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.
i am unworthy
there is something wrong with me
for letting it happen
for not telling sooner
for loving her like a sister
despite what she did
for being scared to trust
there is something wrong
with these breasts
that grew out of this chest
for feeling what they felt
when I was still a child
when it was all wrong
i should hide them away
hunch my shoulders
i am unworthy
it is not mine to carry
i didn’t give it to myself
she gave it to me
and I give it back to her
i am worthy
of love and pleasure
i am not wrong for being
these breasts and this body
are beautiful and strong
it was not my fault
i want the child to know
that there is a time to be held
when it feels gentle, right and true
when there is no shame in the body’s desire
i want the child to know
that its truly time
to let the shame go
because its not hers to carry anymore
i want the child to know
that now she’s safe
And what’s mine to carry
is self-love, kindness and compassion
strength, courage and authenticity
and the right to hold tightly in my heart
the simple sweetness of life
Eleven years old:
Her claws extend in and out; paws giving rhythm to the folds of the tree skirt as she settles into its softness. She purrs. And black fur scatters onto the stark white faces of the snowmen appliqué. Her eyes smile at me. They are green like mine except hers are an exquisite emerald colour, and they glisten in the lamplight while nestled in the branches, the colourful lights twinkle their good cheer.
I scoop her up, my Zoe, and she snuggles into the crook of my arm, purrs growing louder. The branches prickle my fingers as I break off a few needles. I hold them up to my nose and my heart swells with joy at the memories that each year’s Christmas tree has bore witness to.
This year both Grandma and my brother Aaron flew out to visit us and we had an early Christmas celebration with each of them. Grandma and I ate so much smoked salmon; our favourite. While Zoe and I inspect the ornaments, I picture Grandma’s glowing face and soft lap to sit on. Aaron’s present for me lies beneath the tree, unwrapped, but waiting for the right time to make use of it. A soap making kit. I am so excited to make a long loaf of soap and then slice it into tiny sweet-smelling pieces. Aaron made me laugh so much when he was here. Especially when he pretended I was a sack of potatoes and walked around with me slung over his shoulder. Mom and Dad made a lot of good food this year, as they always do. Stuffing, turkey and pumpkin pie, and they gave me a Webkinz for Christmas. He’s a grey langur monkey and is now one of my favourite stuffed animals.
Zoe squirms in my arms and I put her down. My eleven year old heart sings with the joys of all this year’s love and Christmas magic, and once more in the lamplight I burry my nose in the prickly needles for one last whiff of that pure pine sap.
Thirteen years old:
Why is everyone so obsessed with Christmas? Don’t they understand that my brother who was burned up in an incinerator when he was cremated won’t be here for Christmas and my Grandma is also dead and what’s left of my dear cat Zoe is the memory of holding her limp body in my arms and burying her to rest in the ground.
It is so hard to celebrate the love that does exist between my parents and I, to be grateful for all that I do have, when death has taken my brother, Grandma and cat. I feel pain so deep I want to scream and then I don’t feel anything at all. I think my parents call it numbness. The sky and clouds are not as beautiful as they once were. And when I walk across the field in the morning to school the snow reminds me of the tears I want to cry but cannot because I’m afraid and alone. I am falling in a way that I never have before and there is no one to catch me as I tumble through this darkness.
I don’t want presents or Mom and Dad’s good cooking. All I want for Christmas is for my brother and Grandma and cat to be living. What is Christmas in this house full of pain where smiles are hard to come by and grief-stricken looks are commonplace?
Twenty years old:
We are surrounded by Christmas trees. Mom, Dad and I and our dog Daisy. So many to choose from; stout ones, scrawny ones, round ones and lopsided ones. I turn to look at Mom, purple wool hat slouched on her head, golden hair magnifying the lightness of her skin. And Dad, like a puffy penguin in his giant forest-green down coat, saw in hand, watching Daisy prancing through the wet grass and patches of mud.
I admire the way the land’s late afternoon glow makes their love and kindness ever so radiant. Sun’s last touch of elegant light before it begins that day’s dance with darkness until it fades away into the horizon. I love this end of day’s light that causes the farm fields, row upon row of Christmas trees, and my parents’ faces, to glow with the sweetness of life. Like the way blowing on the embers of an old fire envelops the hearth in a glowing red mysterious light.
For the first time at Christmas since Aaron died, I can feel my lips smiling to their full capacity and my heart reflects our family’s enduring love made visible by the land’s evening light. I laugh with glee, grab the dog’s leash and together we frolic through the fields like a pair of young deer; no shadows surrounding our dancing souls.
the painful ones
be so steadfast in my mind?
While the ones I want
to hold and touch,
the joyful ones,
are so fleeting.
set in stone
of childhood tears.
the cold floorboards
beneath my feet.
In the corner
of my bedroom
where my pink beanbag chair
used to be.
like a rock weathered
but still enduring.
Sometimes the screams,
the sorrow, the fear,
beat loudly in the child’s heart
that now lives in a woman’s body.
Yet, it is not simply a house
It is a home
that has raised me to know
that strength and love
are forever enduring.
I must remember
that laughter filled these rooms
for many years
in spite of all the grief.
I must remember
is ever so permeable
to the child’s beating heart.
That butterflies too
And the sweeter
and more beautiful
you grow your garden’s flowers
The longer the butterflies will stay.
Tomorrow I will go to the vet with my mom and my aunt, so my aunt can have her dog Lilli euthanized. Lilli, a shih tzu-jack russell cross, has lived a wonderful thirteen years. I remember when I was seven years old and we went with my aunt to look at the litter of puppies. She had found an ad in the paper and we drove for several hours on that hot summer day until we finally reached the farm. My aunt wanted a male dog, but Lilli was the first puppy that came running over to us, and I was determined that she was the one. So little and sweet that even my small seven year old hands could cup her in my palms. My mom and I tried to convince my aunt to get two dogs; Lilli and a male puppy. But she was adamant that one dog was enough work and I was set on Lilli, so we drove Lilli home while she vomited all over the backseat.
My aunt lived nearby us and Lilli became the childhood dog I never had. Early on I learned to pick up her poop (despite my initial protests) and raced after squirrels with her at the park. My aunt and I took Lilli to puppy training and we even attempted to enter her in the local dog show. Living on her own, Lilli was my aunt’s constant companion and there was never a phone call where I forget to ask, “How’s Lilli doing?” Once I even bought some fake plastic dog poop and since my aunt has no sense of smell, convinced her that Lilli had pooped inside and did not tell her it was fake until she had finished scrubbing the carpet.
However, I guess there comes a time for everything to leave its living, breathing form. Some too soon and some even when we expect it, we wish they could live forever. But Lilli has reached the end of her healthy days; her back legs in too much pain to move through the world. So tomorrow we shall go and lay our hands on her warm body as she breathes that last breath of life through her.
What a miracle it is, the simple act of breathing. It is truly the life force within us. And when its gone, Lilli shall pass. Her body will start to grow cold from a heart no longer pumping blood and we will stare into those deep black eyes once more that no longer look back at us and then close them forever.
What a wonder it is, this life and those we have the privilege of loving, however short or long it may be. Grief and love are so darn complicated, but the act of dying, the act of truly passing away, it's so simple and fleeting. I think I can find peace in that. In the knowledge that the act of passing on is only momentary and that all the years of love that life's breaths have given us are forever impermeable to time.
My feet breathe a sigh of relief as the harsh pavement trail gives way to a soft bed of leaves through the forest. No more jolting in the knees. The winding trail of damp pine needles and red maples now cushions my steps and I start to run faster, surrounded by a human planted pine forest on my right and the meandering river to my left. I smile as I remember the time my dad and I were biking off trail and got lost in that pine forest. “Slow down,” my friend says to me, laughing at how I randomly speed up when we are already going a good speed, “We have to pace ourselves. We are going 10.5 km today”. I’m glad for her reminder. Otherwise I’d have a hard time conserving my energy to run the entire distance. Our coach commented on my determination once. But it’s not determination that has made me commit myself to running faster and further week after week this semester. Its the freedom and gratitude in my heart that takes me by the hands and runs beside me, our faces toward the wind. That's what propels my feet forward.
Gratitude for being able to breathe. I will never forget all the times I used to attempt to run when my asthma was undiagnosed and every breath was a sharp stabbing pain in my chest. Gratitude for a body without physical pain. I will never forget all the times I used to attempt to run before I got orthotics and would get severe shin splints and often fall and roll my ankle. But now, the asthma is mostly gone and my body is stronger, and freedom and gratitude for my body's ability to run comfortably drive me forward...now the breaths that come in and out are gentle and full of cool autumn air.
Down the trail we continue, and my eyes shift toward the water. The river that has shaped me. That have I grown up with. Year after year I have watched the water levels dip low in the fall when they open the damns. I have watched the trees on the riverbanks bring their colours into full force before they let their leaves go. I have watched this water slowly become coated with ice until it fully freezes over and the sun dances on a dusting of powdery snow that coats its surface. Year after year I have watched it become full of new life again when the snow melts and spring’s water rushes in.
One my favourite authors, Rachel Naomi Remen, writes in her book “My Grandfather’s Blessings”, “But the life in us may be stronger than all that [is]…brutal, lonely, constricting, painful and terrifying, and may free us from that which we must endure”. The river’s pulse of life year after year. Its beauty and purpose embedded in its every motion of holding on and letting go and making new, has never failed to remind me that there is a light in each of us stronger than all the darkness that we must live through. Every week when my feet pound over the pine needle trail bed and soft autumn air fills my lungs, my eyes shift towards the water…And my body becomes full of power and strength…full of the source of life that frees me from all I must endure.
I need to remember that its not like it used to be. Sadness and regret and feelings of failure and self-doubt, they are normal and natural things, all part of the human condition and feeling them is not going to make everything fall apart like it used to. I am no longer the little girl who could never imagine a positive future for herself and I am not the teen plagued by depression day after day and week after week. Now time exists as a cushion between me and the traumas of childhood and I have learned to let go and hold those memories in ways that hurt so much less. I need to remember that things are different now and a day full of self-doubt is no longer going to be the push that causes me to fall all the way to the bottom of the staircase. Now I know how to hold onto the railings and not fall as far…and how to walk back up again. I am no longer the teen whose life felt like it continued to be torn apart by grief and sadness. It is different now. I no longer have to endure to survive. I have power. I know my heart better. I have more strength and I can consciously make choices that positively affect my mental health and will help me to thrive.
I need to stop fearing the falling the down because I have time as my cushion. I will not fall near as far as I used to and it will not hurt as much. There will be low days and hard days but they do not have to be my constant. I will remember the time when I was hiking and fell down in the mud carrying a dozen eggs in my backpack and none of the eggs cracked. Day to day life can shake me up and knock me down, and no matter how ungracefully I fall, I have time as my cushion and strength and humour in my spirit that the younger me never had, and I will remember that I can fall down and get back up without breaking any of the eggs.
I awoke to the sound of waves lapping on the shore-- soft and gentle---the water was calm-- and I listened to the wind rustling the leaves as the tent’s musty smell filled my nose. Thanksgiving weekend on the shores of Lake Huron. I had forgotten how expansive the Great Lakes were with their deep blue and endless sandy beaches. Could almost fool you into thinking it was the ocean if it weren’t for the absence of seagulls and salty air.
Swimming in the waves this afternoon, my body going numb with the chill of October lake water and my dog splashing beside me begging me to throw her ball, brought to mind 12 year old me on the beach in Oregon eight years ago. When days before Aaron died I frolicked gleefully in the sand and the childhood magic of life still held me tightly. Many times I have come back to this memory and I am filled by regret and bitterness about the joys of childhood that seemed to vanish after Aaron’s suicide. But this afternoon I smiled when I thought of myself running wild on the Oregon Coast, realizing that now I had finally found as much happiness and fulfillment in life as I once had back in the days before Aaron died.
Today at the beach that 12 year old me that I remembered, she needed me to remember with her, to use the strength I had cultivated over the years and walk with her hand in hand, holding her in the light and love that had been too faint for her to see in her long journeys through the darkness. So I walked with her, the 12 year old me who felt that life was no longer worth living after Aaron died and who could not comprehend how she and her family would ever be okay again. Then I walked with the 13, 14 and 15 year old me who moved deeper into grief as the numbness wore off and spent many nights crying herself to sleep drenched in a loneliness and deep despair that cast shadows over so many of her moments of joy and who felt that she had no one to talk to about any of it. I walked with the 15 year old that felt burdened by the feeling that she had to be strong for her family and resented her parents for not being there for her through the grief in the way she wanted them to be. And then I walked with the 16 year old me who just wanted to be normal and fit in and hated the idea that she would always be the girl whose brother had died. The 16 year old me who clung onto the hope that one day she would feel joy and happiness again to same depths that she felt pain and sadness. She and I dipped our toes in the water together. And then I took the 17 year old me in hand who had begun to remember the sexual abuse she had experienced as a child and who was finally beginning to understand the shame she had felt in her body for so long. The 17 year old who thought she would always carry this sense of shame and worthlessness with her, that she would always exist in a silent shadow of grief and who could not imagine a positive future for herself.
Today on the shores of Lake Huron I took each one of those children in hand, holding them in light and in love and told them about how the goodness of life now holds onto me just I tightly as I have learned to hold onto it. I told the 12 year old that I and my family have learned to “be okay” and I told the 13, 14 and 15 year old me about the genuinely caring people I have come across who have taken the time to listen and be present with my sadness and pain. I told the 17 year old that shame was never hers to carry and that there is so much freedom in giving it back to where it came from. I told her about how much I have come to value and feel grateful for my body's abilities and about the times when I was held by another in a way that felt truly right and loving and genuine. I told the children in me about the healing that my parents have found and how I continue to be amazed at the goodness life can bring. As I walked hand in hand with the my inner children on the shores of Lake Huron I told them about how grateful I am for the freedom that has come to my heart after hiking 300 km all the way to Cappahayden and gave them the love I could never give them before.
Tonight I will once again fall asleep to the sound of the waves lapping on the shore and the smell of Aaron’s musty old tent with the dog fast asleep at my feet. Full of gratitude for the family that has loved and supported me over these years. Full of gratitude for the resting place that comes after many years spent traversing through darkness, when all of us, Mom, Dad and I finally sit down around a fire and laugh and tell stories like we used to. With the waves lapping on the shore and the glowing embers, I sit in awe of the heart’s permeability to sadness and pain; that enables lightness and love to come into full bloom once again.
As I finished my final preparations for the hiking trip, my thoughts about how grief would manifest itself on the East Coast Trail were few. I did not purposefully put grief out of my mind; yet I did not purposefully invite it in either. Until the day before I left when I found myself sitting down to write about being unable to say goodbye to my brother. I stared out the window at the road as if I were still waiting for him to drive up in his red truck on that hot summer day so I could show him my backpack and the maps and my waterproof notebook. Sitting there, I began to write, but the words that spilled onto the page were unexpected and reminded me of the healing that had come after all these years. There were no words describing the horror and sadness of his suicide or the deep ache in my heart that used to come at times like these; instead I wrote from the voice deep within me that had grown stronger roots through these years of grieving “I am more content with the grief now. I welcome it. It is the path I have walked and continue to walk; this bitter sweetness of life. I hope you’ll be with me on the trail, my brother”.
Day 3 of the East Coast Trail I sat watching the sunset and as the sun lowered itself into the sea I heard Aaron’s voice in my head, “You have to let me go, Em. Truly let me go. All of me. Back to the sea. Back to where our bones came from and where the molecules we are comprised of will eventually go. It is time Em, to let me, your brother, go.”
I did not understand all of what Aaron meant, but I knew this would be different than other wilderness trips I’d been on when I’d carried his ashes with me in an orange plastic waterproof match case that was easily hidden away from the rest of the world and only scattered a few ashes at a time. He meant that that this was the time to finally let all of his ashes go and to stop physically carrying him with me. I stared into darkness that was softly settling into the cove and watched the outlines of the towering cliffs around me and thought how beautiful it is that in a world so vast and expansive we humans have the gift of loving things as seemingly small as souls and hearts that beat. I thought about how healing it must be to truly let the ones we love go when they die, back to where they came from, the water, the sea, the source of life. But I wondered how the child in me could ever loosen her grasp on all that remained physically of her big brother.
I did not look for a particular place to put the ashes or plan on a certain day. I waited and waited until my heart told me it was time. I do not know the name of where it was, but I do know the souls of trees that spoke to me there. I know it was where I ate the most delicious butterscotch pudding while sitting on a wooden tent platform. I know I ate my dinner facing northwest as I watched the soft evening light glow in the trees and I know the point in the cliff that gave way to the west where I could see the pink clouds of sunset dancing over the water.
But I did not put the ashes directly into the ocean as I had expected. Instead this place that had spoken to me was high up on a cliff far from the water because I understood that I had carried his ashes far enough and in time the rain would wash them out to sea for me; as it does with all remnants of life. And for the first time in all these years of spreading his ashes and standing face to face with grief in the woods I was not alone as a human being. My friend stood with me and it was then that I could truly let the horrible feeling of never seeing him again wash over me, because I was not alone in the letting go.
In the safety of the ocean, the trees, the fading light and human company I came to terms with death in a way I never knew was possible. I used to think to myself, “How can I ever truly understand that I will never ever see him alive on this earth again,”. But that night, I had the strength to grasp hold of that thought and I knew, in the deepest parts of me that had once been wretched with grief, in the uneven ground of pine needles and roots beneath my feet and the tree limbs that swayed overhead, and in the body that had been walking the coastline for 14 days, I knew that I could finally accept that he was truly gone. I held those soft grey ashes in the palm of my hand and watched them slip off my fingertips, the last physical remains of my brother, onto the cliff side below.
There is a line in a poem about death that reads “when all that’s left of me is love, give me away”. Up until that night, that line terrified me, but as I stood on the cliff side and the tears came, my heart filled with gratitude that I would no longer have to carry him anymore and that I had not been alone in the letting go. In the spreading of Aaron’s ashes on the cliff side in Newfoundland I gave my brother away to the tamarack and spruce trees, to the towering rocks, seabirds, whales and wind. The ocean taught me how to truly let him go... back to where all life comes from...the water.. so all that is truly left of him now his love.
Sometimes it seems that the remembering gets lost in the endless tears and pain. That the waterfall of grief cascades over the rocks of his existence until all that is seen on the surface is the sadness and wishing for what I can never have. And then with time of course, the strength and beauty embedded in the journey in living with the loss emerges to the surface. But the remembering is still buried deep inside. There are few people that take the time to call it to the surface. Sometimes I wish someone would just ask me about my brother. Instead of the “sorry for your loss” or the well meant compassionate looks, I wish they would say to me, “Tell me about Aaron. What was he like? What was he passionate about?" Because then I am reminded that there was a time in my life when my relationship with my only sibling did not revolve around missing him and sadness and pain. A truth that is sometimes hard to hold onto.
Here's what I might say if you asked me about him. Grief and the way he died put aside. This is the brother I remember:
Aaron loved to laugh and be spontaneous, silly and creative. Once he had the idea to make a disco ball out of hot glue. So we filled a water balloon and put in the freezer. When the water inside it had completely frozen we cut the balloon off of the ice ball and then put hot glue all over the ice ball. We melted out the remainder of the ice ball and were left with a large hot glue disco ball. Ten year old me thought it was pretty cool.
When Aaron and I used to talk on the phone we always started every phone call the same: “Hey Sis.What’s shakin?” he’d say. “Things,” I’d say. “Things, what about stuff?” “Things and stuff” I’d say. And then we’d talk about about all the “things and stuff”. Onetime Aaron answered his phone and told me he was about to go swimming in the lake. “But aren’t you on call for the fire fighters?” I said. “Yes, but I have the pager on the dock and if goes off I can swim back, dry off and drive to the fire”. That’s how things went for him. Creative, spontaneous and always helping people. I remember when he and dad used to practice CPR on the pillows in the living room. First aid was his passion. One time when he was working at the ambulance station it caught on fire and he and his partner drove the ambulances out of the burning garage and then continued responding to calls whilst their station burned down. But that was Aaron, you wouldn’t have expected any less. He always gave his 110%.
One time he and I rode our bicycles all the way from my house down to the river and then rented kayaks. We adventured down the river and had a race and stopped to do chin ups on the the tree branches. On our way home his bicyle got a flat tire and we walked all the way back while he carried the bicycle on his shoulders to prevent further damage to the wheel. When I was really young we loved having pillow fights and building crazy two level forts with a hammock inside.
What else? Aaron loved baking. Prior to fire fighting and working for the ambulance service he used to work at Thrifty Foods as a baker. One time he baked me a loaf of bread in the shape of a starfish. He was vegan for awhile and was frustrated that there were never any good vegan cheeses. I guess vegan cheese technology had not evolved much back then. He loved building. He made is own wooden kaleidoscope and he loved drawing and playing the harmonica and being outdoors. Hiking, camping and kayaking were some of his favourite things to do.
Grief and pain aside. That’s the loving older brother and role model who was always made time for his little sister. That love and caring and kindness and laughter is what I want to remember.