Just as Barack Obama was an unlikely candidate for the Presidency, my friend Joan seemed to be an unlikely Buddhist. She was a straight-laced, straight faced Midwesterner with tight hair, wire rim glasses and sensible shoes, a frumpy woman whose tastes turned to iceberg lettuce and cheddar cheese, often combined in the same salad. She didn’t play golf, but I would’ve sworn she was Republican.
Why-o why-o why-o she ever left Youngstown, Ohio, to paraphrase the old song, I can’t remember. She was born there, married right out of high school there, and went to the state college there after she’d had two children. I think the cause was a job—in Maine, working as a bureaucrat for the state, a scientific one, but a nine-to-five tax paid soldier nonetheless. Mrs. Jones seemed to prefer what was staid and unglamorous. She was an avid gardener who didn’t stray from marigolds and mums, or plant anything edible more exotic than zucchini.
She so carefully shunned excess or exuberance, she didn’t have a computer at home because she had one at work. Because her only email address ended in .gov, weekends you couldn’t reach her, but you could methodically count on a reply by 9:00 AM Monday. She did have a cell phone but was slow to reveal the number because she wasn’t much for chat, and didn’t like to pay for gab. It took years to learn she had two grown daughters-- one a lawyer in Manhattan, one a scientist in Texas—because she kept her business to herself and wouldn’t think of boasting. I still know nothing about her husband of over thirty years.
Of all the volunteers who helped in the kitchen of our annual ten-day meditation retreat, the least likely to turn into my precious friend was this dour, scientifically efficient female, calmly towering three inches over the perpetually fraught and frazzled me. She was a newcomer I didn’t recognize but, to my surprise, she insisted on volunteering over and again to work with me, and I quickly came to treasure her no-muss-no-fuss dependability.
We were opposites, but in service of Dharma we developed fierce, reciprocal loyalty. I could never have managed without her, not just in the retreat kitchen or at the luncheons I made chez moi for our teacher and his retinue when she was all I had for help. Joan was the stalwart who in the nick of time—and the nick of a madcap moment--quietly and tactfully disposed of the lobsters stupid me killed trying to keep alive for Rinpoche to release. “They needed more oxygen,” she said matter-of-factly, as I cried over my corroded karma. As the one who thoughtfully brought a camera that day, she re-assuringly emailed me photos of Rinpoche on my dock releasing what I didn’t kill. I gratefully arranged private time for her with him.
Knowing my struggle to get a steady water supply out of the hand dug well at my cottage, Joan the scientist showed up by surprise one summer day at lunch time with a guy in her car who turned out to be the official state geologist. “I’m taking him to see the nuclear plant, and I told him I knew a great spot along the way for lunch,” she said, pulling out white bread sandwiches. “Now you can show him your well.”
Although she did not appear pious or devout, Joan managed to save up vacation time to splurge one March and join the greater sangha in both India and Nepal for Rinpoche’s teaching. Between the seminars, she quietly boarded the rickety bus to join what was to be a pilgrimage to the usual historic holy places. Although the week excursion turned out to be physically painful for many, she didn’t complain, even in retrospect. This was her first trip to Asia, to anywhere exotic, and she stoically endured it. The only glimmer of excitement I saw was when we went to bustling Thamel in Kathmandu to pick up a Chenrezig thangkha she’d ordered. She was too proud of finally having her very own thangkha to contain her joy.
Maybe it was the thangkha, or perhaps the pilgrimage, but once Joan got back to the state capital and confronted curiosity about her trip and the practice of meditation that launched it, she found herself hosting a once-a-month ladies’ lunch time study group in the state office building. “I have to be really careful,” she confided. “I can’t be too…you know…religious…preachy. I have to leave out the Buddhism and stick to meditation.” Sometimes she had eight at the table, sometimes only one or two, but dutifully she stuck to the study group. It was for Joan I wrote the entry Running on Empty, which began: A friend writes that, to her surprise, she’s running a lunchtime dharma study group at work, and that because the women seem to like it, they continue to come. Now, she said, I have to explain “emptiness” in 20 minutes and that’s a very tall order.
Joan never tried to introduce her study groupers to Rinpoche or even tell them about His Holiness Karmapa. But she was uncharacteristically tickled to have nabbed tickets to his public talks in New York City last May, partly because she was going to take her daughter, finally exposing the lawyer to what that had been Mom’s private business. Her emails afterward resonated with joy and she seemed more open. With gratitude for my alerting her to Karmapa’s visit, she showed up at the start of the season with a souvenir booklet for me. We made plans for going together to dharma events scheduled for July, and for just having lunch and a swim sometime at my place. That’s when she filled my fridge with her garden’s cucumbers, potatoes and zucchini. I gave her dharma books and news. We were a Mutt and Jeff dharma tag team.
Joan came down on her lunch hour in early August to say goodbye because I was going back to San Francisco a day after she came back from a conference in San Diego. We arranged for her to use my place when her brother came to visit Labor Day, so he could see the coast. She called the morning of my departure to say she had returned, but had mysteriously developed fluid in her lungs, and the doctor thought she had pneumonia. I told her I would pray to Medicine Buddha and hoped she enjoyed her Labor Day stay at my place.
Typical of Joan, on the Tuesday morning after Labor Day, she sent an email at 9:00 AM telling me she’d been to my house and while her husband and brother enjoyed a double kayak, she watered my flowers, carrying buckets from the rain barrels. “I have no energy,” she said, “so that was all I could do. I hope this passes soon.” I wrote back that I was going to see our teacher and would have him pray for her. She wrote back that the doctor was going to surgically remove scar tissue he figured was causing fluid to continue building. “I really do need you to pray for me,” she said with uncharacteristic candor, so I paid for prayers in Vancouver.
Joan had said that since she would be out of work for the surgery, she’d be away from email. So I waited…and I waited, and when after a month I had no email and no response to a voice message left at her home, I contacted a dharma sister in Maine who immediately wrote that Joan died two weeks ago, October 1— Poof! just like that, at 55, from what the boondocks doctors said was very aggressive cancer.
She beat me to the bardo… Joan’s gone to the bardo without me, was all I could think. This was a tall order of emptiness. I did not get to say goodbye but, for days after I got the news, I said prayers of Dewachen. I sang the Dewachen song loud and long in front of Chenrezig, thinking of her thangkha. Joan had been such an exemplary friend to me, I desperately wanted to be a worthy friend to her now when she needed all the help she could get.
Or did she? Plain Joan who never stood out stood out plainly now. The good news was she died very quickly with absolutely no visible suffering. I cannot imagine what enormous merit that must have required, but to go like that Joan apparently had it, Buddha nature in spades. How unlikely yet magical that seems.
"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"
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