Sunday, December 1, 2013
When people asked last week what I was doing for Thanksgiving, I was aware that my response felt so ordinary: a three hour drive north to my baby brother's. We've gone enough years in a row now that I can't remember when this became our family tradition. I take it for granted, while at the same time holding deep gratitude for its existence. There were some years where we didn't talk, let alone sit at a common table and hold hands in grace to offer a communal thank you.
Three generations formed the circle around the table, and three different families of origin were represented there. Two of my three brothers, one to my left and one on the right just on the other side of Walt, laughing and pitching shit and embodying that combination of child and adult unique to sibling relationships.
Our missing family members were there in other ways. The absent brother and a daughter/niece via phone. Our mother in the cherry pie I'd gotten up early that morning to bake. Our father, the good parts, in the eyes and voices of my brothers.
The food honored childhood traditions while incorporating the creations of a new generation. Turkey and stuffing. Mashed potatoes and gravy. Cranberries made from scratch by my middle brother. Green bean casserole. Rolls and butter. A small creamed corn casserole just for my youngest brother, a remnant of our childhood that only he enjoys. Pumpkin pie to go with the cherry. Phyllo-dough roll-ups filled with kale and mushrooms.
We played Mexican Train as we always do now when there's a sibling gathering. A game that takes hours to complete, and that brings out a competitiveness we don't often reveal. There is grumbling and laughing and some swearing, and there is fun in its most satisfying form.
So when the phone call came on Friday morning, I received the news from the nest of that profoundly ordinary yet powerfully extraordinary love.
Alex had died Thanksgiving night. One of the two cats we got last winter. Apparently a stroke, he collapsed and was gone in minutes. Our fifteen-year-old pet sitter was with him. Her mom, who made the call, had decided not to ruin my Thanksgiving, to give me as much time not knowing as possible. The drive home was one of the longest ever on a road we've traveled hundreds of times. Traffic was bad, but mostly I was afraid I'd get home and find Bunkie gone, too. My friend said he was hiding under a bed, and not eating. Bunkie who was fearless and who had an endless appetite. Bunkie who had never been away from his brother, and who was now alone.
Grief is the ultimate paradox: simple and complicated in their most extreme forms. Loss. Sadness. Emptiness. The pain surprisingly physical. Many-layered—new grief seems to attach itself to old grief and be flavored by it. Unresolved grieving finds outlet in new loss, magnifying it exponentially. Grief allowed to live on the surface teaches the new grief, like a kind old dog with a puppy, and somehow softens its impact.
And therein lies the biggest gift of Alex's death. My grief for him is clean. It burns like snow on bare feet, but it does not threaten to avalanche. Even though the third anniversary of Kathleen's death is just a couple of weeks away, and I am reminded more deeply of her loss now, this new grief seems a separate thing.
Maybe I've finally reached the place in life where losing loved ones is familiar. There is a loose pattern to grieving, and I know if I'll allow the sadness its voice, it will lose much of its bite. The initial impact is not influenced by the length or type of relationship. I also know there are gifts to be found in this time that cannot be experienced in any other arena.
As I was on the phone Friday morning hearing the news, I became aware that everyone in the house stood in a circle before me. Looks of love and concern filled the space between us, and held both Walt and me as we struggled to absorb the impact.
A young woman, no stranger to loss already, had her first experience being present at a death. She got to learn that she could not only survive the pain and shock of it, but she did so in the arms and hearts of people who love her and who are more concerned about her well-being than anything else.
Walt, determined to soften my pain, insisted on burying Alex himself. I stayed inside holding Bunkie.
Bunkie ate on his own this morning for the first time since Alex died. He hasn't been back under the bed since yesterday morning when I pulled him out to let our sitter see him. Right now he's curled, purring, in my lap. I breathe a prayer of gratitude that he's not going to grieve himself to death, and that he seems to have chosen me as an acceptable substitute for his brother.
The world has not yet settled itself back into ordinary. The aftershocks are frequent (I see Alex out of the corner of my eye constantly), but lessening in intensity with each one. The reminder that death comes on its own terms stays fresh, making life in this moment all the more precious. The warm bundle in my lap. Good coffee. Rain tapping out music on the window. Toby snoring peacefully in another room. Walt doing the same at the other end of the house. Brothers in my life in all the best senses of the relationship. Friends who offer love in ways that constantly magnify the meaning of the word. This breath I take in, and release, softening my heart with each contraction and expansion.