Excerpt from “Til Death Do Us Part?”
On Memorial Day, 1983
It was a sunny and brisk day as Dolores and I walked up the steep stony driveway to the WTI headquarters. We were going to the annual Memorial Day gathering, which would be held outdoors.
When we reached the top, we could see that several others had already arrived. A table with various books for sale had been set up near the entrance, and I began scanning some of the unfamiliar titles.
Prudence approached us, and she handed each of us a hot cup of elixir.
“Thanks,” I said, taking a long sip. “That sure hits the spot.”
Dolores and I said hello to the dozen other guests who were sitting on chairs, or reading from a pink paper. Timothy approached Dolores and I and handed each of us a copy of something printed on pink paper.
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” he said, smiling broadly with his charismatic smile. “Once those instructions are clear, you should go to a private spot with your notebook. We’ll all meet back here in 30 minutes.”
“OK,” I said. We both studied the paper as Timothy stood there.
I quickly read the instructions. We were to select three living “loved-ones” and write their names in our notebook. We were then to go sit under a bush, or sit in some private spot somewhere on the hilltop. Next, we were to mentally imagine that we get a phone call, and someone tells us that one of the people on our list have died. Each of us was to feel and experience the grief as if that person really died, and attempt to make it real. With the full feeling of grief, we were to write down all those things that we wished we’d told that person before they died. We were to do this exercise with all three of the people on our list.
“Oh, one more thing,” said Timothy. “It doesn’t say this on your paper, but it would be good if at least one person on your list of three is someone who is here today.”
“OK,” I responded. I knew that my father would be on my list, and so would Dolores.
I walked up the rough steps which led to the upper portion of the property, and I sat myself under an old citrus tree. It was one of my favorite spots on the property because I always felt very “invisible” there, yet I had a terrific view of the surrounding neighborhood.
I began my list. I wrote down Dolores, Prudence, and my father. I then closed my eyes, and imagined that I just received a call from my brother telling me that my father had died. I let it hit me that he was gone, dead, out of my life. I began to cry involuntarily. My mind automatically thought back to the earliest childhood memories of my father cutting the lawn, and taking me with him in the station wagon to the supermarket. I remembered the things I did wrong, and was punished for, and my mind went through a non-chronological review of various events.
I cried at other memories. I realized my father was by no means perfect, and yet I could see he tried to do what was right, despite his many weaknesses or deficiencies. I found myself missing him terribly, in spite of the fact that he was still alive and I had not called him for over a month.
I began to do the same with Dolores and Prudence. Dolores and I hadn’t yet married, though we were both very interested in one another and enjoyed each other’s friendship and company. Still, we had already experienced several “rough spots” together. I looked at my watch and saw that I had already been there over 30 minutes, so I quickly finished writing my notes and then headed back down to the gathering.
Most everyone was already back down at the gathering site, and were serving themselves from the delicious dishes that everyone provided. I began to serve myself a smaller than usual dish. I still felt very “shaken up” by my brief but intensive experience of “hearing that my father had died.”
Timothy shared a few prepared readings about Memorial Day and the nature of death. Then we got to the part where Timothy asked each person to briefly share their experiences with their list of three people.
Once each person briefly shared their varied experiences, Timothy then got back in front and, with his charismatic smile, announced that everyone now would have a rare opportunity.
“You’ve all just done what most people do when they learn that someone they love has died. However, all these people are still here. Now you need to tell them today those things that you’d regret not telling them if they died. We have two phones here, so whomever wants to use them may do so now.” [Note: this was before the days of universal cell phones.]
A few people got up and went inside to call someone.
“Or, you can write a short note or letter right now,” Timothy declared. “If you don’t have any stationery, we have lots of paper and envelopes that you can use.”
“Now, if the person is here now,” Timothy continued, “I want the two of you to go to a private place and you can tell that person whatever it is that you want them to hear. Don’t be embarrassed. We’ll all meet back here together in about 30 minutes and share that experience.”
I was a bit hesitant to do this next step. It would be risky. It’s always risky to be completely honest and open. It could be embarrassing. Nevertheless, I first went with Prudence to a private spot. It turns out that she also chose me, so we were able to “kill two birds with one stone,” so to speak.
Next I looked for Dolores, who was just getting done with another person. We walked up the hill and sat under the towering eucalyptus tree. It was not easy, but we talked, and then we hugged, and went back to join the others.
After a few minutes, Prudence read a few passages from a book about death. I took a few notes as I listened, and also looked around at the expressions of those gathered there that day. I felt very much “startled awake,” and I could tell that most everyone had had some sort of eye-opening epiphany about life and death and how quickly it all passes.
I was experiencing an inner turmoil, a bit apprehensive about my plan to talk to my father later in the day. I was also very reflective about all the choices I make day in and out, and how everyone else affects me, and how I affect everyone else. Especially Dolores. How to do it all “just right,” all the time, I wondered? How can I live my life without regrets? I wondered, was everyone else feeling such inner turmoil, and inner challenge?
[more to follow]