No matter how fast you run, your shadow follows you…
It’s not a bad thing. The past is full of learning, exploring, and experiencing all sorts of stuff. Whatever was, in some form or another, still is part of who you are and will be there wherever yo go. Therefore, it behooves you to not sweep things under the rug, but to properly process even the unpleasant, tragic, or otherwise unwelcomed memories.
It’s exactly what I tell my clients and friends.
Last night I dreamt about my brother. In February, it will be one year of his death and every time I think of him, I can’t seem to hold back the tears. I consider myself an emotionally resilient person and I am puzzled by the persistence of this sadness. Yes, I know the process of greaving. I am still digesting the event. It’s not every day that someone I know gets shot, execution style, so I am not exactly used to it. Death, in general, is not something I am used to. Not sure, that’s the kind of thing someone CAN get used to.
My father died when I was 12. He was the first and the last person I saw go in the ground. All four of my grandparents, one uncle, and one aunt died in Bulgaria, while I’ve been living here in the United States. I never saw the burial rituals. To me, even though intellectually I know they died, somehow they still feel alive. This is why we have rituals – to mark an important place in time, to come to terms with the old, to turn a new page. Without rituals, life is a blur of days mostly the same, mostly spent on autopilot, and mostly passing important milestones unacknowledged.
We float through time, counting wrinkles rather than marking moments. Isolated in our existence rather than feeling the continuity and interconnectedness in our lives.
My brother and I grew up fighting with each other. He took my stuff, lied about it, blamed me for things I didn’t do to get himself out of trouble, and still managed to be a love bug mostly motivated by connection with family and friends. I hated my boundaries being violated, demanded justice, lived independently, and sucked at showing affection. I think I still do. His life was obviously troubled, living on the wrong side of the law most of the time, getting into heroin at an early age. Two overdoses later, getting forced into rehab by the cold winter and trying to escape the drug dealers he owed money to. I had it all together on the outside. By the time he kicked the heroin habit, I got a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from a university across the world, had my own business, and got married.
While I was busy accomplishing things, he was busy reconnecting with people, helping friends, trying to re-establish his life and repair the damage he’d done, all along looking up to me. He ended every phone conversation with “I love you.” I felt useful and still very uncomfortable with affection. I was mad at him for not figuring it out already. I saw his potential. He saw himself behind the curve for all the time he’d wasted doping up.
While I was busy trying to support him in his post-recovery life, he was busy trying to catch up as fast as he could and got into gambling. First, supposedly as a professional poker player. Then slot machines and online gambling. His girlfriend kept paying his debts. Apparently, I did too. He borrowed money from me constantly the way a black hole borrows light, never to be seen again.
You may be done with the past, but the past may not be done with you, someone wise once said. Poor choices in the present can bankrupt the future. Instant gratification and the allure of short-term gain can completely obscure the big picture. If that’s how you live, one day you wake up looking back on your life completely lost for meaning and purpose. No meaning, no purpose, no satisfaction, no happiness, no contentment, no peace.
My brother kept saying he couldn’t find peace. He looked for it in all the wrong places with the help of all the wrong people. I sell peace to others, and yet I failed at convincing him to re-orient himself towards that possibility. Perhaps I failed because I went about it the way I usually go about things – head first. I live in my head, imagine things there, plan, and analyze. My head is like a library. Each shelf organized by subject. An airconditioned place for the preservation and generation of knowledge. He was looking for a cozy couch to sit on and get a hug, possibly a cup of tea, and something nourishing to eat. Knowledge fails in the absence of affection. Perhaps, that’s why the Buddhists came up with Loving Kindness Meditation, teaching hearts to soften to the suffering of others, to suspend judgment as a way of helping people find their light.
While he was wrecking his life in a new way, I was wrecking my life in a logical way. Got divorced because my cost-benefit analysis of the situation with my husband – from financial to emotional, did not add up in a mutually-fair way. My brother reconnected with an old girlfriend who was married with kids and hoped to build a life with her, while she never intended to leave her money-bags husband. They brought the worse out of each other, fighting brutally and making each other miserable. I settled into a new comfortable relationship with a person high on agreeableness who never wanted to rock the boat. My brother got frustrated. I got bored. He died, leaving all of us heartbroken. I broke the heart of my partner just a month before. Two lives paralleling each other on Earth, spinning around our own axis of suffering.
When meditating one day while he was in intensive care and off-limits for all humans except medical staff because of the on-going investigation into his shooting, I had a vision of him on his back with his abdomen open, in coma, in a cold room surrounded by various beeping machines keeping him alive and my heart broke. I’ve been a beeping machine keeping him alive for years, but not nurturing. Not the warm presence a living thing needs to flourish. Hell, that’s how I am usually – I hum along reliably and sound the alarm when something is wrong, blink reassuringly when everything is fine, require no supervision, and anyone interested in getting to know me needs an advanced degree in science. Not exactly a Quan Yin.
How is it that I didn’t do anything wrong and I still feel miserable? I am not taking responsibility for his actions, only for the things I didn’t do. Those are the stuff of regrets.
It occurred to me that the reason I am suffering exceptionally deeply is not just because I’ve lost my little brother. It’s because with his passing I lost his love and his unconditional affection. I also lost the opportunity to gift to him what his heart really wanted. Yes, I am aware that he became so entangled in lies, deceptions, half-truths, conflicts, and consequences of terrible decisions, that getting out of that swamp could have been an impossible task, had he not been shot. Yes, I am aware that there are many ways to look at every situation and at the same time, I value my subjective learning and experience, so I went and bought a really soft blanket, cuddled up on the squishy couch with a cup of delicious tea and had myself a good long cry.
I cried for all the soft places in my heart that never saw the light of day and all the people who could’ve loved to experience them. I cried for missing out on knowing what it would have felt like to be there for my brother in this way.
And I promised myself to do better in the future. I made a ritual. I sit on my squishy couch every day with a cup of tea. Sometimes, I read. Sometimes, I daydream. Sometimes, I just sit. I never miss a day. I soak up the coziness of the moment and feel the warmth in my heart. I also decided not to buy a TV for my house, and where the TV was supposed to be, I put a pretty mirror and keep fresh flowers in front of it, buying them regularly for my self. Watching them bloom and fade but always grateful for having seen them and for enjoying their short-lived beauty.
Somehow, an old voicemail from my brother calling my name and laughing got saved in the memory of my phone. When I play my Amazon music library on shuffle, occasionally his laughter surprises me and lights up my face. He’s still alive somewhere on the Amazon cloud. He’s still smiling from pictures on my phone and computer. I see him almost daily. I miss him almost daily, and I tell him so everytime I see him. I wish I did it in person when I could. I’ve made him my reminder to love people more than I judge them because knowing how to help someone is useless if I can’t reach them. And I can’t reach anyone if I forget to love them.
I started this piece back in February and couldn’t finish it all at once. I am still not sure if it is finished. I owe my present rituals to my past life and I wonder how they will transform my future. If people do meet up again when they die, I hope they do so unencumbered by their past shortcomings. A happily ever after sounds comforting after death. But how about a happily ever after with all of the people we care about while still living? What would that look like? What would it feel take?
To be continued…