A Stone for Rachel
Rachel took her life nine days ago. On Monday, I walked to her apartment. I wasn’t quite sure what I would do there. I had a vague notion of wanting to clip a branch from one of the succulents on her front porch, to memorialize her somehow.
Around the corner from my house, a smooth, shiny, black stone presented itself to me in the middle of the street. Rachel was Jewish. I thought of the Jewish tradition of leaving a visitation stone as an act of remembrance. I picked up the stone, grateful to have something tangible to do when I got there.
It was a strange walk to Rachel’s apartment. I don’t know if it was the sad task and my bad mood, the toxic air from the devastating wildfires blanketing the region for the last two weeks, or what, but Oakland, California was ugly on Monday.
The air was foul. Thick and ashy, I got winded quickly. I left my son’s green face mask on the dining room table because I don’t really believe those flimsy things will help. Also because I was mad and irritable. It didn’t seem to matter.
It occurred to me as I walked that the fires may have played a role in Rachel making the terrible decision she did. It was truly apocalyptic around here, for two weeks. Today, the rain began, the first rain in many months. Palpable and intense sighs of relief keep escaping me, as I breathe the cleaner air and gaze with gratitude at water falling from the sky, water we really need, water we needed before this, and desperately.
I took side streets. The app on the phone said the walk would take one hour and ten minutes. It was the first exercise, first walk I’d had, in two weeks. I missed my walks something awful. That’s the other reason I said to hell with it, I’m walking. I was defiant. I wanted my life back.
I passed a barren tree stripped of all signs of life with a sign hanging from a lopped-off branch that said “Chatting Tree.” Several empty white chairs were scattered beneath it.
After about 35 minutes, a bus drew up beside me on MacArthur, though I wasn’t at the bus stop. The driver opened the door and looked at me questioningly.
I hesitated, noted the tickle in my throat, and said, “I guess I should be taking the bus.” But when I checked for change, I had none, so I let the bus go.
I passed two different men washing their cars. I passed a building with a mural painted on it. It said “ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE” and below that, in big letters, “OAKLAND.” And it portrayed what looked like blue flames surrounding and licking at a small bird with a black head, white chest, and slate blue and orange wings. The bird had an alarmed look in its brown eye.
My chest was tight, and my nose was running. My eyes burned.
I passed strange, dead trees that had been chopped in half, with only four-foot high, branchless, leafless trunks remaining. I passed a large earthenware pot filled with uprooted succulent and jade plants dying askew in it.
I passed a little lettuce and sweet pea garden, with tiny rows of bok choy. A parking lot was filled with dusty cars and a food truck, a single blue Smart Car wedged in among them. At the bus stop in front of the Arab market, an overweight black man smoked a cigarette and regarded me warily. Up and down the street, red and green banners proclaimed “Peace.”
I passed the foot clinic, the taqueria where my ex used to take the kids, a brand-new, wood-paneled storefront on a building across from Giant Burger. A narrow, yellow Victorian house peeked from foliage up the hill on Cañon.
I passed several houses with holes in them, covered by white particleboard, a dust-covered, abandoned (stolen) black Isuzu Rodeo. The air was still. An American flag at the Altenheim, senior housing for low-income residents, hung limply.
I passed a house with several boulders placed in the front yard to deflect damage should a car lose control at that sharp curve. I wondered if a shocking accident had precipitated the placement of those boulders.
A man in a camel-colored leather jacket leaned over the engine of his tricked-out, vintage, green and turquoise Mercedes Benz with glistening rims. The parking lot in front of Spring Water Coin Laundry and a 7–11 was strewn with garbage — an empty, dented Pringles can, “mini vanilla cream puffs” packaging, ads for cigarettes and lottery. I passed an abandoned, broken chair, the sturdy, golden, oak kind that teachers used to sit in.
Then, I passed a homeless man. He was tall, gaunt, and stooped. His clothes dangled from his frame in tatters. He wore what were once upon a time striped boxers pulled over a pair of black pants. He carried three thin, dirty plastic bags tied with knots at the top— his possessions.
But what was most striking were his “shoes.” They weren’t shoes. They were pieces of cardboard tied on with strips of plastic bags, threaded between his big toes and tied on like thong sandals.
I was on the phone, chatting with my friend Nganga. I said, “Wait, I have to call you back.”
I got my wallet out and turned around. The man was half a block ahead of me. He had stopped and was trying to cross the street. Each time he tried, a car hurtled up the hill, and he drew back.
When I caught up to him, I said, “Excuse me.” He turned and looked at me. He had calm, intelligent brown eyes. He looked possibly part Latino, but I wasn’t sure.
I said, “Can I help you?” and began to open my wallet.
He put his hands up, shook his head, and took a step back. He waved me away politely. He uttered something. He either didn’t speak English or couldn’t speak at all. He made sounds, but they were unintelligible.
I said, lamely, “I just meant for something to eat…”
He then pointed to one of his bags, indicating he had something to eat there.
Stunned, I said, “Are you sure?”
He nodded and began to turn around.
I said, “Can I at least help you cross the street?” He indicated, no, thank you. He was calm and dignified.
I had no choice but to turn and resume my journey to Rachel’s house.
I was upset. As I crossed MacArthur Boulevard to continue down Park Avenue, I thought, How can I help? How can I help others? What can I give? What would $10,000 do? What could I do with $30,000? How can I earn enough to give back?
I told myself, you don’t have the means to help in a real way yet. This is what my son says. “Mom,” he says, “I want to be rich so I can help. You can’t do anything if you don’t have money and power.”
Except that the moneyed and powerful don’t seem to be doing very much.
I continued down Park. A Latina girl and boy sharing an electric scooter passed me. They wobbled briefly at the crosswalk, then zoomed across the street. I watched them, noting they were maybe 9 and 11 years old. They lost control on the other side, hitting a wall at Oakland High. They shrieked with laughter. A woman on my side of the street called out to them.
At Rachel’s corner, 8th Avenue, I turned left. I passed the amusing little garden of plant-filled clay pipes that I had noted a mere three weeks prior when I’d taken a walk to give Rachel a little extra time before my scheduled massage. She’d needed fifteen minutes.
I had walked so happily. The day had been warm, the autumn light exciting. Crazily tall palm trees swayed against a brilliant sky. The air was clean. Flowers exploded from pots and gardens everywhere.
That day, Oakland had seemed beautiful.
I made my way up the steep, short street to Rachel’s.
Everything looked as it had three weeks previous. No one had come to empty the apartment. I found that sad, even though I think I would have been much sadder had all signs of her existence been removed.
Her plants, six or seven succulents and a scented geranium, decorated her tiny front porch. They were dry. They needed water. The same white chair as always stood there.
I looked at the door, the windows. Perversely, I rang the doorbell. Of course, no one answered.
I walked along the side of the apartment building and saw a flowering begonia on the shelf above the kitchen sink. I’d admired that begonia three weeks before when it was just beginning to bud. I wondered who would water it. Who would care for it.
I thought, why wasn’t this begonia, bursting with joyous pink flowers, enough to keep Rachel alive?
I sat in her white chair and was immediately rewarded with the spectacle of a mature liquid amber tree in full, vibrant, red-leafed regalia. I thought, why wasn’t the sight of this beautiful tree enough to keep Rachel alive?
And then I felt angry. I thought bitterly of Rachel’s friends and relatives and what they had to live with now. The guilt, the shock, the sorrow. I hurt for them.
Rachel took her own life on Veteran’s Day, one of the smokiest days since the tragic Camp Fire tore through Butte County, incinerating a town of 27,000 people and taking the lives of what is fast looking to be several hundred souls.
My daughter and I had fled the Bay Area to escape a toxic blanket of smoke. On the day Rachel decided to leave the planet, to abandon life, my daughter and I were in Los Osos and Avila Beach, seeking respite as waves of fear burbled up that this may be the new normal. Or the new abnormal, as our governor, Jerry Brown aptly put it.
I couldn’t help but assume that the apocalyptic scene had pushed Rachel to the brink.
When I mentioned this to someone, they scoffed. “If that were true,” he said, “You would have seen and heard of a lot more suicides than this one.”
I realize depression is a formidable foe and that far more goes into a decision like the one Rachel took than a smoky day, even one that is toxically smoky.
On Monday night, exactly a week after Rachel left us, I went to The Beat, a local dance studio, for the group tango lesson and practica. Rachel had been a regular at The Beat. I asked everyone I danced with if they knew Rachel. To my surprise, the people I asked did not really know her. One had danced with her, but did not seem to know her. This surprised me. Granted, I only asked three or four people.
After the class and before the practica, Philippe, the teacher, gathered the group together, maybe 25 of us. He said, “As some of you are aware, we lost a member of our tango community last week. Her name was Rachel ___, and she was a regular here at The Beat. In honor of Rachel, we will have a silent tanda at 10:30. Does anyone want to share a few words about Rachel?”
Two people spoke briefly about Rachel. A woman, her face a mask of pain and sorrow, spoke of how fun Rachel had been, how they’d laughed together. A young man spoke of enjoying his dances with Rachel. I spoke of my massage relationship with Rachel, how she’d brought unique relief to my body with her inspired blend of Thai massage and bodywork. How sensitive her feet had been, how searching. I said, when I thought of Rachel’s feet, I thought how lovely it must have been to dance with her.
Tandas are a series of three to five songs you dance to with a single partner. When you dance a tanda, you spend about twenty minutes with that person. Usually, you chat between songs. In this case, there would be no chatting. The tanda would be to enjoy the dance Rachel loved and reflect on her life and passing.
The Beat draws the best tango dancers in the area. While I’ve made tremendous progress, I am not one of the best dancers in the area. Also, at 50, I’m not one of the hottest! So, at this particular, very popular practica, where one-third of the dancers are lithe, ethereal beings in their twenties and great dancers to boot, I often don’t get dances.
Even though I had wanted to dance Rachel’s tanda, it didn’t seem likely I would, so I changed my shoes and made to go.
That’s when Philippe appeared before me. Silently, he invited me to dance. I pointed to my street shoes. He waved that off, extended his hand, and helped me to a standing position. And we began to dance.
He held me securely and with great tenderness. He led me in beautiful moves he knew I could execute. Argentine tango is 100% led and completely spontaneous. As a follower, you don’t know what’s coming at any moment. You have to be keenly aware, listening, ready, responsive. It takes all of your energy and attention, which is in part why tango is likened to meditation.
Philippe delighted and surprised me in ways he knew I’d appreciate and not get scared by. Between each song, we separated and smiled at one another. I hoped my smile conveyed my gratitude and my acknowledgment of his keen intuition and sensitivity. He’d seen me sitting there in my street shoes when Rachel’s tanda began. He knew I grieved Rachel’s loss. He knew I was likely to want to honor Rachel during her tanda. He noted all of this quietly from across the room and sought me out.
Rachel is gone. She’s been gone from our orbit for ten days now. It’s Thanksgiving today, and the sun falls on my dining room table, peeking from between rain clouds that arrived yesterday. This sunlight is white, radiant, after two weeks of casting lurid orange-red reflections on everything it touched.
Rain clouds arrived yesterday. They opened and deposited silvery needles of falling water from the sky for the first time since last March. Rain that should have come last month. Rain we’ve been awaiting for six weeks. Rain that should have watered Rachel’s succulents, her scented geranium. Rain that has now cleared our skies bringing the air quality index from a dizzying 300–400 to 17–30. The Air Quality Index map is GREEN now. All green, after two weeks ranging from orange (those were good days) to fiery red and angry purple.
It’s green now, Rachel, and you could have stayed.
The last time Rachel cared for my body, she brought me a cup of tea instead of the customary glass of water. Now, I wonder if that was an invitation to stay longer, to share more than the customary chit-chat between client and service provider.
She sat down on the couch. I was cross-legged on the floor. We talked about tango. I said, “Do you ever go to Genesis?”
Genesis is a popular milonga in the City (San Francisco) where the very best dancers go. It’s an intimidating place to go because if you’re not up to snuff, you’re ignored for hours while everyone dances around you, which is painful.
I knew Rachel was up to snuff. I remembered sitting with some leaders a few months back who had tried to get a dance with her. She was in high demand and danced only with the best. They thought she was snubbing them. I explained to them that Rachel had sensitive feet and some kind of ailment. The pain in her feet forced her to be exceptionally choosy about her dances.
She said, “I can’t be bothered to go into the city. It’d be different if I had someone to go with.”
Why didn’t I say, “I’d love to go with you sometime.”
My experience of Rachel was that she was somewhat private, warm but a little guarded. It didn’t occur to me she might want to be my friend. And I’m not sure she did. But we did have a relationship. I thought she had it all together. I didn’t want to impose. She was younger than I was. I didn’t want to put her on the spot. Our relationship was therapist-client. I didn’t want to push it.
Now I wonder if she was tentatively inviting me to join her. I wish I’d at least asked.
It’s easy to second-guess these things, of course.
I’m sorry to write about suicide on Thanksgiving. I’ve been trying to write this post all week.
I did place the smooth onyx stone at Rachel’s house. I lodged the shiny stone behind a slender nail on a narrow ledge above the front door. There it is, and I hope there it will remain for some time. A small, smooth stone set above Rachel’s front door. A stone to mark her presence for some time to come. A stone that says, Rachel was here, and I am grateful to her.
Rachel helped me. She was the best massage therapist I’ve ever had. She probed my back with sensitive, animal-like feet. She played ethereal music from South Asia. She smiled gently and offered me her gifts. She let me sleep on her living room floor. She brought me tea. She laughed with me when we discussed the dearth of dating options and why we’d given up on dating.
Thank you, Rachel. I am sorry you were overwhelmed. I thank you for reminding me that people around us are exceedingly fragile. That we don’t always know who is suffering or how much. Thank you for spurring me to call all the people I know who are struggling, who fight depression and loneliness.
I am grateful I knew you.