The scent of sandalwood confronted me the instant I opened the door of the dim temple— just a tiny room with a low ceiling, really—in Gander’s modest bungalow. The aroma was faint, as if just a memory, but clear. There, in this sacred private pocket of the house, where he meditated and where he pondered over the pains of this world, I sensed the latent aromatic essence of my friend. The room was but eight feet square; it would have been a cube, were it not for the low ceiling, only slightly more than six feet above the floor. Across from the doorway, affixed to the wall, were three small teacup-sized semi-circular metal shelves lined up with six inches between them, forming a mantel of sorts. Upon each shelf sat a small cone of unburned incense and on the cream-colored wall behind each one of them, a hazy grey halo, smoky discoloration from years of burning candles. An old straight-backed wooden chair, worn dark and smooth by years of use, faced the trio of circular smudges.

Gander’s temple served as his refuge from the world for almost ten years. After his wife, Marlisa, left him on their twenty-second anniversary, Gander retreated into himself. Her unexpected departure went largely unexplained; she told him she simply needed to be by herself and could not envision ever returning to him. She withdrew half of their joint savings, about ninety-six thousand dollars, and left that same day, taking with her only a few pieces of clothing and toiletries. She drove away in their 1996 Honda Accord wagon, the car whose title had been changed six months earlier so it was solely in her name.

Though a man who prided himself on being in touch with himself and with the people he chose to have around him, Gander’s  sudden bachelorhood blindsided him. I should have known the depths of his despair, but maybe I didn’t pay sufficient attention to his moods.

As I looked at the walls of Gander’s private retreat, I remembered the times he and I sat there, talking. As far as I know, I was the only one he ever invited into his temple. Our visits there had no religious overtones; we simply talked about how we felt and how the world looked to us and what we wished for humankind. The conversations were spiritual, I suppose, but not in a sense most people would understand. When we talked, he sat in the chair and I sat against the wall, on a cushion.

I studied the room, remembering our last conversation. While I thought about the words he spoke to me, my eyes slowly scanned the walls and the floor. Two red cushions lay on the grey slate floor beside the chair and, next to them, a stack of dog-eared books on meditation and healing. I spied a red ring on the floor, where the wine I sloshed in my glass had spilled and made a circle around the base of my glass.

I guess I was Gander’s only real friend, after Marlisa left him. Her leaving was a wound from which, it turned out, he was unable to heal. His suicide made me realize Gander was my only real friend, too.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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