I am spending a week at Rancho La Puerta, a lovely health resort with a spiritual bent that meant a lot to my late wife Kathi Kamen Goldmark. Once a year we came here to teach classes on writing and publishing with writer and publicist Leslie Levine and literary agent Joelle Delbourgo. And because Kathi was involved, we also put on a talent show that had all the glamor and showmanship of a summer camp. Kathi believed absolutely everyone on this earth has talent, and her greatest joy was to get someone who normally didn’t perform up on stage. I am leading that talent show this year. Wish me luck.
Enough time has passed since Kathi died that I am beginning to live a life with a future again. In San Francisco a season has passed, but here at Rancho La Puerta it is as if time stood still for a year. The timelessness of this place brings back many memories, and with them both joy and the intense sorrow of loss.
Today, as I was walking across the ranch I saw the tennis instructor who gave us lessons three years ago. I am not much of a tennis player, but Kathi was in another league of badness. Sports weren’t Kathi’s thing, but she tried to learn to hit a tennis ball across the net (she never succeeded) because she was a great spirit and a good sport. If Kathi is somewhere now she is playing guitar, singing, reading, writing, and organizing parties—but she is not playing tennis.
Each morning I attend circuit training, which consists of a group of us doing intense one minute stints at twenty-four consecutive stations: pedaling madly in a stationary bicycle followed by a weight contraption followed by hula hooping and then another contraption, and so on, all to a soundtrack of percussive pop music. One morning after circuit I was outside stretching when I saw an eagle making lazy circles in the sky. I thought, that’s Kathi’s spirit in that magnificent being, saying hello.
Then today, at the end of Yoga class, our instructor Hazel Sticker had us sit cross-legged in a moment of spiritual rest and peace. We placed our hands on our hearts and breathed slowly in and out, and Hazel said “May your heart be healed, just a little.”
The next thing I knew I was bawling. I ran outside and stumbled along a dirt path that runs around a small vineyard, my eyes filled with tears, hearing those words again and again: may your heart be healed, just a little. A white butterfly fluttered beside me, twirling round and round and then flying off to some marigold blossoms, and I thought, that’s Kathi, telling me it’s all right.
I don’t know what happens when we die, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if our souls lived on. Certainly some of Kathi lives on in everyone who knew and loved her. She had a genius for connecting people; she lives on in those relationships, and in all the love they generated. She lives on in the fun events she started, such as the talent show we are doing this week, the monthly Los Train Wreck jam at El Rio, and the friendships of the Rock Bottom Remainders. Kathi wasn’t granted a long life, which is unfathomable in so vibrant a woman, but she is still with us in the spirit that she inspired in so many, like some kind of Johnny Appleseed of joy and fun.
But still—what are we supposed to do with the grief? What possible purpose can there be in so much pain and sorrow? It seems pointless.
On my second day here a woman approached me and said, “I am sorry for your loss. You don’t know me, but I wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t speak to you. I am a widow, and I know something about what you are going through. No one ever plans on this journey, but something good can come out of it. I am a scientific person—I don’t have a faith—but I believe there is meaning there, that through our loss we can grow and become more compassionate.”
To be more compassionate towards others, to all the living beings with whom we share this earth, is no small feat. If that is what I gain from this loss—if I become a more compassionate man—then it is not without meaning, and that gives me hope. If those whom we love live on in us after they die—if compassion comes from our loss—then life trumps death. Yes, it stings, badly—but there is more joy than pain, and there is more power in love than in death.