Longing gives rise to grief;
Longing gives rise to fear.
For someone released from longing
There is neither grief nor fear.
—Dhammapada, verse 212 (trans. Gil Fronsdal)
Happily swaddled in snowsuit, mittens and big rubber galoshes, I relaxed onto the sled and let myself be carried, up, up, up the hill with all the Poker Flats dads pulling all the Poker Flats kids whooping and screeching to the top. Wool cap low over my ears, scarf bundled over my mouth, only a slit for my eyes, my nose poking out cold, sniffing new snow. I slid past my favorites, the willows, branches glinting, bare and icy, hanging like stalactites over the frozen marsh. At the top of the hill, someone pushed, and my heart thumping crazy inside my snowsuit, down I zoomed, careening through gleaming snow. A searing smack into the tree. “Daddy!” I kept calling. “Daddy!” But he didn’t pick me up no matter how hard I cried.
With my half-brother, Mark, and half-sister, Nicola, I stepped back onto the charged paths of my childhood. There were some turns I feared I’d find too dark, too laden with loss. Poker Flats was one of them.
We’d come on a road trip to Williamstown, the college town in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts where Mark and Nic grew up. Me at sixty-four flown out from Berkeley, Mark at fifty-two from San Diego, joining Nicola in New England to celebrate her fiftieth birthday. Three blue-eyed Gateses, like Dad. When I’d asked, “Where to?” Nic surprised me with Williamstown. “It’s where I have my happiest memories,” she told me. Much of my life has also been tied to this town: I lived there as a young child, my father taught at the college for over twenty-five years. I girded myself. A few years back I had decided never ever to go there again. But so longing to be a true sister for Nicola, I’d come. In my memories, however, unlike Nic’s, Williamstown had not been a happy place.
Here I was in the very town where I’d blamed life for betraying me. I was scared to be here. So I took on this trip like a meditation. I was walking into pain and I had a plan. Shoring up my discipline, I set out to try to pay attention to every step, to hone my senses to everything, even congested old hurts. And if I got stuck in those hurts, I would try, as best I could, to return to the next step.
For me, Williamstown was all about loss—it’s where I kept losing things that mattered, mostly Dad. First, I lost him when he, as a young faculty member, had a brief affair with my mother’s best friend and then left my mum and me, age three. Later, when my mum would send me from New York (where I had moved with her) to visit Dad, I felt like an intruder on Dad and his new wife, Syl, and then on Mark and Nic, his new family with her. So I lost him again. This climaxed after college when, twice following tantrums (mine), Dad let Syl banish me, and for many months, I wasn’t allowed in his home. Then, in quick succession came the deaths—grandfather, grandmother, followed by Dad himself, only fifty-eight, from cancer and, as far as I was concerned, a clenched heart.
All in Williamstown, where my many years of fraught visits had failed to deliver what I’d never known I kept longing for: some miraculous recovery of everything that had ever been lost. I’d returned each time, my own heart steeped in this longing, like Kisa Gotami in the Buddhist tale who carried her dead son in her arms, desperate for his recovery. To teach her to let go, the Buddha sent her on a pilgrimage from house to house through the village. “I can bring your child back to life,” he said, “if you bring me a mustard seed from a home that has never suffered loss.”
Over my many visits to Williamstown, I’d avoided Poker Flats, the red brick faculty apartments where I lived with Dad and my own mom before he took off. But this time, after visiting the houses where Mark and Nic grew up—the ones where I’d come as a guest to see my dad—I mentioned Poker Flats, my most challenging destination. Even the words felt parched and mean to me. “Come on,” said Nic. “We’ve been everywhere Mark and I lived; we’re going there.” So with Nic on my one arm and Mark on the other, we walked across town. Each step a meditation, I told myself. Like Dorothy and her new pals warding off lions and tigers and bears, we marched across the old baseball field right up to the front lawn. That red brick building looked so shabby and small now. The swing set Dad had built wasn’t there anymore, or the cozy bench with the pillows. I remembered how my mom pulled my sled all the way back after I hit the tree, and how Dad told her, “Barbara has to get used to not having me around.”
Just returning to Poker Flats, bolstered by Mark and Nic, something began to change, some thawing of that old grief seeping warm through my chest. I remembered the willows in the spring, bending over the marsh, weeping.
After Poker Flats, we circled back toward the college cemetery to visit Dad and Syl’s graves. Once again, I felt the familiar cold squeeze in my chest. Each step a meditation, I walked in. As we read the engravings on the tomb stones, Mark and Nic kept seeing family friends; their easy chatter sounded to me like old home week. “Oh, Mr. Stoddard!” Mark crooned, or “Why, there’s Mr. Versenyi!” and Nic, “Remember, Mark, how we had sleepovers at the Versenyis?” I knelt to place a pine cone on Dad’s grave as Mark and Nic gathered pine boughs. Then we stood together silently.
Dad died when Mark had just started at the college, Nic was in high school, and I was thirty. As we approached the grave to bury Dad’s ashes, I followed a whim and suggested we look at them. Taking the tiny wooden coffin from Syl, I pried it open and spilled out the remains into my hand and into Mark and Nic’s outstretched palms. Charred cartilage, bits of bone. Shocked beyond words, Syl turned her back. The moment I poured out the ashes, I knew I had done something terribly wrong. Hurriedly, I collected the shards and flakes of ash, poured them back, and pounded shut the lid of the little coffin. Together we slid it into the freshly dug grave and covered it with soil. Afterward, I berated myself: What was I looking for? Some vestige of my handsome Dad, his blue eyes? To hold my dad in the palm of my hand? Dad was such a solitary man. I had violated his privacy. For months afterward, I obsessed: Were remnants of Dad’s ashes stuck under my fingernails?
Now, standing between Mark and Nic, I bowed to Dad’s grave. Over three decades later, the memory of those spilled ashes shuddered up my spine, as it had in years of dark dreams. I noticed the boughs on Syl’s grave. Suddenly, it came to me that when Nic and Mark were in their teens and twenties, they hadn’t just lost a Dad; they’d also lost their mom. No mustard seed obtained in any Gates home. I felt how my life was opening to let Mark’s and Nic’s in.
The next morning, we set off for Stone Hill, a favorite Williamstown walk. I remembered how on my childhood visits to Dad, I’d take lonely hikes through the cow pasture to climb the hill to my secret fort in the copse of trees. Now, as we approached the base of the hill, I paused and breathed through my cramped chest, preparing myself once again to enter a loaded terrain. Each step a meditation. Stunned, I stopped short at a chain-link fence. Foreheads pressed against the links, the three of us stared at the torn-up ground, the bulldozers, the dug-out chasm marked off with plastic orange tape. Where there was once pasture, now there was only rubble. Ignoring Keep Out signs, we squeezed through an opening in the fence and searched through the debris, looking for a trail up the hill. “What happened to the cows?” cried Nic. “And the Queen Anne’s lace,” lamented Mark, meticulous student of flowers. “The Joe-Pye weed and black-eyed Susans?” And me: “Wasn’t there a pond just here? Leake’s Pond?” In a chorus of upset, we all remembered the life of the pasture and how it had constellated around the pond: frogs, newts, egrets, red-winged blackbirds, dragonflies, a badger, even snapping turtles.
Before Mark and Nic were born, I spent many summer days at the pond. I’d skitter through violet asters mingled with goldenrod, breathing in the sweet scent of wild strawberries with the earthy one of cow patties. I’d lie on my belly by the edge of the water, studying tadpoles, trying to catch that exact moment when they turned into frogs. I tracked each stage—first a slippery mass of frog eggs, then tadpoles swimming through the grasses, later tadpole-like swimmers without gills or tails, growing feet and then heads. One day they’d leap out onto the lily pads: full-grown frogs. I felt like a voyeur on the evolution of life.
We three scrambled through the wreckage, looking for signs of Leake’s Pond. “Remember, Nic, how we always stopped to play with the newts,” said Mark, “on the way to our fort on the hill?” “Just in the copse of trees? That was my fort too,” I said. And Nic: “All the children in Williamstown climbed this hill, pollywogged and skated Leake’s Pond. This is criminal!” Finally Mark bushwhacked through some weeds, and behind an earthen berm, he found it, an impoverished version of its former self. Instead of our wild and fertile pond, we saw a shrunken waterhole, albeit still seeded with water lilies.
Somehow, in our trespassing caper, in our pilgrimage through the landscape of our childhood, in our shared outrage and grief, something new happened. We became a team. This was our pond. And somehow, vice-versa, we its children. Remembering the evolving swimmers in the primeval seas—losing gills, fins, developing feet, heads—I sensed a continuum, of loss, of change.
The last night at our motel I dreamt about the pond; fertile, shimmering, it spanned the full screen of my mind. In the morning, not wanting to break the spell, I stayed in bed. So did Nic and Mark. There we rested in a liminal space between asleep and awake. This trip, for the first time, we three lay side by side in bed talking. For hours we stayed still, reminisced, enjoyed the quiet. Nic teased, calling me a blanket hog. We horsed around and talked true, like the kids we’d never been together.
Nic suddenly sat up and said, “I want to be cremated too. How about you?” Nic kept surprising me; beneath the peppy, teasing persona, so gritty. She nodded to each of us, reclining on our respective pillows. “The thing is,” mused Mark, “where to scatter the ashes?” “How about Stone Hill?” said Nic. Mark nodded, “Scatter me at the crest of the hill, in the woods.” And I found myself saying, “Scatter a little of me there, too.”
If you’d told me a week earlier that I would want to scatter even one flake of my ashes in Williamstown, I’d have thought you were crazy. No way. Yet now it felt somehow right. It was as if we three were making a pact, like kids taking a pocket knife to the thumb to exchange blood, but ours was also with this place.
“How about Leake’s Pond?” added Mark. And Nic, “I could get scattered there.” “After sundown,” I heard myself say, “under the moon.”
One night, when I was still small, I caught a frog. It’s best to catch frogs in the dark. So once the moon was up, a pal and I snuck out. Bullfrogs grumbled rounds in a resonant bass, “Rumm Rumm Rummm,” and green frogs exploded, “Gung Gung Gung,” in their throaty twang. We followed the calls to the pond. Squatting by the edge, we dipped our hands into the water. We followed basic principles: Always approach quietly. Touch with clean and moist hands. Hold firmly—contain, but never, never squash or suffocate. That night, in a sudden swoop, I captured a frog. Cradling this leaping life in cupped palms, I relished the tender slippery feel. Through the peephole between my forefinger and thumb, the bulge-eyed creature peered out. I saw its pale chest expanding and contracting, felt its rhythmic pump. It was almost like holding a heart in my warm hands. In sudden bursts, the frog sprang up, trying to free itself; finally it escaped, soaring back into the pond.
I didn’t know when I started this trip how I would tend to my own frog heart, so chafed and bitter with loss. As if no one else had ever suffered fathers who disappear, split families, misunderstandings, deaths. As if loss, fully felt, wouldn’t flow with tenderness. And the release of longing wouldn’t clear the heart.
Not so easy to get there; my heart is still caught. But it’s a step to truly see the longing. As on a cold morning, clouds of breath. Dissolving.