Dedicated to Bernie
I rode out to the temple to honor my dad, the big, loud, brilliant, frustrating, handsome drunk who had died of kidney failure earlier in the year, begging me for a drink from his deathbed. I looked forward to journaling there, connecting with his memory and my complicated love for him. But once I entered the sacred space, everyone, EVERYONE, was on my nerves. People were gabbing and laughing and ogling and dancing, ugh, is that guy hitting on me?? While I am trying to mourn? Fuck you and your beribboned dick too. I was repulsed.
After moving around the building, more uncomfortable and resentful in each new spot than the last, I finally fled, hopping on my bike and riding furiously to the very edge of the Playa, where an unprepossessing plastic fence stopped my flight yet offered no shelter. There, in the dust, I sat, anguish rushing through me, no way to go forward, no way to go back. How could I have treated my father so badly? How come it took me so long to find peace with him for who he was and not who I wanted him to be? How was I ever going to cope with the feelings of guilt and shame and loss, myself newly-sober and vulnerable as a turtle with no shell. I knew behind me lay the glitter of Burning Man, that psychedelic carnival, with every drink and drug I could imagine waiting for me, for free, all I could handle, more than I could handle. I also knew all-too-well where that path would lead. Alcoholics like me don’t get sober unless our ass has been kicked soundly, and profoundly, by our addiction. There was no going back there.
And yet this new path, one that did not include numbing myself, seemed impossible to tread as well. My only option was crawling into those nearby dead denuded hills and dying, alone. The pain was just too great. I wanted, needed, to disappear. In this nadir I cried out to that god, goddess, I don’t understand but had surrendered to, in order to live, in order to let live. You have got to show me it’s going to be ok. Right now. You have got to. Now. It wasn’t a prayer as much as a command.
“Hey are you all right?” All at once a man pulled up behind me, out of nowhere, in the middle of, well, nowhere. Oh jeez god no not this, this is not what I meant! I tried to brush off the intruder, Mister Nobody From Nowhere, an average, pudgy, normally dressed, non-descript unfabulous white guy with nothing—nothing—to offer me. As if we were at a Starbucks in West L.A. and not alone in the middle of the desert, I replied curtly, making it clear he needed to go away now. “Yes,” I said, “I’m fine. I’m just grieving my father. It’s ok to grieve.” I added the last part, knowing that this buffoon could not possibly understand the importance of processing feelings. By asserting my authority on the grief process to explain my, um, miserable condition, I intended to dismiss him post haste, send him back where he came from, cloaked in the ignorance that so clearly enshrouded him.
But he didn’t take the hint. “Oh man,” he said, dropping off of his bike and kneeling down beside me. I cringed at this human contact, this violation of isolation. “That’s not ok. How was your relationship?” “Well, it was good,” I said honestly, “but only for the last 11 years.” Now he would know I was an unworthy daughter. I waited for his condemnation. But to my shock he replied, “Eleven years is a long time. I have a friend whose mom just died and she didn’t even know it. They’d been estranged for a long time.” Relief and pity flooded through me. It hadn’t been like that for me and dad, not at all. We had shared his final stage of life together. And this unlovely nosy busybody was right. Eleven years was a long time.
“How about you?” I asked, suddenly aware of another human being’s presence. His demeanor quickly changed. Shoulders sagging he told me it was his first Burn and he was having a miserable experience. The woman he’d come with had left early and he was all alone. Alone at Burning Man: not a great place to be. I understood. “Let me give you a hug,” I said, and stood to embrace the man who’d saved my life.
“Ahhh,” he said as our bodies parted. “That was what I have been looking for all week.” And together we two humans pedaled slowly back to Black Rock City.