On the first Wednesday of every month for the past year, my walk east from Fourteenth Street and Seventh Avenue where I teach, to the corner of Eighteenth Street and First Avenue took about twenty minutes. There are intriguing neighborhood changes along the way but I was usually lost in thought. I would arrive at my destination, Beth Israel’s Karpas Health Center, at exactly 6:30PM. It is hidden inside an unimpressive storefront entrance to the building, on ground level.
Upon entering I was greeted by the stark whiteness of a fluorescent lit waiting room. Immediately to the left is a door which leads to another, it’s exact replica, separated by a tiny vestibule. Once through the second door I was enveloped in a violet grey carpeted, dimly lit room.On these nights the air was infused with incense and the room was set up with one simple circle of chairs. Two Buddhist Monks who work with the dying and their families, were there as guides. They were always dressed in simple black robes; their heads closely shaven. The rest of us, having just arrived from work or travel from home,were in street clothes. A somewhat peculiar group, we gathered for the sole purpose of contemplating our own deaths together.
I am not sure what led me to this group other than my increasing dismay with fears and regrets which seemed intent on regularly stalking my nights. I feared cancer, being financially ill equipped to support myself should I reach very old age, having to submit to medical treatments for any number of deadly illnesses, dying alone. I regretted my divorce, my having let my little girl cry herself to sleep when she was six months old. The list kept growing like weeds in an otherwise well tended garden. It began to feel endless.
I listened to fellow group members as though they somehow held answers to questions I had not yet become aware of. One woman spoke about the helplessness of watching her brother being taken away with methodical ruthlessness by his terminal illness; another , a highly successful entrepreneur, of feeling totally lost after the death of her husband. A younger woman voiced her inescapable dread of death’s grip forcing her to abandon her two small children.
We were asked to choose partners and to gaze into one another’s eyes.
At first my eyes refused to follow this directive and kept darting away from my partner’s. When I was able to sustain more than a few moments of contact, a wave of giggling took over against my will. Once recovered I tumbled, as if weightless, into a blissful sense of stillness; of solitude; alone and yet extraordinarily together with another. I was hypnotized by the infinite fluidity and mystery of my partner’s eyes.
Black robed Koshin then instructed us to take turns saying “YOU ARE GOING TO DIE”, to each other, slowly and with conviction. This turn taking message went on for several minutes. It felt like years and was far more difficult to deliver than to receive.
That night I left dizzy, light headed and was looking forward to getting a good night’s sleep. Instead I lay awake for the entire six hours I thought I’d have for dreaming. My neighbor’s baby girl had been up for most of the night as well. Her bedroom butted up against mine and we had been developing a secret connection. I sensed when she was hungry, angry, lonely or frightened. The morning came earlier than usual and I barely managed to leave my apartment with enough time to make the short walk to my office, when I found myself face to face with baby girl and her two exhausted parents. For a moment, I panicked. But knowing that I couldn’t rush past them allowing myself a quick exit, I waited as the cumbersome stroller was pushed onto the elevator. I was left holding the door as the couple fell into place by baby’s side. It was a silent ride, all eyes gazing inward. Baby girl seemed to be soberly preparing for her day with four new teeth, soft booties and a brave stuffed animal.
Her parents were pale and drawn. I thought of how they had recently made the decision, causally spoken of with me on a less harried elevator ride, to place their six month old in day care. They could no longer afford keeping her under the watchful eye of the nanny I had become accustomed to greeting each morning. I then remembered a soft chocolate and and salt covered pretzel in my purse from my last class with my students the day before. The combination of the dark chocolate with the crusty salt was like a Rembrandt or a Beethoven affording the perfect juxtaposition of light and shadow, percussions, strings and winds.
I took it out of my bag and gave it to baby girl. She looked into my eyes. Hers were as huge and deeply blue as I had ever seen. We all left the elevator together.
Judith Luongo has a private practice in Park Slope as a psychotherapist and is licensed as both an Art Therapist and a Psychoanalyst. She enjoys teaching her students at Pratt Institute in the Graduate Creative Arts Therapy Dept. where she is an Associate Professor. Judith is a working artist affiliated with BWAC in Red Hook Brooklyn and as an aspiring writer has written two plays, poetry and many personal essays. She lives in Prospect Heights.