See and realize that this world is not permanent. Neither late nor early flowers will remain. ~ Ryokan
The end of summer 1994, I left Ypsilanti. Our car fully packed, I remember as we pulled away from our last apartment, my mom, youngest brother and former roommate stood in the drive way. I looked back and waved good bye to all I had known in my 26 years of living.
My first husband and I made the decision to move to San Francisco after visiting my younger brother. He had contracted HIV due to drug addiction. He had been a troubled child, teenager and young man. At that point, I had been estranged from him for 7 years. Now he was in hospice care.
3 days later, my first husband and I rolled into San Francisco. My college academic advisor put us in contact with a colleague who was able to house us temporarily until we found our own place. The minute we arrived, our host said that the hospice was wondering if I had arrived. That they had been calling for me. My brother was actively dying.
We didn’t get comfortable or unpacked toiletries. We pulled out the AAA map of San Francisco then headed over to the Castro district. I was shocked when we arrived. It was a stark contrast from the man I had seen a month and a half prior. Now, my brother was bedridden and on a respirator. He couldn’t hold down water. He wasted away to skin and bones. Though, he was lucid and talked to us, we kept our visit brief because he was just too tired. We came back the next day and the next and the next.
On the fourth day, we received a phone call from the hospice at 3am. My brother was dying and wanted us there. We headed out and arrived 15 minutes later. In that time, he changed his mind but we refused to leave. We slept out in the hospice common area. I checked on him intermittently.
At 8am, my first husband and I went to have breakfast at a place around the corner. I checked on him before him before we left. He was still breathing. His eyelids couldn’t fully close because he was so emaciated. We came back just a little after 9am. Maybe 9:10. There was a flurry of activity around his room. I looked in and saw a hospice worker sitting quietly next to his bed. Another hospice worker then told me that I had just missed my brother. He died 10 minutes prior.
I was flooded with emotions. Shock. Profound sadness. Anger. Anger because the hospice workers around the front desk were having a typical every day conversation and laughing. How could they laugh? I thought. My brother is dead in the next room. Never mind the fact, they dealt with death on a daily basis. It was just another day for them. They were all incredibly compassionate people and a way to deal with regular loss was to maintain a sense of normalcy for everyone.
I cried hard and long. I cried so hard that I cried myself into a migraine that day. I sat there in his room for a while. The hospice workers had laid his body out on his bed and dressed him in a sweat pants and a sweat shirt. They placed a necklace of a Native American bear on a cord around his neck. My mom gave that to me to give to my brother. It was supposed to be some sort of protective thing.
Fast forward a month or so, we received a phone call from my brother’s social worker. He had been cremated and his remains were ready. We made arrangements to pour his ashes out at Ocean Beach. We picked a weekday evening. It was a rare evening in San Francisco. It was clear and the sun was setting. The wind was light staving off the usual afternoon marine layer. I looked out over the beach. Nothing but water and sky, an endless horizon.
Then there was a sudden flash of memories of my brother. The tow headed blue eyed 5-year-old. The pimpled-faced teenager with unruly curly hair. The 17-year-old with a fucked up mohawk cut with nail clippers by a girl tripping on acid. Then the sick 23-year-old smoking pot near a playground in the Castro district. Then the emaciated body. Now a 3 ½ lb box of ashes being poured on to the ocean waves rolling up on the beach.
Then another sudden realization. He wasn’t gone rather he simply transformed. He was literally going back to the earth. His ashes becoming part of a global weather and ecosystem. He was becoming part of the sand on the beach. He became the waves that pulled him out into the ocean. I could envision him becoming plankton that fed fish and whales. Evaporated up into water droplets that would rain down on corn fields in the Midwest. My brother had become nothing and everything at once.
Then one final realization hit me. Each one of us are like a speck of my brother’s remains floating on a vast ocean. Small yet not insignificant. We’re part of something much broader than ourselves. We’re connected. One’s ripples impacts countless others. Some known. Many unknown.
Nothing screams of impermanence like death. These strings of epiphanies hit me, like a Thor’s hammer, came after a lot of challenges and changes in a very short period of time. It felt like a series of hit and runs. It was traumatic. Even with this knowledge, life was/is still full of loose ends leading to a giant knot impossible to unravel. To this day, I still struggle with my brother. There are things I still haven’t forgiven. Even so leaving Ypsilanti, 25 years ago, initiated a journey full of loss, heartache, failure, challenges, gains and triumphs.