One of my best friends and I have had a disagreement for years. He’s always held fast to Orson Welles’ dictum: “We’re all born alone . . . and we all die alone.” Me? I don’t buy it. The born-alone, die-alone line strikes me as aphoristic claptrap. I mean, can’t you just imagine some teen-age bad-boy finishing the thought with a drawn out, “maaaann?” Wisdom, while often clear after revelation, is not low-hanging fruit to be whacked at with an angsty-stick.
If I didn’t enjoy mixing it up with my friend so much, I probably would have let this slide years ago, but with friends like him, having the argument is far more important than winning it. As such, we engage Mr. Welles routinely. Each time we start with the formulaic regularity of a Queen’s-Pawn-to-Queen’s-Pawn-Four opening. The fireworks don’t start until the middle game when we each try to string together enough bullshit and speculation to sway the other to our side. Admittedly, neither of us has had much of value to say on the subject for years, but we still fervently believe our own wild guesses.
I can’t accept that we die alone. I recoil at the notion that all our connections, forged over lifetimes of empathy and language, abandon us at the end. We are, in many ways, defined by our relationships. Why would our last thought be, for the first time in our entire lives, “Where did everyone go?”
Yet, never having died, our arguments were dandelion seed wafting back and forth on puffs of hot air. I’d rail about logic and symmetry. My friend would compare the shutting down of biological systems to turning out the lights in a house, room by room, until you were standing alone with one brief candle in hand and then, no more — or something equally eloquent. Now, anyone conditioned to conversations over drinks will have to admit: Metaphor, even poorly structured metaphor, trumps rhetoric as clearly as paper covers rock. As such, I would generally be forced to retreat from my position. In the end that was fine. I’d score my points later when the game turned to politics or history, he’d get in more licks on finance and art. What we were really doing was filling the moments with as much spirit as we were able before the night (or the night manager) sent us home, happy that those hours together were a thoughtful, freewheeling blast.
Over our decade of friendship, I have never won that particular scuffle, but now, finally, I’ve got some real ammo and I’m coming for him. See, in March of this year, I almost died. Moreover, I paid attention while it was happening. Quite unexpectedly, I ended up in the hospital with a cascading series of organ failures caused by an undiscovered genetic condition that bit me hard after forty-eight years on the planet. For weeks my heart wasn’t beating much or well. It was “kind of quivering,” according to my cardiologist. Though I didn’t discover this until months later, my doctors were working on the assumption that my condition rendered me “incompatible with life.”
The prognosis for patients with such an advanced stage of my illness is troubling. Seventy-five-percent are dead in three years and it was by no means assured that I’d even leave the hospital under my own steam. Experientially, I was close enough to death to study the lines on its face and, odd as this may sound, I came to see it as something not unbeautiful.
Throughout the process my mind was filled with visions, though a less charitable narrative could faithfully call them hallucinations. Whatever they were, they persisted even while holding conversations with my family. For twenty-three days, I was stuck in that room, but my consciousness was divided between my bed and another, far-away, place. At once, I was propped up by pillows, muscles atrophying with tubes in my arms and a constant round of blood-draws, injections, oral meds, echocardiograms and cardiac catheterizations — and yet, at the same time, I was standing in the mouth of a cave on a ten-thousand-mile-high cliff, peering out over a storm of galaxies so close I could spin them with the tips of my fingers. It was epic in scope. It was fascinating as art. It was unlike anything I had ever known.
I came to think of that place as the antechamber of my own finality and inside it moments slowed, expanded and swelled with memory. A handful of hospital-bed seconds could contain entire seasons in vision-time. At noon on a Tuesday I’d be swallowing my meds and in the act I would also be with Bill and Marcia in the summer of 1986. We’d swim underneath Triphammer Falls on the fifth of June, then we’d be at the bar in July and by the time the pills hit my stomach, we’d be laying around our apartment on Cook Street in late August, getting ready to say goodbye through tears. Having swallowed the pills, I’d find myself setting camp in Alaska with my brother Ed. In the time it took for a visitor to settle into a seat, he and I would hike the entire Chilkoot Trail: Sheep Camp, The Scales, Happy Camp, lupines and high-alpine lakes under the big, blue dome. Those experiences would be fully relived and then, while stuffing my sleeping bag or hoisting my pack for another day on the trail, mom would pull me back to the hospital with a question about lunch. I’d refocus my eyes — keeping the writhing, furnace-like heart of the universe just in view over her shoulder — and say, “Half a ham sandwich. Thanks, Ma.”
I wasn’t happy about the hospital bed, but I loved that private world. It felt like all of my homes at once. It was a portal to, seemingly, every moment of my existence and a place where everyone I’d ever known could gather and bring their friends. I tried on a few occasions to share these experiences with my folks, but it was too disturbing for them.
In order to occupy that space, I had to commit to the risk of dying. I tried to explain that to my parents, but they’d panic behind their own eyes and change the subject. After attempting twice, I decided I’d keep it to myself, but then my older brother Jay came to visit. I figured that if there was anyone I could share this with, it was Jay. He has always been able to remain calm in difficult and stressful times.
I knew I was frightening him, but I wanted someone to verify my experiences and share them with the family if I died. I explained that if I did, that was okay — even though accepting that death was present did not, under any fucking circumstance, mean a weak-willed surrender of life. Rather, it was an understanding that having stared beyond the borderlands, having seen just how far the future and the past stretch over the horizon, that forty-eight years on the planet didn’t carry any less meaning than eighty-four. I was satisfied with my life, not done with it. Moreover, I knew that I had a job to do. To get out of that bed and burn brightly would require a ferocity of spirit that meant wagering everything I had left, and I wanted Jay to know that the gamble was undertaken with purpose aforethought.
The doctors and my family were considering any recovery a gift. To me, however, a couple more years of lying in a bed or celebrating a walk around the block didn’t much rate. Standing in the cave’s mouth it was clear, if only to me, that to come back alive, fully alive, I would have to embrace the probability of not surviving much longer. In order to have the strength to shoot the gap between death and life, I’d need to harvest strength from all of those memories and the love imbedded within — and the only way to have access to that power was to spend time very near the edge. In doing so, however, I might slip. Still, having a compromised life to fall back upon meant that I’d fall back on it. I needed to accept the future as an all-in proposition and then have faith that the turn and the river would both break my way.
“Miraculously,” according to my cardiologist, they did.
We’ll return to the dramatics of near-death in a few moments, but the story of descent into profound, life-threatening illness and the ensuing recovery starts with the prosaic humdrum of a middle-aged man fighting a war of attrition with gravity and the calendar. I’m edging up on fifty years of age, but I sensed my troubling tactical position when I turned forty five. In both the din of activity and the quiet hours before dawn, I’d begun to take note of thinning defensive fortifications here, a battlement buckling there. Near as I could tell, however, there was little possibility of reinforcements arriving, so I did my best and accepted the inevitability of an assault I hoped would not come for decades. As it turns out, there is no handbook to tell you what growing old feels like, and becoming gravely ill over the course of several years can mimic the expectations impressively.
The changes were subtle. The descent into a slower, more sedentary lifestyle was gradual. The jolly of my midsection expanded steadily and without triggering any alarms. My robustly growing garden of excuses for avoiding the gym day after day after day was camouflaged as demands on my time by work, family and life. Perhaps most revealing of an underlying problem were the hangovers, but how does one complain to the doctor that they are feeling really bad after drinking all night long and expect anything other than a boot to the head?
So, resignedly, I wrote it all off as the creeping predation of time. Less bang, more whimper. Human rust. It wasn’t until I had trouble walking up the twelve steps into my apartment that I finally made an appointment with the doctor. After that, events moved quickly. My primary care physician first diagnosed diabetes. A few days later that was amended to diabetes and cirrhosis — a condition I learned of from an excited Guatemalan sonogram technician who reported with glee while wanding my liver, “¡Mira! ¡Aquí está la cirrosis! ¡Y aquí, y acá!; está en todos lados en tu hígado! ¡Mira! ¡Mira!”
I swear to God, he was like a kid with a metal detector finding his first bottle caps at the beach. I was almost happy for him, you know, aside from the fact that he was telling me that my life might be far shorter — and less lubricated — than I hoped.
At that point I booked a flight back to the States and was in the air twelve hours later. By the time I got to my folks’ apartment in Manhattan, I was in pretty awful shape. A few days later I was in the office of a hepatologist who pulled no punches. After an examination of my abdomen, he told me that my liver was badly compromised and sent me home with a list of vitamins and a hypertension medication intended to prevent the vein that brings blood to the liver from rupturing and turning me into something one overly graphic website described as “a blood fountain.” After dinner that night, my folks went to sleep and I collapsed on the rollout couch, popped my blood-pressure pill and prepared to rest.
Twenty minutes later, I felt myself slipping away.
By the time the EMTs arrived, my blood pressure was down to sixty over forty five. In the emergency room it would tank to forty over twenty five.
That night is both crystal-clear in my memory and largely lost in a fog, as if the gilding on a vase were radiant gold, but the vase itself lost in shadows. I recall asking for, and remembering, everyone’s name. I shook hands that night like a prostrate politician. “Hi, I’m Mike. Thanks for taking care of me. I’m not feeling very well. What’s your name? Margaret? Nice to meet you Margaret. Sure, of course you can take my blood pressure. Thanks!” I knew these might be the last people I would ever meet, and I wanted to be my best self: generous, gracious, grateful. I specifically remember a nurse named Maria who was sexy as could be. I flirted with her between crises all night long, even asking her out to dance after her shift, though I was so weak I needed help to make it to the bathroom.
Sadly, whatever cavalier sense of derring-do I carried as a dying man still attempting to charm a beautiful woman went straight out the window when a doctor gave me an emetic to purge the blood-pressure medicine from my system. Dry-heaving into a bedpan is, under no circumstances, attractive. Go figure.
I didn’t have words for it at the time, but as I reflect in less fraught circumstances it’s clear now that the hope of a dance and the pursuit of beauty are life and that’s what I was after. I was attempting to spin a few more hours of existence out of anything I could find in a frantic room that smelled of antiseptic and was blue-shifted toward death by fluorescence and the sound of gurney wheels racing through porcelain halls. That magic, as much as the medicine, kept me alive through the night. I’m sure of it.
Sometime the following morning I was moved to a room with three other very sick patients, two of whom were unconscious for the several days we shared those confines. The other patient was a young woman, profoundly ill. She hid under the covers most of the time. I’d watch for her when I wasn’t sleeping and our eyes met a half-dozen times or so from across the room. In those instances we shared a palpable empathy. At first it was just a weak smile and a nod of the head that implicitly said, I’m still here. You’re still here. Fight. Later in the day it was a quick wave, offered furtively, as if we thought we’d be caught and tried for conspiracy. The night before I left, after dinner, I gave her a quick thumbs up when our eyes met. She returned it and her face came alight for an instant. Then, remembering something, she darted beneath the sheets. When I was wheeled out the following day to the cardiac ward, she was sleeping. I have no idea if she is living or dead, but I’m haunted by her — and in love with her — all the same.
Over those days, teams of doctors came, kicked my tires and left. At first, they were primarily concerned with my liver. Then, rather all of a sudden, my heart became the focus of their attentions. As it happens, the results came back from a genetic test ordered by my hepatologist. It indicated that the root of my problems was something called hemochromatosis, and it had been eating me alive for years.
Hemochromatosis is an odd duck. It is a genetic legacy from our Neanderthal ancestors, having entered the population via random mutation in northern Europe during the last Great Ice Age, forty thousand years ago. Genetically, those of us who have it are adapted to store iron in our bodies — specifically in our hearts, livers, pancreases and pituitary glands. Left untreated this can cause heart failure (check), cirrhosis (check), diabetes (check) and the ability to manipulate metal with the mind (pending).
Without getting deeply into the weeds of internal medicine, the genetic test told us that I was dying because my major organ systems were, and to a lesser degree still are, riddled with submicroscopic bullets of iron. They had tripled the size of my heart and there was little hope that my ticker would ever regain its normal size or function, even if the iron were unloaded successfully over a year or more of treatment.
Such was the state of play when I gambled that I was either going to heal or die. I understood the odds viscerally — and yet I didn’t. This is a difficult thing to explain. I knew my heart and liver were so compromised that the chance of making it to my fifties was poor, I just forgot that I was forty eight. As such, there was no panic. It was the damnedest thing. I knew the odds were against survival, but I also knew that I’d be fine if I paid close enough attention to the world around me, so I took to noting everything.
The place of my visions, the antechamber of my finality, was of particular interest and it bore some immediate resemblance to my hospital room. There was a bed. There were a few chairs. There was a bench along the wall and the light was bright enough to be blinding, yet pleasingly gentle on the eyes. It was like a painting of direct sunlight. Whenever I arrived, it felt like walking into a small space that was also an enormous concert hall, and I could hear, very softly, the attenuated echoes of every note that had ever been produced therein.
At the far end of the room was a door that would dissolve when I walked toward it, which, invariably, I would do after becoming acquainted anew with my private, contemplative place. When I came to the doorway and looked out, it was like being perched in the middle of the night sky. This was the mouth of the cave. After standing there for a time, the wind would pick up behind me, blowing outwardly from the room. It gusted with greater strength the longer I stood there and required will to balance against it, then force. As it pushed, I would brace myself in the portal and steel my purpose to resist it as long as possible before being blasted into the vacuum of what I assumed would be my death.
If not interrupted by a nurse who needed to take my weight or a particularly detailed conversation with my mom or dad, I’d stand there for hours, practicing my resistance to the wind. After some time in the doorway, the sky below me would yield a form as black and star-filled as the night sky and galaxies in my view. It was only recognizable as a distortion at first, a bulging outward in all dimensions. It pushed like an egg through a thin rubber sheet that stretched forever to a vanishing point from every angle. When fully present, a part of the black oval would slough away, revealing a fiery, pulsating, ferocious and elemental furnace. It looked like the inside of a planet-sized, motile, ravenous geode. It was immediately recognizable as the heart of the universe, as self-evident as my father’s face in a crowd — and similarly, looking into it revealed a purpose. In this vision the wind at my back was the inevitability of death, the raging furnace ahead was where I would die, the cave’s mouth was the scene of my final stand — and the struggle to stay within its frame was the fulfillment of a lifetime’s accumulated passion, laughter, desire, joy, memory and exaltation.
When I was there, bracing myself against flying away, I understood why at first I heard music in the white room. The notes behind the walls were the voices of everyone I’d ever known and they became clearer the longer I stayed lodged just inside of life. Listening to them, I understood that they had always been there, only silenced to background by the tasks, trials and trivialities of the day. Yet, in that almost-end, when there was nothing left to worry about, each voice was golden and identifiable, each one sang in a personal resonance. I could focus upon them, singularly. One would tell the story of the first day we met on a Syracuse street corner — and the day itself would unfold. Another sang about getting “enlightenment drunk” in Kathmandu, then a third recalled the birth of their child, a fourth voice remembered the Cliffs of Moher when the seagulls circled back to land, and a fifth recited the poem of her own passing. It felt like being inside an endless honeycomb where I could tilt my ear toward every hexagonal cell and hear a different voice. I think this may be a form of life flashing before your eyes, only moving much more slowly. Laying in the hospital bed I was as weak as a kitten, heart quivering and life unsustainable, but standing in the cave’s doorway I felt the power of everyone I’d ever known, everyone I’d ever loved.
As you approach the very end, as your time dwindles to days, then hours, then minutes and seconds, your capacity to hold and manipulate memory, to contain and project passion, goes asymptotic. It is as if our entire lives are lived along a defined curve of, say, the equation Y=1/X. As one variable approaches nought, the other accelerates towards the infinite. You sense this as your hands begin to fail and lose hold. As you slip, the world explodes in flashes of radiance and beauty.
Time after time that month, I would be overtaken with that sensation. I can approximate the experience in the retelling during these days of health and recovery, but the colors have begun to bleed and fail. That loss would break my heart if I did not know it will all come back at least one more time.
I suspect that something very much like this happens to us all. I believe that in those last beats, all you’ve ever known will return in a final gathering before you’re shot out of existence like a flaming arrow. If it is for you as it was for me, fear will be held in abeyance by awe. In each deconstructed second you will feel yourself shatter a thousand times at the presence of so many people returning to your side with full-plumage displayed. You will feel the end coming, but the power of it feeds back into your core and before you have a chance to mourn the inevitable end, the crescendo of emotion will have doubled and then doubled again and again and again.
As you stream toward death the world becomes so filled with memory that time itself seems to stop for a perfect, frozen, eternal moment of connection and right there, at the apex, you can see a truth. I made it to the very edge, but not beyond. Still, looking down, I could sense what comes next. When the wind finally wins and you are launched into the liminal space past life and into death, you begin a final flight that sends you, screaming your own primal aria, toward the open maw of all generative force. When you make impact, your entire life’s purpose will be bundled up for a final act of either grief or giving. You’ll have one chance to drive all of that passion back into the flaming heart of the universe like a warrior planting the sword. Or a farmer breaking the soil. Or a surgeon reaching into a human chest. Or a teacher opening a mind. Or lovers entering one another — and by so doing, you give forward all of yourself in one grand release as millions of other voices chase your harmonics to a frenzy of orchestral potency and perfection like starlings in murmur. Or you will hesitate with fear and sadness that you are dying and miss your mark.
Then, either way, fuufff, you’re gone.
I was lucky enough to have almost a month to study the ways of the ending patiently, but I think this comes to us all. As the nature of the final movement is to expand the capacity to hold love asymptotically, the last act could transpire inside a snow-globe second and in that briefest, timeless and most fertile instant of potential between life and death, that moment when you are maximally you, it becomes paradoxically clear that you do not even exist. Your individual agency, that thing you have hoarded and husbanded for a lifetime, is and always has been an illusion. There is no separation of life. Not at conception. Not in gestation. Not in birth nor at the ending. You have always been the warrior, the sword and the flaming heart of the universe. You have always been the tiller, the plow and the seed. You have always been the doctor, the skill and the patient. You have always been the teacher, the lesson and the pupil. You have always been both lovers sharing sweat and passion. You are fundamentally interwoven with all of the voices in your memory and you are the lyrics of the song. In that final release it becomes achingly clear: Everything is one thing. Each life is an atom of hydrogen inside the sun, which is to say that it is the sun. Each existence is a leaf on a common tree, which is to say that it is the tree. We only live as if we are separate from one another because, on some level, we still believe that when we close our eyes the world disappears. Those scales of misperception fall as we see beyond the curve. Poetically it is appropriate that, as we die, we leave our last vestige of infancy behind.
There is no room in this vision for a God who takes a pronoun or one that binds souls to heaven or hell. All there is, all there ever will be, is us — one giant, interconnected us that reaches back through billions of slowly transforming generations — one being, existing through time. We are as much a part of that ancient, living complexity as are the electrons on the surface of my skin that become the electrons on the surface of your skin when you brush away my tears. You and I are the threads of one nervous system that weaves across the face of the Earth to everyone we’ve ever known and through them to everyone they have ever known and everyone they have ever known, ad imperium. We’re neurons. We’re cones and rods. We are the taste buds of the universe. If you need a God in your spirituality, then we are the fingertips of the distributed Almighty.
That god doesn’t own a retirement home in the sky. He doesn’t keep track of our sins or good works. God isn’t a bookkeeper or a scold. He isn’t a spaceman. The god I’m talking about isn’t even a noun. At the edge of life it is clear, god is any action that binds us together. John the Evangelist was close with his oft-quoted aphorism, but saying “god is to love” is nearer the mark. From the cave’s mouth, god is a verb; god is infinitive.
To god is to love, to touch, to feel, to empathize, to mourn, to weep and remember. To god is to well in awesome wonder as the violin takes an updraft and leaves the orchestra behind. To god is to pray in a cathedral and feel the roseate light pour over your shoulders so sublimely that you would swear it moved like water. To god is to struggle upward on the muezzin’s ancient knees, step by step, from his low bed to the pinnacle of the minaret so that his song might carry forth to the city below. But to god is also to fuck. To god is to hurl your body across the mosh pit as the band turns their amps up to eleven. To god is to make any gesture that embraces life beyond self. When we see the world as it appears near death, it becomes clear that our only purpose is to reach one another. That is the whole of the game. We are here to be one life. A new purpose may arise when we realized that truth, but until then be comforted that, at the very least, there is no such thing as alone. Sorry, old friend. You lose.
I’ve been writing this essay for some time now. The emotions are still, after eight months, hard to tame for the page. I’d started and stopped the process a few times until, quite recently, a workable frame came to me in a flash. I was walking home from the gym and thought about Bruce McCowan, one of the best friends I’ve ever known, and how we’d argued over that Orson Welles trope several times a year for a decade now. Once that framing came to mind, I knew I could push through my writer’s block. Moreover, I’d have him! Even if this essay was a pile of nonsense, I’d kill two birds with the same stone. First, worthwhile or a waste of pages, I’d be able to move on to something new. Second, I’d be able to drop it in Bruce’s lap and give him what-for the next time I saw him. Even if he hated it, he’d be so happy that I’ve recovered, he’d give me the win just for showing up. My health, remarkably, has returned nearly in full.
Instead of rushing to work after I arrived home, I drew a bath, knowing that once I got typing it would flow naturally, and it has. As I lay in the tub that evening, I let my mind drift to different metaphors I could use to describe the gathering of voices, the connection that exists between us all and is made so clear when we spend time near the exit door. Several came to me while in the hospital, living the experience. One of them was the concert hall. Another was about the ocean and how, at the end, we float like sentient foam in saltwater, our consciousness expanding to take in the complexity of the sea. As I thought about that, I dropped my head beneath the bath water and imagined myself at perfect Caribbean buoyancy as the waves in every direction began to rise and take on identities — each whitecap a lover, brother, cousin, sister, ancestor, acquaintance from a long-forgotten side-street, face in a taxi window, all present — an inchoate, celebratory legion. Each ripple in the surface was a unique production of the same unfathomable deeps, never to be repeated and brought into being by the motion of the planets and the music of the spheres. It was a perfect image for my friend Bruce who loves the sea.
After an hour in the tub, my fingers were wrinkled like an old man’s. I was relaxed and feeling the creativity flow properly for the first time in months. I was ready to work so I drained the tub, dried myself off, got dressed and sat at my desk to write. I placed an image holder in the center of the page and scratched out a working title. I was five words into the body of the piece when this message from an acquaintance flashed on my screen:
“Hey, bro. Bruce just died swimming at Cayos. Very sad.”
It felt like I’d been shot. I immediately started making plans to get there, to be with my brother’s body, to carry it wherever it needed to be carried and stand guard over it against the night. I knew, however, that I wasn’t ready to travel, so I sat back down at my desk and cried. Thankfully, I was no more alone in that process than I’d been while bracing against the walls inside the cave’s mouth. Memories of a thousand dinners, of endless games of poker, of laughter and tears flooded in. Members of our tribe, some of whom I’d not thought of in years, carried armfuls of stories and hung them in the air. It was a silent but welcome reunion.
Bruce had one fear of death: He did not want to go by inches. He did not want to lay in a hospital bed so weak that he would need to be bathed, his meals brought on trays, his life monitored by medical puritans. That he died as he did was some comfort. I needed to share that with our mutual best friend, my copublisher of this magazine, John Rexer. I opened my account and wrote him a long email in which I related a part of the story you have just read and I assured him that Bruce was not alone at the end. I even suggested that, perhaps, as I lay bobbing in the bath, dreaming of the sea, part of Bruce’s final trajectory brought him through my world like a sentient meteor allowing his brothers to know that he’d found his way home. Of course, I’ve realized since then that Bruce didn’t visit my world. Rather, if anything, he summoned me to his by focusing on a memory from the infinite honeycomb. By so doing, though I was a thousand miles away, I was able to fly honor-guard at his passing.
Later that night, John called and we spoke for an hour or more. As it turns out, he had just arrived in Cayos Cochinos, where Bruce had a vacation home. He was there to visit our friend for a week of rum and glory. John showed up that morning and hailed Bruce from the boat as he pulled in. Bruce, he said, was drinking pineapple juice on the dock, as happy as he’d ever been. They talked for five-and-a-half hours straight about “absolutely everything.” Bruce was at his best — his mind becoming enflamed by thoughts of art, architecture, a coming trip to Prague, the global economy, climate change and the many graces of curvaceous women. They spoke of great hopes for the future and laughed while swapping stories of old friends, times past and the coming year. They spoke of love. They spoke of death.
They spoke of Bruce’s children and how much he cherished all four of them. They spoke of seeing me again and how happy they were that I’d beaten the odds. According to John, Bruce said “I knew they couldn’t keep that big Irishman down.”
That’s a gift I’ll carry until my end.
As we closed our conversation, John agreed that Bruce was sensing the gathering waves, hearing their voices and preparing for his final flight. His beauty and excitement showed that he was engaged by the entire world as he sat overlooking the grandest metaphor of them all. Shortly after John left to rest for a few hours before dinner, Bruce took a swim and as he was coming back to land his capacity for love went asymptotic, time for him slowed and he grew larger than a mountain. As such, he is not here to say this himself, so as his brother it falls to me to assure those who loved him: Bruce McCowan, Lion of the Panchoy Valley, brought us all with him on his final journey into the flaming heart of everything, his rich baritone ringing out in truth, beauty and a glorious, arcing, display of human light.
Raises the glasses high. This church has no liturgy, but there is a responsorial and I say, “To one of us.”
As you remember him, know that we also abide the ancient admonition of the mariner: Festina Lente. Hasten slowly. Your ending, your giving and gracious ending, is always nigh.
18 thoughts on “There Is No Alone”
To one of us!
Thank you Mike.
Nice description of your experience.
Spent a few evenings at Café Nó back in the spring of 2009. Living in La Libertad, El Salvador now, have to get back to Antigua one of these days.
Thank you, Mike. Your ability to tell a story is beautiful and to tie it all together with your love and friendship with Bruce is very special. Continued best wishes for your improving health and your return to Antigua!
I am blown away by the level of your writing. Refreshing to say the least!
Thank you so much for sharing your experiences, and doing so, with such eloquence.
Just a thought: Perhaps publishing online would lower costs and allow you to reach a broader audience.
I had already typed my message to you. Did it go through?
Your messages were received, and thank you. The print magazine is our anchor to a real world and a real place and a real time. The notion behind La Cuadra was born in Café No Sé over countless bottles of mezcal and endless romantic notions with a punk-rock, DIY ethic to inject a vitality that John Rexer and I thought was being lost by the dromedary machinations of ever-larger media outlets writing ever-shorter stories. Nine years later, we’re still wedded to that goal. So, you are absolutely right, we could go broke more slowly if we canned the dinosaur-media model all together, but having something we can hold in our hands and lug around town to local businesses who advertise with us as much out of a sense of family and shared mission to keep our town tactile and hopeful as they do out of peso-por-peso value just makes us feel good.
With that said, we could likely use another perspective on all of this and we really appreciate your input. Please stay close! In fact, stay close enough so that we could share the next round of mezcal with you. I have to abstain these days for all the reasons presented in this story, but I still LOVE the smell of it!
David and Mary, thank you both so much for your time both reading and responding. We’d like to invite you both to Café No Sé, too. David, it will be a welcome home! Mary, we’ll raise a glass to Bruce. If you are of the Ratcliff’s that gave rise to the remarkable Dave de la Iguana Perdida en Santa Cruz, I believe your family shared a history with Bruce McCowan. He was a truly wonderful man. The single most generous man I have ever known. I miss him terribly. It may bear mention that it assuredly is easier to die than to be left in mourning. I raise my glass of seltzer to better days. Salud!
Jeremy, my brother, truly – To one of us!
I’ll save you a hardcopy of the magazine. You’re on the masthead again, as are the rest of our original cast at the Café No Sé poker table, circa 2004. Love you so very much.
Amazing, thrilling, mind and heart-opening writing. You are a fascinating spirit, so open and curious and full of life even while observing your own death. what a blessing to find. Thank you for sharing this.
Like Ms. Hunter, I am blown away by your writing! Or, may I say, while reading I was held in the timeless beauty, the mouth of the last cave, which you reference. Reading your story was a fantastic treat. My aunt had tagged me in this on Facebook. You shine a true and wonderful bounty of knowledge, an exquisite vermouth of insight and intrigue, from your Latin terms, to your own philosophy and metaphors, to your well-rounded travels. Thank you very much for beating your writer’s block and sharing this with us!
As a nurse, sometimes I see people morph into the wind and plunge into the heart of the universe, as you say. Reading your perspective on what a slow death is like, may help me to empathize with certain peoples. Thanks again!
When I read “When one variable approaches nought, the other accelerates toward the infinite,” I nearly burst into tears with recognition, jumping up and down inside my skin, going, “Yes, yes! Like that!” I have been sitting in solitude, in awe. I know that door, that wind. My visit was brief and the door was only ajar. I did not try to peer through the crack but I knew I could never close it nor should I try. I have never heard the sounds described so honestly, so beautifully. I kiss you full on the lips. I pinky swear with you, here in this digital room you have created, that I will fly honor-guard as needed for as long as the gift of this mortal coil shall sustain, bubble baths be blessed.
Your friend and now big fan of your writing,
Hi Maggie May,
I really appreciate your kind words, and I’m pretty easy to find if you ever get blue and need a retreat to the prettiest little town in Central America. Come on down to Antigua sometime! Life has been a real blast so far! Looking forward to many more years and many more stories. By the way, if you are interested in another story (Gregory, you, too!) that wrestles – and if I’ve gone my job right, dances – with some weighty and giving issues in our world is a reflection on September 11, 2001 from the days after Osama bin Laden was killed.
I worked in Brooklyn at the time of the bombings and I’ve grown deeply saddened by what is remembered about that terrible day in the collective consciousness, as defined by television and, someday soon, our history texts. It is called The Victim’s Gift, and it can be read at the following address. https://lacuadramagazine.com/featured-story-september-11-2011/
If you like what you find here, please feel encouraged to share it with your friends. We are a small, unprofitable, crazily hopeful bunch of writers and artist who put this magazine together and while we’ll never find fame, we’d sure love to know we’re connecting with our readers.
Thanks again for you time.
Gregory, the above lines are for you, as well. Thank you for taking your time to read and respond to this story. Also, I’ve got to tell you, the line “morph into the wind” gave me chills. You, amigo, are a word-slinger of the first order, and I choose those words for a reason. Years ago a friend of mine sent something I’d written to a hero of mine named Joe Bageant. Joe, from when I first read him until his death several years ago, was an expat from the U.S. living in Central America and Mexico. His essays and his books are some of the most poignant work I’ve ever read. They are both social commentary and poetry at the same time. Well, my buddy was a friend of his and he got something I’d written in front of Joe and I received an email response with those exact words, “a word-slinger of the first order.” Now, I don’t know how you’ll receive them, but I intend them to be the highest compliment. As you pursue your many interests and your career, keep that pen handy and keep writing it all down.
It’s been faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrr too long since we pinky swore or kissed full on the lips. It seems like it might be twenty years? Could that be? Where are you these days? Where might I see you dance again?
And more to the point, I don’t know the story to which you refer, but it’s gonna be high on the list of conversations when we next get together. If you’re still in the Binghamton area, I’ll likely be around in March . . . or as I mentioned to Maggie May, Antigua, Guatemala is one particularly beautiful place, particularly when the Upstate New York winter seems like it will never, ever end.
Love you, brother, and thanks for taking the time to read the story. It means so much to me to know that old friends (and new ones) find value in the telling.
Abrazos a todos!
I’d like to thank you, too, for taking the time.
thank you thank you so much for your words, thoughts – for “god”ding us all. I am so glad you made it through and are here for a bit more on this plane of existence. So blessed to have the opportunity to read this and share it. ( thanks to Jeanne in Santa Cruz La Laguna).
Wow, what stories. I’m blowing so much snot right now, but I am also satisfied. One of your paragraphs is worthy of Vonnegut. Cheers, my brother. You are an excellent writer, observer, and friend.
Just so consoling. I suffered a horrible fall two years ago….I fell 20 feet onto concrete while taking a photograph of my daughter, Maria. I have no idea how I lived. I have no memory for two weeks in the trauma unit of a NYC hospital, as I began and continue a long recovery from a moderate to severe brain injury, a shattered thoracic spine, and an emergency operation of multiple fusions down my spine that kept me from being paralyzed; I am told the team of neurosurgeons were aware of how fragile their work needed to be so that I had the hope of walking again. I had subdural hemotomas, plueralsy in my lungs and fractured my skull in three places. I missed hitting a metal fence by 2 inches. How did I make it with my intellect intact, my reading of social cues intact?….yes my senses deeply affected (now have a hearing aid in my left ear, no appetite so I am very small framewise even though I am age 53, full-time glasses (which I never had before), autonomic nervous system difficulties) and some memory problems, psychological anxiety and deep depression that comes and goes, and a never-ending deep sense of vulnerability. However, I remember the days in the hospital and the body brace of six months, and while friends and family visited, I felt such utter loneliness to the depth of despair I cannot begin to describe. I often reflected in the hospital and in bed with my body brace that I knew what an old person aging must feel like…..alone, not knowing who you are any more, what would come of me. who would I be, that everything that came before had no meaning in that brightly lite, sterile hospital room, struggling for a new identity that was impossible to be found as I was in state of shock that in seconds my life changed from one thing to another. I also was a piece of work, dynamic still. The loneliness was so deep and the despair so overwhelming, it still washes over me frequently throughout every day. I remember my yoga days and Kundalini yoga, in particular, as it is meditation in motion. I always had the capacity to connect with the energy pulsating through my spine and getting lost in the movement, the energy, and being able to tap into a light and oneness feeling with everything. While I cannot do it with yoga right now, I can go there in meditation. This write up made me ponder if that light that blurring feeling of light that warms me and is so serene like a kitten purring … there are no boundaries when I feel it….just a peaceful bliss and a oneness that is so powerful. I want to go back there again and again. Yet I fight going back there. I wonder if I am tapping into anything Tallon is saying, and reading his work made me wonder if that loneliness I felt in the hospital and the 6 months I was in bed in a body brace, was really how it ends like I thought. I never connected his near death experience to those moments in yoga or meditation. I want so badly to believe that I never have to feel that getting old and dying is lonely like I experienced in my accident. Tallon gives me hope because the loneliness feeling has never left me fully and the despairing suicidal impulses are always my shadow.
Thank you Greg O’Obrien for posting this and thank you Michael Tallon for writing your piece…..you are an eloquent writer…..I kept think how does he try to put into words something that is experiential??? What a task and so sorry to hear you lost your brother.
Thank you for sharing this Michael – we are all one! Both you and your friend Bruce were right as far as your argument goes: “Alone” is in fact “all one” – when you look at the spelling!
My heart is thundering! The mouth of the cave, (which I have experienced ) is so beautifully described. All of it all , all of it is true ! Remarkable writing Michael. I want to share it with everyone I know . Thank you . I am soaked in tears from reading . My heart washed with the images you’ve shared.
Dear Alison R.
First and fundamentally, reach out if you find yourself lost or despairing. I’ll share whatever I can – both burdens and graces.
Also, thank you for taking the time to describe your experiences. That path is challenging and while I have no firm footing to say that recognizing, accepting and sharing beauty and love is curative in the medical sense, I know it sure as hell is curative for the spirit and it seems to have played a central role in my physical recovery, as well. My advice, for when the shadow of darkness is upon you, is to lean into the connections that we share. Build them with whomever you can, whenever you can. Remember that there is a world that loves you and if you’ve lost contact with some people you cherish, there is a chance that they are remaining at what they think is a respectful distance when all you both want to do is share the living bonds of our common existence and humanity. That’s guesswork, but it’s also offered as a reminder of the value of reaching out when you’re feeling distanced from the whole.
I’ve never practiced yoga – but I’ve had many conversations of late with those who do and the description of a meditative state tracks very closely with what I experienced in the hospital. I do not know why. Wondering about this, however, a friend and I went to a sensory-deprivation tank about a month ago and, for me, the experience was very similar to the state of near death in its plasticity and sense of revelatory connectedness. It shared many of the features of hypnagogia, that transitory state between wakefulness and sleep – only it persisted and was substantial enough that it could be navigated, after a fashion. It felt very much like a reunion with an interior space that only existed in memory. It seems to me to be an open door into that world, if you will. If you can find this through meditation, I’d LOVE to hear some of your thoughts and reflections on the experience. Also, if you can find one in the area, I’d strongly suggest checking out the sensory-deprivation tank. Truly fascinating experience. My friend called it “yoga without the yoga,” which for me is great – because I hate doing yoga.
As to your lingering sense of loneliness and dark thoughts from your time in the body brace, I think I can understand a bit of that suffering and frustration. Laying in the cardiac unit — sometimes in terrible, howling pain; sometimes in frightening corners of my psyche; sometimes listening to other patients suffer their traumas — did leave a deep mark. One night in particular, maybe my third night in, haunts me. I was having extreme gastro-intestinal pain. It reduced me, quickly, to a point of unthinking. My family had gone home for the night. It was late. Maybe two in the morning. The cramps started quickly and then grew in intensity to the point where I was wailing with uncontrollable force, certainly loud enough to wake patients on my wing of the ward. I felt so entirely alone. It was over an hour before a nurse came in and then she was only there long enough to bring a pill. All night was so separated. That hurt even more than the terrible physical pain. which, at the time, I thought was gas. More likely, it was my body pulling blood and oxygen into my life-sustaining organs and having nothing to spare for my intestines. Along with the pain and the anxiety of being alone in that room, I also can’t shake the memory of how quickly it brought me down. While the spirit, the great interconnected love of all living things, soared above me – the meat of me was so easily broken. Fortunately, that passed and the rest of the time in the hospital was as described in the original essay. As such, that night has only manifested in one way for me, long term: I am now a real stickler when referring to the lingering psychological effects of powerful life events. It is post-traumatic stress NOT post-traumatic-stress disorder. There is NOTHING disordered about being scarred by hurtful shit. That is entirely natural. So, my very direct advice to you is this: Talk about it. Talk about it with me. Talk about it with others who have had even remotely similar experiences, but above all, talk about it and know that you are absolutely not alone in having echoes of the past stick with you in the now. In a very, very real way – you are not alone.
But even beyond that, I’d like to offer two thoughts of a more general note that you might find helpful on the black-dog days. The first is the observation that life is made of moments. This is trite, of course. But also, it is not and it’s part of what becomes clear at the edge. My personal experience fast-forwarded me from an expectation of 40 or so years left to, possibly, a day or two, or maybe just a few moments as a real chance persisted for weeks that a blood clot that they found in my heart (left ventricle, I think…?) could break free and cause a massive coronary or stroke at any instant, so the perceptual lensing of time-left-in-existence brought my attention right down to the very atoms of an inhalation. That was cool. Without reserve, I admit that I was fascinated by the details of what was left, be they memories of my lover’s left iris, or a story my brother once told about my niece when she was a little kid, or just how much I love the way my mother’s bicuspid greets the world just before her other teeth when she smiles. But even more remarkable is how, as my health recovered and the perceptual lens pulled back out to considering decades of life left, the perspective of the sand’s experience in the hourglass remained. Said more directly, part of sensing that you only have a few minutes left to live sticks with you as the camera pans up and out on the helicopter-shot of a long life in the future. After seeing what five minutes left looks like, you can’t help but see – always and in everything – that forty years is made up of about 4,200,000 such units. After feeling how fucking precious that last one is, it is impossible to shake just how precious this one is now, the one where I’m writing to you – the one where you’re reading these words. I’ve never met you, but I can say that we now have a bond through which we have sparked a gap, and for that, I love you and I do not want you to feel separated from that which weaves us together. That is very, very cool.
Second, I’ve been tossing an idea back and forth in my head lately. It’s one that kept coming to me as I walked across 6th Avenue and 15th Street, near my parents’ apartment in Manhattan. That corner is unique in The City. It is the only place on on the interior of the island where you can look north and see the Empire State Building and also look south and see what is now the Freedom Tower, at the site of the old World Trade Center. There is a giving canvas on that corner and I’m looking forward to exploring it, but in my last weeks in NYC before returning to my home in Guatemala, my eyes kept being drawn south to the new Tallest Building in America.
There is so much to contemplate when looking at that piece of sky and metal and, for me, it has become a living reflection that keeps asking of me, “What do you worship?”
As said, this isn’t a fully worked out notion, but the essence of it is this: When I look at that part of the earth, from that perspective, there are sooooooo many thoughts and memories and stories that rise and take form. There is the lesson of Philippe Petit, the man who floated on a dream. There are the bodies that were sent hurtling towards the pavement by tribalistic fools nearly 15 years ago. There are the lies and the deceits that pass back and forth in the offices that were once there and are there again – the intellectual quarry of marketing schemes, sales pitches, financial chicanery, bald-faced lies, communal contempt and the perpetual impoverishment of billions of human beans around the planet.
We can see and remember and conjure all of those images and stories and they are all true, but what we get to do, always, is to choose which one(s) we worship.
When the sky and metal asked me that question, I thought about it and decided that I am going to worship the story, mythical in its actuality, of the men and women who built that tower. I’m going to worship how they stood, 1,500 feet in the air on I-beams, trusting in one another to watch their back and do their jobs. I’m going to worship the break-rooms where secretaries meet to hold the hands of their colleague who just lost their pregnancy in the fifth month or the office cubicle where a few young folks will fall in love over the dividers and have no idea how many generations of their descendents are waiting in the wings, fingers crossed, that they have the good sense to go on that first date even though they’ve been hurt before, and recently.
I play out that vignette just to hammer home the point that, no matter how dark the night, and in no matter what circumstance, we still get to choose where to direct our passion and our fierce, relentless love. Doing so, I believe, goes a very long way toward determining how long we’ll have to fart about on this beautiful blue marble of a planet and how much more beautiful that blue marble will be when we leave. Let’s make it a good life. Check in on me when you’re in the mood. If you’d like, I’ll do the same.
Thanks for writing and building this bridge between us and please give your daughter and your whole family my love.
Michael, You just wrote so much for me to ponder, and I feel a kindred spirit with you. I just arrived home from Cuba last night and need time to digest all that you say, and your beautiful, wise mind. One of the reasons I liked the latino cultures so much, is because of their warmth and connection to the human spirit, the spiritual and the earth….Guatemala is on my list for many emotional reasons. How do I keep in touch with you? Via this article? I was curious when (dates) you looked south toward the freedom tower, as I live and work as a psychologist down there…..I lived a half a mile from that horrific, mind-blowing event of 9/11. Will write again when I am more recovered from my first time away from the country since my accident. This was a epic for me to take due to real physical needs and a sensitized, incredibly deep sense of vulnerability, and I so wanted to go, as it is history in the making before both the good that will come to this country and negativeness of tourism and materialism. Too much to write my experience there, now. Thank you for reaching out to me and yes, I will need you in the future, as there is my broken heart from the most connected soul a human being can have…..to my child, Maria. Long story, but it is another piece that adds to the intensity of my loss and depth of sorrow. A pain almost to heavy to bear or tolerate. More to come…..A warm, white blanket with light wrapped around your heart and all the people that matter most to you. Warmly, Alison
For those interested, there is a furtherance of this story, recollected some months later. Check it out at: