(from Tony deMello)
“Well, that’s appropriate. Of course. Leave it to you not to do anything ironic.”
Bernie had just told his best friend that he had an enlarged heart. All johnnied and propped up. In his bed in the emergency room. And Bill was making jokes.
All was right with the world.
Just the tips of Bernie’s lips turned up in that little, enigmatic Buddha smile of his. Appropriate again. As Bernie was a Buddhist.
“So that would make you a Jewbu?” his best friend had said, decades before, when Bernie had revealed his new spiritual orientation. This was the weekend before Bill’s ordination at the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. “Yeah, “he had written on the back of the gold-embossed invitation, “place looks as convoluted as its name. Like a tour of Church kitsch in stone! So wear your Red Sox yarmulke and orange om-shawl — only don’t you dare come to me for communion in front of Bishop Bad Ass! I can’t turn you down, and my first assignment will be chaplain at Our Lady of Antarctica School. Staffed by real penguins.
The two had met as 9th graders at St. Xavier Classical (or as Bill liked to call it, Solomon Schecter Extension; it was the sole private school in the area and prided itself on openness). Close to a quarter of his class was Jewish, including Bernie. Small, skinny and quiet, adept at track and tennis, not football or hockey, and incurably big-hearted, he’d might as well have had a bull’s eye tattooed to his backside. Except for Bill. They’d been paired up in freshman religion class, Catholic Christianity 1– “no exemptions for extenuating circumcisions,” even then Bill was a quipper – and the middle linebacker and rink “enforcer” received his first A with their joint report on the Jewish Jesus. That was all it took. An accommodating AD made sure Bernie and Bill were in all the same classes together; the future two-sport All American never even saw a C. Honestly. Bernie had a faculty for languages, and could translate anything into Yiddish, Polish, or Jockish. Bill never had to cheat, and wouldn’t have asked him. And the budding roshi never had to watch his back. The two were best and life-long friends.
Not long before graduation, Bill had asked Bernie how he liked being a Jew. With his typical sawed-off smile and cadence, he’d answered, “Can’t be sure. Literally. You?” Bill answered the question by entering Catholic seminary. Bernie became a Buddhist monk.
Now, a lifetime later, the two friends sat across a hospital room from each other, a pair of parentheses between which glistened only unbounded trust.
“I know what you’re thinking,” said Bill. ‘What did the Buddhist say to the hot dog vender? Make me one with everything!’ But not yet, buddy. No final oneness for you. Too soon.”
“Not ready,” Bernie’s smile lines sagged just a little. “Still a vacuum cleaner.”
His clerical friend affected the “pastoral pause pose,” head turned and tilted to the side, eyebrows knit together.
‘Wait, I know this one . . . ‘Too many attachments,’ right?”
They laughed. Bernie’s breathing rippled like a tide.
“This could be the perfect time,” he said.
“Oh, don’t start with that stuff again, please, Don’t-Answer-Me!” Bill loved to riff off his friend’s Buddhist name, Doansunim.
“Procedure tomorrow. Never know.”
“I know! And you need to know, too!”
“Can’t be sure,” the monk’s eyes glistened.
“I’m sure I don’t believe in that stuff. You write out a will yet?”
Now Bernie’s eyebrows made namaste.
“I’m assuming you left everything to yourself,” Bill went on. “Seeing as you’re coming back anyway.”
The afterlife, or specifically the nature thereof, was the only thing the two had ever argued about. Bernie called them “spirited discussions.” Bill called him fruit-loopy.
Doansunim leaned closer, so much so that a ringer started chiming.
“Afraid of being wrong? Or right?”
“I’m not afraid of anything, Donuts-n’-Cream!” Father Bill growled. But his eyes showed the one thing; his hands gently guided his friend back toward his pillows.
“Okay, Padre P.O.’d,” said Bernie. “Tired. CD’s in the bag.” And he closed his eyes.
Bill quickly scanned the beeping screens. Nothing changed. He got up and rummaged through the orange sling bag with the embroidered ying-yang beside the bed. Found the CD. Brian Weiss. Guided past-life regression.
“Oh, Done-Suing-Me!” he sighed to himself. But slipped it into his black suit coat pocket.
The next morning, Bill settled in to his recliner in one of the three parish offices he maintained. Solo. Clicked the button on his CD player. Closed his eyes.
A stone stairway. Beautiful garden at the foot of it. Wandering through. Then a door in the garden wall. And . . .
Bill almost shook himself out of it. Everything had gone black. He could hear. Voices, birds, a wind ruffling broad, dry, palm fronds — how did he know that? The only Palms he’d ever seen was the casino hotel in Vegas!
He felt packed dirt beneath bare feet. Knew he had a stick in his right hand. He was blind! But still understood exactly where he was headed.
The path curved upwards; he could sense the grade. Soon the air was cooler; he was shaded now. His stick clacked brittlely against something in his path. A stone step. Then another. Soon he could tell by the cessation of breeze that he was up against something solid. He knocked on it.
“Yahaan aayee-ay,” a voice, strong but pleasant, answered. “Come here,” Bill knew it meant. Somehow.
He gently guided the door back. Stepped inside. Soon he was on his knees, forehead to the teak floor. Natural as can be.
“Mahji,” he said. “Dear Mother. I have a question for you. ”
“Of course, Ramu,” answered the Holy Woman. “Utarana – Rise up. What is it?”
“I would like to know what the color green is?” Bill asked, surprised at how nimbly the blind could rise.
“The color green?” the Woman answered.
“Yes, please. All my life I have heard of it. Wondered about it. They say it is close at hand, everywhere. But I am ignorant of it. So please, Mahji, what is this green that escapes me so?”
Bernie heard a rustle of fabric both stiff and supple (how could that be?) Soon he sensed her near him.
“That is a difficult question. For you, Ramu. But let me attempt an answer.”
Then Bill heard the most beautiful sound he had ever heard in his lives. The Dear Mother was humming. The tune began deeply. Resonating in the chest like the seed of a tide. But slowly, attentive to every note, relishing every pause between them, the music began to grow, to expand like a galaxy from a star-bud. It enveloped him in softness, swaddled him in plush tones, completely cornerless, without edges or strain.
When it stopped, Bill wanted nothing more than to wrap himself in that sound forever.
“So,” he could barely whisper, “ the color green is like beautiful, soothing music.”
“Yes, Ramu,” came the response. “Very much like that . . .”
Similar music was playing in the operating room of Savior Sinai (at the patient’s request). “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo,” it chanted. “I devote myself to the essence of the lotus’ voice.” But the scene was anything but soothing.
“We’re losing him,” someone’s voice muffled its way through a blue mask.
Bernie already knew this, of course. He was hovering above his body, like a four-winged dragonfly over an open lotus. He could hear all of them, could barely see himself through the crowd gathered around his open heart. Still, his only thought was, “Wonder if Bill played it?”
He didn’t as much see the light as began to bathe in it. Then . . .
The light was blinding. Entirely. But he could hear. Voices, birds, a wind ruffling broad, dry, palm fronds — how did he know that? The only palms he’d ever heard ruffle he’d shaken himself, the lulav in his family’s sukkah. A life past.
He felt cool, smooth stone beneath his bare feet. Marble? Knew he had a staff in his right hand. Blind, always had been. But he understood exactly where he was headed.
The path curved upwards; he could sense the grade. Soon the air was cooler; he was shaded as beneath a colonnade of clouds. Then his staff sounded a tone against something in his path. A step like a steeple bell. Then another. Soon he could tell by the cessation of breeze that he was up against something solid. He knocked on it.
“Adveho hic,” a voice, strong but pleasant, answered. “Come here,” Bernie knew it meant. Classically.
He turned his face for one more whiff of that divine breeze, than leaned back into the door. Stepped inside and turned. Soon he was on his knees, then prostrate on the incensed-soaked floor . Natural as can be.
“Mater Beata,” he said. “Blest Mother. I have a question for you. ”
“Of course, Piatus,” answered the Holy Woman. “Surgo– Rise up. What is it?”
“I would like to know what the color green is?” Bernie asked, surprised with what grace the blind could rise.
“The color green?” the Woman answered.
“Yes, please. All my life I have heard of it. Wondered about it. I know it is merely another earthly thing, and that our eyes should be set higher. But still, I have felt so moved to come and ask you this question. Please, Mater, what is this green, that it compels me so?”
Bernie heard a rustle of fabric both stiff and supple (of course it was). Soon he sensed her near him.
“That is a difficult question. For you, Piatus. But let me attempt an answer.”
Then Bernie felt the most beautiful sensation he had ever felt in his lives. It reminded him of his own mother, wrapping him in a great, soft towel after his immersion in the river. But this was even more plush, completely indulgent of him, forgiving of body and forbearing of mind. A seamless robe. Blest Mother encircled him, enfolded him from head to toe in what seemed like yard upon yard of ease without end, so close and devoted was each myriad strand to the other.
Bernie wanted nothing more than to wrap himself in this feeling forever.
“So,” he almost prayed, “the color green is like soft, soothing velvet?”
“Yes, Piatus,” came the response. “Very much like that . . .”
The end of her day. The Mother took her usual walk in the evening breeze. As she approached a bend on the path, she heard a terrible clatter. An argument and more. She rounded the bend.
There were her two visitors. Kicking at each other. Trying to gouge each other’s unseeing eyes. Roaring at each other like cultures at war.
The Dear Mother turned away, but not away, two dots of light reflected in her grey-green eyes.
“Ironically appropriate,” she breathed . . .
Even Bill’s collar couldn’t get him into the ICU. It was nearly two weeks before he could see his friend, back on the regular corridor.
He almost galloped in. Wearing the kelly green clerical shirt he usually reserved for St. Paddy’s Day. And carrying a big shopping bag. He reached into it.
“Bed, Bath. And Beyond,” he grinned. And pulled out an oversized velvet robe. Green.
Bernie, still weak, motioned to the nurse, who took a brown package from his bed tray table. Amazon logo smiled like a Buddha.
Bill ripped it open with one move.
“Velvet Underground? Really?!”
“It’s music,” Bernie’s smile lines rose up.
“It’s metaphor,” Bill sat down hard on the bed. Bernie unsagged.
“What’s a metaphor?” he asked.
His friend stood up tall, set his shoulders, and said in his best John Wayne:
“It’s for grazin’ my cattle, pilgrim.”
“Oy-veh!” said the nurse. The two friends laughed.
“Okay, buddy! In the chair. Time for a spin around the courtyard,” Bill chimed.
“Outside? Can’t be sure . . . ,” started the nurse.
But they were already at the elevators.
“Seinfeld had you deported,” said Bernie.
“That was Babu. Not Ramu. And at least my name wasn’t Pee-at-us!”
The doors closed. Then opened. Onto one beautiful garden.
Wayne-Daniel Berard, PhD, teaches Humanities at Nichols College, Dudley, MA. He publishes broadly in poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. His novella, Everything We Want, was published in 2018 by Bloodstone Press. A poetry collection, The Realm of Blessing, will be published in 2020 by Unsolicited Press.