I carry your heart with me. E.E. Cummings
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Charlie came to me in the Tragic Gap. The Place Parker Palmer describes as ” the space between what is and what could be”. The solid place between what he terms corrosive cynicism and irrelevant idealism. Palmer believes if we maintain a grounded open-hearted place between these non-helpful states or views, in a sense, we maintain reality and open mindedness. And though this can be a painful place it is a state of accepting what is true in each moment. He believes we do this best with both solitude (resulting in genuine self-reflection) and community. For Palmer Community implies at least one other who will listen to you and help you explore your inner self. The place our true self, growth, and answers that are best for us and humanity exists.
This is where my relationship with Charlie began. He came in the form of, an unintended inheritance of sorts, my brothers’ constant companion. A beautiful mix of Old English Sheep Dog, and St Bernard, with hints of American Pit bull and Pit bull terrier. He is an oddly energetic 10-year-old, furry pile of grey and white plush floppiness who lives in every nuance of my life. An initially unknown gift, that is a 135-pound living connection to my brother Clifton. In truth, he has supported me in this journey through grief, anguish, and my commitment to trying to stand in the tragic gap. This place between what is and what could be, or what I most want to be. (Photos of Charlie attached at the end of this post.)
Many articles and books written on grief provide an overview of what one might expect during the grief process. Most discuss the five stages of grief as researched and written about by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, and of course as mentioned here many times, David Kessler’s excellent book “Finding Meaning” discusses a 6th stage. Many of those, that I have read, that attempt to discuss time frames, seem to agree it is at about the two to five year mark that we might start to acclimate to life without our person again. I think, in truth, it takes conscious grieving to re-acclimate at all. Meaning if we are consciously acknowledging, allowing, and processing our emotions on a consistent basis we can come to a place of acceptance ( assimilation of the loss into our everyday reality) and living more fully in our own life again. This is a lot to manage in grief and really isn’t an ingrained instinct for most of us. This is true even when we’ve been trained to acknowledge and cope with feelings.
December 7th (7 days before his 49th birthday) marks the 5-year anniversary of my brother’s passing, and the day that holds the memory of the beginning of this life without him. It is a much emptier world without him. When I think of him, I still cry, I still hurt, I still wish he were here, and we were together at his kitchen table (Charlie laying at his feet) us having a cup of coffee and talking about politics, spirituality, conspiracies, our family, or any variety of subjects he always seemed deeply informed on. I still wish I could make him zucchini bread with the enormous squash he grew in his enviable garden every year. I would give anything to see his smile (his room lighting beautiful smile that was set so genuinely in his handsome, and often, pained face) and the true delight he always took in such gestures.
Clifton (Cliff) physically struggled in life. He was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis at age 7, and Chron’s disease at age 9. He had the first of seven surgeries, multiple hospital stays, and missing school and friends, at age 16. It took a long time for us (his family) to truly understand the strength it took for him to get through a day. Our early lives were spent (pre and post diagnosis) seeing him in and out of hospitals and genuine unknowns about his future. These were scary and life shaping years. But still he smiled and even laughed. He, in some way, managed this even when his eyes held the deep pain of his worst days. He had a silly (verging on absurd) sense of humor which he shared freely. It was his coping. His strength in managing the many forms of pain his complex illnesses mercilessly poured over and through him.
In ways that I am still making meaning around (as David Kessler tells us is the sixth stage of grief) it is complications from these illnesses and medical interventions received the day prior, that unexpectedly took his life in the early morning hours of that December in 2016. He was there, at his home, with Charlie at his side.
Cliff always told me it was hard (he used more colorful language) being the only brother to four sisters. I expect it was. Still, he did try to give (and did) give solid brotherly advice. He was gentle and kind, with a firm jawline and deep brown eyes. A true gentleman, much like our dad who raised us with good manners, solid values, and a strong work ethic. He has a beautiful dark-haired daughter and a long lanky quick-witted grandson (so much like him) who he loved deeply (and now a beautiful little, brown-eyed granddaughter who he didn’t meet in this life). He loved music, gardening, restoring furniture, family gatherings with home cooked food, talking about any topic but most favorably the state of our world and its people. Cliff loved just spending time and being with, sharing an occasional IPA, long hikes with Charlie (stretching out across miles and hours) and truly loved only one girl who he no longer had.
When I began writing this morning, Charlie nestled under my desk at my feet now, I was thinking of a day (that seems both a long and much too short time ago) when L and I first moved into this house (our home). Cliff and our younger sister (also first initial L) and her grandson O (a tiny toddler at the time) had come to say hello and to visit our new home. We eventually made our way to the lower yard talking and visiting. I was telling them of my hikes exploring the hills and wooded areas behind the house, along with tales of some of the interesting characters I had come across during these excursions.
Cliff, in the brotherly way he always did, seemed concerned about me. Cautioning me to be careful in the woods. I remember, as if it were yesterday, him saying “Donna you need a big dog out here”. I agreed believing in my heart that would never be. I didn’t think I had the time to commit to giving a dog what was truly needed. We (Cliff, L, and I) sat for long time relaxing under the blooming cherry blossom trees, overlooking the water, watching O explore the yard with all its budding places to crawl under and over, and just being with each other.
When I remember deeply enough, I can still feel the clean Spring air, the clink of our long neck IPA’s (brought especially for this occasion) as we toasted this place, the sound of his, mine, and L’s laughing, the easy flow of our conversation, and the concerned way his voice sounded when he cautioned me of the woods.
I have come to think of Charlie as a gift my brother left me. A way to help me live here in the tragic gap, without him, between what is and what could be. I will admit in the early days (weeks, months) of Clifton’s passing when I put my arms around Charlie I almost (almost) believed I felt Cliff there too. Joan Didion talks about this phenomenon for grieving people in her excellent book The Year of Magical Thinking. In this helpful writing Didion explores her own response to the sudden and traumatic loss of her husband. She finds in her research that in mourning and grief we can convince ourselves that, in essence, our thoughts and wishes can alter reality.
I would imagine it is the inability (our energy focused on survival) to deeply explore these thoughts and wishes that can take us to such places. I really did and do wish I could hug my brother again. I really did and do wish that many things could have been different for my brother, how I understood his experience, and how he experienced the world. I have many wonderful memories of him as well as many regrets, places that hurt around his memory, and a deep sense of sadness and anger (that I can still touch) at the medical system which so profoundly let him down. (A provider and a system that were held minimally accountable in the aftermath of my brother’s death and all that this means to us (his family).
Palmer teaches that accepting reality means the willingness to stay open (keeping an “open heart”) to that which we accept or value (in ourselves, others, and in our world) and that which we do not (or have a hard time accepting or valuing) that allows us to live fully present in our experience and open (and helpful) to ourselves, others, and our larger world. I am trying to do this. I am trying to see the hard places of Cliff’s passing. It is difficult.
Palmer tells us that the world is full of paradox, and it is our ability to see and experience one part of the paradox that allows us to appreciate the other. I.e.,” there is no light without dark, “no gold without dirt”. He suggests, “It is possible for the heart to break in two ways. “The heart can shatter into a million pieces sending fragments (“fragment grenades”) at people or the heart can break a part but open to greater capacity”. We can “emerge larger people more compassionate, kinder, open, and more forgiving because loss makes life more precious”. He says, a question he asks himself each day is, “How do I keep my heart more supple so I can stay open when the big hits come”.
It is a good question. I can, with deepest sincerity, say the sudden loss of my brother has made me much more conscious of the precious and fragile nature of this life and more cognizant of the life after. I do show up and love more intentionally. I do share what is in my heart and am intensely aware of the importance of this.
These days, Charlie keeps me company in the sweetest and most precious of ways. We freely roam the hills and wooded areas behind my home and many others we find strewn across the Pacific Northwest. He is my constant companion in the paradox that is loss and life. A “big dog out here” who keeps my heart open, aware, and turned toward acceptance. A gift, and ongoing connection to my brother.
In closing, I will share a meaningful quote from Alan Wolfelt’s book Understanding Your Grief. “Light is known to exist by the virtue of darkness. One is the chair upon which the other sits. (anonymous).
As always, thank you for reading. It is my hope that you found something that resonates with you in this writing.
My deepest Care to each of you,
The resources noted in this article follow.
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Treatment Referral Helpline: (1-877-726-4727)
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Photo: Image found on Pixabay
Web Based Resources:
Kessler, David. Ted Talk. Sept. 1, 2021: How to Find Meaning After Loss. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3azoUEEy3E
The One You Feed Podcast: July 5.2016.Episode 133. Parker J Palmer. https://www.oneyoufeed.net/parker-j-palmer/The One You Feed Podcast:Episode 133.
Palmer, Parker: The Center for Courage and Renewal. https:/www./couragerenewal.org/wpccr/
Didion, Joan. 2005. The Year of Magical Thinking. Alfred A. Knopf Publisher.
Kessler David. 2019. Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. Penguin Books.
Kubler-Ross, Elizabeth & Kessler, David. 2005. On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Grief. Simon and Schuster.
Palmer, Parker J. 2004. A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward and Undivided Life. Jossey Bass Publishing.
Wolfelt, Alan. 2003. Understanding Your Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing. Companion Press.