Sometimes the burden feels especially challenging. One morning as Nita and I walked around the neighborhood, I asked her how she slept.
“I heard voices in the middle of the night,” she said.
I tuned in a soft and calm voice. “Oh? Tell me about it.”
“The voice said to go into the kitchen and find the plastic sacks,” she said.
“What did the voice want with the sacks?”
Nita was perfectly serene. “He wanted me to gather the bags so they could be filled with tin, glass, and cardboard. You know, the…”
“The recyclable stuff?” I offered.
“Yes, yes. Thank you. The recyclable stuff.”
“So, what happened then?”
“I got out of bed, went to the kitchen, and found the bags.”
“And then what?”
“I brought them back to the bedroom and went back to bed.”
Nita is not always lost in another world. Most of time we are able to carry on a normal conversation. I often have to help her find her words, which I’m happy to do. Then, out of nowhere, she’ll talk about shadowy figures just outside our window or voices imploring her to check the locks on every door in the house.
She seems to realize the ghosts and voices are imagined. “I know it’s crazy, but they seem so real.”
I once asked her what would happen if she ignored the voices.
“Well, if I hear a cry, I have to find out if you’re in trouble. If you are, I’d try to help you. If you’re sleeping peaceably, I’d go back to sleep.”
“So, you’d want to take care of me.”
She smiled. “Of course.”
Such conversations are difficult. If I allowed myself, I could tumble into a cauldron of depression. But I won’t let that happen. I look for ways to push forward, to enjoy the day, if only for a moment. That’s why I take care of Nita. It’s also why I write.
When I push forward, others push back. I don’t mean in an adversarial way. I mean in a cyclic manner, in what I call the cycle of love. Love stirs openness; openness stirs empathy; empathy stirs responsiveness; and responsiveness stirs greater love.
I’m truly blessed by the cycle of love. When I witness Nita’s dementia and I’m tittering on despondency, it’s rejuvenating to feel a warm embrace from others. It makes me feel as though I’m bathing in the aura of their wisdom and compassion.
Because I believe in the cycle of love, I decided to publicize my bladder cancer diagnosis. My decision was not founded on the hope of garnering pans of lasagna and apple pie, even though I’m a big fan of both. I decided to go public to crank up the cycle of love—that by helping others, they would help me. When that happens: when giving to others spurs reciprocity, it’s magical. Two people being transparent, being real. It’s my favorite place to be.
Some might say, “Allen, wait a minute. Love should be selfless, given without expectations.” That may work in la-la land but not in real life. One-sided love is doomed to die. Why? Because humans are wired for reciprocity. If that were not true, there would be no divorces. The reality is fifty percent of American marriages end in divorce.
Not everyone is willing to step aboard the love-cycle train though it does seem to be easier for women. I have a hunch men are too ego driven and competitive to welcome open dialogue. But I do know my transparency does resonate with some, many of whom I have never met. That was the case with Kyra, an online French friend who after reading the opening chapters of “In Defiance of the Night” wrote the following:
Even though I have “known” you for a few months, I believe your latest writing is your most profound, most significant, most influential writing. It is also the most beautiful and moving.
J’espère qu’un jour on se rencontrera.
Her last line in French translates as “I hope one day we will meet.” That’s my hope too. I am always delighted to meet new friends, to hear their stories, and to see how we might connect in our understanding of life’s journeys.
By the way, note how Kyra did not try to “fix me.” She simply related how she was moved by my words. That’s a comfort.
One more example. Gene Parulis is a man whose friendship I’ve cherished for fifty years. Because Gene is as real as I seek to be, our relationship is rich—characterized by mutual trust and openness. He and I are kindred spirits, sharing many passions, including music, photography, travel, and writing. Regarding the latter, he is the best writer I know, which is revealed by the elegance of his note, which was likely dashed off before heading for the woods.
This was his response to my lines composed from my hospital bed.
Ye Gods! What you have been through! And yet you still had the wherewithal to jot off a message to me! I’m in awe of your resolve, your thoughtfulness, your toughness, your resilience! You have the right stuff in abundance, my friend. And now that the wrong and yucky stuff has been cleared out, may your healing be swift, and may we all soon rejoice in the full return of our dear brother and remarkable luminous friend.
I will be thinking of you today as I go about all my creative work. My chants in the woods to the tree and yoga spirits will be in your name. My guitar and keyboard practice sessions will be dedicated to the complete restoration of the indomitable Allen Johnson.
Hang in there.
What a great letter. Yes, the first paragraph is effusive. Although it makes me blush, he does know me well—flaws and all. If he is still willing to take a moment to praise my character—despite my peccadilloes—then have at it. After all, I know he loves me. In that case, effusiveness may be just what the doctor ordered.
I also enjoyed how Gene shared a bit of himself in his second paragraph. Although his plan for the day is framed as a nod to me, he still highlighted his passion for nature and music. I think that’s reflective of any rich relationship—one that says this is who you are, and this is who I am. He fully understands the cycle of love.