A Blue Buddha
Gerald is sitting in a wingchair in the lobby, waiting. His walker’s in easy reach of his right hand. Periodically his head drops to his chest and he wakes up startled. Tom comes to a stop in front of him and coughs gently into his hand. “Sorry I’m late, heavy traffic.”
“No problem, Tom. I like being alone with my thoughts.”
“Is that the good news or the bad news?”
“You tell me. I’m trying to be philosophical. Like my doc tells me, ‘a day at a time.’”
Gerald reaches across with his left hand to the top of the chair, twists, and stands with a grunt. He mutters over his shoulder, “I call that the ‘GoBo-Man,’ the good old boy maneuver, one of the many tricks you learn with old age. Need to remember to get your right knee around on the seat as you grab the back of the chair. Then it’s a piece of cake. I’m giving the senior residents a class in it next week. Minimum age for enrollment – eighty-five. Enroll early if you want a good seat.”
Tom laughs. “Going to hold off for a while on that class. I seem to be doing well on my own, but thanks. And you?”
“Not too bad, all considering. If you don’t mind walking slowly, I’ll leave my old ‘shuffle and blow’ here.” He points to the metal tag on the back of the tray: Simon and Brothers, Mfg. “S & B.”
“There’s no rush, Gerry. We’re not going anywhere. It’s getting nasty out there; it was drizzling on and off on my way over. Thought we’d just go a block or two, stay close to home, and beat a hasty retreat if it starts to rain.”
Gerry grabs the cane hanging on the near arm of the walker.
“You need help?”
Gerald grunts his frustration, turns, and waves at the receptionist who buzzes them out. He winks at Tom and says, “Nah, got this sword cane, keep the women off.”
They turn right at the end of the entry-drive. At the corner Tom asks, “You up for another block?”
His friend tries for a James Cagney look, waves his cane in front of his face, and delivers his lines. “Sure, can’t wait to blow this place. You in?”
They start to cross as soon as the light changes. An impatient driver in the oncoming lane tries to cut in front of them. Gerry stands his ground, waves his cane at the driver.
“Clearly he doesn’t know who he’s messing with.”
Tom starts to say something a couple of times in the next half block.
“Spit it out, Tommy.”
“Sorry, Gerry. Just thinking that after all the years we’ve known each other, not much left to say. Anyhow, how have you been sleeping?”
“Hrmmph. Pills aren’t working all that well. Most nights I got to get up after two hours to pee and then have trouble falling back to sleep. Read an article in one of the magazines people dump in our common room about imaging, kind of like meditation. Seems to help a bit.”
“So, what is it you do?”
“Article made a suggestion that I liked about finding tranquility. Not as easy as you may think. Took me weeks to understand it a little bit. I guess you got to try it first to understand. They suggested making yourself comfortable, relaxing and then picturing in your mind some restful location. Trust me, I tried lots of locations, couldn’t keep my mind still for more than a few seconds with any of them. So, I went with this picture of a small lake with a couple of lily pads floating in it; it was one of the pictures in the article.”
“That work for you?”
“Not to begin with. For weeks, the magazine picture became misty, things out of focus. Finally, all I could see was a grey mist rising off a body of water. Took me a couple of weeks to get color. I had to work hard. I imagined grabbing a couple of pieces of chalk from one of the blackboards in our common room. Stood there, closed my eyes, and scratched some green trees on the banks of the lake and then used the side of the chalk to circle in a couple of lily pads. It wasn’t easy. I’m no artist.”
“I hope you didn’t lose any sleep over it.”
“Nah. As I said, I was doing all this with my eyes closed. Besides, I never could draw so all this was in my imagination. Close your eyes, relax, and picture a lake with lily pads. Took me a while before I realized all mine were grey and misty. Yeah, and my doc says we should be watching my cataracts. They’re not getting any better.”
“Sorry to hear about that. Had mine out years ago.” By this time, they’ve reached the next corner. “You up for another block?”
“Always like to do halves. Let’s go right here and turn back mid-block. As far as the cataracts go, he said I could have twenty-twenty vision again. I told him maybe that wasn’t such a good idea with all the hot babes we have in the home. He didn’t think it was very funny, said, ‘Mr. Stanley, not to worry, it’s only the ones with cataracts going to be chasing you.’”
“What a grouch, just wait until he gets to be our age.”
They fall silent, reach mid-block and turn around. They’re back at the home in twenty minutes. Tom promises to call next week and watches as Gerald retrieves his walker.
Ten days go by before Tom calls. He apologizes. “I’m getting over a cold. How are you doing, Gerry?”
“Same old, same old. Been working on the lily pad.”
“Any better focus?”
“Yeah, I brought things in closer – shrunk the lake to a large pond and started by seeing myself standing at the edge of the pond with an overgrown dirt path behind me. Then I backed up and pictured myself walking down the trail. Changed the pond so there was a small cove on my right and on the far side where the cove opens to the pond, that’s where I pictured the lily pads. Then I fell asleep.”
Tom sneezes, blows his nose. “Sorry, Gerry, this sucks. Look, I’ll hit this with vitamin C and chicken soup. I’ll call you in a week.”
“No problem. You take care.”
Gerry calls two weeks later. “Tom, haven’t heard from you and got worried. You’re too far away for even a rugged guy like me to walk over and bang on your door. How are you doing?”
“A little better now. I needed antibiotics. A pesky sniffle is holding out but that should be gone by next week, and you?”
“Not too bad. Been trying to get out more but there’s only one other old coot can keep up with me and my walker and he’s got the same bug that got you.”
“Sorry to hear about your friend. Keep your wheels oiled and I’ll try to come next Thursday afternoon about one. How are your lily pads doing?”
“Better and bigger. Thought I’d have some fun, so I enlarged one and floated it around the point into the pond. A breeze came up and blew it farther away from me to the far side of the pond. Next, a mist rose from the lake and made things hazy. Just as bad as it was before. But I’m working on it.”
“Good for you. So next Thursday’s OK?”
“Perfect. My calendar’s still open. See you then.”
It’s Thursday and Gerry is waiting in the entryway when Tom buzzes the receptionist. She releases the door. Gerry opens his eyes, seems startled to find his hands on his walker.
“Been waiting long, Ger?”
“Couple of minutes. Must have fallen asleep; came here right after lunch. Don’t recall leaving my hands on the walker. Word on the street is there’s a market for ‘hot’ walkers. Can’t trust anyone.”
“Well good enough to put me to sleep. If they’d send up lunch at two to three in the morning I’d be able to eat and fall asleep, wouldn’t need all this imaging.”
Tom laughs. “You work that out, delivery on late-night snacks, and I’ll consider moving in here with you.”
Gerry reaches out with his right hand. “I could use a little pull here, Tom, if you don’t mind.”
Tom extends his arm. “Grab my wrist, Ger, like the daring young man on the flying trapeze.”
Gerry shakes his head. “‘Daring young man on the flying trapeze?’ You start the day drinking, like W.C. Fields?”
“Well, the film goes back to when we were kids. On the other hand, maybe I saw it on cable – you get old, who can remember? But I did have a glass of kombucha with lunch.”
“We’re spared the really healthy stuff, in case that helps motivate you to move here.”
They finally lock wrists and Tom helps him to stand.
“Thanks. Do you know why we’re such good friends?”
Tom raises an eyebrow. “No. But I know you’re going to tell me.”
“Simple. We’re matching bookends, at the opposite ends of the alphabet: G is the seventh letter from the front and T is the seventh letter from the back. A matching pair.”
“I’m guessing you came up with that one night when you got tired of imaging your lily pads. Let’s head on out, partner.”
Gerry pushes his walker through the double doors and when they get to the street he stops, looks around, squeezes the grips, and lets out a long, low rumble. He smiles.
“As I said months ago: good old S & B, shuffle and blow – it out the other end. Not too many pleasures left in life for an old fart like me. Lead on, Tom, lead on.”
Tom turns left this time. When they reach the corner, he asks if they should turn back.
Gerry answers with a twinkle in his eyes recalling how they used to banter years ago.
“If you got the time maybe we can continue on this convoluted counterclockwise path.”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“Don’t you remember? Like superman, if we go fast enough maybe I can get back to my youthful days and not need this walker.”
Tom thinks for a while before grinning. “You got it half-right. If I recall correctly, the direction had nothing to do with it. He just went faster than light or around some special mountain. Old age and details are a bummer.” He laughs, “So, OK, for starters do you know how to get your walker out of second gear?”
Gerry remembers the song. “The Playmates, 1958. Those Nash Ramblers sure were funky cars.”
“As you said, matching bookends are we.”
Gerry stops. “Give me a sec.” He coughs once or twice into his handkerchief, smiles, and continues.
“You know, Tom, been reading more on imaging and think that what I’m doing with that lily pad is more like a meditation. I’ve got it to where I’m walking along a country road then turning onto that dirt trail I mentioned before. The trail has a hump in the middle with grass and weeds growing all over the place. Probably led to a boat launch twenty years back. That’s how I get to the lake. The pond grew these last few weeks with the spring rains – I’m joking.”
“No – I’m more like that Google Map-man floating down the road effortlessly. No potholes or ripples. Do you think Google edits them out for their app?”
“Interesting question, Ger. But go on. Now you’re down at the edge of the lake. What’s happening with the lily pads?”
“They’re getting bigger. I can see a large one in the distance and there’s something sitting on it. Trouble is I’ve fallen asleep before it gets into focus. But I’m working on it.”
“Good for you. I’m sure you’ll get it by the time I come visit again.”
They turn around and walk back to the home.
It’s three weeks before Tom and Gerry meet again. Gerry is waiting inside, and an aide helps him to his walker as Tom approaches the reception desk.
“Been a couple of tough weeks, Tom.” They walk slowly down the entry-drive and stop. “Near corner is enough of a challenge this time.”
“No problem. How’s your meditation coming along?”
“Great. The form on the lily pad is some kind of Buddha sitting cross-legged. There’s a grey cape over his shoulders, blends in with the mist rising off the pond. Got to be damp out there and that’s why he needs the cape.”
“Nice, Ger; sounds like you’re getting to be old friends.”
“Not there yet. We’ll see. You never can tell. Let’s head back. As I said: a couple of tough weeks.”
Gerald calls five days later.
“Hi, Tom. Remember that mist? Well I think I caught a chill and have been laid up the last few days. Hold off coming by. Good news though. That Buddha seems to be floating towards me. The lily pad in front seems to be pulling him. There’s a rice noodle tied to the stem that Buddha’s holding in his right hand. His left hand is resting on his knee, palm up. Strange.
“I’ve got to go. The nurse is at the door with my meds.”
A week later Tom calls the home and learns that Gerald has been moved to the “recovery” wing. He comes the next day during visiting hours. The nurse on the floor asks that he limit his visit to ten minutes.
“How’re you doing, buddy?”
“Not too bad.”
Gerry uses the control to raise the back of his bed another twenty degrees. “I’ve my ups and downs as you can see. Sorry you can’t stay long. Been thinking. May as well tell you where I’m at with my meditation. Last time, the Buddha was only fifteen feet away from where I was standing on the shore. And the pond’s now become a small lake. I can see him clearly and he’s a pretty robin’s egg blue. He’s still holding that spaghetti noodle in his right hand but now he’s making some kind of gesture with his left hand and the lily pad in front starts to float towards me. He smiles and asks me to step onto the lily pad and sit.”
“That’s some meditation, Ger. Blue Buddha. Are you going to get on it?”
The nurse comes into the room and points to her watch.
Gerald smiles weakly. “Too early to tell, Tom, too early to tell.”
“Let me know the next time I visit. Got to hand it to you, Ger: a blue Buddha.”
It’s not quite 2:30 a.m. when Gerry stirs and rolls over on his side. He’s not sure if he’s dreaming or meditating as he finds himself slowly floating above the county road. He hovers for a moment and then moves rapidly along, watching clusters of bright devil’s paintbrush pass in blurs at the side of the road. Dandelions are in various stages of bloom; thistles and spikes of wild raspberries line both sides of the drainage ditches on the shoulders.
He turns onto the trail and the next thing he knows he’s standing at the edge of the lake. He looks up and there’s the lily pad and behind it, his blue Buddha who smiles and opens his left hand, inviting him to step on board. Gerry steps forward and sits effortlessly, no longer feeling any pain in his joints. He crosses his legs in lotus pose. He leans forward as Buddha inclines towards him and kisses him softly on his forehead.
A Grey Buddha
Gerry spent his last days in the recovery wing of the old-age home. Tom recalled how his friend’s strength had rapidly declined and decided time was cruel. Funny how I can call it an old-age home now. Then it was just Gerry’s place.
His children no longer accepted excuses for his faints and falls. Gene argued, “Dad, we know you want to stay in your house. It’s just not safe; you’re on your own and we’ve had to come three times in the last two months. Once we thought you’d fractured your hip and you had to stay for tests and observation in the hospital.”
Rose chimed in, “There’s a graduated living facility called Quiet House run by the Buddhists.”
Tom never said anything about the half-dozen other times he had fainted and wakened on the floor. He had gone to his internist and they ran some tests. “Low blood pressure, Mr. Edwards, that and old age. You need to get out for more walks, socialize a bit more.”
They talked about his diet. He was told to include more fresh vegetables and fruits besides whole grains. The doctor joked, “Become a Buddhist. Here,” and wrote down the link. “My wife found a website where they offer vegetarian menus and recipes for a ‘living planet;’ she uses it regularly. You’re doing fine for a man who’s eighty-one. We just need you to get to 101. As for your fainting, let’s try this prescription for low blood pressure and give me a call in two weeks. OK?”
He told his kids about his visit to the doctor. The following week they both came by on Saturday. “Dad, we checked. The Buddhist place is only a thirty-minute drive outside the city. Let’s go for an exploratory visit in two weeks – grand tour and lunch.”
On the drive out, they reminded their father that the establishment was called Quiet House and was low-key. A long curving drive led from the county road to a pleasant vista with several buildings that looked like large farmhouses arranged on the rolling grounds. Cultivated fields and clustered trees made a pretty checkerboard pattern.
Tom remarked, “Well, it certainly seems bucolic enough. Surprised we don’t find sheep grazing the grounds.”
“Dad, we told you this is run by Buddhists and is a strictly vegetarian establishment. You can prepare whatever you want in your own apartment and one of us can visit and take you out for a fish fry or barbeque. Besides, veggies are better for you – as you’ve heard from your granddaughters often enough.”
One of the managers took them on a tour of the residential buildings, showing them a variety of units: from a simple studio to a full two-bedroom apartment. She explained, “You can take as many meals with us in the main dining hall as you want or request that a meal be brought to your own place if you wish quiet time or aren’t feeling well. They’re all vegetarian, as you know. We’ve a professional nutritionist that plans the meals and oversees their preparation. Whenever we can, we use what we grow ourselves so it’s mostly organic. We have to do some minimal spraying on the fruit trees, but this is way less than with commercial orchards.”
Tom raised his eyebrows. Their guide rushed on.
“We have two ‘professional’ Buddhists on staff, a nun, and a priest, who give lectures and lead meditation groups. There’re optional. And you needn’t worry, there’s no such thing as a Buddhist conversion. There’s also a full-time RN living with us and a geriatric doctor is on call. The physical therapist is here twice a week and offers basic yoga and Pilates classes for older people.”
Their guide added that they had several rooms in the main building for people who thought they might be interested but were hesitant to commit to what they considered was a radical change in lifestyle.
“We’re different from most retirement homes with their TV, movies, and Happy Hours. We do have Wi-Fi and most people move in with their large-screen home entertainment centers, but nine times out of ten they have their families take them away before six months are up. ‘Too distracting, too trivial’ is what we hear. It may take a while to get used to Quiet House, but that’s what we are. We’ll be serving tea and a light repast in our main hall in a half hour. I encourage you to talk with some of our residents; see what they have to say.”
They stayed for tea and conversation, as their guide had suggested. “It is different, but we like it.” “It’s pleasantly quiet.” “I think you can hear yourself for the first time.” Most of the residents smiled softly and said, “We like it here.”
Tom said he was tired and they said their goodbyes.
On the way home, Rose said that it was nice how they had rooms where you could live on a trial basis. “We can keep your house open. Give it a try, Dad, for a couple of months. If it doesn’t work, you can move back home. Don’t worry, we’ll make sure you have a good supply of Scotch for your room. We checked. They said it was fine as long as you didn’t get too rowdy.”
Tom said he’d think about it. A few weeks went by uneventfully. The blood pressure pills seemed to have helped with the fainting, but his energy was still sluggish. He looked at the vegetarian menus online as his doctor had suggested but he was a creature of habit. Maybe if Lynnie were still alive she’d tackle all the prep work with those veggies. Seems to me there’s less bother with meat and frozen vegetables. He looked around his kitchen. We swapped chicken for red meat her last years. Didn’t help her much.
He went out back, pictured where they’d had the raised beds that once held tomato plants, chard, beans, and other vegetables thirty years ago. Little by little, they’d been taken down, turned into gentle mounds, and covered with sod. Only one was left, planted with wildflowers, and now that was overgrown with weeds. Tom shook his head and went back inside.
He decided to take a walk and as he turned out of the drive, he remembered Gerry once telling him how Buddhists would often do walking meditations, letting their feet decide where to go as they emptied their minds and passively took in their surroundings. Funny how my doctor is pushing a vegetarian diet and the kids found Quiet House. Fifteen minutes later, he was back at the front of his house with little memory of the short walk.
He made a cup of strong coffee and sat down at the kitchen table. Running his finger around the edge, he saw how greasy it looked when he held it up to the light. Lynnie would be on me. The hanging light above the table’s got enough dust to choke a horse. He smiled and lectured the refrigerator. “Good thing about getting old – you don’t see the dirt so well.” He tried to remember what they’d said about cleaning the private apartments in Quiet House. I should get someone to clean once a week before the kids start lecturing me.
The late afternoon coffee made him jittery. He surfed the channels, dissatisfied with all his usual selections. A rural scene from a travel program reminded him of Gerry’s lake and lily pads. Ger did say thinking about it calmed him down. I’m sure he won’t mind if I borrowed his lake for a while. Maybe I’ll start mediating like him too in case I move into Quiet House. Their brochure mentioned a small pond at the end of one of their nature trails. Who knows, maybe it’s like the one Ger saw when he meditated.
With the beginning of fall, a funk took hold of Tom. Everything seemed distant, sounds muffled. He had his hearing checked and was told it was still good. “You’re hearing like a sixty-year-old, Mr. Edwards. A little weak in the upper frequencies but that happens with age. No reason we can find that sounds should seem muffled. Maybe get out and walk more.”
Two weeks went by. He was spending even more time alone at home, mostly in the den staring at a blank TV screen. Finally, he called his son and asked him to check on the availability of a temporary room in Quiet House. “If nothing else, I can use a change of scene. And the fall colors will be nice.”
At the end of the first week, Tom asked if he could move into a two-bedroom apartment. “This way, if any of my grandchildren want to spend a weekend with their grandfather, I’ll have a guest room. They’re vegetarians so I’ll expect they’d like it here.”
Thanksgiving came, and he was invited “off campus” for the traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings. He loaded up on the vegetables and cranberry sauce and when Rose asked if he’d taken any turkey he said, “It’s buried under there somewhere.”
The weather was mild, and he frequently took walks on the path to the pond. He found a small log and rolled it to where the path stopped at the water’s edge, where he would sit and try to let his mind become blank. He had read about mindless thinking and felt as if he was occasionally getting glimpses of a new whole. The depression he had felt when he first moved into Quiet House had changed into a new tranquility.
He recalled how Gerry used a Google map-man to explore places and decided he would do the same. If he was tired or the weather didn’t permit, he would sit in his recliner and picture himself floating along the path down to the pond and his log. A sigh escaped his lips. “You had the right idea, Ger!”
Winter arrived, and a light snow covered the path. Tom bundled up and put on his boots. As requested, he called the reception desk and left word that he was going to walk down to “his” pond.
“That’s wonderful, Mr. Edwards. Bundle up and give us a call when you get back in.”
The snow covered the field that sloped up hill on the far side of the pond. He watched as twilight fell and the hillside changed from white to a pale grey. The open patch was triangular, and Tom thought it could be the back of Gerry’s Buddha. On the way back to the main building, he waved his hand over his shoulder. “Maybe Buddha has a two-toned cape and Ger only saw the blue front.”
A year went by. Rose prepared an anniversary dinner – strictly vegetarian. Tom had told her he didn’t think his stomach could handle meat. “You know, I haven’t had a fainting spell since I moved into Quiet House.”
He begged off coming for Thanksgiving. “You kids enjoy the turkey. We’re celebrating here with our own veggie meal. I asked if my vegetarian granddaughters can come and stay the weekend; they said they’d be more than welcome.”
Rose brought them out Wednesday night and Gene collected them Sunday morning. On the way home, the girls told him they’d had a great time. “We took lots of walks. Grandpa Tom’s eyes really sparkle. It’s all those veggies and organic carrots. We should all go vegetarian! It’s good for the planet too!”
When Tom agreed to spend Christmas week with Gene, Rose gave in to the girls’ request to make their big family dinner vegetarian. They pledged to help with all the washing, chopping, “and who knows what else” involved in the preparation.
Carrie broke into a dance. “Mom, I love you and I’ve already got the recipes they’ll be using at the Q/H. This way Grandpa won’t be missing anything. Cousin Maddie says she’ll help. She’s going to sleep over the night before, so we’ll be here to help all day!”
Tom was delighted with the dinner. When asked over dessert how he was feeling, he smiled. “Fine. I’m walking and meditating, if you could call it that. It’s more like mindful walking. I can spend an hour walking the three-quarter mile trial to the pond and I sleep like a newborn babe. Glad you found Quiet House. It’s so peaceful.” After a thoughtful pause he added, “You know, my bucket list is empty now. What a comfort that is!”
Gene cheered. “Great, Dad, you look wonderful – nice color in your face. Must be all those walks.”
The new year started with a heavy snow. Tom had an idea. I’ll go along with my Google-man into the city and visit my family, a virtual trip. Won’t even use my computer. I guess this meditation really does take the bumps out of the road. Be an easy way to see the kids and grandchildren.
He often visited them at night and gently planted kisses on their sleeping foreheads.
Spring came. Snow remained in the shadows on the north side of the hills. When he sat on his log and looked across the pond in the fading light, he thought he saw Buddha turning his head and smiling at him. He smiled back and waved.
I wonder if there is anything I need to do?
He asked at the desk if they had any nice note cards.
“Oh yes, Mr. Edwards, we have these with simple pen sketches of trees or clouds on the front. The paper is handmade. Are you writing anyone special?”
“Yes, my son, daughter, and their children.”
In the course of the next few weeks, Tom wrote a short note to each. He met one more time with the Buddhist priest. The next day the sun was out and the temperature moved up into the low sixties. He walked slowly to the pond, then sat and waited until he saw the back of his grey Buddha. He moved his hands to prayer position and whispered, “Bless all.” On the way back, he picked a few early crocuses and bluebells that he put in a small crystal vase centered on his dining room table.
He had supper that night in the communal hall. When he left, he asked that they bring a simple breakfast of tea and toast to his apartment about eight the next morning. He tidied his apartment and put the letters on the dining room table beside the vase. He showered, put on fresh pajamas, and retired for the night. When they brought his breakfast in the morning, they found a note on the chair inside the door. It apologized for any inconvenience he might have caused. “My time has come.”
He lay in bed, hands at his side, his face calm and relaxed.