A dragonfly hovered strangely at eye-level outside my car window in August. I thought it must mean that my friend Joan was dead.
I was stopped at a red light. The dragonfly seemed to hang there for tens of seconds, inches from my face. Then it circled the car twice, whirling a Monarch butterfly in its tailwind over the hood as it swooped away and headed toward the river.
My son was with his father overnight — a new freedom that, for me, felt more like purposelessness. I had a bag of takeout food and no one to eat it with, no little boy to trade grins with and listen to, no one to wrap my arms around. I looked north, where Joan lay unconscious at a hospice facility. I knew that her daughter was at her side, and that she wanted them to remain undisturbed.
I turned the car in that direction anyway, remembering the spacious rooms where my stepfather had stayed for a few days a little over one year before, the doors that opened to a courtyard so they could wheel the dying outside to soothe them with fresh air. I remembered the kindnesses of the nurses, the aide, the social worker and the spiritual counselor who came to our home; the suspended state that we lived in for two and half months as we watched him die.
It took a couple of weeks for him to let go of living, like watching an old flashlight dimming with episodic flickers of panicky light. We lived as though we were deep underwater, even after the day I saw the final dullness of his eyes, the slack of his jaw and heard myself say, after pressing my hand over his rough rib cage and in search of the faint heart beat that had been there an hour earlier, “I think he really is dead now, mom.”
Joan was the person who regularly pulled me to the surface during that time. She had warmth, a wisdom that sprang from her own intimate relationship with grief and a genuine faith. She gave these enveloping hugs and called everybody she loved familial names like baby, sweetheart, son and daughter. She had a way of saying exactly what I needed to hear, a way of helping me see that I could let go of the things I couldn’t control and sleep through the night after all.
As she moved toward her final stages, I had been out of town. She had already been in that unconscious, transitional state between life and death for days when I returned. I dropped off a letter for her and a note to her daughter the day before. “You are infinite,” I had said. Her generosity multiplied through her dozens of spiritual babies, sweethearts, sons and daughters in a way that gave her a kind of immortality. We who were loved by her reflected what she gave us with richness and brilliance, so it seemed perfectly normal to think that a dragonfly could be Joan.
I slowed down momentarily to look at the stately, house-like hospice structure as I drove past. “Was that you?” I said out loud. “Was it you, Joan?”
I didn’t stop. I headed to a park with a pond that was always bursting with dragonflies. I slathered on bug spray, then watched them skim the water, some stick-thin, some chunkier like elongated bumblebees, all iridescent, all reflecting light.
I was too apprehensive to eat anything but a few bites of watermelon. A little girl, maybe two or three years old, sidled up to me and tried to take my car keys. I can’t remember her face at all, but I do remember thinking that she was beautiful. She touched the wooden mala beads that I had been praying with as she said hello, then went for the keys again. I tried to hide them. Her grandfather distracted her by suggesting they walk over to look at the ducks. They were actually geese, but it worked. My keys were safe.
I thumbed through om mani padme hum on my mala a third time, sending it to Joan as the sun set. Then I took myself to a coffee shop, where I sat and wrote with a pen in my hand and wished I could unknot the waiting feeling in my stomach. I watched all kinds of people on the street outside as they headed places, looking purposeful. I imagined having that kind of anticipation again – the kind you feel when you are on your way somewhere, looking forward, open to all of the possibilities.