For those of you who have never had a panic attack, the words may have no special emotional tug. For those of you who have had one, they will bring forth memories of a mind frozen in exquisite agitation, the whole room, the whole world enmeshed in a horror movie that refuses to go away.
The panic begins to reflect back on itself, mirrors in the barbershop; terror evokes terror of terror. The fear doubles and redoubles, and births its own nightmares. And one anguish shines out above all the others: that this will never end.
It is the original Beast, one that has its own rules. A creature not to be argued with, one that permits no distractions. Sleep: definitely not. Drugs: doubtful. Television, radio, movies, reading, alcohol — all either have no effect or turn sickening. The Beast demands one’s entire attention.
After its departure (sudden, unannounced), you find yourself thinking things like, Is this what it’s going to be like when I die? Is death the ultimate panic attack — the one that will never end, droning on into eternity, taking reluctant, frazzled, miserable you with it?
The sickness began the night Emma let me stay in her infirmary, next to the gurney with the stirrups that they use for gynecological exams. She runs a volunteer school-orphanage-clinic here, just north of the equator, near San Lorenzo, and I visit from time to time. Since I usually get drunk on their bad red wine, draining endless bottles over supper with Emma and her husband, Valentino, and since I don’t want to drive the ten miles home, running into some idiot donkey on the dirt road back, I let her give me a place to stay for the night.
At one or so in the morning, she shakes me from my dreams and says, “Sorry, old friend. Rosa’s here to have her baby. Could you move over to the boys’ dorm next door?” I can and do: the boys are gone for Christmas; their five-and-a-half-foot bunks are a tad uncomfortable for six-foot me — but Lord, who am I to refuse a one-night stand on sheets loaded with the sacred rites of Onanism, what one writer called “the honeymoon of the hand”?
No sooner have I hunkered down on those protein-rich covers than Rosa starts up with her Song of Deliverance next door. She sings to us most of the night, music intermixed — as in any good opera — with cries, shrieks, shouts, groans, grunts, wails, yelps, roars, sobs, murmurs, sighs, keenings, and laments. Between Rosa, the mosquitoes, the cramped bunk beds, and the damp sheets, I manage to tackle, wrestle, and bring to the mat about fifteen minutes of good sleep before the sun pops out of the ocean and the chickens start in with their screeching and cawing.
So I get up and go out to my pickup in front of the infirmary. Emma brings me some tea, and as I eye the mist of morning, the hushed palms, their cocos hanging down like ripe, hard nuts, I think to myself, amid Rosa’s cries, that this is the kindest part of the day.
I sit in the truck and play one of the dozen or so tapes I’d brought with me from the north: Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross — the string-quartet version, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau loudly bewailing the gods, as does Rosa in her bed of pain. Finally, at 6:22 A.M. (I know, I looked at my watch), there comes from Rosa a particularly strong, sad cry, and ten seconds later (I looked at my watch) there is another cry, just as loud, but in another key, one slightly more keen. At that moment, as they say in the language of this blessed country, the mother ha dado a luz — she’s “given to the light.” Then Rosa wails no more; it is time for the other, her newest and dearest, to take up the cry. And he does, with first-day-on-the-job vigor, wailing out what one master said must surely be the saddest song of our lives. “I will mourn you when you are delivered into the daylight,” Sri Nisargadatta wrote, “and I will smile when they lay you in the grave.”
Emma couldn’t get away that morning, so I went by myself over to the cathedral in San Lorenzo where, at eight o’clock, another infant, Chuy — my friend José’s one-year-old — was to be baptized. Emma was the designated godmother; I was the godfather.
I hadn’t been to a baptism since my own some fifty years ago, and I was somewhat put off by the sheer animal volume of it. The single woeful cry I had heard an hour earlier was duplicated twenty times, for there were that many babes there to be dunked into the waters of the lamb, or whatever ritual they do at times of baptism. Father Chicharo did his best to be heard above the racket, but the bare walls (painted baby blue) and ceiling (alive with pigeons and sparrows) reflected the cries. I can still see the good father reading from the baptismal text, his mouth in the shape of a sugar scoop, trying to scoop out the words for us to hear. But I’m afraid they were lost on me and, I suspect, on most of the others; the only thing we were left with, outside of our brush with the divine, was the message on a T-shirt worn by one of the dads (they wear anything to church in that poor, hot country). It said: Don’t be scared, Bad Boy. Quit yer snivlin’.
While the others were trying to make out the words of Father Chicha, my thoughts were turned elsewhere. I was eyeing my old pal José, father to Chuy. José and I had been lovers for a short spell before he got hitched to María; in fact, you might say I gave him away. It was a most pleasant passing, although I remember a twinge at the wedding, as I always have when I am losing one of my dearly beloveds. José had been very kind to me, tender in the night, and although I knew that María was getting a dynamite bed-partner (especially with all the tricks I had taught him), it still wasn’t easy to surrender one of such outstanding abilities.
On this particular day I noticed that, like me, María could hardly keep her moist brown eyes off José. He looked especially fetching in his starched white shirt and dark pants, scarcely hiding his tightly contained, muscular body. All was set off by his black shoes and belt, and his lovely, round-moon, fawn-colored face, so filled with the innocence that comes naturally when we are near, or under (or on), the cross. José had wet down his normally unruly hair for the occasion, and as the excess water dripped around his eyes, it was as if he were weeping with joy at the ceremony. María and I were profoundly touched. The only ones who didn’t seem to care were the squalling youngsters and the silent guy standing next to me — motionless, wan, blood trickling down his brow.
At dusk, after driving around most of the day for no particular reason, we (my friend Jesús, José, two of their pals, and me) went to one of our favorite lagoons — La Laguna Sagrada. I parked at the edge of the water and left the truck lights on, angels’ wings hovering over the black surface. All four young men stripped to the buff, a particularly fine buff, if you ask me (the glory of the earth, if you want to know the truth, young bodies so generous in their new-found strength — and they show them off so easily to us old geezers, as if we didn’t care).
They plopped willy-nilly into the lagoon, and I sat on the bumper of the truck and played on the stereo the last of the Winterreise, that great cloying monument to nineteenth-century German Romanticism, in which the student, gazing out over the winter scene before him, eyes the organ grinder barefoot in the snow, his empty cup in hand, no one at all listening to his music, the dogs snapping at his feet:
Drüben hinterm Dorfe steht ein Leiermann, und mit starren Fingern dreht er, was er kann. Barfuss auf dem Eise wankt er hin und her, und sein kleiner Teller bleibt ihm immer leer. Keiner mag ihn hören, keiner sieht ihn an; und die Hunde knurren um den alten Mann.
(“Just beyond the village stands the hurdy-gurdy man, / with his stiffened fingers, grinds as best he can. / Barefoot on the ice, he totters to and fro; / empty is the cup — and ever will be so. / No one wants to listen, no one wants to look at him; / and the dogs growl round the ancient man.”)
Student and hurdy-gurdy man: the watcher and the watched; Krishnamurti’s observer and observed — the two who, ultimately (the master tells us), will be merged, once nirvana reluctantly consents to arrive. And watchbird me, always trying to divine the young men. The four of them, four great unscarred dark sorrel coastal beauties playing in the waters under the palms, soft breezes leaning in from the oceans, winds muttering through the fronds, singing love songs to the dark godlets. And over here, the frozen, barefoot organ grinder sitting alone on the bumper.
They laughed and splashed water and tried to see how far they could go underwater, holding their breath, hand-walking across the lagoon on the hard, black-clay bottom. The water barely came up to their inverted navels, so there it was, the root of all our troubles, dangling before me: four semaphores waggling out some profound message as their owners moved back and forth across the lake, muscular legs angled this way and that, those rubbery cockamannies sending important signals to me, and possibly to the world.
That evening three of us meet for supper at La Casa de Cambio: my crazy friend Raul, my Mayan love, Jesús (of the long, black hair), and me with my new and bothersome cough. We drink beer and eat pozole and chilies filled with the vinegary lowland cheese they favor in this region, and Raul talks his loud, raucous, noisy talk.
You don’t want to meet Raul. He is always fighting with someone or other. He’s obscene, obsessed with what he so delicately calls “pussy.” If there were telephones in San Lorenzo (there aren’t), he’d be forever calling me up with some vulgar suggestion. He comes from New York City, from that generation (ours) that was allowed (and encouraged) (and accustomed) to go after anything, anything at all — and if the pursuit soured, to turn around and blame everything on our parents. His father, he tells me, is Jewish; his mother, Catholic.
Raul wallows in shock like a rhinoceros in mud. As we eat, he reports to Jesús and me how much he enjoys jerking off. “When I was a kid, I did it so much I shot blood instead of come; whaddaya think of that?” A forty-year-old, beady-eyed Charlie Chaplin with a Yasser Arafat beard telling us his most lurid secrets, even though we may not want to hear them. “My latest,” he says, “is condones and aguacates” — condoms and avocados. In other words, Raul is telling us — loudly enough that the nearby waiters can’t miss hearing it — that he jerks off into a condom filled with guacamole.
We’ve all gone through that I’m-going-to-tell-everyone-all-my-secrets stage sometime in our lives. In the old days, we called it “group therapy.” And, maybe because it’s such a rehash for me, I find myself mulling other things: remembering the early morning, with its fresh, squalling birth; thinking on the four dark spooks with their assorted pendants, floating above the dark waters of the dark lagoon; recalling that crazy Jew who stood next to me in the cathedral, carefully outfitted in wig (real), felt dress (russet), and blood (red) running down face and hands and feet.
And then thinking about . . . ah . . . bed. To go home with Jesús (my Mayan Jesús — not the one in the felt dress): me beside him, me beside myself beside him; the two of us beside ourselves in love.
Raul and his dumb sex drive go on and on. But then, all of a sudden, as is his wont, he begins talking about death and karma and suicide and resurrection — right on the heels of the blood and the avocados, and just before he departs to chase some skirt down the block.
We die when we’re ready [he says]. It doesn’t matter if it’s the baby in crib death, the commuter in a flaming car wreck on the freeway, the black shot down on Broadway, the president just assassinated, a seventy-three-year-old boozer in front of her television, lighting up another Camel, pouring another round of Taylor sherry into her Mickey Mouse glass, screaming at the family, then keeling over with a heart attack. It could be that guy walking over there: the peón who’s been out in the peanut fields all week, eight children and a wife about to give birth to a ninth. Or you; or me.
All death is suicide [he says]. And we don’t have to wait for a week, or a year, or several lifetimes to come back — because we’re not coming back. Reincarnation is pure metaphor. Die, and our egos explode into dust, and we’re free.
It comes when we’re ready [he says]. And karma has nothing to do with it. Karma doesn’t exist, at least not the karma the masters talk about, that mythic force that gets acted out over several — or several million — lifetimes. Karma is with us every day; we go through our karmic cycles seven or eight times in any twenty-four-hour period. No waiting required.
“How do you know all this?” I ask Raul.
“I study this shit,” he says, getting up.
“Wait,” I say. “I have to ask you some more questions.”
“I haven’t got time. Look at her!” At that moment, he doesn’t give a toot about karma and reincarnation; his destiny is to hustle the lady from Melbourne (or Copenhagen, or Detroit) going by outside.
But I hang on to his sleeve and ask him the big one: “If there’s no karmic kickback, then what happens to all those cretins who have caused us so much pain and woe and misery? People like J. Edgar Hoover and Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot and Eichmann and Attila the Hun and Chiang Kai-shek and Francisco Franco and General Haig?” (Haig is my particular bête noire — the one who sent almost one million rosy-cheeked young British and French soldiers to their deaths in the trenches of Ypres and Passchendaele between 1915 and 1917.)
“It’s simple, Ignacio,” says Raul, yanking away from me. “They’re you and me. You and me and Jesus and Buddha and Krishna — we’re Eichmann and Stalin and Hitler and all the others. We don’t have to come back; we’re already here. And we’re here to do what we came for in the first place: to die.”
Friend Raul, sticking me with this nutty philosophy (and the bill), running off down the street after the lady of his dreams, the one (he told me later) named Devon, who was so smitten with him and his dopey ways that they took up with each other that very evening and, if I am to believe him (and he’s no worse a liar than the rest of us), the two of them stayed in bed for the next three days as he taught her what he calls “the sacred pleasures of the flesh” — to which she in her twenty-five years had never, ever been exposed. And that’s why she proposed to him. And never, at least not up to now, has she been willing to leave him. At least, that’s what he says.
The diagnosis was pneumonia hemophilus influenzae. It started on that very day I’ve described to you at such length, and it went on: two weeks spent wrestling with a body not right, not knowing what the hell I had (the two doctors in San Lorenzo certainly didn’t know); then, with my growing inability to eat, or sleep, or breathe — a flight out of there and a breathless arrival at Baylor Medical Center hours before (they tell me) I was ready to pass out — if not on. Sickness (bad enough) and raw, naked, animal panic (even worse).
My friend Elizabeth later explained the panic to me. “It takes you over,” she said. “You don’t run it — it runs you.” She’s had emphysema for the last twenty years, and she told me, “When I’m having an attack and can’t get my breath — even with the oxygen up full blast — all that meditation-yoga-chanting shit goes right out the window.”
Ah so. It’s true. We spend decades studying Ramakrishna, or Aghora, or Sögyal Rinpoche; reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead; going on meditative retreats; chanting Om mani padme hum; practicing our breathing; doing body work; letting the truth from the East wash over us; trying our best to avoid bacon-cheeseburger supremes. Then we get close to the Moment, the Big One, the Biggest One, and instead of being swept up by the wonder of it — artful, joyful, holistic — we end up in a jitterbug-electric-poker-in-the-ass panic.
I used to say, “I’ve had a full life, a good and full life.” I would pause, significantly, then continue: “If they told me I had to hang it up today, I’d go ahead and do it. Gladly.” That’s the kind of stuff I used to mouth before these recent weeks. What I had forgotten is that the original Cartesian brute self is only tenuously connected to my nascent Eastern atman. In times of crisis, the former will brook no excuses, even of being On The Path. In fact, when it perceives danger to itself, this gross Western bear will react with a frenzy, no matter what the atman may say about it.
In one of his great throwaway lines, Vivekananda said, “Life is but a dream of death.” I believe that, in the same way I believe Raul when he says all death is suicide. But I also know, despite anything I may say to the contrary, that death will not be permitted to fall on us gently or easily. We have to yield up the animal before we can commit ourselves to the dream, or the suicide.