Remembering the Redbud-Rosy Face of Eugene Owen

Years ago, I read something by agrarian author Wendell Berry, in which he said we cannot love the whole world, simply because we cannot know the whole world.

At the time, I felt aligned with this—that I could not love all, for I could not know all. And I would still agree—I cannot know all, at least not in one lifetime. But there are patterns I can know and recognize and see similarities among, lessons that come on stronger if I haven’t learned them well the first or second or third time around.

And that is why, I feel pulled up short by the death of my friend, Eugene Owen, who people knew as Gene, but who I always called Eugene. It is also why I hope he felt the depth of my actions where words failed—where I failed to utter them. For, I loved Eugene, but we did not have the kind of relationship in which I felt I could say so.

I met him four years ago this month because he needed someone to help prep his food. He had Charcot-Marie-Tooth syndrome, a hereditary, neuromuscular degenerative disorder that, in his case, wore away at the myelin within the neurons. It caused his fingers to curl inward, so that he could not open his hands, could not cut his food. It caused a loss of sensation in the lower limbs, necessitating braces and, in time, a powered chair. And later, it caused wasting in the thoracic region, for which he needed a tracheostomy and assistance breathing.Eugene Owen with Street Cow

When I met Eugene, he had just had surgery to remove a melanoma on the bottom of his foot. There was a large indentation, where the surgeon had removed the cancer. I was in my second year of herb school, and reading works by French herbalist Maurice Messegue and his use of foot and hand baths as a way to get herbs “in” without going the oral route, which is especially important when a person is on multiple pharmaceuticals. At one of those early follow-up appointments, I asked the surgeon if it would be okay to provide foot baths for Eugene, using infusions of yarrow. He agreed.

It was early spring and yarrow I’d planted the summer before, between the blueberries and a Montmorency cherry, had enough leaves that I felt I could ask it for its help with Eugene. I gathered a fair amount, placed it into a quart-sized Mason jar, and poured boiling water over it. At Eugene’s, I diluted the temperature with some cooler water and had him soak for about eight minutes, before toweling off the foot and applying unrefined sesame oil, then rebandaging.

The wound healed quickly. Eugene’s surgeon seemed pleased.

Once it completely healed, Eugene went back to his previous routine, making the trek from Annapolis to a metro station, getting the powered chair off the lift, then making his way into D.C., where he worked as a statistician at the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. He had a lot of independence in those days, relatively speaking. He was able to come and go pretty much as he pleased.

If he were at home when I was prepping food and he was not in a virtual meeting or on a conference call, he would talk about a great variety of things—from the news and music to bits and pieces of things he’d picked up over the years in his travels. I don’t know how many countries he had visited, but I think he set foot on every continent, except Arctic and Antarctica. He had not been to Russia, where I had lived years ago, but he had studied Russian, studied many languages, in fact, and was proficient in Spanish, French, Portuguese, Welsh, and, of course, English.

He grew up in Lancaster County, Pa., and loved rural life, studied rural sociology, and spent some time reviewing education on Smith Island. As a young man, he had worked as a postal carrier in Brooklyn Park and he sometimes recalled how robust he used to be, in terms of running and playing as a child. But as deep as was his interest in his rural surroundings, so he was also interested in the greater world and recounted last summer how he used to created worlds, maps, languages, and stories about these places, when he was a child.

He never seemed to lose that imagination, that childlike quality, despite his years, despite his illness. In fact, he credited his parents, Jack and Ruth, with what the idea of abundance really meant, how they instilled a sense of infinite gratitude in him.

People in New Age circles today, I think, take that word “abundance” for granted. Eugene did not. Whatever he did—whether he was working, whether he was conversing with a friend, whether he was eating his colorful food, even if he were coughing hard—he did everything 100 percent, and then some.EugeneOwenParisSeafood

He especially liked his food. One of his favorites—he could make a meal of this—was fresh tomatoes with marinated artichoke hearts and anchovies, plus capers and extra virgin olive oil and white balsamic vinegar. He never ate a lot of sweets, liked charcuterie and seafood and Brie, Brussels sprouts and kimchi. And fresh fruit.

Eugene had not been into D.C. for a while. His car with lift no longer ran, but he got around pretty well in his powered chair, taking it a couple of miles to a commuter lot. He needed to make a meeting and was coming back late December 4, 2014, when he was struck by a man pulling out of a church parking lot. The driver did not have his lights on. Eugene pitched forward out of the chair, went slack, as he told me he always did to make a fall easier. He struck the backs of his hands and the left side of his face and forehead. At the hospital, they wanted to take an MRI, but he could not lie flat for any length of time; it was too hard to breathe.

Again, I worked with him, using a calendula-plantain salve on the bunged-up spots and arnica gel around his left eye. He had a lot of lung distress for what seemed like most of December and early January.

But the day of his appointment with his cardiologist, he told me he did not feel well. This was odd, because he never complained. And this was not a complaint, either, just a statement of fact. Because of his spiking pulse, he was admitted to the hospital that day, in late January. It felt like they had a hard time getting the meds right in order to smooth the pulse and help Eugene avoid going into atrial fibrillation.

He was there for close to four weeks, before they moved him to a nursing facility in Annapolis, one with a respiratory specialty. But Eugene seemed to plateau.

I took it for granted that he would get better, because he always appeared so resilient.

But as Oliver, the fellow who delivered oxygen canisters and the like to Eugene’s, told me when he came to pick up the rented equipment, “When it’s your time, it’s your time.”

Everyone I’d ever heard of who met Eugene liked him, without fail. He had a lot of good qualities. But he also put off important things, like writing a will and planning his estate. I find myself quite puzzled by this, given Eugene’s health issues. The only thing I can attribute the lack of action to is just living in the moment coupled with a lack of organization, which was also part of Eugene’s way of being.

Eugene died a month ago this evening. I did not know it until the next morning, when my beloved called to inform me. And I broke. I’d planned to see him later that day, to bring poems to read, to pick up an iced coffee for him; he loved those.EugeneOwen_Guadaloupe

As I consider Eugene, I accept that there truly is no complete way to measure a person—except maybe by the numbers of people he or she has touched. People are so many things and are not so many other things. What I liked and appreciate most about Eugene is how he refused to be defined by his illness. He was deeply willing to live in the moment and deeply willing to be present to his own divinity. By that willingness, he expanded his ability to see and feel others’ divinity also, and I suspect, enabled the people he knew or met briefly in his travels to see their own.

What a gift! I am so glad that he shared it.

* * *

When I last visited Eugene, Sunday, March 22, I shared several poems by Rumi, and his face lit up with each one. In honor of Eugene—and his redbud-rosy face—here’s the last poem I read to him:

The Sheikh Who Played With Children—Rumi, trans. by Coleman Barks

A certain young man was asking around,
“I need to find a wise person. I have a problem.”

A bystander said, “There’s no one with intelligence
in our town except that man over there
playing with the children,
the one riding the stick-horse.

He has keen, fiery insight and vast dignity
like the night sky, but he conceals it
in the madness of child’s play.”

The young seeker approached the children, “Dear father,
you who have become as a child, tell me a secret.”

“Go away. This is not a day
for secrets.”
“But please! Ride your horse this way,
just for a minute.”
The sheikh play-galloped over.
“Speak quickly. I can’t hold this one still for long.
Whoops. Don’t let him kick you.
This is a wild one!”

The young man felt he couldn’t ask his serious question
in the crazy atmosphere, so he joked,
“I need to get married.
Is there someone suitable on this street?”

“There are three kinds of women in the world.
Two are griefs, and one is a treasure to the soul.
The first, when you marry her, is all yours.
The second is half-yours, and the third
is not yours at all.
Now get out of here
before this horse kicks you in the head! Easy now!”

The sheikh rode off among the children.
The young man shouted, “Tell me more about the kinds of women!”

The sheikh, on his cane horsie, came closer,
“The virgin of your first love is all yours.
She will make you feel happy and free. A childless widow
is the second. She will be half-yours. The third,
who is nothing to you, is a married woman with a child.
By her first husband she had a child, and all her love
goes into that child. She will have no connection with you.
Now watch out.
Back away.
I’m going to turn this rascal around!”

He gave a loud whoop and rode back,
calling the children around him.

“One more question, Master!”
The sheik circled,
“What is it? Quickly! That rider over there needs me.
I think I’m in love.”
“What is this playing that you do?
Why do you hide your intelligence so?”
“The people here
want to put me in charge. They want me to be
judge, magistrate, and interpreter of all the texts.
The knowing I have doesn’t want that. It wants to enjoy itself.
I am a plantation of sugarcane, and at the same time
I’m eating the sweetness.”
Knowledge that is acquired
is not like this. Those who have it worry if
audiences like it or not.
It’s a bait for popularity.

Disputational knowing wants customers.
It has no soul.
Robust and energetic
before a responsive crowd, it slumps when no one is there.
The only real customer is God.
Chew quietly
Your sweet sugarcane God-Love, and stay
playfully childish.
Your face
will turn rosy with illumination
like the redbud flowers.

Let the lover be disgraceful, crazy,
absentminded. Someone sober
will worry about things going badly.
Let the lover be.

All day and night, music,
a quiet, bright
reedsong. If it
fades, we fade.

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