Blossoms That Fall
The flight from Tokyo to Hokkaido was uneventful and the plane landed in Chitose late Monday afternoon. The area was in the midst of a 'heat wave', undoubtedly the last of the season. Of course having spent three weeks in the south, to me it seemed like nothing more than a moderately warm day. On entering the barracks, and before going to my room, I poked my head into Len's room to say hello. He leaped off his bed, grabbed me and gave me a resounding, back slapping hug. He picked up one of my bags and carried it down to my room. Fred was on his bed reading when I entered and he repeated Len's salutation with his glittering golden smile.
I stowed my things, rummaged around in my carryall and gave both Len and Fred several mementos from Kyoto and then headed for the shower. After eating the three of us went to the club to have a few drinks so that they could hear all about the trip. Fred was disappointed that Gregg and I hadn't been able to meet Duane, but understood that Sasebo was a bit out of the way of our other travels in Kyushu. They were most intrigued to learn all about my friend Alex and his new 'roommate', as well as Dwight and what appeared might be a new affair of the heart. It was pleasant to be back with these two very special friends. I was sipping my scotch when I suddenly realized that earlier that very same morning I had been in Gregg's embrace and now we were hundreds of miles apart.
On Thursday I got a letter from Gregg, one which he had written and mailed from Kyoto previous to leaving. He reiterated much of our last conversation about how our time during those three weeks had been some the most perfect moments we'd ever spent together. In his words, "it could not have been more exquisite and was worth waiting two years to experience."
I entered once again into the now somewhat mundane world of work at the Operations Center. Randy was especially glad to see me and commented that Jim, who had been filling in for me while I was on R & R was, besides being a lazy slob, less than competent. Then several letters arrived from Gregg after he got back to Korea. He obviously couldn't wait for the next twelve months to pass as rapidly as possible and even mentioned that, it had turned cold and he was seriously considering a long hibernation. I answered and told him that it appeared as if we would have an early winter in Hokkaido also. We were already having frost nearly every night.
Suddenly my world suffered a severe rupture. Normally letters from Gregg arrived every week, but then two weeks passed and I received nothing. At first I attributed it to the vagaries of the military postal system, since it had happened a couple of times before. Then the last of my letters to Gregg came back and had been stamped NOT DELIVERABLE. Perplexed I wrote to the commanding officer of Gregg's unit for clarification and anxiously awaited a reply.
It was the day before one of the long breaks, five days of rest. Len and I had planned on a quick trip to Sapporo. He wanted to pick up a few records and then we would spend the rest of the time at our house in Chitose, talking, cooking, reading, writing. Fred had been sent down to Tokyo on temporary duty the week before. I'd already received a short note from him explaining that he had had to do some work with 'Bertha' and that no one else there had any experience with her. He mentioned that he'd probably be back within a week or so. We had our own little code and I knew that 'Bertha' was his favorite term for a new encoding machine that our group had been the first to receive. For unknown reasons Tokyo had received their machine after our station and had had numerous problems.
It become increasingly colder with each passing day. As we walked back to the living compound from Operations, the leaden gray skies gave promise of the first big storm of the long winter season.
When the members of our shift got back to the barracks there was the usual merriment and scramble to clean up and get out of the compound as soon as possible. To enjoy to the utmost the next few days of break before the onset of winter. On opening the door to my room I saw the letter on my desk. At first I thought it was from Gregg, but the address was typewritten. It was from a Major Stanton with Gregg's army address. Must be Gregg's commanding officer. Well, at last this little mystery might be cleared up. Maybe Gregg had been shipped to a new unit. The reply was terse, military. A brief introduction, then,
Normally all information of this nature is reserved for the members of the immediate family, but since, as you mentioned in your inquiry, you had been friends since your induction into the military, I regretfully have the duty to inform you that Specialist Gregory T. Bartoni was killed in a jeep accident the 28th of October. His body and personal effects have been shipped to his family in Quincy, Massachusetts.
I stared at the letter. I read it again and again, but I couldn't understand the words. They didn't make any sense. There were no tears, how could I cry over something that couldn't possibly be true, that had nothing to do with reality? I had just been with him a few weeks ago. I could still see his smile, hear his voice, smell his warm fragrant body.
Finally, letter in hand, I went to Len's room. Mike had opened the door and was just leaving. I silently gave the letter to Len. He read it, gasped , "Oh my god," and got up to close the door. He grabbed me, held me for a few moments, and suggested that I take a shower and the two of us could then catch the seven o'clock bus into town and go to the house.
He suddenly changed his mind and added, "No, better yet, let's go grab some of your clothes and your shaving kit. We can still get the bus that's leaving in ten minutes. It's just too noisy here in the barracks."
As we stepped out the door and hurriedly rushed to the bus, I realized that it had begun to snow. Just the first few soft flakes of drifting snow. So white, so soft—so soft and pure. But cold. Much like the chill that was beginning to enter my being. During the bus trip I stared out the window at the gently falling snow. Several times Len reached over, touched my shoulder, and asked how I was doing. "Fine. Just fine," I replied in a voice that seemed to have little contact with the person who was uttering the words.
I continued to stare out the window at the whiteness. How amazing. I'd never noticed that each snowflake carried with it a musical note. In fact if I considered them collectively, put them together, they even comprised a harmonious composition. I listened carefully and realized that I'd heard this before. Of course, all of those soft snowflake notes could be put together and they became Chopin's Nocturne in F minor. Beautiful swirling snowflake music. How was it that I'd never noticed it before? It was that very same Nocturne that Gregg and I had listened to on that night long ago when we had quietly fallen in love, now turned into gently falling snowflakes.
We got off the bus and then walked the four blocks in the light snowfall. Len slid open the shoji door, commented on the coolness of the room and turned on the electric heater; it warmed faster than the wood stove and was a recent purchase in preparation for the coming winter chill. The chill had arrived.
Len put on water for some tea, then changing his mind poured two brandies. I felt the warmth of the brandy in my throat, but somehow it wasn't sufficient to warm my body. He put his arm around my shoulder, held me close and told me that I had to cry, had to let it out. But I knew that I couldn't, I wouldn't. It was so cold and I began to think about Hawaii. That beautiful warm, tropical climate. I was telling Len about how Gregg and I had planned to... No, I couldn't use the past tense. It just wasn't right. Gregg and I were planning to live in Hawaii or some other tropical area when we got out of the service. Gregg had discovered the fragrance of the flowering gingers in Hawaii and taken a bath in their perfume. He had stood next to their flowers and claimed that their aroma was penetrating his being. I could see his smile. His effervescent joy, which radiated from his body like an aura. I continued to talk about our future plans.
Though not consciously aware of it I was coming very close to stepping over the edge, as many have done, and perhaps never returning to this world. Forever entering that void which contains a comfort and reality of its own. Len kept pouring the brandy and having pulled out one of the futon beds, insisted that I needed to get some rest.
It was sometime later, Len was still holding me, under that warm futon blanket, as he had been all night. I was in a semi-conscious state and realized that I was trying to listen to the snow again. To recapture the music. I knew, sensed, that the snow had stopped falling. The music of the snowflakes was fading, dissolving. I tried to retrieve it; I silently pleaded for the melody to come back. Then the silence, an intense deafening stillness. Within that silence I heard Gregg's measured tones saying, as he had so long ago, on that very first day that we had met, "Sometimes it's good to cry. Release it, let it go, but also know that love offered or accepted can never die, it will always be a part of you." Then came the torrent, a flood of tears and sobbing. The stabbing relentless pain of anguish. Len still holding me, woke up to hold me even tighter, and knowing, feeling my pain, couldn't help but sob with me.
After our five day break, that somehow had never existed, and yet were also a nightmare of torment, Len and I returned to the base. Len of course had a bit of sage advice; I, for the next few days was going to adopt a bit of southern paraphernalia—a mask. Might as well make it one of the 'smiley' masks. That way no one asked too many questions. According to Len, they would just say to themselves, "Well, there goes ole Smiley Sue and there's no need to get into a conversation with her since it will obviously be so syrupy sweet that it will just make me want to vomit. That's all there is to it. Now let's see if you've got your mask well placed. That's it, that's it. Well almost, except that a smile is with the corners of the mouth pointed up dear, not down. Ear to ear. Much better."
There was a letter from Sven. He and Gregg had been in different units, at opposite ends of Korea, for over six months and Sven had just learned of Gregg's death. Sven was also devastated and wrote that suddenly his world had been diminished, reduced. He had lost something that was very precious to him, one of his dearest friends. Sven also included some lines from one of Shelley's poems:
Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep—
He hath awakened from the dream of life.
Sven added, "Fortunately, 'the dream of life' which was Gregg's included you, was you, and I know that eventually you two will, in some sphere of existence, be reunited. If it can be any consolation, remember that the two of you experienced the profundity of a love which many people will never know."
But the joy and meaning of life had abruptly been stripped of my being and little remained but an empty shell. I retreated more and more into myself and spent the minutes, hours, and days lost in a private world of memories; of attempting to read and not understanding the words, endeavoring to listen to music, although usually I didn't hear anything. It was that and staring at nothing and being enveloped in the silence. I existed in a swirling eddy of memories, holding them tightly. Almost as if I were afraid of losing them also.
When mom received my letter with the news of Gregg's death she made what was, at that time, a very expensive long distance phone call. I didn't know exactly why since she said very little and spent most of the time sobbing. Perhaps she just wanted a negation, to be told that it wasn't true, and that her "Handsome Son #2" would someday come home, hug her in his arms, smile, and softly sing her a Greek lullaby. I knew that I could give her no such words of comfort. Nor, in her pain, was she able to comfort me.
It was another of those gray days. Overcast and cool. Melancholy in its very being, and now after several days of relative internal peace, the anguish had returned. It became more intense as evening fell. That time of day when the mail usually arrived and I knew that there would be no letter from Gregg. Not today nor ever again. Len had gone to Chitose early in the day and Fred still hadn't come back from his temporary duty in Tokyo. The barracks was quiet. Most of the guys were still out on break. I felt more alone than ever before. I was sitting at my desk, not so much writing as just putting down the words as they tumbled out from deep inside:
empty and longing to be filled,
permeated once again with your being.
a constantly throbbing ache
devouring that which would remain whole.
now shattered, void and cold.
how long must it wait?
how long can it wait?
before, like the blackness of space,
it collapses in upon itself.
nothing will remain.
nothing more than a cry in the darkness.
in the void,
that was a heart.
having known your love,
complete and all encompassing—
joy beyond belief,
can this now empty vessel
settle for less?
a plea echoing through eternity,
that know no end.....
I'd gone to the base infirmary several times during the past few weeks complaining of an inability to sleep and received some pills to help relieve my 'insomnia' Rather than being used, they had been carefully guarded for the proper time. Obviously the moment had arrived for their use, all at once. Strangely, I didn't really consider the concept of suicide, I just wanted to sleep forever, to still the ache that was consuming my being. I'd just gotten up from my bed, put on a recording of Beethoven sonatas and was headed for my closet where I had stowed the pills.
At that moment the door opened and Fred arrived. His smile and sparkling eyes told the story long before he opened his mouth. Obviously all had gone well during his duty in Tokyo and he was glad to be 'home'.
Fred gushingly told me all about his time in Tokyo and obviously the most important piece of news was that Duane had managed to come up on one of his five day breaks and they had been able to spend the time together. They had finally had their first physical relationship and Fred commented that he didn't know why he had waited so long. He was bubbly and continued to jabber, at times almost incoherently. The symptoms of love no doubt. Then he showed me his hand and pointed to a new ring with the announcement, "Just like you and Gregg, we made it official."
I looked down at my hand and realized that I had been, during the last few weeks of torment, never aware that I was still wearing that physical symbol of my relationship with Gregg. The ache began anew and I began to cry.
At Fred's questioning I unfolded the whole story and realized that he trying to hold back his tears. Like Len had done so many times during the past few weeks Fred was holding me close, trying to comfort me and I knew that he shared my pain. At the same time I realized that I was pleased for Fred and Duane and the fact that they had each other. In some inexplicable way their budding love for each other also helped me. I knew, felt, was aware of the fact that though Gregg's physical presence would not be with me, his limitless love would always be a part of my being.
Len and Fred, who had obviously adopted the role of protectors and guardians, had, during the next few weeks, an endless list of activities in which they absolutely needed my help. They in essence helped me to reenter the world of living, of doing and being.
Winter eventually passed and the first buds of spring began to appear. One day Fred suggested, "Why don't you visit your friend the Buddhist abbot, Shimizu-san at ... what's the name of that temple?" I told him its name was Sekisetsuji and was in the process of explaining that it meant "Falling Snow......" Suddenly it dawned on me—of course, the Zen monks also knew that one could listen to the snow and that it contained messages for anyone who would take the time to be attentive to its special voice. Yes, I really wanted, needed, to talk to Shimizu-roshi, perhaps he could help me to make some sense of what, at times, still seemed to be incomprehensible.
A few days later I took the now familiar bus ride to the Sekisetsuji temple in order to spend a few days with my friend Reverend Shimizu. I arrived in mid-afternoon. It had just rained and suddenly the sun burst forth from behind the clouds. Everything was sparkling with an intensity and brilliance that bordered on the unreal. As I entered the temple complex I was greeted by Teijiro-san, one of the novice monks that I had become especially fond of. His smile and sparkling eyes were as brilliant as the surrounding landscape. Teijiro explained that Reverend Shimizu had gone to Sapporo and wouldn't be back until early tomorrow but that I was welcome to stay. After I put my things in the small tatami matted room where I usually stayed, Teijiro asked if I would like to join them for the late afternoon zazen, or meditation practice.
Seated on the traditional meditation cushion I realized that my mind was busy with a limitless number of thoughts; they seemed to go on in an endless succession. I attempted to focus, to enter into the ritual. My mind was still a jumble and I knew that it had been exactly like that since learning of Gregg’s death. I kept trying to still the internal chatter, but without much success. Then from outside, I heard the melodious song of a bird. A sweet lyrical song that was repeated a number of times. That and nothing more. It seemed to embody the wholeness of life, all of creation. I slipped, effortlessly into another place, perhaps into the very melody of that joyous bird. It was a place I had never entered before. It defied verbalization. It merely was, as I was. It also became a place of healing.
That evening, after our usual meal of rice, tofu and vegetables I spent some time talking to the monks. During the meal, as was the custom, there was an attention to eating with no unnecessary speech, though I knew that later we would spend some time in relaxed conversation. It was comforting to be with them, to laugh and chatter. I enjoyed being a part of this close knit community and conversing once again in Japanese. Then my attention was drawn to Shiro and Matsuo who, as usual, were busily chatting with each other. I thought back to the volume of poetry, 'Wild Azaleas', and saw within their special glances and sparkling eyes, smiles which were reserved especially for each other. With a flash of recognition, it became evident that they probably were lovers. Did the other monks know, were they aware? More important, was it of any special significance or was it just accepted as a part of life and living?
Abbot Shimizu arrived shortly after noon the next day. In his reserved way he seemed to be as pleased to see me as I was to be with him once again. I relayed the salutations from his friend Professor Takezawa and he seemed both surprised and contented that I'd had the opportunity to meet and converse with his old friend. Since he had various obligations to attend to, he excused himself and suggested we continue our conversation after the afternoon meditation. I mentioned that I had joined the zazen yesterday and would like to do so again today. Though his eyes hinted his delight that I would be joining them for the meditation, he merely bowed slightly and said that I would be more than welcome to join them.
That evening in his quarters we talked about my visit to Kyoto and Kyushu—how much I had enjoyed actually seeing and experiencing the history of this country. I recounted the various places I'd visited and my personal impressions.
Then suddenly I was talking about Gregg and his death. I was even talking about our relationship, not knowing how Shimizu-roshi would respond to my revelations. He was silent. Then he began to gently explain that it was normal to love and expect our relationships to last forever, but it was this very aspect of human behavior that the Buddha had pondered and attempted to comprehend. The message of Buddhism was that all of life was impermanent, transitory, and whenever we attempted to hold on too tightly, we were bound to suffer the consequences.
Reverend Shimizu sighed ever so softly. We had been speaking in English, but he suddenly reverted to Japanese and said, "Hardest of all to love are the cherry blossoms." Then, as if to make sure I understood, he repeated it in English. He gazed out of the open room, the shoji had been left open to let in the gentle night air. He looked to the verdant hillside beyond, now bathed in the light of the nearly full spring moon. In the foreground there was an old cherry tree and even in the pale moonlight, petals could be seen drifting to the ground below. I knew that his phrase held a special significance, but had not yet grasped the meaning.
He continued, "There is a seventh century collection of poetry, The Monzen, which begins with the lines, 'Time passes and nothing endures, the delicate cherry blossoms least of all' ".
The pauses in his conversation were obviously as important as the information within the words, phrases and sentences. "The blossoms in spring, the song of the nightingale in summer, the red maple leaves in autumn and the first snow of winter are the most moving of all beautiful things,.......... but which of them lasts forever?..........Human life is no different."
"Perhaps most important, and difficult, is to learn an appreciation and acceptance of the moment. Like the refreshing breeze of summer your young friend has moved on. Your life was enriched by his presence, inspired by his knowledge and comforted by his love, and now you are faced with the ultimate reality that nothing physical lasts forever."
He continued by quoting the entire poem of that anonymous author of so long ago. Someone who, it appeared, had faced the same emptiness that had gripped my being.
Time passes and nothing endures,
the delicate cherry blossoms least of all.
A storm in the night and we are parted from the blossoms;
They are gone in the morning.
These few words and tears alone remain.
Love them, those blossoms that fall so quickly.
Realize that the ancient pine too,
After a thousand years, will wither.
I was aware of how much I come to love this unique, elderly man seated in front of me; how fortunate that my path had led me to the Sekisetsuji temple. He had enriched my life immeasurably by his instructional method of 'non-teaching'. Never once had he suggested that any particular dogma or belief held the answer to salvation or the big 'Truth'. He had never blatantly stated, 'Here is the answer to your question'. He had always shown me a method of arriving at my own answers. Just like Gregg.
Once again I reflected back to the 'Wild Azaleas' book and the disciple of Buddha known as Monju, the personification of wisdom. I felt certain that I had encountered two manifestations of Monju during my life, Gregg and Shimizu-roshi.
At that very moment I heard the monks in the central part of the temple begin their harmonious evening chanting. "Gyatei, gyatei, hara gyatei, hara so gyatei boji sowa ka" Tonight they were doing the Heart Sutra. I knew that this was no coincidence, but part of the totality since in Sanskrit, the Heart Sutra can be condensed into a single written syllable, the top part being 'wisdom' and the bottom part was the character representing Monju.
With the passage of time, I continued in my return to life and living, but it was never quite the same. A vital part of my very being had been removed and that unbridled joy had been replaced by an undercurrent of persistent longing. A desire for what might have been. Rev. Shimizu may have intellectually pointed out the folly of tenaciously clinging to the things of this life, but my emotional side had not yet wholly accepted it. It was also somewhat contradictory for I had recently both gained and lost.
I had lost the most important person in my life and yet in arriving in, and knowing Japan, I had gained an added dimension that would, like the memories of Gregg, be with me for the rest of my days. By this time I knew that I was in actuality rediscovering Japan. Making connections with what, I was positive, had been a previous lifetime there. Though not exactly a Buddhist, I certainly accepted the validity of reincarnation. I also remembered Gregg's intimate identification with Japan. It would appear we had both lived here before.
Yes, I knew that we had been here together. Just like two wild azaleas, growing and blooming together. These two things, Gregg and Japan, were intertwined, connections which reverberated throughout time.
Eventually I began to smile and even laugh again. To look forward to tomorrow. I had consciously preserved a sufficient quantity of beautiful memories. Like those memories of my father, Gregg's carefully guarded repository in my mind could be opened at any time just by remembering his special smile.
However, I couldn't open it just yet—it would have to wait for some other day.
Nureba ya hito no
Yume to shiriseba
Thinking about him
I slept, only to have him
Appear before me—
Had I known it was a dream,
I should never have awakened.
— Ono no Komachi (Ninth century)