Emerging from each wave of fear, I arrived at a difficult to describe state, lacking true lucidity, but I was able to converse with Sarah, and to mostly make sense of my surroundings. Overall, there was a fragile, precarious feeling of respite; I’d been split wide open, not violently, but exposed, raw, there was a lightness, I had emptied out considerable portions of terror.
Each time, my trusty shaman was there, with a gentle, caring presence, reassuring me that I was ok, offering words of wisdom from selected poems and prose, or sweet bird calls of her own making. And then there was the music.
Sarah had taken meticulous notes from our two pre-journey prep sessions, observing how central music was in my life, documenting references I’d made to specific pieces and why they meant something to me. Then, during these moments of reprieve in the trip, a tune or song or aria seemed to magically appear, in that headspace I had no memory of having mentioned specific things to her, and the resulting effect was that of being deeply seen and understood and honored. I experienced this as kind of an act of love, and the music flowed over and into me, as if to fill the void from where the terror had been evicted, so much beauty and love and light, so powerful that I wept uncontrollably, tears of joy mixed with tears of grief.
Two songs in particular led to a kind of domino effect of synchronicities, tying together thoughts and experiences from the two weeks prior, a connection with Sarah that may be best described as telepathic, followed by events over the course of the following weeks, all adding up to a most extraordinary brush with the metaphysical world.
First up, a song by Ben Folds titled Still Fighting It.
While facing fear was my stated primary objective, my unstated expectation was that I would also, of course, be in close contact with that deep well of feeling connected to all I’d lost at the hands of ALS, as well as all the loss to come.
Topping the list: My family.
I first heard Still Fighting It when I stumbled upon the music video online, our son Julian was probably around 8-9 years old. The video features home movie footage of Ben and his son Louis, from when Louis was probably 3-4 years old, a beautiful boy, adorable, as Julian had been at that age, and it struck a very sensitive nerve. It made me cry every time I heard it, thinking of those heartwarming moments in the video, when Ben is playing around with Louis, running on the beach, carrying him, a sleepy sack of bones, even consoling him as he cried, just as these things had all been with me and Julian.
Let’s pause here and take a look at a photo of Julian at that early age, you know, to really punctuate the moment.
So, yeah, my wife and I made this little guy!
I know! Right?!
This kid lit up every room he entered, brightened every classroom and playground. He was animated by joie de vivre, grounded by a love of nature, especially animals, and he was born with and still has a Buddha-like acute sensitivity toward others, naturally inclined toward inclusivity and fairness.
As Julian grew, evolving from cute into handsome, he channeled his energies, trying his hand at a wide range of activities, settling on two primary passions: music, as I’ve mentioned, and rock climbing, specifically bouldering.
Check this out!
After years of work, Julian has accumulated mad skills and built a powerfully strong climber’s body. He’s become one of the best climbers in Bellingham, and he is a route setter at the local climbing gym.
Most importantly, everybody loves Julian and the humanity he moves through life with.
Yeah, you bet I’m a proud papa!
Back to the mushroom journey, over Ben Folds’ gentle piano, Still Fighting It opens with the line:
Good morning son,
I am a bird
And from that sweet, simple image, those words that I’d actually sung to Julian many times as he awoke, the tears came instantly, copious and deep.
The song serves as an empathetic, even self-deprecating, acknowledgment that the process of growing up can be painful, kind of a modern take, in miniature and with a taste of humor, on William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience.
It hurts to grow up
And everybody does
It’s so weird to be back here
Let me tell you what
The years go on and
We’re still fighting it
We’re still fighting it
And you’re so much like me
No parent wants to see their child hurting.
Following the second time through the chorus, Folds sings:
You’ll try and try
And one day you’ll fly
Away from me
Sobs, intense sobs, some shaking, hot tears. Before my diagnosis, that line reminded me of an inevitability, Julian one day leaving the nest, that I was not wanting to acknowledge.
…and then there’s an interlude, wherein Ben repeats the opening lines of the song:
Good morning son
Good morning son
I am a bird
…and that’s when it hit me. Now, it seemed I would be the one to fly away. That’s when I thought of our neighbor the owl, recalled the ghost story, the nest, the owl call each night the past two weeks, the notion that in a non-dual reality the owl and I are one, and therefore, when “Howard” passes on, I might fly off, but I wouldn’t abandon my territory. I’ll be perched in a tree somewhere, looking over my family.
The song ended, I opened my eyes, Sarah had a very large feather, its quill encased in a hand-stitched leather sheath, and she was waving it over me. I erupted into an excited explanation of all I had just been thinking and feeling, describing the whole owl saga, and when I concluded Sarah just stared at me, tears welling up and starting to trickle down one cheek, and she said, “Well then, this must be yours.” She handed me the feather, and added, “It’s from a Barred Owl.”
I gasped, hand to mouth, and Sarah spoke again, “But, there’s more.” She pivoted to her left and reached for the framed picture that had been propped against the wall, its brown paper backing facing out. She clutched it to her chest and explained that when she had come downstairs to the daylight basement to set things up that morning, at the top of the stairs she passed this picture and it somehow caught her attention in a powerful way, she of course passed by it all the time, but something was different, she had no idea what it might be, but she grabbed it off the wall and brought it downstairs in case its purpose was revealed somehow.
She rotated the frame around so that I could see it…
…an ink line drawing of…