I’ll admit it. I haven’t been handling this Covid-19 virus pandemic very well. I had an experience with another potentially deadly virus, the West Nile virus in 2003, and it didn’t end well for me. I was left with a partial paralysis in one leg. So, my anxiety has been spiking. Tears flowing. I’ve been on a roller coaster of emotion.
My wife suggested I find a project to focus on. Something around the house. I took her advice and decided to declutter a section of the basement. My craft workbench has become, over the past few years, a catchall spot for …well, you name it. Once it held trays of beads, leather, feathers and crafting tools. Now there are piles of books and magazines, plus picture frames (some empty, others with faces staring back at me). There are knick knacks and puzzles. And more.
I had worked through a layer on one corner of the bench, when I came upon a group of cassette tapes. Remember them? Pre CD and DVD; post 8 tracks. The thing was, some were labeled, some were not.
Any self-respecting person, at this point, stops sorting and clearing, to search for a cassette player. Most people would assume they are obsolete, but, my son told me they are making a comeback. I must have known that somewhere in the recesses of my brain because, as I looked around, my eyes fell on a small, black Radio Shack player. Bingo!
I opened the back to find four deteriorating AA batteries. I scooped them out, wiped their detritis, and slipped in some shiny, new Duracells. I was getting excited. I hit play; the wheels turned.
I pushed the first mystery tape into the slot, closed the lid, and hit play again. Twenty seconds of silence was followed by a soft voice. My friend Adela. This surprised me. She passed away in Dec 2017, at the age of 89. I had forgotten that we made this tape, at her request. Her relationship with her four grown children was complicated. She wanted her lawyer and me to be assigned as her medical powers of attorney. On this tape she spoke of her wishes for end of life medical care. But it was more than that. It was the back and forth between us that struck me; and the obvious trust we had with each other. She was not dying then, but her health was declining.
As the cassette played, I was transfixed by the voice, at once so familiar. My mind jumped from the seriousness at hand to the fun times we’d shared. She had always been an enigma to me. We met around 2008, through a photography web site. She proposed that we meet to share ideas. We clicked.
As her voice talked about Hospice care, my mind carried me to the Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy, where we photographed exotic birds together. Images rose up of us walking the area, each trying to get the perfect photo. Our first project together was teaching a photography class in a church basement in Norfolk, the town she lived in. As her interests moved along, like a wave in the ocean, she carried me with her. Next came teaching Zentangle classes at the library. I was always her assistant. She never brokered fools and I sometimes intervened to be the good cop to her bad.
Smart and creative, she was full of surprises. She spoke fluent Spanish. She had a couple degrees and was an accomplished potter. Once she tried to get me to go to Montreal with her to take a Zen photography course. When I said, “No” she went by herself. At 80years old, she couch surfed to find a place to stay! Not your average senior citizen!
Adela was a living contradiction. A fierce advocate for social justice, she mistrusted any form of authority. She also shared with me that after two failed marriages, she had a lengthy affair with a Catholic priest in Mexico. And felt no guilt over it. She loved opera and disdained all other forms of music. She could be snooty about opera and when insecure, she lapsed into a Southern drawl. In her late 70’s, she considered moving to a Zen monastery to live. She also survived a bout with cancer.
All this was welling up inside me as I listened to our exchange, sometimes serious, sometimes light. When the tape ended, I felt myself immersed for a brief time in Adela’s world. We had often talked of spiritual things during my weekly visits, so it was natural for me to take this next step.
I wondered if this was Adela reaching through to me, as I struggle with the anxiety I’m feeling. Could that possibly be? She didn’t believe in barriers between the worlds of form and spirit. I needed to know, so I did what I’ve been taught. I asked for a sign. I said, “If this is you, Adela, give me a sign.” Then I thought, it has to be something unusual. I know. A snake! “Let me see a snake, if this is really you reaching out to help me now.”
I put the cassette player away. A long drive and then a walk in my favorite park helped to ground me. They have been my go-tos when the daily virus news feels overwhelming. Back at home, I put away the vacation info, maps, etc we had spread out all over the dining room table. The planned trip to Alaska, during the summer, is not gonna happen. It felt good to acknowledge that and clear off the table. My paper and pen, neglected and asleep on my desk, woke up and called to me. I sat down and wrote for the first time in two weeks.
Evening came. I told my wife about the Adela tape as we sat and watched tv together. I didn’t tell her about the sign I asked for. By 8 p.m., it was clear to me that the sign wasn’t going to materialize. I had one more thing I wanted to do before going to bed. A writer friend had posted a new story two weeks ago on our web site. We belong to a writing group that has a joint blog. I needed to catch up and read his story, West Texas Holy Land, before going to bed.
You know what I’m going to say now, don’t you?
In the second paragraph, a snake appears. I begin to second guess myself. I did ask to SEE a snake, didn’t I? I read on. The moderator of out site always adds a photo after posting each person’s story.
And there it was! Staring me in the face. An awesome, terrifying, brilliant Western Diamondback rattlesnake. I can’t help but giggle as I picture Adela, with her wry grin. “You weren’t expecting some little garden variety garter snake, were you? You should know me better than that, Gail!”
I turned off my phone after one last glance at the amazing creature. With eyes cast upward, I whisper, “Thank you, Adela. And, yes, I would expect no less from you!”