In a moving personal essay, Roshi Bernard Glassman discusses his practice of bereavement following the death of his wife and dharma partner, Sensei Sandra Jishu Holmes.
I follow a daily schedule. In the mornings I take a bath. Then I sit in front of my wife’s picture. Sometimes I listen to music. Sometimes I look at the birds outside. I read and re-read the teachings of Ramana Maharshi, whom she admired. I play with her dogs. I read her journals.
During the rest of the day I work on the formation of the Peacemaker Order and develop its web site. I’m available to teachers and senior students, usually by phone. I sometimes laugh and say that in comparison to the way I’ve worked over the past thirty years, I’m not doing anything. But when the sun goes down I’m exhausted and I go to bed early. For I’m actually working very hard. I’m bearing witness.
In March, 1998 my wife, Sensei Jishu Angyo Holmes, and I left our home in Yonkers to move to Santa Fe. We were accompanied by three associates and four dogs. We drove two cars and two trucks across the country, pausing for six hours in Pennsylvania to fix an oil leak in one of the trucks and for three hours at the Federal Penitentiary in Springfield, Missouri, to visit one of our Peacemaker priests, Fleet Maull.
Jishu and I had worked in the inner city of Yonkers since 1982, from the beginning of the Greyston Bakery. We lived in Yonkers since 1987, all that time focusing our energies on developing the Greyston Mandala, a group of organizations which built housing and provided jobs for homeless families and people with HIV/AIDS in Yonkers.
But once we’d co-founded the Zen Peacemaker Order in 1996, we began to look elsewhere for a place to live. We were on the road half the time, visiting ZPO sanghas and peacemaker groups all over the world, and we were getting older. The idea of a refuge, a sanctuary where we could both breathe and rest between trips and engagements, became very important.
Finally, last December, Jishu saw a house in Santa Fe. It was a square adobe home with an inner courtyard, hacienda-style, perched over the Santa Fe River. It needed to be rewired and replastered. It needed new windows, doors, and bathrooms. She loved it. We would live in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. There would be room for her dogs, for new trees, for a big garden. She invited her parents to move down so that she could live close to them. It would be the start of a new
life, for her and for me.
On Tuesday evening, March 3, we left Yonkers. Jushin, our housekeeper and a student of Jishu, took a picture of her teacher smiling through the window of one of our giant trucks just before we pulled out. It was the last photo taken of her alive.
We arrived in Santa Fe on Monday morning, March 9, and closed on our new house. Six days later, in the midst of unpacking on a Sunday afternoon, Jishu complained of chest pains. She was rushed to the hospital; the doctors said she’d had a heart attack.
For four days she seemed to be getting better and stronger. But on Thursday night she had a second attack, and after struggling for almost twenty-four hours, she passed from this sphere of teaching late on the evening of March 20, the day of the spring solstice. She was several days shy of her fifty-seventh birthday.
A week later we held her funeral. We brought her back to the home she’d loved and hardly lived in, bathed and dressed her in her bedroom, then laid her out to rest in the canopied inner courtyard. We kept her company all night and in the morning returned her to the funeral home. There we talked about our life with Jishu. Her mother talked about her when she was a child, while her brothers talked about how they’d grown up together. I was the last.
When it was my time to speak I looked at her as she lay in her casket, draped in the kesa she had sewed, wearing her mala and a beautiful Hawaiian lei, and said, “There are no words.” It was all I could say. Then we covered her entire body with flowers, hundreds of flowers, and sent her to her fire samadhi.
In the afternoon we planted a plum tree in the yard so that birds could nestle in its branches and the dogs lie in its shade. Then we went and brought her relics home. They lie beneath her photo in the living room across from the altar where she did her Zen and Tibetan Buddhist practices every morning. She’s always in the house. In fact, I call the house Casa Jishu.
At first I was in shock. We had just come here to begin a new life in a place she loved. Our bedroom looked out at the mountains and she had loved to wake up to the dawn each morning. She was full of joy and exuberance when we’d arrived here. But all she had been given was five dawns. A week after Jishu’s death an advance copy of my new book, Bearing Witness, arrived. In it I had written about the three tenets of the Zen Peacemaker Order: not-knowing, bearing witness to joy and suffering, and healing ourselves and others. As I looked over the book, I realized what the shock had done for me. I was in a state of not-knowing.
What had happened was inconceivable, unthinkable. Most people couldn’t believe it. Over and over, people talked about Jishu’s lighthearted, happy smile, a smile that none of us was going to see again. What are you going to do? they asked me. I’m going to bear witness, I replied. I cancelled my schedule of public appearances for the rest of the year, including a book tour. I put off hundreds of friends, associates and students who called or wished to fly over. I knew from the beginning how easy it would be for a man like me, surrounded by people and programs and plans, with schedules finalized two years in advance, to throw himself into his work. Instead I chose to do a plunge. I chose to plunge into Jishu.
Plunges are trademarks of our order. They’re retreats designed to jar us out of our usual way of doing things, out of our usual concepts, and we bear witness. I have done plunges on the Bowery of New York City for many years; I have done plunges at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. This is my hardest plunge of all.
This is the schedule I follow for my plunge. I get up early and take a bath. I learned about baths from Jishu, who found them a wonderful way to relax. Then I sit in front of her picture in the living room. Sometimes I put on music, especially Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, which she loved. Sometimes it ís Philip Glass. Sometimes it’s Shlomo Karlbach, the singing rabbi and an old friend, who sang songs to the daughter he named Neshama-my soul.
Recently I’ve been putting our tapes and CDs in order. Jishu started doing that back in Yonkers, arranging the music by composers in their respective centuries. I just finished the job. The birds are singing outside the window. She loved birds, and before joining the Zen Community of New York had gone on birding expeditions around the world. So her bird books and binoculars are close at hand, so that I can look at the birds that she loved. She also loved doing jigsaw puzzles, the bigger the better. So there’s a jigsaw puzzle out on the round table by the cushion where I sit. The pieces are in disarray. That way, whenever people come in they can find a piece that fits and put it in the puzzle. It’ll take a while to finish, but there’s no hurry.
In the beginning I wasn’t sure I could do this. In the spring, purple and white lilacs blossomed so profusely that they appeared inside our windows and doors, their smell overpowering the incense I light in the mornings. Hummingbirds looked through the window, the trees sprouted leaves, the twilights were longer and golden. It seemed as if I was surrounded by the things that Jishu loved. I couldn’t look anywhere without thinking of how she would have loved to see this, how she would have exclaimed over that. Instead I watched the hummingbirds, I sniffed the flowers, and I didn’t want to. I wanted to leave. I wanted to leave the house, leave Santa Fe.
This is not my kind of place, I told people, we came to the Southwest for Jishu’s sake. This house, the canyon, the mountains-these are the things that she loved, not me. I’m more comfortable in the inner city, not here. I talked about selling the house, leaving, and getting myself a studio in the Bowery.
And in fact a buyer for the house came quickly forward, a neighboring family I had just met and liked. They would take care of the house, they promised. They would take care of it for Jishu. But I’ve stayed. So far I haven’t left. So far I haven’t sold. Letters are lying on my desk, offers of homes where I can rest and get away from it all: Malibu, New York City, Santa Barbara, Hawaii, London, Switzerland. So far I haven’t left Santa Fe, except on two occasions.
In early June I went to Philadelphia to install a group of students into the Zen Peacemaker Order as Buddhists. They had begun their studies with Jishu and I installed them in her name. The other was when I visited San Francisco to see Ram Dass. Some time ago R.D. had suffered a terrible loss, too, a major stroke that had left his right side completely paralyzed. Jishu had also suffered such a stroke in 1994, only she had recovered most of her powers. I could have talked to R.D. on the phone, but I needed to do it face to face.
So I visited him at his home and we talked quietly. And as we talked I began to realize what was happening from my bearing witness, from my grief for Jishu. She was integrating with me. I was becoming Jishu-Bernie. When she was still alive, Jishu had brought into our relationship certain energies that lay dormant in me. She had brought her softness, her femininity, her down-to-earth practicality and deep empathy into our life together. Now, with her death, I either had to manifest them myself or watch them disappear from my life. Jishu was not the only one to die on that first day of spring. Bernie died, too.
Someone else is now emerging, someone else is coming to life. For lack of a name, I call that person Jishu-Bernie. That new human being is unfolding. I still don’t know who that person is or what that person will do. There are many things I still don’t know. The third tenet of the Zen Peacemaker Order is healing ourselves and others. But often I think that what’s really happening is more basic than that. When we don’t know-when we let go and sit with shock, pain and loss, with no answers, solutions or ideas, with nothing at hand but this moment, this pain, this grief, this absence-then out of that something arises. And what arises is love. I don’t have to do anything. I don’t have to create anything. Love arises by itself. It’s been there all the time, and now, when I’m less protected than at any other moment in my life, it’s there.
People ask me every day how I’m doing. I don’t know how to answer them; there are no words. So I just tell them I’m bearing witness. It must be hard, they say. No. But isn’t it sad? they ask. Isn’t it painful? No, I say. It’s raw, that’s all. It’s bearing witness, and the state of bearing witness is the state of love.
Jishu continues to lie in peace in her home, by candlelight that is never extinguished. At some point I will build a stupa by the plum tree and her relics will go there. At some point I may travel again; I may appear in public again. Right now I don’t know who that “I” will be. Jishu kept a journal for many years. When I get low it helps me to read it. On December 23, 1992, two days before Christmas, she wrote the following: “I have reached a crossroads. The old ways of being don’t work anymore. I can’t just `do’ anymore. God has taken away my capacity for that. I am in a state of not-knowing: not-knowing who I am, what my values are, what my goals are, how I will get along, what will become of me. It’s frightening and at the same time I feel hopeful.”
And on April 9, 1995, she wrote this: “I want results instead of process. What a trap. As I create and listen, I will be led. As I create and listen, I will be led. As I create and listen, I will be led. The process takes care of itself. Just listen. As I create and listen, I will be led.”