THE OTHER SIDE OF EDEN: LIFE WITH JOHN STEINBECK
41. Larger Than Life
NANCY AND JOHN
In most families, loyalty is defined as faithfulness to a person, an idea, a secret, a duty. In John's case, loyalty to his family of origin was perpetuating the myth that his father was the larger-than-life hero of his fans. In his proposal for his autobiography, John wrote for the first time about his lifelong struggle to individuate from his father's legendary persona. He felt more free to express himself fully because he knew his words would not be read by the public, and for that reason, I believe he spoke more intimately here than he did in his manuscript.
The reasons for attempting to write this book are not particularly noble or profane. The motivation could be summed up simply by my desire to live free from fear. However, the path leading to that sort of fruition has, along its border, a lot of fearful things that at first glance can cause panic, or resentment, or shame. There is also charity and sanity, which accompany this sort of voyage like good dolphins on a good quest. Frankly, I feel blessed that these guiding elements have never abandoned me and, as I and others continue to recover from the effects of my actions, I am encouraged that these qualities will endure, even shine.
I inherited two life-threatening diseases from my parents. Due to hemochromatosis, a genetic iron-retention disease, and alcoholism, I developed cirrhosis by the time I was thirty-four. It took me multiple slips as an extreme "low-bottom" addict and a lot of enlightened treatment to get me into a condition where I had the clarity of mind to be able to receive AA's help at all. Despite my lifelong dedication to spiritual pursuits, intellect blocked the road to surrender. Fortunately, when I truly accepted my powerlessness over my disease, the drama was over, and I could begin to understand the source of some of the behaviors that had taken over my life, apart from the fact that I am just a plain old alcoholic/addict.
Perhaps it is long past time when I should have expressed many of the feelings that tug at me due to the special circumstances of being my father's son. However, timing is not the forte of Adult Children of Alcoholics. Conflicting notions of propriety conspire to keep family secrets closeted in "borrowed shame" no matter how crippling or even lethal this toxic situation might be. Of course, this unconscious policy of Pavlovian loyalty (which seems to be universal) is accentuated when one of the parents is world famous. But further, when this wheel of shame and neglect and secrecy is perpetuated and actively enforced by a powerful, self-serving parent figure, such as my stepmother, Elaine, it becomes a devastatingly corrosive routine of abuse which then skewers love and memory. It would be more than misleading if I did not acknowledge the anger which I now have the ability to feel. Previous to working the first three steps in AA, I was drowning in perpetual resentments. On realizing my innate powerlessness over people and things, I experience a clean anger that doesn't fester with the need for resolution. This is great stuff, and it allows me to be more or less grateful in impossible situations. Naturally situations come down my chute all the time. An incident occurred just the other day which brought out this anger, as it was typical and clearly beyond the boundaries of acceptability or even common honesty.
It was around the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Grapes of Wrath. I had been asked to talk about my dad and that book at various functions in honor of the occasion, including an interview for CBS's Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt, along with appearances at high schools and universities. Naturally I try to give readers insight into Steinbeck's works and some of the texture of his thinking. But, as you might imagine, due to some ancient paralysis, I keep running up against a dilemma. I find myself mostly talking in terms of what people seem to want to hear. In part due to my fear and family pressure, as well as wanting to choose the proper turf, I have remained circumspect about referring to the addicted side of my father's personality. This has been true despite the fact that several books currently in print about the disease of alcoholism and American writers named John Steinbeck as a case in point.
Anyway, a journalist who was recently interviewing me referred to my father as "arguably alcoholic." When Elaine Steinbeck got wind of this, she went to Mcintosh and Otis, the literary agency which handles my father's estate, and attempted to rescind her approval for my brother, Thom, to develop Dad's short story "Flight" for a film adaptation. This was after he had already completed the script, and had nothing to do with the comment by the reporter in the paper to begin with. She went for Thom in order to get back at me. Her image, at least the image of the devoted acolyte behind the books, which she has assiduously cultivated since my father's death, is always at stake. And as will become painfully clear, her instincts are correct. Her dominance is probably nearing its end. She herself is very alcoholic, and her conduct as a stepparent to Thom and me has been outrageously sick.
It is unfortunate that this kind of thing creeps around the execution of this project but realistically it is just this sort of malaise that gives rise to the dysfunctionality that is at the core of what I need to express and go beyond. This book is not about grudges. Nor is it about being a hapless victim in an unfair world. It will be tougher and at the same time sweeter than that. As for Elaine, there is nothing I can do, unless perhaps she would like to go into family therapy with Thom and me. She would have to deal with the truth unprotected by the cunningness of this disease or her personal influence. Some day, she will have to face the truth, if only when she meets her Maker.
In short, the truth for me is that along with my father's destructive personality swings, which resulted from alcohol and amphetamine abuse, there remains Elaine's cavalier treatment of his children which has undermined almost all material, psychological, and spiritual connection that we have to the man himself, leaving us feeling isolated from ourselves and his basic decency; and perhaps even his true wish for us. He always told us that he wrote East of Eden for us. The messages about family and fathers and sons, as well as the poisonous principles in that triangle are hard to miss. These things are in fact part of our birthright as well as being part of the mythic archetype which I sometimes feel is implanted in the drama of sons and their need for resolution with the father.
In regards to the basic tension, the self-denial and self-destructive results of a potent regime of dysfunctionality is now well documented within the current understanding of family systems. In all cases, it leaves the survivors acting out messages and signals that can barely be recognized, and worse; it turns victims into offenders who go out and unknowingly recycle the whole vicious mess on a new generation. That is, if they live that long, or are not otherwise stunted by self-abuse of all kinds.
The only known fix for this kind of situation seems to be disclosure. Busting open family secrets without regard to reciprocity or reprisal can at least save what is left of our lives, and since no one else is going to do it, it's good that I begin. And since I'm a writer, I'm going to attempt it with art. Sometimes I feel hopelessly conflicted, and feel like I should understand or be beyond something. My feelings don't need to make sense on the hard turf of logic or be metered out with Republican prudence. I'm not looking for sympathy and we are not in court. As feelings, they are legitimate and stand on their own. Expressing them honestly is essential for the improved ecology of my mind.
I have this tough-guy stance which has often demanded that I take full responsibility for everything that ever happened, even as a child. But in truth, the damage incurred by being raised and role-modeled by untreated maniacs has been enormous. My mother looms violently in this three-ring circus. My father was a maintenance and binge alcoholic, though cross-addicted to speed and brooding rage. Mother, however, was always crazy drunk and deadly and sad. The abused little girl inside her acted out paroxysms of some devastating betrayal. She took no prisoners. Judging from her behavior with us when drunk, she was possibly an incest victim.
I love my father deeply. He had great kindness and humor. He taught my brother and me about so many magical things, and instilled in us the gift of curiosity. I have always been proud to be his son, and I am grateful to both him and my mother for giving me my life and the tools to interpret a wonderfully rich world. In spite of everything, I have been challenged to puzzle out my own fate with a large degree of poetic insight. They gave me this. It is not at all my intention now to break bubbles just for the sake of doing it, but rather to do myself a kindness, and in the long run, do my ancestors a favor and put them back in the realm of human process. As I try to do that with the gifts I have been given, the readers could share in that process.
To an undetermined extent, I think it is probably important for me to pass on a sober account of my experience for the benefit of others who face the same occupational hazards of being the children of the famous. In Thom's and my case, I believe that this was severely compounded by drugs and alcohol, and then open and flagrant threats of disownment, accompanied by Elaine's jealousy, manipulation, and greed. I certainly do not want to remain any longer as the apologist, despite my lifelong training for the roll.
These things are not questions, nor should they imply any request for restitution, or remorse, or even any response from the other side. Needless to say two of the principals are way on the other side in their graves. As for Elaine, the one who remains, with her stated intention to "leave nothing to the boys," I foresee a great shame and a crime of memory should the Nobel Prize sit on the mantel of an unrelated, illiterate Texan's ranch house, due to the fact that she feels free to continue to try to separate us from the nourishing aspects of our birth into a family that was never hers. A great deal of time has gone by where Thom and I endured the negative consequences of our connection with the "Conscience of America," only to be denied that positive connection to him, muzzled by Elaine's ego. Though it is clear that by now she thinks that she wrote the books, his name is mine, and that's all there is to it.
I wish I could say that this book was the story of my life, or the story of a life from the point of view of the son of a famous person. Or the story of the son of a famous person using the models available for understanding dysfunctional family systems due to chemical dependency or other addictions, a book about the symptoms such as sexual or verbal abuse. I don't want to write a book about that. Not exactly. The language of dependency and dysfunctionality as it pertains to family systems can be somewhat desiccating. It is a meta-language. Used as a speculum in a therapeutic setting, it is extremely useful and timesaving. But, like Sanskrit, meta-languages can seem unbearably privileged. To the uninitiated they can be oppressive. I mean, who wants to read about Denial over and over again unless one understands that its main function is to relieve anxiety. Without that understanding, being "in denial" sounds scurrilous and a character defect of the worst sort. It would be fantastic if I could write this book without once using "recovery language" or Buddhist jargon, which is a second language to me due to a twenty-five-year immersion in the psychology of that tradition.
Putting this usage totally aside is a nice idea, but we also live in modern times, and readers are not so uninformed about things that this book should not be seasoned with some direct, if odd terminology; particularly if it is done poetically so that the words dance somewhat akimbo to expectation. Then it has this funny sort of strobe effect which can really grab at you. I think that if it is done lyrically, throwing it in could be like hearing a Japanese instrument rising out of a Western composition. It can stop your mind. This is how I want to use it here. Also, like the proverbial spade, sometimes a thing is just what it is, and there is no other word for it. Grief is one of those things.
The unveiling of my father's feet of clay is a one-shot deal. I don't plan to be the new maven of an endless string of talk shows. By offering some insight, the whole point of this is so that I can get free of it and get on with my life. I used to be stuck in my disease, and I don't want to be stuck in my recovery. I think that a vaster form of recovery is really what needs to happen in our society. The environmental issues such as rain forest and ozone depletion are examples of how we have grown to abuse all substances to include the planet. This is not a metaphor, but a fact. I don't want to sound grandiose, but it occurs to me that there are a vast number of people out there who may never read Alice Miller or Claudia Black, Pia Melody or Susan Forward. They just won't get hooked up with that kind of material regardless of the fact that they are suffering from a simple lack of information about the effects of being raised in a dysfunctional family. However, these same people may well be fans of John Steinbeck's novels, and out of curiosity, they may read this book and end up discovering that they have a common dis-ease, and that help is available through Twelve-Step programs and therapy.
I pray that this might be true and that I could have this unique opportunity to give away the tremendous blessing that I have received from the program and powers higher than mine. In this way, I will also be able to continue to fulfill my Buddhist vows, so that people may wash off a borrowed leprosy and be free.
It has taken me years to understand the correlation between traumatic relationships and spiritual evolution. Jack Kerouac's lover and Neal Cassady's widow, Carolyn, is one of the few women who can share this insight with me. Another is R. D. Laing's widow, Marguerite. Our marriages plumbed the extremes between abuse and ecstasy. The spiraling rollercoaster ride through deepening levels of pain and exultation required tremendous strength. Our brilliant, creative husbands didn't make it. As rage, indignity, and loneliness laid bare our shadow natures, we were simultaneously rewarded with passion, humor, and excitement. The centrifugal force of those dramas deflated our expectations and attachments. Swallowing intensity like a drowning man, our consciousness and capabilities expanded, and our faith was made deeper.
After Azure Acres, John and I noticed a marked difference in the quality of our recovery. Having lost the pink-cloud naivete about living happily every after, we honored the fragile rituals that grant success. Gratitude replaced self-pity and depression. Quiet joy permeated our lives.
"You guys should bow to each other every morning in appreciation for the love you've found," Thom had once said in frustration when he heard us fighting. Johnny and I spent those final three years in obeisance to each other and our Higher Power. He went to daily AA meetings and formed a close-knit sober support group of men he could trust. I focused on my job at the rehab. Finally we were working our programs in sync, and there was no longer any need for a halfway house. We'd created our own.
Living in a state of grace, we began to travel and meet fascinating people again. That summer, Naropa Institute invited me to speak at a conference on recovery and Buddhism. John and I had a marvelous time visiting our old friends, and we made a new one. Terry Williams was the head of the family program at the country's foremost treatment center, Hazelden, in Minnesota. Allen Ginsberg had suggested we invite him to be part of the conference, as they were friends. The three of us spent long evenings together talking about recovery and the disease.
Terry's insight into the difficulties of loving an alcoholic helped me feel human again. He spoke of Al-Anon Abuse, the patronizing that occurs, as when someone asks, "Have you tried to detach?"
"Feeling the stress from loving a very sick person is not a character defect," Terry said. "Codependants are often castigated for their anxiety, which automatically lessens when the alcoholic quits drinking."
"Denial is a coping mechanism, isn't it?" I asked.
"It's a way of dealing with an untenable situation. The naked truth about loving a person with a terminal disease is often too painful to face head-on."
"I've always viewed denial as a way of cutting up reality into doable doses."
Terry's wisdom helped me shed volumes of guilt and self-criticism about the way I'd dealt with John's disease. Sure, you try to incorporate Al-Anon slogans such as Live and Let Live and Detach with Love, but to expect anyone to achieve the Al-Anon ideal without a deluge of tears and bloodshed is deluded and abusive. They would never offer the glib pieces of advice tossed at Al-Anons to the spouse of a terminal cancer patient. I had been railing against those insults for years and Terry's perspective confirmed my instincts. When you love a dying man, the grief process imprisons you. Thrashing like a hooked fish, your mind flops between shock, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance.
I told Terry about the insult I had received when a fellow therapist heard I accompanied John to Azure Acres. "I don't know how you Al-Anons do it," my coworker sneered. "Why didn't you let him go by himself? You're continuing to enable him by holding his hand." Terry's wince absolved my shame. The time we spent with him smoothed the ragged edges of our frayed dignity.
"An alcoholic is so much more than the sum of his problems," he said.
Our track record wasn't much better with our Buddhist friends, many of whom we lost in our recovery process. They were disturbed by our use of prayer and a Higher Power. We quit trying to figure out if we were theists or non theists, as Buddhists like to call themselves. If our lives were miserable because we had failed to define a spiritual belief system that sustained us, then we were determined to find answers for ourselves, not in Buddhist textbooks. The program forced us to create a relationship with a power greater than ourselves. And professionally, I needed to be able to transmit my spiritual beliefs to my clients, who were lacking spirit. "You know how sometimes when you walk on the beach during a beautiful sunset, you feel touched by grace? Make that your Higher Power."
"My Higher Power is whatever makes the sky blue and the trees green," John decided.
In a spiritual freefall, trying to create a life without constant struggle and pain, we searched for new companions who would sustain and nurture us. One of the most painful breaks was the distance I saw John putting between himself and Thom. He did it kindly, so Thom didn't really notice much, but Johnny was definitely detaching from their mythic drama. Thom was involved with a bulimic woman named Esther, whom Johnny and I nicknamed "Fester" because she ran Thom through so many hoops. It troubled John that his brother was in another tortured relationship with no desire to stop drinking.
Finally, as Thom deteriorated, we did an intervention with the help of one of my coworkers, Mark Bornstein. Thom made an attempt to control his drinking during the last two years of Johnny's life. Ironically, Johnny never stopped worrying about the disease killing his brother.
In the summer of 1988, we joined Dhyani Ywahoo at a UN Peace Conference in Costa Rica, along with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. John and the Dalai Lama had a special connection. Whenever he saw John, in a small gathering or a huge crowd, he would single him out and walk across the room to hug him, like a favorite child. It touched John deeply.
We spent marvelous hours with fascinating people like Father Thomas Berry and Robert Thurman, the Buddhist scholar. Our friendship with the Dalai Lama grew and we made plans to travel with him in California that fall, where he would receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to keep Tibet stable despite the Chinese invasion.
When the conference was over, the Costa Rican government provided us with a chauffeur and a translator so that John could gather material for some travel articles. We toured cloud forests; white, sandy Pacific beaches; the turbulent Atlantic coastline; and spent a day white-water rafting. It was an enchanting vacation.
That fall, a bombshell hit the Boulder Buddhist community when we discovered Rinpoche's spiritual successor, Tom Rich, had been diagnosed with AIDS. Although he had known of his condition for several years, he continued to have unprotected sex with scores of students as well as male prostitutes. He himself had been a Times Square prostitute as a teenager and had a penchant for seducing straight men like Kier Craig, the young son of a community member. Kier ended up infecting his girlfriend and died soon after. The group was instantly divided between moral outrage and staunch denial of any wrongdoing. While the adults fought amongst themselves, the children who had grown up with Kier could only ask "Why?"
The phone lines were burning up between Boulder and our house in La Jolla. We received daily reports about the political machinations as the organization sought to keep the matter secret, lest they lose favor with the general population of Boulder, as well as the world at large. When Rich came to La Jolla to do a retreat at a posh mansion by the seashore, we learned that he had been trying to seduce Megan's boyfriend, another straight young man whom we had known since his childhood. This hit too close to home for John, who was fiercely protective of Megan and Michael. A chilling story had recently been reported by one of Michael's teachers at the Buddhist private school. This straight, married male was pinned facedown across Rich's desk by the guards while Rich forcibly raped him. John feared Megan's boyfriend might suffer the same fate.
Infuriated by Rich's criminal behavior and the fact that once again, as with Rinpoche's drinking himself to death, no one was doing a thing to stop the madness, John decided to take matters into his own hands. Unbeknownst to anyone, even our closest friends, he picked up the phone and called the Boulder newspaper to break the story. Ironically, the reporter he spoke with immediately confessed that she had some very good friends in the community and she feared their wrath if her byline were on the story. John gave her a terse lesson on the responsibilities of a journalist and suggested that she find another occupation if she could not stomach dealing with the truth. Intimidated by his name, his reputation, and his razor-sharp insistence, she dutifully reported the facts as he fed them to her. Rich was out of control and needed to be stopped. If he couldn't stop himself, at least people would know not to have sex with him.
When the papers hit the street, and the story was picked up in syndication, the roof blew off the community. Twenty-year friendships were irrevocably shattered. Those who were outraged that Rich's attendants had stood by in silence for years while he had sex with hundreds of people were confronted by community members who vehemently objected to the accusation that Rich was acting irresponsibly. Some even had the audacity to claim that if Kier had better karma, he wouldn't have been infected. These people were victims of their own magical thinking, as was Rich, who claimed Rinpoche had told him as long as he practiced meditation, his partners would be protected. "This isn't a matter of human foibles and a need for compassion for a sick man," John raged. "This is a matter for the police."
Just as when Rinpoche drank himself to death, when John and I ran out of the adrenaline necessary to metabolize the shock and anger, we were left with a terrible feeling of emptiness and heartbreak. How many friends would we have to lose? How much vilification could we take simply because we believed that a spiritual teacher has a responsibility to uphold moral and ethical principles? Yet, because of our own inner work and the distance we had put between us and the Boulder community, we were stronger this time. At the grocery store, tabloids were screaming the story of Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, which lent a humorous parallel to our Buddhist soap opera. We had a life; we had friends outside the vicious, closed circle of intrigue and deception. We had severed our affiliation to the cult of Vajradhatu.
Something about that phone call to the Boulder newspaper gave John a much-needed jolt of energy. He remembered parts of himself that had been long buried. The Saigon cowboy emerged from hibernation, stimulated by the thrill of breaking a story based on his commitment to telling the truth, no matter how sordid or tragic. He announced that he was ready to write his autobiography. Friends recommended a topnotch literary agent who was thrilled with the project. We flew to New York so John could interview a dozen publishers. Once again, we were ensconced at the Gramercy Park Hotel, with the usual veal marsala room service, but without the alcoholic haze. Johnny met with several publishers each day, and in the evenings we went out on the town.
"You're the most gorgeous woman in New York City," he announced one morning. "I see all these women looking so uptight and miserable. You have a freedom and a light in your eyes that make them all look blase. You still have the eyes of a twelve-year-old."
Suddenly, everything fell into place. After a lifetime of procrastination, Johnny began to write daily. He was still attending AA meetings religiously. The doctors at Scripps Clinic began a regime for his various physical ailments, including regular phlebotomies. They reduced his iron levels down to anemia as the hemochromatosis went into remission. Having lost the taste for La Jolla's pretentiousness, we found a house in rural Encinitas. On picturesque Crest Drive, which is lined with Monterey pines, the area reminded Johnny of Steinbeck Country in the early days, before the golf set moved in. Megan attended the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design in Halifax. With Michael in boarding school, although we missed both children, we appreciated the peace of our empty nest.
When I worked evenings at the McDonald Center, Johnny liked to attend their AA meetings. Mark Bomstein's office was next to mine, and when he was free, he and John would talk about painful childhood memories that had been unearthed by writing. Johnny found him very easy to talk to, and they taped hours of sessions. I had such a sense of peace and accomplishment during those times. When John died, Mark was my most supportive and understanding friend. He came over to the house the earliest and left the latest, content just to chat with everyone. He was there when the box of John's ashes arrived from the crematorium. I was so relieved that he wasn't squeamish. We looked at the coarse powder for a long time, sifting through the granules like kids playing in sand, silently remembering John's essence.
When he wasn't writing, Johnny lived in the hot tub. He'd be waiting there for me when I came home from work. This was our ritual; I'd sink into the water and snuggle in his arms. Then he'd debrief me until the rehab's relentless suffering sloughed off like dead skin. When he could tell I was coming back to life, we'd put on thirsty white terry-cloth robes and fix dinner.
On Friday nights, John always went with six of his friends to a men's AA meeting. Sometimes the women from work would gather at my house for potluck dinners. Before he left, John loved to put jasmine-scented turquoise dye in the hot tub. He'd pick gardenias and lovingly float them in the water, along with candles. It made him happy to create a beautiful atmosphere for my girlfriends and me. After he died, I noticed how some husbands don't like their wives to socialize on their own and it made me sad for the wonderful generosity I had lost.
John bought a creamy Le Baron convertible with a tan top, and we'd drive up and down the coast, with rock and roll blaring. He sang the most beautiful harmony. I used to treasure every note. If he dies, I will miss his singing more than anything. We'd invent riffs, like the Supremes, with hand jive and head tosses. We'd stop at our favorite seaside restaurants, where they knew to give us quiet, intimate tables. We lingered for hours, lost in the magic that had never left us.
That's when my fear started. I thought it was some vestigial paranoia seeping through the cracks of my recovery. I fought it and prayed about it, but it never went away. When we were driving with the convertible top down, especially at night, sometimes I was seized with a terror. Something is going to take John away from me. I can feel it lurking in the shadows. This isn't rational. Am I going insane?
Not knowing, only sensing, what lay ahead, I wondered if I would ever truly recover. Even Gary Eaton was mystified. Of course, when John died, we knew it had been a premonition of the tragedy. I wish I'd been more gentle with myself, for I was merely sensing death in the backseat. Johnny was very tender about my fears, perhaps because he'd caught a glimpse of the specter in the rearview mirror.
We took little trips to Sedona, Palm Springs, Lake Arrowhead. In Sedona, we offered prayers at all the places where we'd been torn apart by the disease. Johnny loved to show me the places in Palm Springs and Big Bear where he'd lived as a kid with Gwen and Gwyn. Closer and more comfortable than ever before, we sailed the highways. A cloud of serenity settled between us. There was always laughter, or delicious, easy silence.
Friends would comment that we seemed like newlyweds. "Especially when he gives you those puppy dog looks," they'd say. I believe John sensed then that he was going to die. He showered affection equally on me, the children, and the pets. Whenever we traveled, he liked to bring along one of the cats or our German shepherd, Sable. Sometimes he'd call and leave a message for the pets on the answering machine. He'd whistle for them, talking in the particular anthropomorphic style he'd inherited from his father. All three Steinbeck men were fond of long soul-searching dialogues with their animals. While riding in the car, when our standard poodle, George, would bark loudly, Johnny would threaten to silence him with a replica of his father's "Dogifier." Based on the one Steinbeck built for Charley, he described it as a series of harnesses, ropes, and pulleys attached to the backseat. Both George and Charley had the annoying habit of furiously barking at both two- and four- legged targets. They would wait until the culprit was safely past and then scream "I'll kill you! I'll kill you!" with nerve-wracking ferocity.
Johnny loved to play endless rounds of fetch with Sable while he sat in the hot tub. He taught her the names of all her squeaky toys. "Go get your taco toy," he'd command. "No, not the hamburger, the taco," and she'd remember that she spoke English. When she brought him the right one, he would throw it across the lawn. In response to his loud cheers whenever she caught one, she'd trot back proudly and drop it in the tub. Then he'd hold the toy just far enough under the water so she had to her put her face in, just up to her eyes, to retrieve it. Johnny had an adorable way of creating domestic bliss. I wish those lovely days could have gone on forever.
He always had time for us. Megan called him often from Halifax for advice on her art projects, or just to chat about life, the favorite Steinbeck family topic. When Michael was home, after a date, Johnny would be waiting to debrief him in the hot tub. They'd talk about everything silly and deep, about sex, drugs, music, morality. All the things a young man needs to hear from his father were covered in those conversations. They would cuddle and gaze at the stars, running the gamut from the big bang theory to blond jokes. Johnny was in samhadi then. A calmness had descended upon him that was palpable. It allowed him to be extremely generous with the ones he loved. As we look back, we often wonder how much he knew.
"Do you think he was even more far out than we thought?" Michael asked me the other day.
"We knew how far out he was. That's why we put up with him." I laughed.
John would proudly tell me about recurring dreams in which he died with the requisite mindfulness that comes from years of Buddhist practice. I never took them as signs, and if he did, he never spoke of it.
When our venerable fifteen-pound Abyssinian cat, Sluggo, tenderly brought John a wounded hummingbird, Johnny took it to the San Diego Zoo's hummingbird aviary.
When he came home, he announced cheerfully, "I'm going to Kitty Heaven when I die. Sluggo will be there waiting for me. Hummingbird Heaven is right next door and everyone there is so happy."
On our last Christmas together, John and I locked ourselves in the bedroom to wrap presents for the children. He had brought in a huge cardboard file box full of discarded pages from his manuscript.
"What's that for?" I asked.
He smiled cryptically. "If my father had saved a box like this for me, I'd be very rich today. I'm giving it to the kids."
Just before he shut the lid, he placed a piece of paper on top that said "CHRISTMAS IN HEAVEN." We were all a bit confused by that present, until the next Christmas, when he was in Kitty Heaven and we were still on earth, missing him desperately.
Besides poetry, Johnny also left little notes for us. He wrote this to Megan, based on a family joke. After returning from our year in Mexico, when she was three, we stayed with Paul's parents in California, waiting for the British Columbia snows to melt. Every morning, Megan would ask where he was going as he walked out the door.
"He's going to work so he can buy you some peaches," her grandmother would say.
From then on, Paul walked out the door as Megan called. "You going-to-work-buy-some- peaches, Dad?" Through the years, Paul and I had incorporated many of her cute sayings into our speech, and John followed suit. He presented this note to her with a copy of his autobiographical manuscript, along with a beautiful mohair sweater.
Here's an example of the silly little notes he'd leave me.
After our meeting with the Dalai Lama in Costa Rica, John pondered the subject of his next book. Johnny Avedon, another son of a famous father, had written a book focusing more on the politics of Tibet. John wanted to write more about the Dalai Lama's personal life and planned for us to spend time at his home in Dharamsala, India. When the Dalai Lama received the Nobel Prize, we were with him just north of San Diego, in Newport Beach at a conference on psychology and spirituality. I accompanied John when he did an interview with him for California magazine. By that time, he was the only Tibetan lama whom we trusted. He seemed to throw himself totally into the benefit of all sentient beings, instead of advancing himself, politically, sexually, and chemically, like most of the others. I loved his deep voice and clarity of thought, his ability to listen and grasp the heart of the conversation, without an ounce of pretension.
However, there were disturbing notes in the interview which left us even more cynical about the politics of Tibetan Buddhism, which was just beginning to be recognized as the hottest religion, attracting such luminaries as Richard Gere, Oliver Stone, and the Beastie Boys. New York magazine called it "the decade's belief system for the cultural elite, which includes wealthy lawyers, Wall Street yuppies, and members of the Rockefeller and Luce families." Some Asian American Buddhists are complaining that traditional Buddhist teachings have become too Americanized by the white middle class. Helen Tworkov, editor of Tricycle magazine, wonders if American Buddhism is evolving into "simply another projection of the white majority." Having hung out among so many Asians, this was of concern to Johnny. We were developing a distaste for these chic conferences, filled with wealthy spiritual shoppers. John asked the Dalai Lama how he felt about the elitism.
"Sometimes people unfortunately treat these conferences like vacations and participate with beautiful speech and not much true commitment." he replied. "At the same time, such conferences raise the public conscience and awareness to peace, to the importance of love and compassion. In that way, there is some use for them."
When asked about the consciousness in China changing since Tienamen Square, the Dalai Lama misjudged the situation, considering the genocide and ecological disasters he is predicting now that the Chinese are flooding into Tibetan cities and Buddhists are still killed for possessing his photograph. "The freedom movement in China is very strong. Actually, the present Chinese government is excusing the event, saying that only a handful of people participated. I believe we will see a great change in the next five to ten years. I have met Chinese students and elders who escaped. Their attitude toward the Tibetan problem is much different from the government. After Tienamen, many Chinese attitudes toward Tibetan problems became more clear, and they are taking more interest. Now they start to doubt the government worship that's been going on."
We wondered if His Holiness was aware that many lamas were hoping he would accept a position as head of all the lineages, like a pope. This would create a system of checks and balances that was lacking when Trungpa Rinpoche and other lamas started abusing their power.
"I am a believer in nonsectarianism. I try to provide as much motivation as I can. I have no interest in promoting myself. There are no Dalai Lama centers, no Dalai Lama monastery. Wherever I can contribute, I am willing." To our dismay, he continued, "It is not the Tibetan way to confront errant behavior on the part of the lamas. We prefer to let them learn about their mistakes on their own."
Then Johnny asked him the big question. "You know about the situation within Trungpa Rinpoche's community. Our teacher died of alcoholism after abusing his power with female students. His Regent transmitted AIDS in a similar abuse of power to a young male student. Many of us have experienced extreme heartbreak and a weakening of faith and devotion. Can you address this problem so that other students may avoid these pitfalls?"
"I would say that if you are going to follow a teacher, you must examine his behavior very carefully. In your case, with Trungpa Rinpoche, you had a lama who was drinking alcohol. We say, in our tradition, that a lama is never supposed to drink. Now, occasionally there have been some teachers who drink alcohol and claim to turn it into elixir. If I were considering following a teacher who drinks alcohol and claims to turn it into elixir, or excrement to gold, I would insist on seeing this happen. If I saw it happen, I may follow this teacher. Unless I see that happen, I would never follow him. The student has to take the responsibility of examining the behavior of the teacher very carefully, over a long period. You cannot be hasty about these things."
While we agreed with him, as John and I left the lavish grounds of the Heinz ketchup heirs' estate in Newport where the Dalai Lama was ensconced, we admitted to each other that the only person in whom we'd hoped to find an ally had left us, and the Buddhist world at large, flapping in the wind. "No amount of Tibetan lawyer talk," John sighed, "is going to cover up the stench of underlying corruption. He can blame the student all he likes, but isn't that the same as blaming the victim in any abusive situation?"
"How is their cover-up any different from the decades of secrecy in the Catholic Church regarding their priests' sexual abuse of choirboys?" I countered.
John and I continued to be disappointed as the Dalai Lama and other lineage heads maintained their silence and offered no consequences to renegade lamas. By deliberately ignoring the situation, in what appears to be a fearful political ploy, these titular deities, these so-called God Kings are adding to the confusion instead of delineating clear moral guidelines. Their concern about the truth leaking out, which might drain their monastic coffers, flies in the face of all the teachings and vows they give concerning "right action." Will it be a matter of time before they follow suit with the Catholics in offering apologies?
As a distraction from the painful process of dredging up childhood memories, John wrote several articles about the Dalai Lama's visit to California. His creative process was tremendously healing. In a Steinbeck biography published after John's death, Jay Parini claimed that John never got over his anger at his father. Nothing could be further from the truth. When you read these excerpts from an interview that appeared in the San Diego Reader, you see how much Johnny had grown in forgiveness and fondness toward Steinbeck.
"Thom and I talked with Dad about many things, languages and history and cultures and customs. We traveled around the world with him. I had a great education. My father had a lot of eclectic interests, as do my brother and I. We inherited a love of words and communication from Dad. When I was not doing my homework in boarding school, I was reading encyclopedias. He made me think learning things was not a chore, not a duty, but a really exciting thing to do.
"I'm sure that there are all sorts of deep-seated psychological issues in my being a writer and comparing myself to Dad, being under the shadow. They aren't crippling at this point, but they're there. I am sure that for children of famous people, there's a certain amount of pathology that comes with the territory.
"Artists by nature are not particularly gifted as parents. They can be very self-centered, very abusive, and dysfunctional when it comes to raising children. So the kid has to raise himself. Dad never had to be a parent except on his time and on his terms, and then he was very good at that, very good. Very Huck Finny. Had he had to do it day in, day out, he would have failed miserably.
"Dad was a disciplined worker. He would get up at five in the morning, generally, and fiddle around with breakfast. Then he would sharpen pencils for a long time. He had one of the first electric pencil sharpeners ever made. He'd take a pencil, put it in the sharpener, and by the time he had them all sharpened, he had gotten over what all writers have, that morning inhibition about Am I really going to put my mind on a piece of blank paper? By the time his pencils were sharpened, he'd negotiated with all that. And then he would write, from six or seven in the morning until noon. Then he'd quit and go fishing or whittling or invent. I thought that was really enviable, that he only worked until noon. But he did it with a great deal of discipline. He didn't give himself vacations. He didn't gnash his teeth about stuff. He worked out a lot of his mechanical problems by writing letters to his close friends and editors.
"He had a very pixie sense of humor. He liked writing for things. So if he saw, say, an outboard motor that he wanted to have but didn't feel he should spend the money on it, he'd call the Evinrude company and say, 'I'd like to borrow one of your motors and use it fishing, and if I like it, I'll say I like it.' And then they'd give him the outboard motor. He thought that was one of the best parts of the job. Of course, he was well into the dollar-a- word category when this worked out for him, but he still liked being given things for free.
"He once wrote about racing oak trees. I was visiting him and saw, next to his writing desk. a baking dish filled with peat moss and rows of acorns, turned upside down. I didn't let him know I'd read the article, and I asked him, 'What are you doing here?' and he said, 'I'm racing oak trees. Well, it hasn't caught on yet, but if it does, I'll have one of the first stables.'
"It was so strange. He had a very funny private little thing going on, up in the attic where he kept his mousetraps. He'd have a plate of poisoned grain, with signs everywhere saying Mouse Beware. Poison. Do not eat. He was a very funny guy."
When asked about Steinbeck's response to the New York Times suggestion that the Nobel Prize award committee might have found a better recipient, John answered, ''I'm sure his feelings were incredibly hurt, that he was pissed off. I think he had a certain amount of insecurity because he was a Western writer. He lived on the East Coast with the Ivy League literate crowd. He never pretended to be an intellectual. He was a shy man, and I think it made him insecure and then furious. They were such snobs.
"I do know that one person came up to him in Stockholm, when he went there for the prize. An East Coast-type lady said, 'I wonder how long it would take to earn $50,000 tax free.' He looked at her and said, 'Forty years, lady. I just did it.'
"He worked very hard at what he did. He was poor for a long time. His success of any remark was in his late thirties. He worked at a lot of things, manual labor, a night watchman. He helped pour cement for Madison Square Garden.
"Some odors remind me of him. A certain Florida toilet water. I noticed very pleasantly the other day when I walked into my office and it smelled like my father's office. Certain humor reminds me of Dad. My brother and I share a lot of his humor. Thom's quite like him. Walking down the street, without even thinking about it, my father would tip his hat to a dog. My brother does that, spontaneously and genuinely. When it's most touching is when you see your own hands picking up something in a way that your father or your mother did.
"I communicated better with him after he was dead then when he was alive. After he died, I got some writing lessons from him. I got some lessons about how to deal with people, sometimes by reading something he told to someone else. The most gratifying thing he gave me, both before and after he died, was to know that the most refined, highest wisdom and human knowledge is found in the everyday ordinary world. Not in a library of Sanskrit, not at Oxford, but from the guy down the street. That guy knows as much. The common wisdom is the most profound. Ordinary mind is enlightened mind. Fortunately, my Buddhist training reinforced that truth.
"Not that my father didn't believe scholarship was useful, but that it had its place. If he needed to learn something about the language of the Middle Ages, he would go to the books or scholars who could teach him, but he did that only so he could learn what ordinary people said in the Middle Ages.
"The first time I saw The Grapes of Wrath was when Dad screened it for some guests. I was quite young. It was the most depressing thing I'd ever seen in my life. Later, when I was a teenager, I read it and was equally depressed. In the seventies, I was holed up during the monsoon in an old French hotel in Vientiane and I read it again. That's when I got the most out of the book as a writer. By that time, I was writing. So then I actually saw how deft he was. I saw the nuts and bolts of the writing. That was as impressive to me as the historical value of the book, making America aware of the Dust Bowl and Depression from the farmers' point of view. People think of Steinbeck as being 'oh-so-realistic' and really catching the sound of the way people talk. If you look at the book closely, nobody talks like that. It's a big kind of cartoon in the fresco sense of the word, an overdrawn image of the way people might talk.
"But by the time it filters down to you, it sounds real. Kind of like Chinese political theater, it's supposed to reach the guy in the last row. It resounds hugely."
When asked about his father's attitude toward the Monterey Peninsula, John said, "He wasn't the town's favorite son. They didn't like him. His works were not well received. People were outraged that his characters were loosely based on real people. He'd be confused and amused by the homage now being paid to him. There was a long time when he couldn't even get arrested in this town. Even after winning the Nobel and the Pulitzer, many local people refused to acknowledge him as an important writer. Now he's an institution.
"Back when he was writing about the Peninsula, he felt rejected. He was very discreet when he came back to visit relatives in the area. There were no bands waiting for him. Today, the hostility of the community has changed. I don't think those feelings exist anymore. Now he's a hero, but when the stories were written, residents were sensitive about what they saw as their portrayal in Steinbeck's combination of fiction and nonfiction.
"Every square inch of the county resounds deeply for me. It almost seems genetic, because of my father's books. Last time I was here, I was attending a ceremony for the issuance of the John Steinbeck commemorative postage stamp. In a strange confluence of history and coincidence, Cesar Chavez was also in town at the time and there was a lettuce strike going on.
"What was extraordinary was to be in front of the Steinbeck Library, where the podium was set up in sight of a strike demonstration just a block away. No one at the stamp ceremony seemed to make the connection between the strikers and Dad, who chronicled farm-labor struggles here in the thirties.
"I'm not criticizing, just pointing that out. I'm sure that in New York tonight, many people will see the current Steppenwolf production of The Grapes of Wrath. As they leave the theater, they'll step over some homeless person and not even make any connection to what they've seen, and probably been very moved by, on stage."
On the day that we got the word that he was getting a sizable advance from his publisher for his autobiography, Johnny wanted to visit the Paramahansa Yogananda Ashram near our house. We loved to sit in the lush gardens and stare out at the ocean. "I need to meditate about the future and what this book is going to bring us."
I have to admit, while I was sitting there, I mostly thought about the money. Johnny and I had a penchant for living well, and we had been planning to spend a year in Tuscany after the book tour. When we were driving home, he said quietly, "Writing this book is going to bring me to the Source. All I saw was God." That evening, he wrote this letter to his inner child.
Like his father, Johnny kept a journal during the writing of his autobiography. Here are some excerpts:
That was the last entry in Johnny's attempt at a journal. He decided to turn his full attention to the autobiography. It took him a year to complete the first half. He polished his words with the care of a jeweler. Often he brought me his work, a page at a time. He called me his cheerleading muse. I wish mine were so loving; she tortures me mercilessly when I don't write.
When the end came, it was quick. Seven months before he died, Johnny started to notice that he couldn't read freeway signs. He complained they were blurry. We were shocked at the diagnosis. It was diabetes, often a side effect of hemochromatosis. Johnny was crushed. He'd worked so hard on his health since he'd finally gotten sober, and now it seemed all in vain. Sticking to a strict diet, he carefully monitored his blood sugars, and within a matter of weeks he was able to get off the medication. That did not stop the death knell from sounding.
We joined an exercise class in the fall of 1990. After a month, Johnny's back went out in the same place as before. He consulted with a doctor who prescribed physical therapy, but when that didn't help, we went for a lethal second opinion.
Flash forward eighteen months after Johnny's death. I am sitting at a long conference table with the downtown skyline and San Diego Bay outside the window. Flanked by six lawyers who are deposing Megan, Michael, and me for the malpractice suit we have filed against four doctors and the hospital where John died. Dan Deuprey, the lawyer who represents John's orthopedic surgeon, has just succeeded in reducing me to tears with his sarcasm and innuendo. I ask to be excused from the room. Since he's there to defend the doctor we believe to be most responsible, he is merciless with me. After I leave, one of the other lawyers turns in anger to Deuprey. "Do you think you were mean enough to her?"
The sarcasm goes right over his head and he smirks. I'd been warned about lawyers like him who thrive on attempts to strip family members of their dignity in order to save money for the malpractice insurance company. I was warned that the defense lawyers would tear my life apart. Michael Kaplan, my lawyer, is there, holding my hand through all of it. We have become very good friends. Three days later, at the end of the twenty-seven-hour- long deposition, the court reporter tells me she has never seen a lawyer be so sensitive to his client's needs.
For four years following Johnny's death, the defense lawyers tried to level me. They pried into our lives, attempting to prove that Megan, Michael, and I didn't have a strong enough relationship with John to warrant any financial consideration. They demanded to see Megan's diary, and a list of each gift and every dollar Johnny had ever given us. Thinking this would force me to spend hours going over our bank statements, I frustrated their efforts by stating that Johnny gave me all his money to manage. They obtained confidential records from every therapist we'd seen, desperately trying to prove there was no love in our family.
"What right do they have to pry into our personal lives this way?" I asked Michael Kaplan. "The marriage isn't on trial here. We're talking about mistakes made by the doctors."
"If you deny them access to the records, they'll accuse you of hiding something," he explained.
That night, after two days of depositions, Deuprey took my lawyer aside. "Tell Mrs. Steinbeck she might want to leave the children at the hotel. I'm going to be attacking the marriage."
What those guys didn't know was that after we filed the lawsuit, an anonymous typewritten letter arrived at Kaplan's office.
When the doctors heard that Ralph Nader's group, Congress Watch, had asked if I would testify before Congress and Hillary Clinton about the rights of malpractice victims, their lawyers threatened me with slander suits. No matter how much they tried to torture me, nothing was going to stop me from seeing the lawsuit through.
Just before the operation, Megan had asked John if she could use his X-rays and MRI film for an art project. A kind nurse provided them after his death. In the envelope, we discovered the written results of a chest X-ray. "Abnormal finding in the patient's pulmonary vascularity. CAT scan recommended." That's when I called Michael Kaplan. For months, I spent a nightmare existence pouring over John's autopsy reports with my lawyer, learning the size and weight of his lungs and brain, the lengths of all fourteen scars, and the ways in which they had compromised his medical care.
Back in the conference room, I dried my eyes and was ready to resume the seventeenth hour of questioning. Deuprey leveled his guns at me again. He asked questions in a flat, needling voice, hoping that I would eventually wear down under his sneering. His nonverbal message was, "You're just a pathetic widow. What right do you have to question the authority of any doctor?" All the other lawyers had been extremely polite, but I could tell that their egos weren't involved the way his was.
Deuprey looked at the doctor's record of our first visit. "The next sentence I'd like to bring to your attention in this medical record dated January 17, 1991, is as follows -- do you have that in front of you to read along with me -- 'I have advised Mr. Steinbeck that because of his medical problems, i.e., hemochromatosis, diabetes, and obesity, that we will need medical consultation preoperatively.' Does that appear to be an accurate account of the conversation you and your husband had with Dr. L.?"
"When we saw Dr. L., we told him about John's complex medical history, as well as his bouts with congestive heart failure, which aren't even listed here. Nor does the doctor say anything about our repeated requests for him to get all of John's medical records and to consult closely with an internist concerning the results of John's pre-op tests. We asked for all that to be done before Dr. L. decided to go ahead with the operation. None of that was done. L. might as well have put a gun to my husband's head." I knew Deuprey didn't like me talking like that, but it was interesting to bait him. He hated women and, sadistically, I wanted to remind him why. For the most part, I was imperious. Johnny taught me that one well.
"If he took my husband's medical condition and his life seriously, he should have ordered John's records from Scripps Clinic. We would never have consented to the operation had we known that they had not reviewed those records, let alone that they had ignored abnormal test results."
Over lunch, Kaplan said, "Deuprey never wants to face you in front of a jury. You're too good. You'd have their sympathy. You're the kind of witness he'd rather die than cross- examine." Since Johnny signed an arbitration agreement before the operation with Dr. L., this part of the lawsuit will never go to trial. A judge and two lawyers will try it in arbitration, which has the reputation in California for being a kangaroo court. Kaplan cracks, "You're being tried by three guys with a hundred-year cumulative history of thinking they're God."
Taunting, Deuprey attempted to undermine my anger. "What is your belief as to what any CAT scan would have shown, had it been done?"
He's not going to trap me on that one. "I'm not a medical expert," I snapped.
"Do you have a personal belief as to what it would have shown?" he tried again, flatly.
''I'll have an expert witness testify to that when the time comes."
"I don't want you to guess or speculate, but obviously you attach a great deal of importance to the failure to run a CAT scan. I would like to ask you why it is you feel that the CAT scan would have been important in your husband's case."
"Obviously the X-ray department felt it was important enough to recommend, or they wouldn't have written the report. I believe that anything that cautioned the doctors into looking further into John's medical history was highly important. Perhaps if that CAT scan had been done, my husband would be alive today, and my children would have a father."
"All you can do is basically guess or speculate about that?"
This time it was my turn to sneer. "You just said you didn't want me to guess or speculate, and then you asked me why I thought the CAT scan was so important. That's what I told you I'd be doing in this answer, because I'm not a medical expert, so don't object to my response."
Wearily, he sighs, "That's fine. Thank you for answering the question."
The next day, I left Megan and Michael at the hotel. I wasn't trying to spare them Deuprey's attempts at airing dirty laundry, because they knew it all anyway. I wanted to give them a break.
For eight more hours, Deuprey asked me all kinds of questions about Johnny's drinking and the problems it had caused in the marriage. I had nothing to hide. His shameless questions about John's addictions weren't about me, or my marriage, or even the person who had died on the operating table. They were about the disease. He acted as if I should be mortified to talk about the wreckage of John's life in front of strangers, but I wasn't. My pride in our relationship and Johnny's successes, my refusal to hang my head about the bad times, only caused consternation in him. I knew what he was doing. He hoped to portray John as a hopeless junkie loser, so they wouldn't have to compensate our loss. Deuprey looked particularly ridiculous when he sanctimoniously asked, "Have you derived any comfort from the Buddhist belief that a person dies when his time is up?" As if that would let them off the hook.
Malpractice is hard to prove. We had such a clear case that local doctors appeared as our expert witnesses, which is highly unusual. Although we lost the arbitration, one of the doctors offered to settle out of court and, in the long run, John died a winner. The kids and I are winners because we loved him. He died at peace, having forgiven those who warranted his pardon, and eliminating people from his life who diminished him. You can't get more real or successful than that.
The night before John's operation, I had the dream that Sable, our German Shepherd puppy, had died. A voice told me, I am taking my angel back today. You have spent as much time with him as can possibly be allowed. You must accept this, and never doubt that it was not meant to be. There is a greater plan here. Do not feel sorry for yourself This is not an accident.
I woke Johnny up with coffee and climbed back into bed, snuggling down with my cup, gingerly wrapping my ankle around his. He called that Chinese Love, where a couple feels so entwined, their feet naturally gravitate toward each other in a graceful knot of union. "When the marriage is that strong, you can run a village on the power."
I told him about the dream. He promised if anything happened, he would be our guardian angel and never leave our side. I promised I'd finish his book.
One of my girlfriends called to wish us luck. ''I'm lying here with my beautiful wife, feeling so peaceful," he told her. "If I'd known life was going to be this good when I quit using, I would have stopped twenty years ago."
We finished our coffee and John took one last hot tub in the morning sun. I watched him through the bedroom window as I dressed. What if he dies? What if something goes wrong? I chose to ignore those thoughts. Later, friends would ask me why we failed to see the puppy dream as an omen.
I drove John to the hospital. An abandoned wheelchair sat near the entrance. Johnny waited in it while I parked the car. I carried his overnight bag and a cardboard Chinese Good Luck God that Megan and I had picked out the day before in Chinatown. He hadn't seen it before and he frowned at it through his pain, half kidding, "That isn't a funeral symbol, is it?"
After registering, they put us in a private room. It was brilliant with sunlight and in that light I felt waves of tenderness and hope for the return of John's health and mobility after the operation. I went to a nearby party store and bought crepe-paper garlands of vivid parrots and tropical fish and a massive bouquet of balloons. I wanted to fill that sterile anonymous cubicle with vibrant colors and life, to counter the antiseptic air and sterile gleaming instruments. I wanted to surround Johnny with colorful, exotic animals, symbols of my love for him and the realms in which we dwelt. As I transformed the room, I thought a hospital room had probably never looked like that, a tropical jungle paradise. Yet, in spite of the brilliant colors, I felt as though I were swimming through a murky dream, moving out of time. The day existed only to be gotten through.
Out in the hall I ran into the Chicana housekeeper who used to clean my office at the McDonald Center. I thought her familiar face was a good sign, and I brought her in to meet John. A doctor stopped by to ask routine questions. When he noticed John's abdominal gunshot wound from Vietnam, it suddenly hit me, after all those years of being with him, how lucky I was that it hadn't killed him. He could have been struck in the heart and I would never have had the chance to know him. Why hasn't that occurred to me before? I have taken so much for granted with this man. Why does that bullet hole suddenly seem so meaningful? It's like watching a foreign movie, where you don't understand the symbolism.
When the nurse came to fill the IV with pain meds, we agreed that I should go home and help Megan get ready for her trip to Costa Rica. She was leaving the next day to start her job as a photojournalist for the gringo newspaper in San Jose. John would be sleeping until the late afternoon, when they had scheduled the operation.
Four hours later, the kids and I returned to his room. They floated around his bed, playing with the electric controls and teasing him, giggling, and joking. Michael went out to smoke a cigarette on the stairs. Later, he said he had a strong feeling that something bad was going to happen, but he just ignored it. When he told me about it, he wondered if he had done something wrong by not speaking up.
"How can you follow up on every thought?" I asked. "You'd be paralyzed."
Later, Megan said she hated the way the orderly helped John up on the gurney. "He was so sloppy about it, like he didn't know how special Daddy was."
I did not kiss John good-bye. Whenever one of us was leaving, the other got kissed or it was "Where's my kiss? Come and kiss me! You want a kiss? Give me a kiss! Kissy-kiss!" We spent so much time kissing and saying I love you in those last years that I've never felt guilty. I know why I didn't kiss him good-bye. After all the drug crises and drunken ordeals, I still couldn't stand to see him drugged even on the painkillers he needed. I looked away. I'm not mad at myself about that. I understand why I couldn't. It's sad, but if you'd been through what I've been through with John's addictions, and kissed him as much as I had, you'd know it wasn't important.
As they wheeled him out, I never thought about going down to meet the anesthesiologist. I had fought so hard for his life in so many medical settings. Now that he was sober, I couldn't fight anymore. I had to let him handle the situation on his own. Perhaps if I had accompanied him, they might have asked more questions about his medical history. They might have noticed that his tests were abnormal and postponed the surgery.
Megan and I dropped Michael off at the house and went shopping for her trip. In the aisles of the grocery store I started feeling dread. I just wanted the hours to pass quickly. We mindlessly watched a rented video, Daddy's Dying, Who's Got the Will? while Michael took a nap. It was about a family squabbling over inherited money. Disgusted, we stopped the tape and never got the symbolism till the next day.
"Mom," Megan suggested, "why don't you call to see if John's out of the operating room?" As I put the phone to my ear and started to dial, I heard the doctor's voice. The phone never even rang.
"I want you to get in your car immediately and drive here very slowly."
"Is he all right?"
''There's a problem" was all he'd say.
I slipped into shock. Megan knew; she didn't ask for any explanation. We looked at each other in panic. I didn't want to wake Michael from his innocent sleep, so we left him, just in case. Within several minutes I had called every shaman, nun, psychic, and lama that we knew with the same short message: "I think John is dying, can you bring him back?" Megan grabbed John's mala, Tibetan rosary beads. We got in the car and tore down to the hospital.
They put us in a tiny room. It was airless and had no windows, designed by a heartless architect who thought it would be an efficient holding cell for the relatives of dying patients. Someone went to get the doctor.
"It will take about twenty more minutes for us to know what's wrong," he said breathlessly. He did not tell us they'd been pounding on John's chest for an hour trying desperately to bring back some brain-dead semblance of him so that they'd be absolved. I wasn't sure what he was going back to look for but I didn't want to waste time by asking.
Without a word, Megan and I began to pray. I remembered the dream, I saw all the signs, I heard the voice saying this was no accident, not to feel sorry for myself, to accept the death.
If your time has come, I'm not going to hang on, I release you with all my heart and all my love. But if it's not time, and you can possibly come back to stay with us, please return because I'll die without you.
The doctor returned with four others. White coats all in a row. They said they were sorry in unison. He was gone. Do you want to request an autopsy? Please sign here. Do you want to go in to say good-bye? Is there anyone we can call?
Swimming in shock, without thinking I called a friend who had lost both her parents in a car crash. I knew she'd be smart about quick decisions. Buddhists don't believe in mutilating the body after death, but she urged me to have an autopsy in case the doctors had screwed up. Then she said very slowly and deliberately, as if she knew that's the way you cut through the cotton batting of trauma, "You need to go in there with the kids and say good-bye. You need to see him."
"I don't want that to be my last memory of him."
"Believe me, it won't," she said. "If you don't, you'll regret it later."
I called Ginny, a coworker from the McDonald Center, who'd been widowed the year before. I knew she'd understand the situation. I asked her to drive us home. And then I gently woke Michael.
"Something's happened with John. Come down here." I wondered how I would tell him. When he walked in, I could see he already knew.
We walked into the silent white room. I saw the body. I saw guilt on the faces of the OR staff. "I saw it too, Mom," Megan said later.
The kids took Johnny's hands and started to cry softly. I never touched him. In his life, John burned hot, like a meteor. His hands were always warm. I loved to squeeze them and play with his fingers. I didn't want to feel cold on his hands. Megan wasn't afraid; she just sat there braiding his fingers in hers. There was a tube in his mouth, so his lips were formed in a slack smile, cool as he was in life, like a musician in the middle of a riff. For a while it seemed like he was playing a trick on us, and we thought he could open his eyes anytime to see if we'd fallen for it. Megan burst out with a hysterical giggle. "It looks like he's faking, doesn't it?"
Then I knew it wasn't him anymore in that body. This is your death, this is what you look like dead. This is the moment you have courted and flirted with all your life, Johnny. His Bodhisattva sweetness was still palpable in the air.
I said good-bye to the flesh then and turned my attention to Megan and Michael while trying to savor the sacredness of that moment. They hadn't had my dream about taking back the angel. John hadn't just promised that morning that he would always be their guardian angel. I was more focused on comforting them than my pain. I knew that Johnny, the Night Tripper, was not clinging to his body. There would be no more sustenance from that body. I could feel him holding me up. That's when I saw all the bruises on his chest from the paddles, massive black and blue swirls. I wondered what in hell they thought they were bringing back. How can I leave you here? I'll never play with that patch of hair on your chest. I'll never kiss the sweet place on your neck, behind your beard, or the Mick Jagger fullness of your lips. How can I say good-bye to those treasures? I thought I'd have their bliss for my whole lifetime.
Then there was nothing left to do but gather his things. We went to his room and took down all the crepe-paper streamers. We released the balloons in the parking lot, giddy in our shock, laughing "Catch them, Johnny! These are for you!" as they floated above the hospital walls and faded into starlight.
All night, people gathered at the house. John's presence was so strong, the love was so palpable in every room, that most of us were months away from believing he was totally gone. There is a heightened sense when death is so near, and we stayed up till dawn, talking about him.
"He was a bearer of miracles."
"He was so utterly direct and clear and open-hearted."
"He was an incredible soul."
Three days later, one hundred people gathered in our house for the funeral service. Johnny's body had been autopsied and was awaiting cremation, but we went ahead because friends had flown in from all over the country. We held a Buddhist ceremony, burning his photograph and chanting him well wishes. Then, like an AA meeting, people spoke from the circle. It took two hours for everyone to empty out their feelings, and here are some of the sentiments which were expressed.
"I only knew John when he came to speak at my writing class," Karen Kenyon started. "I felt very touched by him and privileged to know him. The first time I ever heard him talk I thought that I'd never been around someone who was so completely honest, so completely down to earth, with such candor. One time he spoke about impermanence, and how that is a gift that is given when someone dies young. I think of that, and of his humor. I walked out to the parking lot with him and he pointed to his new car. He said it was financed by a Buddhist credit union, which meant you got to pay it back over your next lifetime."
An AA buddy remembered, "The first time I heard John share at a meeting, I said to myself, 'Holy tomoly, this guy is really something.' First I thought he might want to dominate the group, because his presence was so strong, but he was extremely genuine and caring. He had a lot of intuition and insight. He wanted to learn and contribute."
Paula, my receptionist, said, "I didn't know John very well. I met him through Nancy at work. The most vivid memory I have of him is that he called Nancy about five times a night. Instead of announcing him as John, I'd tell her 'The Hubala' was on the phone. He was like a teddy bear you could just hug. He was so gentle. The way he used to call her so many times, I thought he must really love her."
Allen, our elderly neighbor, added, "The thing that struck me most about John was the closeness we shared. We didn't get together very often, just for a minute here and there. I'll never forget the first time I met him out in front of our houses. He told me his name and I told him mine. As he walked away he said, 'Well, I'll see you, Allen.' It made me feel good that we were on a first-name basis right away. I appreciated that. Naturally, it was a shock to me when I heard his name was John Steinbeck. I had to think that over for about thirty seconds and I called him John from then on."
Then Thom spoke. "John and I came in like Twain and his comet. It never occurred to me that we wouldn't go out together. I think he'd be unhappy if we didn't get the joke. He's been practicing for this for as long as I remember. We'd better take up a collection for his parents the next time around because they're going to need all the help they can get.
"I don't remember a time in my life without having him. We've counted a lot of coup and we've never been done in, never lost a battle. I'm going to miss him. We used to have a lot of codes, shorthand for how things were going. When it was time to lick honey off the razor blade, one of the things he was perfect at, the codeword was, 'Say farewell to all my friends on shore.' For him, I say farewell. He loved you all, he needed you all, as much as we needed him. He loved the illusion. I'm proud of him. I'm prouder of him than any human being in the world. Hello John."
Megan was next. "The first time I saw John, it was instant recognition. I felt like I had seen him so many times before. I'll never forget every day I spent with him and every day I was apart from him. He'll remain forever in my heart. I can feel him walking behind me and protecting me and holding me and guiding me. I love him. I can feel his little hands in my hands and I don't have to say good-bye because he's always right here and he'll always be right here."
"Finding Johnny dead at the hospital was the worst thing that's ever happened to me," I said. "I've always expected it. He had nine lives and we were on his tenth. It's something we've all known, that he was too precious to be in our lives for a long time. I'm so grateful for every day I spent with him.
"When we got back to the house, Megan said, 'Mom, it seems so easy. It just happened so easily.' I feel like he's going to be with all of us forever in our hearts and in our wisdom. He loved and valued every person in this room. He knew there's a place where he could work on a higher, deeper level, where he could impart more truth, and I think that truth will come through us. It's not like we need to let go of John and forget him. We need to listen and carry him in our hearts. He was a truly holy being and this is a very dark time, with the Gulf War starting.
"I'm really scared and I want people to call me. Don't let me be alone. He filled our hearts with laughter and love, especially in the last three years when he was sober."
An old friend from Boulder said, "John and I shared something very precious. The number- one thing in his life is his beloved wife, Nancy. He shared her so beautifully. I never knew a man who loved his wife and told everybody and taught every man he came in touch with how to treat a woman like John did. He was such a good dad. He was the best husband and companion for his wife. I will miss him so much."
Another friend said, "John was one of the funniest people I've ever known. I loved him because his mind scared the shit out of me and I could count on him for that. Whatever exchange we had, I could count on that he would touch me deeply or terrify me. They were both really great feelings because they reflected his ability to eat life for breakfast. The thought of not having that piercing honesty around is hard to live with."
Then Michael spoke. "A lot of feelings are coming up for me. I've been thinking about all the good memories, all the stuff I ever did for him and all the stuff he ever did for me, all the things we did together. He was my best friend. I've never met anyone with such power and compassion. He could dazzle me with his wisdom. He used to brag to me, but I knew it was true, that he knew just about everything about anything. He'd tell me that in the hot tub. If anyone else ever told me that, I'd think, Man, that cat is full of shit. But I believed him.
"I'd look forward to the nights when I came home and he'd always have the hot tub ready for me. It was kind of like the guru sitting underneath a shady tree, and you go to mountaintop to meet him. I'd meet my guru in the hot tub, and his big fat guru belly would be there kickin' it and it was like instantly he'd know what was going on with me. I could tell him about my problems from girls to school to friends and he could always get me out on a good note. It was like he'd been there. He could relate ten times over and he'd share his solutions. I'd say, 'You are a fucking guru, man. You are God.'
"We've been looking at the photo albums and every part of his personality is there; no picture is the same because he had so many aspects about him. Actually, he gave me the runaround about everything. You couldn't slip much past him. His friends were my friends and he always told me how much he loved my friends."
One of the teenage boys laughed when he remembered, "John once called me a gratuitous motherfucker." His brother went on to say, "John turned our lives upside down. He was an example of tremendous will, of the fight to be free, to be outrageous just for the sake of being outrageous. He always threw himself out there and we stood around with our jaws on the floor. He had aggressive sides, scary sides, but his heart was so gentle. Sometimes he'd stay with us when I was little. He'd sleep outside on a lawn chair in the summer. I'd ask him why and he told me he just liked to be out there. He's out there now."
Another of Michael's friends said, "I remember the time I took Mike for a ride on my motorcycle. The next time I was at the house, John met me at the door. He put his hand on my shoulder and his face real close to mine and said, 'Say, Matt, the next time you take my son on your motorcycle without a helmet, you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to get a can of gasoline and pour it all over your bike and then I'm going to light a match and watch that sucker burn.' Then he grinned and said, 'You got it?' I got it."
A friend who'd lost a child said, "John listened in a special way that most people don't do. He talked in a special way that most people don't talk. He filled my heart with so much warmth, and so did his family. I know that he's here with all of us, but I hate death, and I hate that I'm not going to see him walk out of his office and feel the cuteness about him." Another friend remembered the black powder bombs Johnny loved to explode in our backyard. "One time I was over visiting them and John set off several underground charges which left large holes in the lawn. The Boulder bomb squad showed up, complete with fire trucks. John was very polite with them. He took them around to the back and showed them the holes and asked if they'd seen the movie Caddyshack. He told them he had a gopher problem and had gotten the idea of blowing them up from the movie. The bomb squad guys were fascinated, though you couldn't tell if it was by the theory or by John's name. Anyway, they left without giving him a citation, so they must have bought his story. By the way, there are no gophers in Boulder!"
Gesar Mukpo, Rinpoche's teenage son, said, "My memories of John are as a young kid. There were never any problems when I came over to play with Michael. He never made it difficult for me. It was always fun to be around him. He always let us do pretty much whatever we wanted. He didn't give us a hard time about how crazy we were. He didn't need to take control because he had control. He died being who he was, fearless. He wasn't afraid at all. I want to say, 'Good job!'"
And Thom concluded, "I'd like to thank you all for coming, if only because I needed the healing. I couldn't do it by myself. I think we all need it, to the degree that we miss him. We want to keep intimately that part of him that affected each of us, affected by his recovery, by his humor. A lot has been lifted off me in the last two hours that I thought I was going to have to carry for a long time. I wasn't looking forward to it at all. Now that I know I can sucker you guys into the other half of the job, it makes it a lot easier."
Our old friend Denault Blouin wrote this poem the day after Johnny died. It is based on the Buddhist reminders we chant with each prostration:
This precious human body, free and well favored, is difficult to earn, easy to lose. Now I must do something meaningful. The world and its inhabitants are like a bubble. Death comes without warning. This body will be a corpse. At that time the Dharma will be my only help. I will practice it with exertion. Just like a feast before the executioner leads you to your death, I will cut desire and attachment and attain enlightenment through exertion.
Several days after the ceremony, I was sitting in John's office pouring through the archives, starting to write this book. Feeling overwhelmed, I burst into tears. Johnny, if you really are with me as you promised when I finish your work, show me a sign. I cannot do this alone. There was only one window, and it faced the house next door. I figured all he had to work with was that and the telephone, but I was adamant. If I didn't get a sign, it was over between us.
Suddenly, in the patch of sky above the neighbor's house, a huge bouquet of balloons floated by. There must have been thirty of them, sailing way up high over the coastline. I was thrilled. I got up to watch them from the deck, closing the door to his office, on which Johnny had recently tacked a little poem by Po Chu-i.
As a Buddhist, I am very disappointed in the son of John Steinbeck's story. Despite all his experience with Buddhist teachings, he failed to get the core lesson: "It's not about you, but about others." He didn't even care enough about the persons closest to him to try and bring them happiness, much less people outside in the world. He eventually quit drugs and alcohol only because he had taken his body to the absolute limit, and could take it no further. To think what a man with the name of "Steinbeck" could have done to promote the general welfare of human beings! What a waste of a life! His friends and family want to depict him as a "truly holy being," an "angel," a "god," a "guru." This man was none of these things; pitiably, he was just a hungry ghost.
Scroll of the Hungry Ghosts (Gaki-zoshi), Late-Heian Period (Late-12th Century), © 2011 Kyoto National Museum.