This existence of ours is as transient as autumn clouds.
To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance.
A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky.
Rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.
Twenty-four years ago my 24 year old brother Justin's life suddenly ended. His death was unexpected and sent jolting shockwaves through my system for years to come. It rearranged me.
This is a picture of us when we were teenagers.
I was 16 here, not quite at the peak of numbness, but inching there with the aid of drugs and a deep habit of suppressing anything that could potentially cause me to feel.
He was 17 here. I was visiting him at The Bridge, an inpatient drug rehabilitation facility where he had been residing and becoming rearranged. While there he became clean and sober and grew a support system. He began to trust himself. He was excited and optimistic about the life possibilities yet to come.
Much braver and independent than I was, I envied his transformation. He inspired me to break free from the drugs during my last year of high school and supported me as I cautiously transitioned from a habitual and familiar way of being and into a way that was unfamiliar and alien as I entered college.
He was deeply creative. He played guitar, wrote poetry and appeared to me to live "all-in" as his life happened. He was self-sufficient, out of necessity and also from a desire to move away from the pain of his past. After rehab he went to a community college while he worked his way through a zillion transient, odd jobs and lived in a lot of shitty apartments in not so great neighborhoods. While he was figuring out his life direction, he went to recovery meetings where he felt he was able to be known and share his challenges with others who struggled like him. He was willing to be vulnerable. He had an easy way of making deep and long-lasting connections because of his openness and willing to go deep. He was beloved by those who got to know his soul, which he revealed openly. He was a Cancer. He eventually decided to become a nurse and was working his way through nursing school when his life abruptly ended by a car that went through him.
When he died, I abruptly came alive.
The first jolt came through the telephone lines. The late-night call from the police was startling. The message relayed was confusing and unbelievable, and the grief was agonizing and physical. I began to come alive through the shock and manifestations of grief.
In the beginning I had nightmares. He would show up in my dreams wearing the jacket and scarf pictured, seated at an old-fashioned school desk in the middle of an empty classroom. I didn't know what it meant and it freaked me out. I saw his face out of the corner of my eye when I looked in the mirror, or in my peripheral vision. I developed a lingering inability to breathe deeply and a deep well of heaviness in my abdomen and chest. I gasped for breath, folding forward to feel that enough air was in my lungs. As I'm remembering it now, the familiar heaviness reappears unaided. I ruminated about whether he suffered. There was a hearing and eventual sentencing and jail time for the offender. And there was no solace. I unendingly questioned why why why why why.
But the gift of pain worked on and in me. It rearranged me. It moved me in forceful ways. It mandated me to remove myself from anything and everyone that felt like a NO and magnetized me to whatever felt more like YES. I muddled through my last year of undergraduate school, as that felt more like Yes than No. I entered into the working world. Without a general sense of direction, I landed on work that allowed me some room to BE and to sort through what it was like for me and what I wanted in my life. I began to meander my way into my life, through feeling and experimentation. I left a long-term relationship and moved into a new apartment. I made new friends and spent lots of time in the outdoors, doing things that felt like YES. I ran, I hiked, I biked. Yoga found me and I learned how to breathe again. My body revealed to me that it was no longer just a protective shield as I continued to defrost from the layers of numbness that had collected inside over time. I gradually entered more fully into the living stream of my life, surrounded by new situations and people, none of whom ever new my brother. It was liberating and lonely.
I figured out how to live with the felt sense of loss.
My parents and I don't talk about him much when we're together. Often we all rely on the safety of our protective body shields that clench around our wells of heaviness, as to go there could potentially open up the deepest of wounds.
Every once in a while I am willing to occupy the space of my wound that remains. Sometimes I do so like this: I write. I allow my mind to wander in memories and surface some of the sludge of emotion that lies deep. More often, I sit and feel. A memory will arise and enter into the space of my attention and I feel as the ache moves and fills into the space in familiar ways. At times, I am able to be there with it, feel it and notice it. I don't flinch or hide or run the other way, and I have learned that it won't blow me away or annihilate me. I am beginning to learn that more often than not, the ache, given space and attention, diffuses or diminishes on its own.
I am finding that by giving my grief space and attention I am able to feel more whole and alive. I breathe more easily by including it in. My body is not a shield, but a warm, safe space that can hold the experiences of my life.
By feeling the pain, my body transforms from a portal of discomfort into a space of healing and aliveness.
Some of Justin's elementary school friends reached out to me on Facebook some years ago. It relieved me to know that he was remembered.
He IS remembered.
Here's to remembering Justin today, the Day of the Dead. I remember you. I remember the way you showed up in the world, with warmth, questioning, expansiveness, emotionality, complexity and humanity. And I remember you now, wherever and however you are.