The woman in the desert looked at me and waited for my thoughts to leave. ‘Jonathan, none of us knows anything. We think we know, then we don’t. The universe has a way of intervening. Of changing you. In the end, you don’t know what you’re seeking, and you don’t know what you’ll find.’
I shook my head, baffled.
‘But it’s all irrelevant anyway,’ she said. ‘Because it doesn’t matter what you seek or what you find. What matters is that you allow your compass to guide you, and let your gifts and knowledge rise to the surface so you can live out your life’s purpose.’ She thought for a moment. ‘It’s worth the journey.’
‘This path we were forced to take as best we might, in single file, and there I was—the flames to the left of me, and the abyss to the right.’
There are moments in your life that change the course of your destiny for ever. Some people, like me, have already had them. Others have not, but that moment is ahead as certain as a shark prowls the ocean floor.
We are merely helpless swimmers on the surface above, thinking we’re in control and seeing only the shore in the distance. For most it’s worth swimming towards, worth fighting for. The shore provides hope, the horizon above it an entrance into a new world. We swim, achieve, work hard and all the while keep moving towards the future, yet what lies beneath is everything because it has the power to change your world, envelop you in darkness and alter everything you thought you believed.
After the accident I remember thinking of the mind as a battlefield. I was three days into detention, as I called it, a place my family had checked me into to save me from myself. It was an intake facility in Tucson, where the counsellors treated you with drugs for depression and daily doses of therapy. The tables were littered with books with intentionally uplifting titles. It was different than the therapist they had sent me to in California. Different ways of pulling things out of you. I had been driven there by my brother and I remained a few days, talked it out, then escaped a month before he was due to pick me up again. Rode a Greyhound bus back home and went into work the next day as if nothing had happened.
On the bus ride I discovered a newspaper on the seat, a headline about a woman who had opened the door of an airplane mid-flight and jumped. They found her body in a field of flowers with a note still in her pocket. It is on this day she had written, that I have lost all hope.
I tore the article out and kept her picture in my pocket for months. Blonde, red cherub cheeks, a smile of sunshine and daisies like the field they had found her in. The face of hope.
On the day I left suburbia for the desert, I had no illusions I’d ever return. On that day, all hope was lost. I’d exhausted all options. Worked, without working. Slept, without sleeping. Talked, without remembering what I’d said or whom I’d said it to. After weeks of this, they agreed to let me leave. They had no choice.
‘So what’s next on your journey?’ Marilyn asked. She pulled a music device that looked like an Ipod from her pocket as the morning sun lifted over the mountains behind her. I lifted my arms towards the sky, stretching them wide. I gauged my feelings, as I had become accustomed to doing. In grief therapy the psychotherapist who tried to crack open my skull and pour sunshine in had outlined the stages of mourning, and they were fixed there for ever. One tool was to get your body moving. Even if it was something small, like stretching. In the mornings I thought of those grief stages without trying to. Sadness, anger, despair, forgiveness. I was stuck in the first three without any hope for the last. Each morning it was despair, pure and black. The darkness that defined my life now was etched into my soul. It’s almost as if his life has been divided into two sections. Before the accident, and after.
‘Did I sleep?’ I asked. I didn’t attempt a smile.
She nodded that indeed I had, and I guessed it was for the first time in months without meds.
‘You snored a little,’ she said. ‘It was a deep REM sleep.’ She put the headset in her ears and turned it on, smiling.
The world was silent, but music emanated from where she was sitting.
‘What are you listening to?’ I asked, pointing to my ears.
‘Breathe,’ she said.
She removed the sound piece and walked over slowly, placing it against my ear.
I can feel the magic floating in the air. Being with you gets me that way. I watch the sunlight dance across your face. Never been this swept away.
I pulled back. ‘A love song?’
‘You don’t seem the love song type, if I might say that.’
‘I was in love just once, and this song reminds me of him. The artist is Faith Hill.’
‘Where is he today?’ I asked.
‘I’m not sure, Jonathan. He was from the country. Loved country songs. We met on a subway in New York City when he flew there on business, and he wore cowboy boots with his suit. That really stood out. He had been there only once in his entire life, so it was a chance encounter.’
I smiled and shook my head. An old woman, hardened by years. A New Yorker, no less, listening to Faith Hill. Her eyes clouded over.
‘So you didn’t marry him.’
‘I wanted to, but he was already married. I never told him exactly how I felt, because I just assumed it was an impossible situation. But it was electric. Not just lust, but love. True love.’ She closed her eyes.
‘How do you know?’ I asked.
‘You know when you know, Jonathan. I know because I never felt that way again in my life about anyone else. I had relationships, but I never felt that way.’
‘So you don’t know where he is today? Maybe he’d want to know you’re dying, and that you loved him.’
‘I came to the conclusion years ago, that sometimes you meet someone who changes your life, but that doesn’t mean that your life has to change.’
I pondered that thought for a moment.
‘But what if he wanted to say goodbye one last time?’
‘To what end?’ she asked.
‘Because you could tell him how you really feel. How you’ve felt all these years. What if he feels the same?’
‘’What if?’ she said, looking into closed hands. She seemed to be studying them, as if the crevices would provide answers. ‘If I told him, and he loved me back, what then? He’d be engulfed in grief. If he had loved me, at least all these years he’s had the hope that I’d return. Hope is everything, Jonathan. You know that.’
‘You don’t make much sense to me. You’re not what you seem,’ I said.
‘Are any of us?’
I stood, walked to my backpack and reached inside. I pulled out the last protein bar and tore into it, famished.
‘Are you angry?’ I asked. ‘I mean, angry that your years will be cut short?’
‘Oh no,’ she said quickly. ‘Let’s face it I’d only have 20 more, anyway. I’m 70 now. See, life is worth living, Jonathan. We’re not guaranteed anything, you know, yet we come into this world feeling entitled as if we are. We arrive acting as if we’ve been handed a manual for life with a certificate for 100 years.’
‘But there are reasonable