The morning was silk, soft on the skin, and it was just before dawn. The early spring air carried the season’s first hints of warm moisture. A light breeze brushed my closed eyes, and a quiet but lilting birdsong began to tease awake the silence. In that brief moment between sleep and full lucidity, I felt a boundless peace that I hadn’t felt for some time.

In the year leading up to that Easter Sunday, in 1984, my first wife, Jackie, and I had been fighting her leukemia. We had gone to Seattle for a bone marrow transplant. Jackie’s prognosis was good for someone her age and health, and her brother was a perfect donor match. We were going to beat this.

We were wrong. Jackie’s transplant failed. We tried again. Failed. After six months of pain and radiation and dialysis and tubes and corpses hauled out on gurneys every day in a “research” center, a doctor shook his head somberly and told us there was nothing more they could do. Jackie sat propped up in her bed, her skin cracked and green, a urine bag hanging limply on a hook nearby. She gazed calmly at the doctor and, as was her style, analyzed the situation clearly and resolutely. She then said quietly, “Well, I certainly don’t want to die here. I want to die in my home.”

And that’s what she did. We traveled back across the country to live out her life in our house in New Jersey. I was her nurse. Medical paraphernalia crowded every corner of our bedroom. We knew that she was going to die, but we didn’t know when. So we spent the last three months of her life together in a surreal netherworld, somewhere between a life we had lost and a death we could not know. Friends and family helped and watched.

Ordinary sounds and colors of life took on a menacing tone. Their simple beauty—which I was only then beginning to comprehend—stood in stark contrast to the horror we were enduring, enlarging and intensifying it. And I began to know the First Noble Truth: suffering. It had crept up incrementally, and would soon come rushing headlong with terrible, overpowering force. If you’re not ready for it—and I wasn’t—it will gouge out a hole so deep inside that its vacuum sucks the breath out of your lungs and all reason out of your brain.

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