The Veil

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Reepicheep, was our most regal farm resident. The tips of his curious brown ears stood well over six feet tall and his liquid brown eyes were the most expressive pools you could ever hope to swim in.

My family became accidental farmers when I was ten years old. My dad, was called up by a distant cousin, when he was in the thick of his medical career, and was asked if he wanted to buy the family farm. “You are the only one who would do it,” the cousin said. And he was right. My dad is the necessary mix of crazy and dedicated to do something as audacious as moonlighting as a farmer when he already was working long days and nights as a surgeon.

And so we bought the farm. And then animals to populate the farm. Reepicheep, the llama, came along when I was 14 years old. Ostensibly, he was procured to protect the herd of minor ungulates: the sheep and the goats. And he did this job well. But I liked to think about him as the King of the Farm. He scared the living daylights out of people. He would run full force across the pasture, his long brown legs galloping towards you, and stop on a dime, with his inquisitive nose inches from your face. I wrote my college admissions essay on kissing my llama. His breath changed with the seasons; spring onions were the most memorable. With me, he’d lean his muzzle in and brush his velvetly split lip across my own.

The winter my world came apart, I came home to the farm for a week. Reepicheep was fourteen years old at that point, and he had become painfully thin. He developed a sore on his long neck that was slowly leaking blood. My dad thought it was cancer. Eating him from the inside out. Farms familiarize you with death, in a way that city living does not. We’d lost goats and sheep and even a few cows over the years. Difficult births, injury, illness.

That winter it felt like everything in my world had come unhinged. And Reepicheep, King of the Farm, dying was further proof that the world was splitting at the seams. I was with Reepicheep when he died. He laid down in the pasture for the last time, and I put his head in my lap, and sang to him as he slowly faded. This gentle giant who had kept watch over the farm for so many years, closing his huge liquid eyes one final time.

Just over a year later, I’d spend an hour on the side of the road in Wyoming holding the head of a man I didn’t know as he lay dying after being ejected from his car when he lost control and it crashed ingloriously into sagebrush ejecting him into the dry, hard, earth.

Last night I was with a friend at the local climbing gym. She’s new to the sport, and I’m newly re-interested in it. We had just tightened our harnesses when there was a sickening thud. The sound of the weight of a full-grown man hitting the floor after forty feet of free fall. I don’t really know what happened. It was so surreal, I can’t even reconstruct the details. Just his eyes closed, unresponsive, his elbow split open to the bone. A doctor was climbing nearby, so I ceded civilian duties to his vaster knowledge and stepped away. “I think he forgot to clip in” the doctor said to me after the paramedics took the man away. The man was alive when they carried him out in the stretcher; I don’t know how he fared last evening. I doubt I’ll ever know.

My friend and I reluctantly tried to climb after the ambulance pulled away. “Get back on the horse” mentality I suppose. But carrying on with the night as planned felt impossible, so we headed home early.

Poetry, as always, is the only thing that has a prayer of coming close to touching what these moments have felt like. David Whyte’s “The House of Belonging” comes the closest:

I awoke
this morning
in the gold light
turning this way
and that

thinking for
a moment
it was a day
like any other

But
the veil had gone
from my
darkened heart
and
I thought

It must have been the quiet
candlelight
that filled my room,

it must have been
the first
easy rhythm
with which I breathed
myself to sleep,

it must have been
the prayer I said
speaking to the otherness
of the night

And
I thought
this is the good day
you could
meet your love,

this is the black day
someone close
to you could die.

This is the day
you realize
how easily the thread
is broken
between this world
and the next

and I found myself
sitting up
in the quiet pathway
of light,

the tawny
close grained cedar
burning round
me like fire
and all the angels of this housely
heaven ascending
through the first
roof of light
the sun has made.

This is the bright home
in which I live,
this is where
I ask
my friends
to come,
this is where I want
to love all the things
it has taken me so long
to learn to love.

This is the temple
of my adult aloneness
and I belong
to that aloneness
as I belong to my life.

There is no house
like the house of belonging.

What does it take to lift the veil from your darkened heart? Why so often for me, does it take something like a man crashing out of the sky and landing at my feet for the veil to lift?

I couldn't sleep last night. Over and over on our walk home, my friend and I kept saying, “Life can change in an instant.” And as I lay tossing and turning in my bed last night, David Whyte’s words: “This is the day you realize how easily the thread is broken between this world and the next” provided the chorus to the repeating thump of a man’s body hitting the ground that was playing on a loop in the back of my head.

What I love about Whyte is this: he doesn’t just alert us to the possibility that death could be closer at hand than most of us care to think about, he also reminds us, “this is the good day you could meet your love.” He holds the light and the dark in equilibrium, and reminds us per the title of another poem of his, that “everything (both good and bad) is waiting for you.”

Perhaps we would be paralyzed if the veil to this stark truth were always lifted. Or perhaps we would live far more fully than we dare to now.