Not long after my parents’ deaths—my mother’s from Alzheimer’s, my father’s from emphysema—I was visited by my friend Elan Sicroff, a concert pianist, who had come to town to see his friend the Venerable Bhante Dharmawara, a hundred-year-old Cambodian Buddhist monk who was, as usual, just passing through. In this instance Bhante’s passage involved the inauguration of a Buddhist temple in a rambling wooden Brooklyn pile on Rugby Road, not half a block up the street from the high school gym where I used to go Friday-night dancing. I’d never met Bhante, but Elan invited me to come along and I thought why not. I’d heard about him for years and particularly liked the story about how a bunch of his students, some years before, had put him on a plane from New York to California—his only steady pied-á-terre, I’d heard, was some vast underground bunker in, of all places, Fremont—when he kept telling them insistently that he really wanted to go to Vienna. It was a nonstop flight—so went the tale—that landed in San Francisco, where the people waiting for him were confused by his absence. Bhante deplaned happy, unawaited, and in his robes at Austria’s principal airport, and while I’m pretty sure a stopover in Chicago or someplace had a hand in the events, it was an irresistible story anyway.
Elan and I approached the temple across its impressively pillared porch, and once inside the front door we were met by two young Cambodian men who spoke no English in response to our own. They staringly, silently guided us through what had once been the living room, now massed with six-foot-tall candles in monumental sconces, a golden effigy of the Lord Buddha seated at the head of the room and much devotional art arrayed about him along the walls, then up three flights of creaking stairs to the plain, barely furnished attic bedroom in which Bhante, taking note of our arrival, rose from his daybed nap to say hello, ancient in his faded orange robe, his translucent, lined, hardly still human face breaking into a smile of greeting. He had unusually small and even teeth which might actually have been his own, a shaven head and long-lobed, pointed ears. His skin was the color of blonde Virginia tobacco and had a healthy sheen. He moved terribly slowly, as if prone to breakage, but with a definite frail grace, and at so evenly measured a pace as to seem in another region of spacetime, inching along beside us in parallel but with an entirely different relationship to the velocity of light.
Elan and Bhante had some things to catch up on; a few familiar names percolated through the conversation, although I could not follow the plot, and then Bhante, like a very slow, experienced planet, revolved in my direction from the daybed’s edge. On the wall behind him were a number of color photographs of Cambodian men and women who had evidently come to the attention of the Khmer Rouge, some with missing limbs, others with enormous burns or slashes on their torsos; some were living and others dead; it was not always possible to tell which. I had never seen a photo of a woman with her breasts hacked off before. After asking me a very few questions and receiving terse, shy, uninformative answers about my parents’ deaths and my so far unsteady attempts to find a life in the aftermath, Bhante reignited his grin and his eyes took firmer hold of me. “To take on the suffering of others,” he said in his small, quavering, accented, barely audible voice, “is the . . . noblest . . . thing a man can do,” and here the crawling pace of his speech accelerated to its conclusion: “but you have taken on too much.” He paused, perhaps not for effect, but the pause was effective all the same, then repeated: “You have taken on too much.” He began chuckling and nodding his head yes. Elan and I couldn’t help it, we both laughed.
Perhaps that’s what I had done, imperfectly and inexpertly at the very least, most often in a disorderly fugue of intertwining, inevitable failures. I had tried to get between my parents and heal, I suppose, the pain that was tearing all of us to pieces. I didn’t have much luck, and neither did they.
During the two or three worst years of their decline, I was, at least for a while, dividing my time between a house full of musicians in Woodstock and my folks’ apartment in Brooklyn, attempting to maintain the fact or fiction of a personal life, although by then my parents’ drama had begun to obliterate my own and my time down in Brooklyn to exceed my stays upstate; it would not be long before it would dawn on me that, however shell-shocked and in need of a retreat I was, my proper business lay back in town. But that was still to come.
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