distress. They seemed so fine. They didn’t want to “talk about it.” Every therapist I spoke to told me essentially the same thing, “Children are resilient. If you’re okay, they’re okay. They will follow your lead.”
So, okay…be okay and everyone will be okay.
I took them to the therapist I was seeing for my PTSD. They cried a little, which was good. On the ride back, my son asked,
“Do you pay for that?”
“Yes, I do. Why? What do you think?”
My daughter chimed in, “Well, maybe if it’s like twenty bucks…” voice rising skeptically at the end.
“So, not super into it?”
“No!” They answered, pretty much in unison.
“We’re gonna be okay,” the eleven-year-old Goddess of Wisdom assured me.
“We’re gonna be okay,” I repeated.
Were we already okay? The word holds so much nuance and power. It’s one of very few etymologically untraceable words. Is it a even a word? Choctaw (“okey”)? Greek? French (“au quai?”) Martin Van Buren? Obediah Kelly? It must be Ativan thirty.
Days happened. I dropped the kids at school, went to work, picked them up. One of the things about “shock” is that you don’t realize you’re in it until you’re out of it. Another thing is: it sticks around a while. I can remember very little from those first months. Random bits emerge slowly from the shock bubble. Some materialize like images in a crystal ball–blurry, fleeting, non-sequential. Some pop up out of nowhere, jumpy and poorly edited, like old black-and-white movies. But most events between February and August of 2014 are gone, gone, gone.
I booked a safari for the following summer, a full year in advance. This brand of fairly rash act could fall under “okay” or “not okay,” depending on who’s doing the hashtagging.
Marnie just booked a safari in Tanzania for summer 2015. #notokay
Marnie just booked a safari in Tanzania for summer 2015. #okay
See? It depends on who’s hashing the tag.
And people were hashing some tags, I’m sure.
A single image settled itself in the front of my brain at some point and it stuck. I took it to mean something. I still take almost everything to “mean something.” (#notokay?) I am sitting on an army green folding chair, flanked by my son and my daughter. I have one arm around each of them. It’s late afternoon and, in the golden, shadowy time before dusk, we become a silent, sturdy triangle, semi-silhouetted, staring out over the vast Serengeti.
Alive. Away. Together.
The image made me feel hopeful and warm, so I held onto it. #okay.
Can you even imagine?
Miryam waits before she wakes the children. She waits because the birds are not yet singing and nothing moves, not even the almond trees. She waits because she knows in their sleep they remain children, oblivious. She lets Kaleb and Sara linger there, drifting through whatever dreams they may be having. Good or bad, the dreams are their own.
When their eyes open, things will be different. Miryam will have to tell them their father died in the night. She will not tell them that he went away or that he went to sleep. She will not tell them that he might be all right, that he is sick and receiving treatment and in good hands. She will just sit them down, right beside her on the bed, Kaleb on her left and Sara on her right, and tell them that he died.
She will say these words: “Daddy died,” and then she will tell them that they will be okay.
She will say, over and over again, with increasing certainty, “We will be okay.” Just as if she knew it to be true. As if she could promise such things.
Before the birds, before the wind in the almond trees, before the opening of Miryam’s children’s eyes, the call to prayer:
Eşhedû en lâ ilâhe illallah
Eşhedû enne Muhammeden resulullah
Lâ ilahe illallah
God is Great
There is no god but God
Muhammed is the Prophet of God
Come to prayer
Come to salvation
God is Great
There is no god but God
The hollow echo of the muezzin blankets the town. It is time for Miryam to leave her room, to kiss her children awake, to watch their eyes open slowly, to take them by the same hands their father often held. It is time to tell them.
A couple emerged from the bus station on a sunday afternoon, blurry-eyed and creaky after sleeping through most of the long ride, glad to be off the bus. The quiet, broken only by the trickling of a fountain, was what the wife remarked on first. It was a shushing kind of quiet, a near-silence which suggested a church more than a city. The quiet compelled the wife to whisper her first impressions to the husband while they limped along together, slanting and sweating under the weight of their packs.
Tonight, after making love and showering, they would go to the bullfight. It would be their only opportunity during their short stay. The idea filled her with dread: the bull being punctured, teased, deliberately aggravated to the point of exhaustion, then impaled. The cheer of the crowd as the bull collapsed. The bravado of the matador. But she wanted her husband to be happy, so she told herself stories about the cultural significance, stories about the ritual and the dance, stories about the solemn parade of the dead bull through the streets, stories about reverent Sevillanos eating the meat of the fallen bull. She thought about Hemingway, of course. She considered the brutishness and also the beauty of life, and she steeled herself for the spectacle.
Before the bus had even pulled away from the station in Algeciras that morning, the wife’s head had slumped against the window and she’d begun dreaming. Something to do with a red, foil-wrapped package and someone telling her not to open it.
The wife had woken up only once during the five hour ride. She’d been deep in the fog of disorientation particular to travel. There was the initial jolt (“where am I?”), the subtle embarrassment at having fallen asleep in public, then a momentary yearning for the nearly-forgotten feel of her real bed. Their real bed, which still existed, as their children did, halfway around the world from where they were. During those few, semi-lucid minutes, the bus passed a huge silhouette of a black bull—-a billboard—-standing on a yellow hill. She tapped her husband lightly and his eyes opened halfway.
“Look. We’re in Spain,” she whispered. She watched his eyes close again, and soon hers closed too. She would never know if he’d seen the bull on the hill.
When the iPhone alarm had gone off at 5 am that same morning, the husband had groped for the light switch in the dark. After packing and dressing, they slipped out to roof patio of their riad to watch the sun rise over the Straight of Gibraltar. The wife sat at a table, sipping coffee, while the husband leaned over the bougainvillea-draped ledge, snapping pictures of the red sun moving up and over whitewashed merlons and serrated parapets. They remained there, taking it in, until they heard their taxi rumble up the cobbled street below. Then they threw on their packs and ran downstairs. They wanted to be sure to catch the first ferry out of Tangier that morning, to move on to the next chapter of their adventure. To leave Morocco and head to Spain.
As the cab rolled along, barely squeezing through the the tear-shaped, arabesque threshold, the wife looked back. An ache formed around her jaw and just below her heart. She already missed the labyrinth of hidden stairways, the confounding, meandering passages, the glimmer of light on the leaded-glass windows. She already missed the jingle of the coins in the hidden pocket of Sharif’s white kaftan, as he led them through the medina, as they snaked their way through the crowded souks. She vowed to remember the prayer rugs. She wanted to recall them readily, again and again, just as they were, draped over the high ledges, drying in the afternoon sun. She wanted to remember the wail of the muezzin at dawn, at midday, at sundown.
The wife craned her neck and kept her gaze fixed on the the fortressed kasbah until it receeded completely, until the driver turned left and headed towards the docks, where their ferry–“Baleària.com” painted boldly in blue on its hull–waited. At the docks, cranes and barges and trucks were already moving and lifting and bringing and taking. Men in fezzes and elaborate jellabas begged tourists to pick up one last memento. The husband had stopped, even though the wife had tried to pull him away. She kept walking, backing up slowly, watching him bargain. Finally, she watched her husband shake the old man’s hand. She watched the dark old man hand her husband the goat skin drum. A present for their son.
She shook her head.
“You’re going to have to carry that thing until we get home, you know,” she said.
Then she smiled and kissed him, and they boarded the ferry and crossed the Straight of Gibraltar.
“Orpheus sang his grief to all who breathed the upper air, both gods and men…”
So much has changed and nothing has changed since the morning my husband last tapped on the bathroom door to say goodbye before he left for work. Since he last called me while I waited for the kids at the dentist, to check in (as he always did) to tell me he was heading for the beach.
So much and nothing has changed since I began to worry, since I called and called again. Since I drove through the falling night, heart beating, to Baldwin Beach to try to find him.
The bathroom door is still here.
The phone is still here.
The beach is still here.
Palms still blow in the strong afternoon trades. Waves continue to build over shifting trenches offshore at Baldwin. They continue to break hard on the sudden shore.
The night will come.
My heart will beat.
And he will still be gone.
Our children will laugh and cry, triumph and struggle and grow.
My heart will heal (my wabi sabi heart, it’s healing now. It is.).
And he will still be gone.
A whisper in the wild night wind, a cooling, breathing shadow in the midst of a relentless afternoon, the earthy smell of coming rain just after sunset.
And he will still be gone.
And he will still be here.