In the early 1970’s, my grandfather leaped from a bridge. To say he leaped is perhaps too romantic, too hopeful. His car was found parked at an angle on the road next to an overpass near a small town. Sometime in the middle of the night he had driven there, weary with years of pain and drugged by medicine designed to combat that pain; the pain which comes from long battle with emphysema. I am sure he must have climbed reluctantly over that rail-guard, wishing only to end the torment. In the small and boyish mind’s eye which, for me, captures that moment for an eleven-year old and translates it into the mind of a fifty-year old man, he spreads his arms and falls like Icarus into the grasp of a loving Father. In reality, he lingered for some hours in a hospital bed, his bode the tinny ring of a telephone-- church bell of the suicide-- causing an alarmed flurry of feet through darkened rooms in the earliest hours before dawn.
He was sure his loving father would catch him, carry him upward, just as he had described for me many times over: “When I gave my soul to
Jesus I was carried down that aisle in a rapture. My feet never even touched the ground.” One strong hand gripped the primordial, white stone coffee mug he always used, circling it, the handle there simply for show. The other reached to grip my own, startling me, to show me with just what strength his Savior had grasped his soul. He always wanted me to become a Christian. I never did- at least not the kind of Christian he would have recognized.
Or perhaps he would have recognized something akin to that rapture in my soul were he alive today, something maturing at last into a bud worthy of the joy he must have felt knowing that he had given himself totally into a love that stretched so far on either side that it was like gazing at the sea before ships or even the idea of a ship had occurred to the first man who ever lived.
He hurt his family. I am sure he understood that. The large funeral home where my mother’s hand lingered in a last caress on the wood of his coffin, the wood burnished bright by the unsmiling lights high above and reflecting in round circles their multiple glorious suns, was filled to overflowing with unfamiliar faces. Most churches would have been too small to accommodate the people of the county who, with age and experience, were able to appreciate my grandfather in a way that at eleven I was not. During the years following the Great Depression, still difficult for Southerners who had not benefited from post-war industrywhich would come only in the 1960’s and which would turn many of them into the new class of slave, my Grandfather, a self-made man, was successful enough to help many in the area past financial difficulties. My surprise at the numbers of respectful mourners foreshadowed the many times my own undeserving hand was taken by some citizen who, upon ferreting out my familial connection (as Southerners always do upon meeting,) told me that my grandfather was ‘A Marietta Legend.’
I only knew that he was a Saint of my childhood, for he was the kindest, most generous man I can remember knowing. He taught me how to shoot a BB gun with infinite patience- we shot bottle caps hung on bushes on land behind his house. He was never too tired to play games with me, always letting me win just to see the joy in my face. He looked down at me with his brown eyes twinkling and put something in my hands. It was love. Love was always put into my hands with infinite patience, assuming with a mythic timelessness that I would eventually understand the gift. He was a self-made man in a time when every man was assumed to be so, whatever his condition. Money came to him but meant nothing. He cared about what others felt. He was conservative but in the original way, where love engendered responsibility rather than need and he was a man made in the mold of the South in a time before that mold was broken and discarded for a more shallow indenture.
My mother’s hand smoothed lovingly the grained wood of his coffin. The pews were filled with mourners, cars parked boustrophedon in the sprawling lot, a secret message that only God could read. Wooden pews bolted to the floor rattled to hymns, shaking belief into every attendee. An adolescent boy watched without understanding.
My grandmother was a reed before the altar. At her home, furniture waited, sullen, square corners illuminated by a shaft of sunlight, a prismed angel’s tress spilling onto the untrodden carpet.
It was there at her home that I spent the night two weeks later and there I saw my grandfather once again.
Inside of every tree there is a seed and inside every seed a tree lies impatient for life. A family is the same. Like the last of the molasses, trapped against the lip of the jug, pooling, seemingly vanished forever, then rushing forth with renewed sweetness, a family flows again. My grandmother, as loving and bountiful as her husband, craved the company of her grandchildren and we wanted her comforting embrace so we spent the night with her as we had so often before. I had exhausted myself mentally and physically earlier in the day and so my slumber was placid until early morning. Then I experienced a dream that was not a dream and the needle’s eye of metaphysical truth that has taken decades to mature. I had not the aid of a Henry Corbin, a Julius Evola, nor any staretz at that time to point a sharpened finger at the map of existence, showing me an engineer’s diagram of the reality which was about to spread before me. An angel, valkyrie, fravarti, was only as close as Howard Pyle or Robert E. Howard would allow, save for the visions conjured by an elementary school library with its schoolboy editions of "The Iliad" and "Robin Hood".
My grandmother’s Victorian parlour was a place the grandchildren entered, if not cautiously, at least knowingly. Colder than the rest of the house, it was an alethean river channeled by minds and an 8mm motion picture device; a preserved iceberg of cherrywood furniture, doll-cases, and tasseled curtains. My grandmother had filled the room with plates of china, dolls, and wooden screens, carved by aliens and shipped in boxes imprinted with what was to our adolescent imagination, the seal of the imperial Chinese Court. We gleefully despoiled the offerings, wringing them from the cartons like tribute from defeated rebel Boxers, plates wrapped in crumpled newsprint packed on the other side of the galaxy by midgets wearing conical caps. Squinting, we deciphered the encoded messages, sure they were meant for us alone. The plates, china dolls, and sundry were carried by Grandmother into the parlour like unexploded bombs and placed in a glass case more holy than anything Sinai had seen. Athena whispered in my ear and the fane was never disturbed.
This sanctum of a parlour was where the angels led me when I dreamed that night, a dream that was not a dream, a truth that was as atomistic as it was cosmic. There I was reunited with my Grandfather- my soul awakened by a wordless beckoning in the deepest part of the evening.
My consciousness awakened to a presence. Though I had fallen asleep in my usual bed surrounded by red silk sheets and heavy velvet curtains, I awakened on the couch in the room adjacent to the parlour, summoned by the same force that summons winter from summer. The inky, vertical darkness shimmering in the threshold of the parlour door was uninviting. Can a soul shiver? If so, I shivered as I walked through it in my dreamless dream.
“Your Grandfather wants to see you.”
He was seated in the middle of the parlor, head in hand, covered by blackness, death’s well-knitted quilt. I went and stood next to him, afraid to touch his pain. There he sat, head in hand, sunk in despair. He didn’t look up and indeed I was afraid for him to do so. I sensed that I should not speak. A calming panic filled me, like that of a man endlessly floating in space, the wonder of it all conquering singularity while emphasizing the helplessness of existence.
Around me the room was filled with cooling darkness, thick like the salt sea, healing, encompassing, inescapable but for the grace of God. I was a stranger there.
“He will be here until he feels well again. He is sad.”
There was a rustling sound from behind my Grandfather. Wings? Tall shapes draped themselves over my mind, flanking the sadness, guarding it, allowing healing to take place. Were they guards or guardians? Both? I was not allowed to view them, only sense their heavy presence, infinitely patient, a stone respiring simply because it must.
“You may ask him a question. He is allowed to answer.”
An overwhelming sense of anguish, a well of love and despair, which affected me less that I would have expected, arose from the bowed form of my grandfather. The muting of self rendered undeniable by primordial law left him unable to speak to me in the way he would have wished. Nevertheless he was allowed an oracular boon for one moment, a polishing of the soul, done for his sake, and mine. Somehow I knew it would be alright, that a plan was being followed, mercy and love extended in a cocoon woven from threads spun both above and below.
Michelangelo painted it and we breathe it every day, not filtering the dust but inhaling it all, soot, honey, earth.
His need was great. I asked a question, the meaning of it all. All. Not knowing that I had asked and not comprehending the perfect symmetry of the thought. Nothing that was me asked. It was not my speck of a soul which queried but the resounding echo of existence, a reflection of the divine in our soul, that which already knows what it needs to know but which has hidden that knowledge from itself in an eternal game of hide and seek. In the games of hide and seek my Grandfather played with me I had always found him. Now he had found me and even in his pain wished to show me the way home.
“What does it mean? What is everything for?”
Head still down, eyes shielded to what he felt unworthy to see, he pointed upward with one finger.
When I followed that finger there was no ceiling but that of the heavens, a whirling cosmos of stars, unending light signifying countless souls, creatures born of that love which is like the sea, encompassing and from which there is no escape, bounded by just shores, with each wave crashing onto that boundary only to be pulled again into the deep center. Perfection showed itself to me that night, unexplainable save through the limiting form of language and rendering me as mute as my beloved Grandfather. I stared in wonder, understanding the reason for it all.
Najmuddin Kubra might have understood and explained it all better so that I could put pen to paper and share my experience but I had not made his acquaintance yet and would not do so until forty more years had passed in the crucible of life. Ibn-Arabi might have drawn a dialectical map for me while carefully pointing out that the map was not the terrain. Al-Khidr would dance logic into fallibility and fallibility back into truth but I had not his acquaintance then. I was merely an adolescent given a seed, like many others, and released once more into the stream, a trout caressed and blessed by the love of my Grandfather and divine will.
Mercifully, I have forgotten everything I learned in that chrysalis moment.
Like Chaung Tzu I am a butterfly who cannot know he is a man, a mere man who reaches to grasp the beauty of a twinkling butterfly. With the Breath of God we pass from one to another. Drinking from the river Lethe allowed me to preserve the gift of that seed, for which I am eternally grateful and to forget the knowledge that my consciousness could not hold. I am still only a small boy inside, waiting to grasp the hands of the divinity. Perhaps it is through Odin’s spear, which points upward as a finger of truth that reality will be revealed, or in the variable lights of Kubra or Suhrawardi, but it is as much through the love of my Grandfather as contemplating any of the sages that I will unforget that unifying truth.
There is a place for souls, and infinite mercy. I pray for my Grandfather silently and often, knowing that time is irrelevant, a mere human conceit, and that he is healed constantly and forever.
And for him there is an altar in my heart.