Ten minutes into my friend Jason's funeral, the rabbi's cell phone started ringing. Jason would have told that joke a thousand times. But his body lay in the coffin, and now we tell the joke.
Is this what a story can do? Emerge from the most painful event and transform it into something else, too? So sad. So funny. Both. And life is there, for a moment, almost adequately represented.
I'm looking for the gate, Jason used to say when he was in pain. I can't find the gate, but I'm looking. What was this gate my friend Jason was looking for? Maybe he wanted to find the door in the room of suffering, so that he might walk through it into another story. If my being in pain would relieve someone else, Jason said, then I would bear it gladly. I want to be present, he used to say. That's all we can be, he would say, present—and kind.
How difficult it is to be present. A few weeks ago, in one of those drooling late-night states trolling through the e-mails, exhausted, depleted, clicking through the Internet, I clicked on a line on the AOL home page that promised to show me Angelina Jolie's split leather pants. Before the page materialized, I turned the computer off and put my head in my hands. And in the sudden quiet of the dark apartment—the blue screen extinguished, the radiator hissing, my 8-year-old sleeping—I noticed death and life sitting quietly beside me, waiting for my attention. Jason's death and my own.
Oh who wouldn't want to look away? The cell phone rings, another American Idol is belting it out, the war is on, and the glittering Web sparkles like the Milky Way in a box—promising that if I keep clicking and clicking, I might finally get to what I long for, to the message, the rug, the T-shirt. I will move beyond suffering and beyond time, beyond the limits of my money and my story and life.
But that place? It's not there—it's virtual—it's nowhere. The days and nights of my life walk by, arm in arm with time, and the gate to the new story stands just outside the circle of my attention. Sometimes I lie here, Jason said, and walk through the old house of my childhood, through all the rooms, and look out all the windows.
This might be the most difficult task for us in postmodern life: not to look away from what is actually happening. To put down the iPod and the e-mail and the phone. To look long enough so that we can look through it—like a window. Jason looked up one day last week and said, This is unendurable. Then he said, I like that black sweater.
How do we learn this kind of attention? A lot of his friends were with Jason during his life and the last three years of his illness. Everyone has stories. Lucie told us this one. She picked up Jason from the hospital and drove all night to get to Provincetown; he wanted to go there for maybe the last time. Walking slowly through the fog on the beach in the very early morning she said, We will always remember this day. And Jason, who was pretty well practiced by then, said, I am remembering it now.
Marie Howe lives in New York City. She has published three books of poems: The Good Thief, What The Living Do, and, most recently, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time.
From the August 2008 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
We Hear You!