Julia was no one’s beloved friend. Imagine that. Her family was in Oregon and they didn’t know that she had already spent most of her short life trying to kick drugs. And she didn’t want them to know. I first met her at an NA meeting [Narcotics Anonymous]. I had been clean for about two years. But Julia kept slipping. Kicking and slipping.
Meditation was part of our NA meeting. Even before that, in rehab, they taught meditation. I started going to a Buddhist center close to the church where we had the meetings. When Julia was clean, she liked to come to the meditations. When she was using, she’d never come. I once asked her why. She told me that meditation was “too naked.” But she had a little coral Buddha around her neck and she never took it off.
Over time, there were three of us—not counting Julia—who went to the meetings and then to the meditation. We all knew Julia. We had lent her money, brought her to rehab, listened to her stories, her lies, excuses, denials. None of us really liked her. Even if she had cleaned up her act, I don’t think I would have liked her. I certainly never wanted to date her.
When she got really sick there was no one to take care of her. Me and another guy, Daryl, had actually taken bodhisattva vows by that time. We vowed to put other sentient beings before ourselves. We had made commitments to the path of compassion. Did I know what I was saying? How could I? I could hardly take care of myself. It was Debbie, who came to the meditation with us, but who hadn’t taken any vows, who said, in this very matter-of-fact way, “We have to take care of Julia.” And Daryl and I just kind of fell into line and said, “Okay.”
It was Debbie’s idea to talk to the meditation teacher. And he was so happy for us! He said we were blessed to have this golden opportunity. He told us that we would never get Buddha’s teaching until we truly understood impermanence. Of course, none of us had to be reminded that AIDS could just have easily picked us.
Debbie was hard on me and Daryl. She kept saying, “You guys don’t know anything.” And she was right. We were always offering to go to the store, get pizza, do yard work. Me and Daryl, we did not want to be in there.
We made a schedule so that one of us would be around. We were all working odd jobs and shift work. When the teacher came, he was never bummed out. Not with us or with Julia. It was like he had no idea in his head that you are supposed to be uptight and holy and sad and never laugh in the presence of a dying person. And he always brought ice cream. One evening, he said to Julia, “Would you like to meditate with us?” She nodded. So we brought the couch and the pillows into the bedroom and meditated together. Julia said it felt good, so calming, like a “mind massage.” Then the teacher said we might want to try that again. That changed things for me. Up until then, I’d been thinking, “I don’t even like her, but that doesn’t matter.” But even I could see the need to keep her far away. Her, and her death. Once we began to meditate, though, the distance between us disappeared.
All of a sudden, Julia’s sister shows up with her husband. And the sister gets hysterical. She starts crying, “I can’t believe this, I can’t believe this. How’d this happen?” She says, “Julia, don’t worry, you’re going to be fine.” Oh boy. Her husband stays in the kitchen with a six-pack. The whole scene suddenly feels like an alley that’s been roped off by the cops after a crime happened. A violation. But see, the sister looked like TV movies. And I saw that that was “normal” behavior. And that it made things worse. Julia knew she was dying. We knew. We didn’t pretend. The sister, she’s like in kindergarten, playing make-believe. “You’re not going to die.” Bullshit.
What I hadn’t exactly understood at that point was that Julia, being so totally herself, made all of us be ourselves, too. When the sister showed up, we saw that the only—I mean the only—thing we had to give was being there. Her sister brought anxiety, hysteria, denial, and I saw Julia flinch away from that. Even though I think Julia knew that her sister did the best she could.
After that, a hospice worker came and showed us things. Bedpan stuff. Diapers. Morphine—which was dicey. But we did it. The teacher told us to apply the same guidelines as in meditation. Don’t pick and choose. Pay attention to the task, and don’t get stuck thinking about whether you like it or not, whether you want to do it or not. And Daryl and I, we didn’t turn our heads.