Turkeys congregate around the Quan Yin statue in reverence, their wormlike skin dangling from pink noses. With impunity they flaunt the rule for silence with their gargling warbles.
Deena and I are at a weeklong silent retreat at Spirit Rock for writers and painters. Back in Deena’s room, she whispers that the green light on the smoke alarm glares at her when her lights are out and keeps her awake. Determined to fix the problem and anxious that the alarm could shatter the silence of this sacred place, I twist it with a surgeon’s care to disengage the light, but without success. Finally, we search for something to cover it with. Deena nominates a pair of pink lace underwear. With a couple of tacks, I easily cover the green eye so that the light scarcely shines through. Like college students or kindergarteners, we barely suppress giggles, rolling on the bed, hands over our mouths.
In February, Deena let me know about the retreat and said it was perfect for us: her, a blocked painter; me, a blocked writer. We both signed up. In May she called and said that she had a recurrence of her cancer, this time in her brain and spinal column. She was given two weeks to live. The following months—not weeks, she injected the latest in designer poisons to kill the disease before the disease killed her. The diarrhea and nausea from this treatment caused her intestines to bleed, which put her in the hospital for a week. She is now on a smaller dose of the same treatment. For months, I have imagined I would bring Deena to this workshop as a piercing memory of a lost friend. Shockingly, she left me a message a week ago saying she was planning to come to the retreat with me.
Deena tells me about her latest treatment: shots of blood thinners injected in her abdomen. She hates them and tells me that it feels like self-abuse.
“I’ll do it for you,” I volunteer. “I give shots to my goat.”
“Would you?” she asks gratefully. Since it was time for her evening shot, she gives me the syringe with instructions to pinch the skin so that the medicine does not go into the muscle. Then she asks, “So how often do you give your goat shots.”
“I’ve given them to her for three years.”
“Really, every day for three years?”
“No, once a year. I’ve given her three shots.”
“You’ve only given her three shots, and you’re giving them to me.”
“I am. I’m like a farmer.”
We synchronize the rhythm of our breaths, deep breath in, hold a moment, let it out. On the out breath, I grab a roll of flesh with one hand, while I sneak the needle into her pinched skin with the other. Slowly I push the plunger and withdraw the needle leaving another bruise to map the terrain of her belly.
“How’s that?” I ask apprehensively.
“It hurts like hell,” she says.
In writing class, Deena and I become partners in an exercise where we are instructed to take turns expressing what writing means to us. When it is my turn, I look at Deena as she looks at me. Like smoke or mist, the question fades to the background. Her pink scalp is just starting to show through her wild silver curls. We know each other’s secrets, celebrations, and tears. I look at her face, her eyes soft, present, without expectation. I want to say to her, “Stay. I don’t want you to leave.” Since it isn’t my life, and it isn’t my choice, I don’t know how to claim these protests. Still, I feel the demand, sharp, in the pit of my stomach. I have no words. Instead, I sit with her, her warmth flowing over me like a summer rain.
Again in her room, Deena and I whisper, sharing our writings with each other. Mostly, my stories are about my neurotic relationship with writing while she shares heartfelt words about her cancer and stories she wants to leave her son when she dies. We are again breaking the rules of silence, and yet, these moments together are precious and feel fleeting.
I tell Deena, “I’m going to take the painting class next year.”
“And I’m coming with you.” We seal the pact with a high-five and a hug.
After the retreat I drop Deena off in Berkeley. While driving home, my cell phone rings. It’s Deena. “I think we forgot my underwear on the ceiling.”
In memory of Deena Glass – March 24, 1947 to November 22, 2009