Finally I Understand
Saturday, March 23, 2013 - I was sitting in a hospital room waiting...waiting for my brother to die. Feeding tubes were gone, replaced with just oxygen and morphine. We were listening to jazz infused with harmonica. Sometimes it looked like his feet were keeping the beat. Sometimes his arm reached out for something, and sometimes his mouth worked, like he was chewing or maybe trying to play that harmonica. He mumbled something...maybe it was “Turn it off!” Maybe “Turn it up!” I couldn’t tell. Then he would drift into a sleep, kind of.
I looked at him with a new found love and wished that I had really known him. Why didn’t I know until this past month that he had played harmonica and sang with another guy when he was younger; he apparently played at open mic nights at a local bar and had quite a following. He was only two years younger than me and I never knew that he had this talent.
In this past month, he also told me about how he built a chicken coop and raised chickens. Someone had visited him here and brought in a picture of a well built coop. Again, I didn’t know he could build. My sister said, “Don’t you remember the forts he would build in the backyard?” I do remember partially built structures that typically received harsh criticism from my other two brothers because they didn’t have the right “curb appeal.” Then she said he had built her a cabinet out of cherrywood. She said, “It sits right in my living room!” How was it that I had been so blind to the life and talents of this brother of mine?
This is just one example of the thoughts that have been filling my mind this past year. And, on this day, in this room, I was filled again with reflections on life itself: it’s purpose, and our purpose. How is it that a life so close to mine could come and go without me truly understanding who that person was, what that person loved, or why that person had lived?
It Came To Me In A Dream
Then that night, I had a dream. In the dream, I was handed a book entitled “Finally, I Understand”. How many times have I had dreams and not remembered them the minute I woke up? Why did I remember this so clearly? Why has it kept running through my brain? This past year, I have found that I was able to think things through more clearly if I set my thoughts down in writing. Writing has helped me sort through my feelings about others in my life, so maybe this dream was telling me that it was time now to write about my brother. But the title, “Finally I Understand” seems wrong. I feel, in this instance, that I don’t truly understand. I hadn’t, clearly, known or understood this brother at all.
I do know that I have come to believe one thing over this past year and it’s that...
Every person, place, animal, and object, in my life, has been there for a reason. They are filled with messages for me. All I have to do is listen, and pay attention. Everything carries a lesson!
My understanding of this has grown so much over this past year. When I take in what that really means, now, I am saddened about how much time I have let my mind be bombarded with thoughts of judgment or criticism for this brother. He had been a heavy drinker. He had rebelled against systems that set rules. He was dismissive of minorities as if they were not smart or competent even though he, himself, couldn’t hold a job. He ended up living the life of a vagrant, moving from friend to friend for a night’s sleep, until he had no place else to turn. Then, giving in, he let me pay for a room in an old hotel. It was there that his health started to truly fail. He spoke of his balance being off. I assumed that he needed to stop drinking so much. He spoke of a bad elbow and then a bad knee. Without medical insurance, he waited to visit a doctor until the pain was too much to bear. Then he had a stroke. While recuperating from that, he stayed in a nice clean room and had three meals a day. The minute he could, he left it and returned to his one room in the basement of that old hotel. It wasn’t long and the owner was calling social services. Others were complaining that he wasn’t showering and his room smelled bad. Within a month or so, he fell and broke his hip but this time, they transferred him to a hospital outside of town so it would be too difficult to leave and then they discovered cancer! My sister and I went to visit him only to find out that he had been transferred to a hospital close to our home. We stayed anyway and spent the day packing up the things in his room. Somehow we knew that he wouldn’t find his way back this time.
So this past month, he dealt with the gravest illness of his life. And now that I was close by and could visit more often, I got to finally know him and I found out that he was just a humble person like everyone else. He had dreams and desires. He had happy memories and disappointments. His life journey was different from mine but it was his life journey, not mine. He had done nothing but live his life the way he had wanted. Who was I to be critical of that? While I feel so much compassion for him at this moment, I have to be careful to not take on his burdens as my own. It’s hard for me to not feel a sense of guilt and shame for not being closer all along or maybe helping him more. I have to push those feelings aside so that I can feel the lessons that he was here to share. It’s time that I write about the lessons he has taught me and how he enriched my life by being part of it. He was, after all part of the earth’s energy, living and giving messages and lessons to everyone he met just as we all do.
He Was Here to Share a Message
Then my consciousness comes back to this little room in a nursing home with an oxygen machine pumping air into the nose of my fragile brother. I know that he was put here for a reason. There is more to a lifetime than the few lines written in the end as a death notice. I looked at his weakened body, struggling to take each breath and instead of a retched man who struggled with alcoholism, I saw a teacher, a messenger from God. What are you teaching me, Brother? What am I supposed to learn from you?
March 25, 2013 - The machines are silent. My brother has passed into the next life. We enter the empty room one last time to pack up the meager belongings that accumulated in the days that he was here. Now with this new sense of his life, I touch everything gently. It’s all part of his story. It may be the piece that carries the message. I have to be observant. I want him to know that I’m listening. I want him to know that I will always be listening...now!
I have an obligation to uncover his lessons to me. I need to step gently through his years with an open mind, free of judgement and criticism, embracing his existence as a gift. So the journey inside of me begins. It’s time to embrace the true meaning of my brother’s life.
Help Me Understand
Four weeks ago, my sister and I had emptied his little room in the basement of that rundown hotel, packing up the piles of clothes that laid clean and dirty together on an old broken couch. We filled bags with things we saw as trash from the floor, the little countertop, his refrigerator and his cupboards. If he had been there, he would have cautioned us to not throw away any of his important papers. So we were very careful to pack each paper into a box so we could tell him that they were safe and together. We didn’t know what they were but we knew that he would be asking for them. How did we know that he would never be back to this room? He was coming home!
Perhaps he had died a long time ago, choosing death in life because he found more comfort there. With all things that he had tried, the one thing that stood out to me was a seeming inability to commit. He would start those forts and never finish. He tried fixing cars but couldn’t finish. Add to that, so many jobs that were sabotaged by his behavior and then a marriage that lasted only a year. I asked him recently if he thought that drinking so much had caused him to lose jobs. His answer was “No. I probably just wasn’t good enough!”
With every job, every relationship, someone was always setting down rules of behavior; what to wear, how to talk, ways to act. Long ago, he had said that he didn’t like being told what to do. Had he pushed people away before they had a chance to try to change him? Had he given up and chosen to die, to all of us, years ago? He had stopped taking care of himself, not caring even about haircuts or clean clothes or even a shower. He looked scary!
If I think about the people whom he let into his life, I believe that what I see are people who could look at him with a smile and say “You don’t scare me!” This is exactly what one nurse was able to do and because of that, he smiled back at her and calmed down. She let him know that she didn’t care about his appearance, his language, his beliefs. She had no opinion or judgement about him at all. So, he was safe with her and he let her in.
When I could let go of many of my judgements of him, he let me in, part way, too. On the night that my brother left this earth, I went in search of the right song to fit the moment. I simply typed in the word ‘angel’ in the search box on my computer. The song “Angel” by Sara McLachlan presented itself and the words so clearly represented my brother and his life struggles.
Spend all your time waiting
For that second chance,
For a break that would make it okay.
There's always some reason
To feel not good enough,
And it's hard, at the end of the day.
I need some distraction,
Oh, beautiful release.
Memories seep from my veins.
Let me be empty,
Oh, and weightless,
And maybe I'll find some peace tonight.
In the arms of the angel,
Fly away from here,
From this dark, cold hotel room,
And the endlessness that you fear.
You are pulled from the wreckage,
Of your silent reverie.
You're in the arms of the angel,
May you find some comfort here.
So tired of the straight line,
And everywhere you turn,
There's vultures and thieves at your back.
The storm keeps on twisting. Keep on building the lies
That you make up for all that you lack.
It don't make no difference,
Escape one last time.
It's easier to believe in this sweet madness,
Oh, this glorious sadness,
That brings me to my knees.
You're in the arms of the angel,
May you find some comfort here.
I listen to this song over and over again because it seems so perfect. He seemed exhausted by the energy it took to live his life. He ended up living in that “dark cold hotel room” literally.
The one time, in his life, that he came close to feeling successful was when he worked for a man who knew how to encourage him. This man could see inside my brother’s ‘fort’ and he knew how to draw out the talent that my brother possessed. Unfortunately, this man’s life lessons were cut short and when he died, my brother quickly pulled the walls of the ‘fort’ up around him again.
My brother’s ‘fort’ was his power, his independence, his courage to stand up for what he believed in, no matter what. So then during his final days, we were all surrounding him. We had entered his private ‘fort’. He became agitated and restless. We thought he was in pain and begged for the staff to do something to make him more comfortable. But, then my sister pulled me into the hallway and said, “I think he needs us to leave. He has always been a quiet person, alone with his thoughts. He needs to be alone now.” We had spent the past two days being right by his side. It was hard to think that what he really wanted was for us to leave but she was right. We had entered his private fort and now we had to leave because inside that fort he had built a life that was safe and right now he needed to be safe to enter into a different state. The best way was for us to tell him that we loved him and to leave him alone to follow that light.
After a while you learn the subtle difference between Holding a hand and chaining a soul, And you learn that love doesn't mean security, And you begin to learn that kisses aren't contracts And presents aren't promises And you begin to accept your defeats With your head up and your eyes open, With the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child, And you learn to build all your roads on today because Tomorrow's ground is too uncertain. And futures have a way of falling down in midflight, After a while you learn that even sunshine burns if you get too much. So you plant your own garden and decorate your own soul,instead of waiting For someone to bring you flowers. And you learn that you really can endure.That you really are strong, And you really do have worth And you learn and learn With every goodbye you learn. -- Veronic Shoffstall, "Comes the Dawn
He was able to find peace within hours after we had all left. So, now my brother these are the lessons that I think I will embrace as your life messages.
Let It Go
I think that his first lesson to me was to let it go. For so many years and until this very moment, I have carried burdens of guilt and the fear of not doing enough or being too selfish with my time and my possessions. All along, this brother of mine was living exactly the way he chose. Could he have reached levels of success? Sure! Could he have been surrounded by people who would have supported him and encouraged him? Absolutely! Instead, he chose to battle life alone. This past month I had the opportunity to tell him that I felt bad about how he might have been mistreated as a child. His answer was “Oh, I didn’t think one thing of that!”So, all this time, I had been feeling bad and he hadn’t given it a second thought. Let it go!
He lived simply, never believing in the value of material possessions. Clothes were just clothes. A vehicle was just something to get you from here to there, nothing more. A bed, a refrigerator, and a microwave was all you needed for furniture. A television would be nice but a radio was good enough. If you have money, fine. If you don’t, whatever! Let it go!
Don't Judge Others
The next lesson would be Don’t judge people. This one is tricky because he did judge some people harshly. And when he did, I was quick to shut his comments down. I was offended and angry! But then, there’s me who judged him. At times, I thought he was just lazy. His clothes were dirty. His hair long and matted. And his room was filled with tin cans, paper, food that had gone bad and dirty dishes. Other times, I assumed he was drunk. When he called, his words often where slurred. I also assumed that he didn’t care about anything we did for him or gave to him. My sister had given him a calling card and told him to use it to call the doctor or call us if he needed anything. He never bothered to use it.
I realized this past month that his clothes were dirty because he had no money to wash them. The same was true for the lack of a haircut. Food stamps can’t buy a haircut. Realizing now how sick he was becoming answers so many questions about his slurred speech and we quickly realized that his eye sight was bad which was the reason he didn’t use the calling card. Instead, he had taken it gracefully and promised to use it knowing, full well, that he couldn’t see one number or letter on it. And those papers that “littered” his table top were letters he couldn’t read but he knew they were bills. He knew he couldn’t pay them but he kept them just in case the day came the he could pay something on them. He also kept every receipt for every month’s rent that I had paid. He wanted to someday pay me back if he could. And he kept every card we ever sent him, every note, every shirt, every movie, every thing! He not only cared about us and the things we had given him...he treasured them. Who were we to judge?
People Need To Find Their Own Path
His final lesson was a message he kept trying to tell us all his life and we somehow couldn’t hear it. Maybe he never finished those forts or cars because someone was insisting that they be done a certain way. Maybe he lost interest when it was no longer his plan but someone else’s! And maybe, those jobs that he lost were not so much taken away from him but left by him because he had said long ago that he didn’t like being told what to do and if he “wasn’t good enough” that was fine with him. Then it was better to just leave. Over his lifetime, he had lived a simple life...alone. Even when someone offered him a place to stay, it was only a matter of time before he would disappear on his own again. He was just happier sleeping in the back of his van than having to live by someone’s house rules. So why did we think that he needed us surrounding him while he worked at dying? Once again, there we were giving him suggestions for how to do it! Never, in all his years, had he come out and just said “Leave me alone!” He told us by his actions instead. In the short time that we had him close and knew that his illness was not one that he would survive, we tried coming up with things for him to do, conversations to talk about, memories to remember. I am so thankful that he let us be part of his last days but when the time came, again, he couldn’t say it, but finally we understood! He wanted to be left alone! People need to be left alone to figure out their own path. Guidance and support need to be invited in.
Finally, I Understand!
The message from the dream was that, just that! We have to pay attention to what people are saying even if they don’t say it in words. Pay attention to their actions. Pay attention to words not spoken. In his last hours, my brother could not say anything that was understandable. Agitation was confused with pain but finally we understood that he really just wanted to be alone to start out his new life his way!
So, this brother of mine had indeed shared valuable lessons with me. Lessons that I will carry with me forever. Everyone needs to live their own life. No one needs to feel an obligation, burden or guilt about another's choices. Just don't judge them for who you think they are. You are no better then them.
My final thought is one of wonder:
I wonder what lesson I am sharing with you!