Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Simple Door

Before I got into bed last night, I glimpsed my email – one new message.

It must have come while I leaned against the bathroom sink opening four small plastic bottles, shaking out one pill from each into the palm of my hand. Once a day for the past twenty years, I have done the same thing to help keep blood pressure and cholesterol under control. Some of the prescriptions are the same medications that my parents took until they were ninety.

Maybe the ding of the email had gotten lost under the drone of the electric toothbrush. Passing the whirring bristles over my top teeth, front and back, and then my bottom teeth, front and back, I had long ago stopped resisting the repetitions of that procedure that are recommended. I rinsed then and spent a final minute or two with the floss and interdental brushes.

I knew what faced me when I got back to the bedroom, three open windows where there are usually at most two on a summer night. Earlier in the afternoon I had removed my one air conditioner from the third window. It had stopped cooling – no cleaning of filters succeeded in getting cold air. I opted for the chance of breezes crossing the room from one window to the other two. I aimed a floor fan at the bed.

I pulled down the bedspread and cover sheet, picked up a pillow and tossed it to the foot of the bed – closer to the open windows. I would sleep with my feet toward the wall. I knew from past experience that there was some comfort in feeling night air against my face. It was almost an outing, choosing to sleep another way on the bed. Something from childhood summers.

I sat on the edge of the bed to read the email from Alex. Alex was a friend from my earliest years in New England, and he and I had re-connected only a week earlier – a kind of stab-in-the-dark Google success story. His customary good manners notwithstanding, there was no misreading the satisfaction that Alex had felt in our resumed contact.

This email a week later was an announcement that he would be going into the hospital. By 7:30 the following morning, when I would be heading into work, he would be undergoing cancer surgery, a procedure scheduled to last no fewer than seven hours.

It was news that put into perspective the discomfort of a summer night without air conditioning.

But there was a kind of echo in the room. Only a few hours earlier I had exchanged text messages with someone finishing his first week home after a stay in the very same hospital. The visiting nurses who arrived daily at the house were monitoring John’s recovery from another kind of cancer surgery.

Two men I knew were not looking at anything like a normal work week for some time to come.

In the dark, my head on the pillow, facing the air of the open windows, I answered Alex’s email, typing into the light of my phone’s screen a promise of prayers and support.

When I woke, it was perhaps four hours later. The dark room from my angle at the foot of the bed was different from what I was used to, but I was awake enough to know that nothing was really different. Everything that was there had always been there. Even the door whose white frame stood out in the shadows.

Briefly but strongly, though, it was the door that is always open. Each of us will walk through that door one day.

Such a simple door, inevitable, always there.

And I fell back to sleep.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


Many people, I presume, could name the model of the wide white car following my black Honda Fit on Vermont Route 105 a week ago. In my rear view mirror, I could make out behind their sunglasses a young man at the wheel and a woman in the passenger seat. The driver seemed desperate to pass me. He twice accelerated when the broken line appeared on our side of the two-lane road and both times had to slow down when oncoming traffic suddenly appeared.

What I could not explain to this man was the car marked “Border Patrol” that I had spotted behind roadside shrubbery ten minutes after being stopped at customs. My three-night stay at the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Benoît-du-Lac had been my first entry into Canada in close to twenty years. I had admitted as much to the customs officer, but I wondered whether there was a pattern to how people drive in their first miles into Vermont that alerts officials to suspicious activity.

I was innocent, I was at pains to explain.

I could not help, though, looking like a man in his early sixties. I could not help driving a modest car. I could not help having barely more than a Google Maps acquaintance with the landscape around me.

I felt compelled to drive within the posted limits.

And I resented that scarcely an hour after a final silent breakfast in the guesthouse dining room I was losing the mood of my days away. More precisely, I felt the ebbing of the long-familiar wonder with which I customarily greet my life and the sky over it when a retreat is over. I had wanted that time with my history of days away and weekends of recollection to last a little longer.

Sometimes rural Louisiana. Often the coastline of New England. Even once the Loire Valley.

And then the white car passed me.

In a little while the road was mine again.