Eulogy for a stranger
In mid July, instead of being at the Bob Dylan concert I had a ticket for, I was in Vancouver, Canada at Rinpoche's monastery for a special weekend teaching. That's where I came upon a tall, middle aged blonde I'd met there the year before. Back then she joined a friend and I for lunch, essentially because we had a rental car and she had no wheels at all. My friend had evidently made this woman's vague acquaintance years earlier at a retreat in the lonesome highlands of SE Colorado when they both found themselves washing dishes together in the kitchen.
I newly made Arlette's acquaintance at that pub lunch. She was from Hawaii, Maui to be specific. She wore bright red lipstick. She was single, at that moment. She was a therapist. When the waitress came to take our order, she was an inquisitor. "I really want the chicken," she said, eyes on the menu, "but is it organic?" It was. "Is it free range?" It was. "How much of a range?" The waitress didn't know. "Was it well treated?" The waitress didn't answer. I thought I was in an SNL skit. I couldn't believe this woman was that ditzy, that a person long past 40 could be that much of an easily parodied type. I felt like shouting: "Order the baked potato!" but we were on a break from a Buddhist prayer gathering, so with considerable effort, I zipped my lip and pulled out my patience. In other words, I didn't say a word.
When I spotted Arlette in the shrine room in Vancouver this year, that chicken shtick was all I could think about. I could not get over her total lack of self-consciousness, more to the point self-awareness. She had not been making a Portlandia joke. I had been making a judgment. She was a type.
This July, Arlette was, as she had been, full of zest and zeal. She still wore bright red lipstick.She had flowered shirts. She cadged rides with my dharma brother, who found her charming. She waved at me. We chatted briefly, and I got reminded she was from Hawaii, Maui to be specific. I got reminded she smiled all the time. I got reminded how temporary a judgment can be. For what purpose was I carrying that chicken shtick memory around? To keep labeling her as a type.
Little more than a month later, an unusual and unusually mysterious post showed up in my Facebook feed. The author introduced herself as Arlette's dear friend and went on to say while she was very uncomfortable speaking out on this medium, she needed to convey a message. To those who knew Arlette, all was not well. She had cancer. She had gone to Germany for an "alternative" treatment.
Prayers for Arlette began to appear in my Facebook feed, followed the next day by news her body had reacted to either the cancer or the treatment with a stroke. She remained unconscious. More prayers surfaced on Facebook before a post that evening announcing she'd left her body, as Buddhists say. Just five weeks after I saw her red smiling lips, Arlette had gone free range. Thirty years of the teachings and talk about impermanence boiled down to Arlette gleaming in July, gone in August.
Her friends posted like mad. They were going to miss her high spirits, her sparkling energy, her resolve to handle anything thrown at her. People said she never shirked. She always smiled. She had great strength and character. Someone posted a video of Arlette in her Maui apartment spontaneously dancing to the live voice and guitar of a gray haired, long bearded old friend. It was like watching Zorba the Greek exposing the joy of being human. Infinite love and admiration kept pouring through my Facebook feed for someone I hardly knew, someone I remembered as an SNL skit, someone very alive who died in a flash, just like that!
I wondered if behind all those red-lipped smiles and bright energy in Vancouver, Arlette knew she had cancer and was doing a spectacular acting job. Or was it a surprise waiting when she got back home? A shocking hit, like a landmine. that blew her away to Germany where she died alone, in a hospital.
Most of the world didn't know Arlette and I didn't either. But the unsolicited outpouring of pain and praise says she was a rare type: a human being worth knowing, worth the space she took up and the organic food she consumed. She didn't have a lot of money or a fancy house or a world mastery agenda. She just had a lot of heart and persistence that apparently made other people's lives happier. What more could anybody want out of life than to be a blessing to others? Who can do better than die alone yet be instantly mourned as a tremendous loss, someone remembered with unanimous love.
"Now she is with Rinpoche," my dharma brother wrote in his post, "sharing his blessings." Her spirit, as Bob Dylan would say, is blowing in the wind. "Viva Arlette!" I spontaneously commented. "Viva Arlette!"
~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"
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