Grief, I don't know you too well these days. Where are the dreams where my brother comes alive and then you wake me up, wrenching him from me like the night he died? Where are your morning shadows? Are they no longer big enough to block out the sun? Where are your hot tears on the pillow when I fall asleep? And the sight of the moon and stars. Why don’t they cut deep anymore and break open little sister missing big brother?
I go days - weeks even – without thinking about Aaron. Is this healing? When the sunsets can just be sunsets and nights in the woods don’t throw me into a turmoil of tears .
My greatest teacher in life has been grief. And perhaps, my friend too. Grief and I have walked hand in hand many nights in the woods, exchanging subtle glances with moon when there was no one to hold my hand when the tears wouldn’t stop falling.
So many nights spent aching to hug a body that no longer existed with the stars sometimes giving answers and the darkness reminding me of what’s real. Aaron, I’ve cried a lot of tears for you in the woods. Beside lakes and waterfalls, in canoes and tents and on cliff-sides. At sunrises and sunsets. Flooded all of it with my love for you.
But these days, grief and I have become more distant friends. Is this what time does when we let our hearts feel even when the pain cuts deep? Now, there’s something deeper and more complex than happiness in grief’s place.
Dreams sweet, evenings on the deck writing, cloud and bird watching, and a hot mug of tea in hand. I feel a deep appreciation for this life. The tender moments that bring a smile to my lips, the wind on me face that reminds me to laugh and the memories and present moments of joy that are now rooted in my heart as deep as sadness once was.
Sometimes we have to let go to be able to hold onto what lies in front of us now. That’s one of the things grief has taught me.
Soon, it will be more years
that i’ve lived without you
than with you
Aaron, sometimes it feels
that i have more memories
of all the places where
i’ve cried for you
than all of the places where
i’ve laughed with you
The sound of my heaving sobs
etched deeper in my memory
than the sound of your voice
saying, “hey sis”
Your ashes easier to picture
than the smile on your face
“I have a brother and he died”
rolls off my tongue
smoother than your name
Your phone number forgotten
the facebook message i'll never
get a reply to
and the hot glue disco ball
we made together
shoved deep into my closet
Aaron, why’d you have to kill yourself
in your red truck
where we once played peekaboo?
in my curves
in a way that i
forget time -but
not in a way i want to
i don’t want to become
who couldn’t stop
the hands on her body
i hate how these secrets
are like tattoos
taking me back to
when it happened
years and years ago
my body forgets
how to listen to its
brain that says
you are here now
you are safe
i can’t look
into your eyes
as i go between
numbness and horror
choking on my own sobs
you hand me
my water bottle
and i know its plastic
but it doesn’t feel
you give me a mug of tea
and i don’t hold
so the burning
on my fingers brings
me back to now
but i’m still slipping
out of time
drink more water
you tell me
i still can’t look
into your eyes
self is gone
these are body memories
in a language
too painful to listen
*Written now in the voice of me at age 12*
“No, it’s not true! No, he didn’t!! He didn’t do it! He didn’t!”
My lips forming these words are my bloody fingertips grasping the rocky edge of the cliff just before the weight of my body dangling in death’s sphere pulls me into the inevitable.
Why must it always defeat our beating hearts?
“No, it’s not true! Tell me it’s not true! No, he didn’t!! He didn’t do it!”
I will fight truth for his life even when I am hanging off this cliff by one finger. I will throw my whole body into battle from the top of my head where my brown stringy hair hangs to the tips of my toes caked in pink nail polish.
“It's not true! Tell me it's not true! No! No! No!!! He can’t be dead.”
I didn’t know that screaming could encompass my entire body. And I tighten my grip on the banister to stop myself from falling over.
Three days ago, I was at the ocean building sparkling sand castles and smoothing them with the palms of my hands until their contours disappeared. My twelve-year-old heart danced when the sand tickled the backs of my calves as I ran up the path to see Grandma at the beach house. Eyes wide with delight at the sea star I’d found in the tide pools, surrounded by lush sea cucumbers. I cherished these summers at the Oregon Coast. Grandma’s love was warm and sweet like honey; she was always there to hold my hand, read me stories and make me smile.
“He didn’t kill himself! He’s not dead! Noooo, Aaron’s not dead! He can’t be dead.”
Come on, innocence. You know your roots run deeper than truth. Remember when you and Aaron would climb the big magnolia tree in Grandma’s backyard and fill the lawn chair cup holders with sprigs of moss, just to be silly. Remember when you and Aaron rode your bikes down to the river just a few weeks ago and you rented kayaks and had a race that you both won. Then you had a picnic beside the river at that spot on the bank where the land is flat and it’s easy to get out of the boats without falling into the water. And then you did chin-ups on the large branch with big brother holding up little sister, so you could reach.
“He didn’t kill himself! He’s not dead! Noooo, my brother’s not dead!”
Truth knows it’s winning. My throat has gone hoarse from screaming; my lips are cracking with fear and my body wants to collapse, weak from the brute force of truth that it’s no longer strong enough to fight.
I loosen my hold on the banister ever so slightly, my knuckles pale from gripping the wood, and lower myself to the bottom stair. I want to smash the white ceramic tiles that line the entry to the hallway into thousands of unrecognizable pieces.
He’s dead. My brother.
Truth, you win.
You can have all my innocence.
I breathe in a deep, raspy breath, holding only a small piece of truth in my hand; this is all I can manage. I watch innocence being dragged out the door while fear’s silence echoes louder than my own heartbeat.
I need to know how he did it. I need to know facts, so I don’t have to feel –because to feel is to choke on a piece of truth too big for a twelve-year-old to swallow.
The next day I learn that he did it in his truck. My brother filled his red pickup truck with mist. Not the gentle and beautiful kind that swirls up from a silent lake like dancing fairies. No, this mist wasn’t silvery white, it was green and toxic to his lungs. It was dancing ghosts beckoning him to stop breathing and firmly grasp hold of death’s hands.
He killed himself around 11 o’clock at night. It was one of those hot summer days when he died; when sweat drips off your face even when you’re sitting in the shade. But Dad didn’t find him until the next evening, after his body had lain in his truck for almost twenty-four hours. I guess his body started to rot while the stars said their goodbyes and later the morning sun made his dead flesh reek.
I wonder what happened when they pulled him out of his truck. Did they put him on a stretcher or in a body bag – or did he lie on the grass beside the driveway for a while? People keep trying to distract me. My aunts took me to the toy store, but I don’t want anything but my brother. Jumping on the trampoline in our backyard isn’t fun without Aaron. When he and I jumped on the trampoline together he made me fly so high I thought I was going to hit the squirrels’ nests in the trees.
I start at a new school in a few days and I’m excited to have my own locker. I just hope I don’t forget the combination. I’m not as forgetful as Aaron; he was always forgetting everything. What will I say when my classmates ask me if I have a sibling? That I have a brother and he’s dead? What if they ask me how he died? I don’t want to say how he died. I don’t want to tell them about the suicide. I don’t understand why people kill themselves. Did he really love me? He didn’t even leave a note for me, or Mom or Dad – just for his ex-girlfriend and her child. Does that mean he didn’t love me? I’m going to wear my rubber boots when I walk to school because I have to walk across the field and there are lots of dew on the grass in the mornings. I don’t want my socks to get wet; I hate how the dewdrops and crisp fall mornings do not look as beautiful as they used to.
We played baseball at recess today. All I could think about when I ran after the ball through the sand was that I was running in Aaron’s ashes. Dad said we could split them. Half for him and Mom and half for me. He said he would put them in an urn and keep them for me until I wanted them. Why did they have to burn my brother? Did people smell him burning? Did they burn the coffin too? Does that mean most of the ashes are wood, or are they also flesh and bone? What happens to blood when it burns? Does it boil? Oh, I hate this. Why did he have to kill himself? I never want to open the urn. That will mean it is real. Opening it will mean holding what is left of my brother in my hands. Why couldn’t he have been buried? Then I could visit his grave and put beautiful flowers on it.
I hate school and how I live in a house full of pain where smiles are hard to come by and grief-stricken looks are commonplace. I hate the image I have of Aaron breathing in the toxic gas and laying dead in his truck; my new reality. When I walk across the field in the morning, the dewdrops remind me of the tears I want to cry, but cannot, because there is no one to catch me as I tumble through this darkness. My heart is breaking from the part of me that wants to reach for death’s hand too and the part of me that wants to live to see winter come again.
I want to live. I think. I want winter to come again so I can go sledding with my friends. I want to sit at the kitchen table and watch the mid-afternoon sun illuminate the snowflakes as they float fleetingly past the sprigs of cedar. I want to pull on my boots and run into the exhilarating cold air and make snow angels. I want to lace up my skates and listen to the deliberate sounds of metal carving ice as I make intricate circles and figure-eights. I want to watch the snowflakes fall from the clouds and feel the subtle hint of coldness when they reach my tongue.
I want to see summer again. I think. I want to run recklessly off the end of a dock and feel the rush of cold spring water envelop my body. I want to watch the stars, speckles of snow on a dark rooftop, emerging from the blackened sky. I want to watch the moon cascade its light across the dark water as I stare into the faces of the stars.
But life’s beauty and happiness lie far off in a horizon to which I am blind. I know no more of childhood. Not since that night when truth threw innocence out the door.
When the pain comes, it feels like someone running a razor blade up and down my heart.
I start to drown in my own blood.
Until it finally stops.
And somehow, I go on living.
In the shadows of the child I used to be.
My name is Travis Niskigwun. I belong in the north - on the shore of Lake Superior and in the Shield beyond. I belong where lakes are still the eyes of the earth, and where the shadows of invisible beings move on the snow in the moonlight. I belong where there are bears and spirits still...This story comes out of the Lake and returns again. It’s many stories. It has many beginnings as the Lake.” (pg 5 in Wayland Drew’s “Halfway Man”)
My story comes out of the ocean and returns again. Its many stories. I’ve always loved standing beside the shoreline, wind harsh. Flapping everything, my hair, and jacket billowing. Blue-grey waves unrelenting - meshing life’s power and fragility into a rhythmic motion - tracing the sand with froth in its wake.
This is where my heart feels most held. Standing on the edge; life open and mysterious as it circles forward. Salt in my hair. Sand on my toes. The cold. The foam, the waves, the ripples and the gurgles. “Look at the sunset,” Grandma used to say when we leaned against the railing on the deck, “Look at how the sun always sinks into the sea and rises again each morning”. Her fingertips echoed strength. Her grasp was firm; I could feel her love in the folds of my sweater.
I hadn’t seen the ocean since before Aaron died. Barefoot in the moonlight – toes numb and tingly from the water – I dip my hand to taste the salt. This shoreline hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be free. Here, I come to know that the circle always ends where it began:
“A Search… for something seemingly more beautiful and expansive than the endless wells of grief and the day to day mundane. Something to allow the heart wrenching nature of loss to make sense to a child who didn’t yet understand that sadness is just part of the equation of love”.
The ocean, the "something". Beautiful in a different way: life giving, nourishing, and ferocious. Turning towards the water, where all life comes from. Bare toes in the sand, and surrounded by bright moonlight suspended in the blackened sky. Same windswept brown hair, here, as eight years ago before Aaron died. Same feet, toes, hands, and the same heart. A circle comprised of salty tears and a whole lot of love.
East Coast Trail 2018
It was grey when we began. Fog in the hills but soon the water softened to blue and you couldn’t tell where the sea ended and the sky began. Life blown up on a canvas, everything was intensified: aching feet and back, fear, and confidence. I had forgotten how to listen to my own body, everything was raw and real. Blisters. Tears. Sweat. Blood. Laughter. A sweaty, cold and tired body and nothing in the world was better than cured meat, hot lentils and dry clothes.
I didn’t use to believe that I’d make it in life. Make it through the day without being surrounded by posters of my teardrops. Or make it to a time when my heart learned to laugh outside the confines of its inevitable, dark truth. He’ll still be dead. Whether or not I let love back into my heart; or push it away in fear of losing what could never be permanent anyway. But here we are, eating lentils that are too spicy on a flat patch of grass in the company of seagulls and ravens and the pink light giving itself away to the water’s embrace. Blistered feet, aching toes and a body that’s beginning to remember itself.
One day in a meadow of wildflowers bordered by waves, the child in me came out to play. Unbraided my greasy hair and let it flap in the wind, while the child oblivious to the pain of someone dying, frolicked freely in the breeze. And every night the sea lulled me to sleep: a lullaby that lets go – waves crashing on rocks- eroding time.
On the trail I found compassion for my body. A deep gratitude for my body’s ability to carry me across the land. Feet that could walk hundreds of kilometers. A spine that could carry a backpack. Legs that could propel me up and down cliffsides. There were no big standards or expectations to amount to other than being a kind and thoughtful human being.
And in the most Eastern Point in North America, Cape Spear, I remembered:
That life does not always go from pure dark to pure light and back again. What is most plentiful is the existence of the in-betweens – when light and dark dance together. If you look closely, you can see that moment at day’s end, when light and dark take hands and begin to dance – the rolling hues of gray beckon you to let go and find comfort in the songs of the seabirds, the rhythm of the waves and in the heart that’s remembered how to listen to its body’s own truth.
Have i told you
about the river
sections of its banks
are concrete, someone must have
thought it couldn’t chart
its own course as it rambled east,
but if you look to the west
where the wildflowers
still grow to the edge of the shore,
you’ll see the river knows
that even hearts imprisoned
in their own shadows
still know how to turn towards the light
The concrete came long before
i was born, the river’s dance
in spring too forceful and
the city feared it waking up
from winter, have i told you
about the dam, it used to scare me
i thought it was going to suck me under
in the canoe, could never pass the red buoy,
i wonder how the water feels about
the harsh contraption that hinders its
destiny to the sea
Have i told you
about the river that frees love
from its shadows and will never flood,
no matter how many tears
trickle down your cheeks, this is the river
that says come and lean your bicycle
against the tree, stop running
from the thorns prickling at your soul,
come and sit awhile, and look at the life
that still lingers despite
the water’s concrete veins
Stop and see that you are more
than your grief, the river says
watch the evening sun, feel the chill
of the wind on your cheeks, flood the pages
of your notebook until you blend
the letters – purple salty ink – lean
against the tree trunk
That you are more than
your tear-drenched blankets
and your sheets of loneliness, the memories
that make you wonder if you’re worthy
of love and kindness, remember, the river says
you are still part of the trees
and the water,
we all do
Sometimes I remember
waking up to
my father’s screams
why is death so cruel
parents aren’t supposed to see
their child’s eyes go dark
when the light leaves
and the blue can’t look back at you
then the days become more gray
than they are light
and you wonder
is there ever a morning
when the birds don’t feel like singing
How I hated the nights
when I dreamed about my brother
it was always his ghost
we both knew he was dead
in life and in my dream
but he’d hug me anyway
and it felt like hugging the wind
there’re no arms to pull you close
no warm embrace only shivers
as I watched the silhouette of him
say “hey sis”
and then I’d wake
him dying all over again
I still remember the day
i biked down the trail
pedals thought they could defy
the grief that wouldn’t stop
squeezing my beating heart
until i stopped beside the river
and lay on the bank
The ground couldn’t hug me back
the trees could only listen
while I whispered to myself
“don’t fight the storm, Em”
“this is life”
when all that’s left is to surrender
to the world for awhile
and cry until your throat is raw
and sniffles drip from your nose
when you can’t know a time
where pain will ever set you free
And then you look at the trees
to hold onto life
because you know
it’s the only thing
that will always hold you close
that trace the outline
of this face,
suspended for a moment
on the cheekbone
in an interlude to their trembling,
have forgotten why
A deeply rooted fear
emerging to the surface
like when shoots
sprout into the sunshine
for the first time; a destiny
realized or a fate held
in the hands that have
pushed it away for so long
A relief that the ground
that the body knows how
the truths that used
to hinder its path forward; perhaps,
a marking of her growing up, and regrets
that the body begs itself
to be free of
Does the rain always have reason
today these tears; perhaps,
they’re watering the roses
from the melancholy
that sometimes the body thinks
its young soul knows too well
The tears that trace
the outline of this face; perhaps,
they’re washing away
her uneasiness in living
with so much joy and meaning
when pain has been her companion
since she traded innocence for truth
Suspended for a moment
in a lapse of time
the tears trace these cheekbones
so she remembers
how grateful she is
that the wholeness in her heart
is no longer fleeting
It was August
I was nineteen and we were canoe tripping
Swish of the paddle; water rippling in its wake
And the thud of wood on aluminum
Take rhythm again
Make the calluses more sore
I didn’t see it coming
Too focused on the campers
Refusing supper; tears
Missing home, friends
And an aunt who’d died
Consoling them was my priority
Then 9:30 PM on the path
A camper, she darts
And the trail is so bright
Like the middle of the day
The blue so vivid
And the white light radiant
Boots heavy; water sloshing
Heart pounding a mile a minute
I can see her pink shirt billowing
In the wind and her dripping brown hair
It shouldn’t be this bright
Too close to the lighting
Back in my tent I crouch
Stare into the deep orange colour
Of my Therm-a-rest still wearing boots and coat
I’m too old to be fooled
By the false sense of security
of cloth to electricity
And then, my co-counsellor returns
Amidst the blue lightning; will we ever be safe?
And she says to me that a camper
Has just tried to kill herself
My heart stops feeling
It must act; for life depends on it
Mine and someone else’s
I must go numb
But for a moment the ground below me
Gives way and I fall into being 12 years old
In the back of my neighbour’s car
In the nighttime summer air
Teeth clenching the plastic water bottle
I’ve been given minutes after dad called
to say about my brother,
“Aaron’s committed suicide”
Nobody can come across the lake for us
In this lightning
There is no specific protocol for self harm
At this camp
Spending the night with the suicidal child
In the midst of the lightning storm
We have no choice but to endure
3:00 AM I wake
Someone yelling my name
I stumble into the darkness
Afraid of what I’ll find
Could she have gone into the lake
To drown herself?
I wasn’t supposed to fall asleep
But all is well
Only a camper with a night terror who
Tells me people are coming out of the woods
To kill us all with knives
And is she sitting in the middle of the tent
In her tie-dyed bathing suit cross legged
Pale, white and cold like she’s seen a ghost
We all make it out safe
But I have become a ghost to myself
And in the months that follow
Panic ensues often
My body cannot feel safe
Tears won’t stop
I want to scream
And curl up in a ball
The flashbacks come
And I am back in that lightning
Her trying to kill herself
Everything feels difficult
To cook and clean
To do laundry
My mind won’t let me.
I see the blue of the lightning
The orange of the Therm-a-rest
The inability to keep myself
Or anyone safe
Thoughts of that camper
Trying to kill herself
There is no cozy under the covers
In my bed
One night I crouch on the wood floor
Back against my bed frame; 11:40 PM
No one to call; parents asleep; ringer turned off
Panic attack won’t stop
Lasts for forty minutes
I can’t breathe and feel sick
I can’t do schoolwork
Anything that’s difficult
Brings up all this; the panic
Finally go home to my parents'
Drop out of school for the term
What has become of me
I have lost touch with the true sense of myself
PTSD the doctor tells me
I force myself to go for therapy
Twice a week; but its terrifying to talk about it
The trauma that’s stuck in my brain
I want it out.
I want myself back
It slips away in layers
After many months
The panic ceases
My body knows its safe again
Not to close my eyes
When the memories come and I cry
So I don’t go fully back to those moments
To find ways to ground myself to the present
And to hold closely in my mind
The times when my body knows its safe
Every night when I fall asleep
Or walk alone in the dark
Or outside in a rainstorm
My heart soars with gratitude
That I can feel safe and happy
And how warm and dry and comfortable
The bed is when I slip into sleep; that death is not immanent
And for the people
Who’ve been instrumental in this healing journey
Who've helped me find peace in myself and life again.
My brother, where you’ve gone, is their snow there? Can you sit at the kitchen table and watch the mid-afternoon sun embrace the elegance of the snowflakes as they float fleetingly past the sprigs of cedar? Can you pull on your boots and run breathless into the exhilarating cold air and make snow angels on the ground? Can you lace up your skates and listen to the deliberate motions of metal slicing ice to make intricate circles and figure-eights? Can you watch the snowflakes fall from the clouds and feel their subtle hint of cold when they reach your tongue?
My brother, where you’ve gone, are their stars there? Can you stroll down the path, hand in hand with someone you deeply care about and take a moment to glance up at the quarter moon looking down on your happiness from a cloud covered sky? Can you pause for a moment before you open the front door to turn towards the few stars that the city lets you see? Do you feel the ache for wilderness like I do, when you notice how the streetlights stop you from seeing the shining starlight, and you wish to be up north where you can lay on your back in the middle of a frozen lake blanketed by stars and twinkling speckles of snow?
My brother, where you’ve gone, are their lakes and rivers for swimming? Can you run recklessly off the end of a dock and feel the rush of cold spring water envelop your body? Are their pools where you can swim when its cold outside? Can you swim lengths back and forth until your energy’s gone, but your body is full of satisfaction at the nature of it all?
My brother, where you’ve gone, are there trees? Are their leaves to pirouette to the ground in beautiful colours and elegant trunks to stand surely as strong, soulful shadows against the backdrop of a dreary winter sky? Are there weeping willows by the river bank for you to dance with?
My brother, how should I answer my own questions and attempt to comfort that which tears at my heart? Should I remind myself that heaven is not part of my own belief system and let my logical scientific side bring me to more tears when I think that there is nothing left of you except ashes?
Or, Aaron, my brother, should I stretch myself to see the bittersweetness of the life’s mystery? Should I learn to let myself slowly accept that your spirit is still here with me on this earth? And that all I have been asking of you is true because I have been describing what is meaningful to me as a living human, and perhaps your spirit is here with me?
My brother, if only you had not left me. Then we could still be watching the snowflakes together.