In the Bardo
I am writing this in Texas, at the Houston airport. It’s currently 4:45 AM. In typical me fashion, I insisted we get here ungodly early. We can’t even get coffee, as the restaurants don’t open for another hour. Here at gate C36, all is calm, all is bright (fluorescent lights). We are in liminal space now—neither with Steve’s family, who had gathered to mourn brother-in-law Rod’s death—nor yet en route home.
I’m glad we are availing ourselves of this in-between place, so that we can begin to process the past few days. Rod and Steve’s sister Ruth were married 55 years, raised four wonderful kids and have 18 grandchildren (nine from one daughter, Leslie) The reminiscences from both family and his many friends painted a very consistent picture: Rod was a big Southern boy through and through, tough at times, but fiercely loyal and loving. We heard about his crazy childhood escapades. We also heard how tenderly Rod cared for Leslie’s family when her baby daughter Rose died. He was a pillar of their Catholic church, and had a great sense of humor.
Rod’s last four years were brutal, with a lung transplant that led to continual infections and complications. Through it all, Ruth (his “buddy”) was by his side, unfailingly positive and upbeat. In the end, it was Rod who decided to stop all treatment; his poor body had had enough. He entered hospice care, and he and his beloved Ruth had time alone to say, as Ruth shared, “everything that needed to be said.” Rod continued joking around, but when he said, “Party’s over. Lights out,” his meaning was quite clear.
During his last few days, Ruth tested positive for COVID, and she was unable to see Rod. The kids, however, rallied around so their dad was never alone. When Ruth finally got the all clear to return to the hospital, she didn’t make it on time. But Ruth was totally at peace, knowing she had been there for and with him, for over half a century.
Buddhist culture describes the time after death as “the bardo,” a place of waiting for what comes next. A wonderful novel I read last year, Lincoln in the Bardo, re-imagines the tragic death of Abe’s little son Willie, and the grief that tears the great president apart. He stays in the cemetery, unable to release the soul of his child. But Willie needs to move on.
I think of the bardo as a place where the dead, as well as those who mourn them, linger a bit. It’s just so hard to let go of this world. But, little by little, story by story, Ruth and her family are releasing Rod. He is free of pain at last, and it’s time to move on, and figure out life without him.
May I, may we, honor our own bardos, when we'll sit in our quiet airport between death and what comes next, waiting, not with dread, but with anticipation and, even, joy.