The Story of My Life

by Ben Johnson

So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.
      Tennyson: In Memoriam

My stomach was queasy and my head hurt. The dark shadows of night slowly transformed into grey shapes in the early morning dawn. Clothes leaked from the open drawers of my massive bureau. Cigarette butts, like little tombstones, had been dumped by an upended ashtray on my bedside table. Books, loose papers, crushed beer cans and dirty laundry strewn about my tiny room revealed the chaos of my life. As the room gradually came into focus a single thought formed in my mind: I was still alive.

As I rose and staggered from the bed I could hear a soft hissing coming from the kitchen. A vague feeling of disappointment crept over me as one by one, I turned off the gas jets of the ancient stove and raised the window to let in the cold, January air. Seeing the rolled towel under the front door, I noted with grim bemusement that in last night’s drunken stupor I had neglected to wet it so it would properly do its job in the drafty apartment. But such details had not been on my mind then, only a tired resignation and single-minded determination to at last quiet the years of anguish and grief that had ached so painfully in my heart.

I was five years old when my mother died of colon cancer. My older brother and sister have said they remember her screams. For me, however, that memory is gone. But even now, when I hear someone cry out in anguish, it is unbearable.

Later, when all the sympathetic friends and relatives had left us alone in the house, my mother’s life evaporated. We never again talked about her or about what had happened. The only evidence of her was a single picture on my father’s dresser. All other pictures had been put away in a closet. It was understood that we should not take them out to look at them.

With the naiveté of a five-year-old, I wondered if she had done something wrong and had been sent away, or even worse that my father had somehow caused her death, and that she was buried in the basement behind the furnace. I toyed with these thoughts for some time, so inexplicable was her disappearance.

We were not allowed to visit her in the hospital during the last days of her life. We could only wave to her from the street below when she appeared in the window of her second story room. On the last night of her life my brother and sisters and were left alone upstairs in our house while my father was at the hospital. We were talking about what was happening when we heard our father come in the front door. We went to the banister overlooking the staircase to see him. He climbed partly up the stairs, and with his back to us his only words were: “She’s dead.”

My father remarried almost exactly a year after my mother’s death. Later I realized it was a marriage of convenience, but I was only six years old and glad to have someone who was affectionate to me and sometimes gave me hugs. Also, I was glad to have her son as a playmate to distract me from my loneliness.

A year later my father took my brother and sisters and me on vacation. My new stepmother and her son stayed behind. When we returned they were nowhere in sight. When I asked my father where they were, all he said was, “They’re gone.” When I asked when they were coming back he said with finality: “They’re not.” We never spoke of them again.

I missed them terribly and prayed every night at bedtime for them to come back. About a year later I called a friend who lived in a nearby neighborhood to ask if we could get together to play. He said, “I can’t,” and after a long pause he said, “Your brother Ernie’s here.” I couldn’t believe the words coming out of the phone. I had no idea he and Ernie even knew each other.

A while later I raced over to my friend’s house, thrilled at the chance of seeing them again. My prayers had been answered. Pretending I was ‘just dropping by,’ I knocked on the door. When my stepmother opened the door she cried out in joy and wrapped me in her arms in a big hug. We visited for a half hour or so until it was time for me to leave. That was the last time I ever saw them. I learned recently that they both died a couple of years ago.

After almost five years my father remarried again. It was also a marriage of convenience. This marriage did last, but there was always a certain distance, as if we were just two families sharing the same house.

Throughout my childhood and adolescence I tried to make sense of what had happened. I would read about death. I haunted graveyards and mausoleums trying to imagine the people buried there, as if looking at the cold, mute tombstones could somehow help me to understand where they had gone.

My father was not one to show real affection and kept his distance by being boisterous and hearty, or by turning on us with a severe look or harsh word. He seemed to have a dim and cynical view of most people. He would chide me with ridicule for not doing better in school. I think he was probably doing what he thought best in trying to be tough and firm with his children, to make them stand up to life. But his idea of encouragement was to say to me, “Don’t be stupid, Ben.” To me he was just insensitive and overbearing. He could grind you down by the sheer volume and force of his words, or could cut you to the quick with a sharp look. There were very few who could measure up to my father’s standards, least of all a teenage boy. I will never forget that look in his eyes of utter contempt.

I quietly hoped to somehow find a way to become a ‘person of worth’ to my father. I tried to find some way to win his love and respect, the criteria of which was always vague, even more so during his late night tirades lubricated by generous quantities of whisky.

As I grew older I became more and more distracted and depressed. I could not focus very well on school or anything else. I would make half-hearted attempts then just let it slip away. This only added to my feeling of despair and worthlessness. Because of my poor performance in school, I think my family thought of me as mentally deficient.

In high school, I too, started drinking heavily, siphoning off some of my father’s whisky each night after he had gone to bed.I knew he would not remember how much he had drunk that night. During those years I drank so much that after I left home and was out of this situation, I could not stand the smell of whiskey, much less the taste of it. There had been too many terrible hangovers, too much waking up to a violent, throbbing pain in my head with the room in a slow, nauseating spin as I tried unsuccessfully to stave off vomiting.

By my senior year I was drinking to the point of passing out several times a week. I had long given up making even a token effort at school. There was a real danger that I would not be able to graduate from high school. I did manage to graduate with the help of the art teacher who was a friendly ally, and with the help of the kindly history teacher who demanded that I let her tutor me. My older brother was the only member of the family who thought the miracle of my high school graduation worthy enough to witness.

After high school I made a stab at college, but lasted only a year and a half. I believe I had the distinction of having the lowest grade point average of anyone at the university at that time. I moved out of my parents’ house and did odd jobs around town to support myself. At night I would go to a local jazz club called The Dark Side. I loved the moodiness of the jazz and the night life at the club, but I drank to the point of passing out nearly every night. My depression grew so deep that I was barely functional during the day.

A few months later a deep sense of resignation set in. I quietly determined to put an end to it. The moment I slipped off the edge into the abyss I really believed it was the end. When I found myself unexpectedly back among the living, a kind of numbness set in and I just kept going on because I didn’t know what else to do. A while later a friend mentioned he was going to California. I joined him and left my hometown for the unknown. When we arrived in California I had no plan. I had only wanted to get away from the miserable situation back home and the mess I had made of my life. I didn’t really believe there was any way to escape my past but I decided to go on anyway because I lacked the courage to again try the alternative.

I quickly ran out of my meager savings and found a job at a bookstore across from the U.C. Berkeley campus. I worked hard not because I was such a diligent, responsible person, but because I was desperately trying to hold my life together and keep from falling back into the pit. I discovered a eucalyptus grove on the campus across from the bookstore. It had a small stream flowing though it and I took to spending my lunch hours just sitting there quietly. I had had no formal instruction in meditation, but by just sitting there I found that all the bad memories and despair would subside for a little while. I became interested in Buddhism. I read everything I could get my hands and went to Dharma talks at the San Francisco Zen Center. Although I didn’t understand a lot of the teaching, there was something about it that was reassuring and seemed grounded in common sense.

At first I thought meditation was a way to escape from the reality of my life, but escape always proved short lived. There seemed to be no end to the cycle of suffering and despair. Eventually I realized I had to face my demons. This was very painful, but there seemed to be little choice. Constantly, moments of despair would wash over me, filling me with dread and fear. All I could do was sit still in the middle of it, gritting my teeth. Gradually I learned that these were just feelings and memories, an echo of the past.

The Buddha’s first teaching was that the cause of suffering is attachment. At first I thought of attachment in terms of addiction, as in being attached to food or intoxicants. But later I realized that attachment could also mean being stuck in the past or in dreams of the future.

I had tried to reconcile what had happened but there was no resolving it, no way to make it better. I was attached to this dream because it was my mother. I wanted her to come back. I longed for her love and warmth, but this could not happen because it was a dream I longed for, and despair was the inevitable result.

Over the years I was able to see that there was more to my father than I had thought. He was not a bad man. He had a great sense of humor and he strove for honesty and integrity, qualities I came to value highly. He had been in a difficult situation and he had tried to make the best of it. Fortunately, towards the end of his life we were able to reconcile, and for that I am very grateful.

We create the world with our thoughts. We build a story of what we think our life is. Past events may seem vivid and painful, but they are just memories that are like a scar from an old wound that is still tender. I learned that no matter how many times it came up, I could let go of the story that I had held so dear. I learned that instead of replacing it with yet another story, I could open up to an unfolding life, learning over and over to let go of expectation and embellishment. And I discovered a whole new world that is much greater than anything I could have imagined.

The Path is open and goes straight to the source.
The Heart is boundless and enfolds everything.
Darkness is a dream since the Light shines everywhere.
Since the whole universe is our home,
how can our hearts ever express our gratitude.
(Rev. Kinrei Bassis)