Shock. It paralyzes the senses long enough for the body, the spirit, the mind to catch up with each other, to absorb whatever terrible news that’s been delivered to us. For me, it was a 30 second phone call from my sister-in law, Dewi that lingered for days and lingers still.
“You have to be brave, Sue. Brian (Rocky) is gone.”
A small voice rose up from inside of me. “What? Gone where?”
“He’s free, Sue,” Dewi said. “He’s free.”
I imagined her standing in a crowded hallway inside Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Hong Kong as her own shock held her body like a netted fish, while pure, unrefined Grief waited his turn, ready with outstretched claws to sink into skin and bone when Shock released her.
“I don’t understand,” I said. My brother hadn’t felt well. He went to the hospital. He was stable. He would fully recover. I had been told this only hours earlier.
“I have to go, Sue,” Dewi said. “I have to call my family.”
I was left holding the phone in my hand as if it had turned into a hand grenade. I pulled the pin and pressed numbers on the key pad and made the calls. First my father. Then my brothers. Then my husband. And one by one, I blew their world apart. For all of us, our first thought was how would my mother survive this?
We all met that night at my parents. We sat in the living room where my four siblings and I had grown up and fought over TV shows, unwrapped Christmas gifts from Santa, ten-speed bikes, beanbag chairs, and soccer balls. The same space where we hunted for chocolate Easter eggs, spilled juice on the carpet, and had Backgammon tournaments. The space where I used to wind my brothers hair around my finger during a phase in his life when he wanted dreadlocks. He thought my finger-twirling assistance would help to expedite the dreading process. It was the same space where my brother had been only seven short months before when he and his family made the long trek from Bali to visit us in June. His daughter, Sara turned three while they were here. She closed her eyes, sent a wish out to the universe and blew out three candles. I wonder now if whatever she had wished for has come true.
As we all sat drowning in our own personal memories, we did all those things people do when that hammer whirls through the air and smashes your life once again into shards of glass. We hugged, we cried, and worked at the failing task to console each other.
When I returned home that night, Friday, February 14th, the day for love and for lovers, I was a foreigner to myself, having no idea what to do with the stranger that had taken up residence in my body. I opened my computer and worked until 3:30 in the morning, completing tasks for a leadership summit I was supposed to attend the following week. I tugged and yanked and pulled as many loose ends as I could together for the summit as my ends were unraveling—my mind, my heart, my nerves. I sent the materials off in a neat little email attachment, while I numbly stumbled around in my shell of shock. I stared at the computer screen. I got on Facebook and ran fingers over my brother’s beautiful smile and whipped myself raw as I scrolled through picture after picture, sure, so sure there had been a mistake of some kind.
“Where are you?” I asked my brother.
The hand on the clocked moved around and around until it was morning and I still sat and stared at his face, read his posts. In those early hours of learning what couldn’t possibly be true, I reflected on my blog post. The bag of glass, creating a new mosaic design. Hadn’t I already done that after my mother’s stroke? Is there truly no bottom to how much heartache a person, a family can endure in one lifetime? I’d carry these questions around with me as my oldest brother and I made the dazed trip to Hong Kong and then to Bali where we would enter my brother’s house, feel his ghost-self, sniff the air for his scent, while grief and reality collided, knocking air from our lungs.
The first night in my brother’s house, I was aware that Grief was dressed in full Grief regalia, present and waiting to be acknowledged. But I took my time as I listened for my brother’s voice, and waited to feel his arms around me and say, “I love you, sis. Thanks for making the trip.”
I searched for him in his closet, pressing his favorite t-shirt to my face. I sat on his porch swing, alert, ready to hear his footsteps on the Balinese grass. Grief wouldn’t wait any longer. He sucked up all the space, brought my sister in law to her knees as she pounded the earth and begged to understand what she’d done so wrong in this lifetime to deserve a visit from Grief; she looked around in the darkness, searching for God, but did not see nor feels God’s presence.
Grief is a wizard and can do wizardly things to the body, to the mind. He’s an illusionist, can make you believe with a single swipe of his wand, he can make God disappear. Grief can crush the heart and sit on the soul and smother it if you let it.
The minutes nestled within each hour ticked by as though an angel had reached down and hit the slow motion button on the world. I knew the stages of grief, rehearsed them in my mind. The stages take time, I said to myself. They take time. How much time? Grief can’t be rushed, or pushed, or shooed out of your heart like an obnoxious house guest.
Each day, I wake up from restless sleep, and remember my brother is gone all over again. I get myself out of bed, without the energy to complete simple daily tasks. Disrobing, showering, dressing feel as daunting as climbing up Mt. Everest. When the sun sets, I Face Time with Dewi, my widowed sister-in law, feel the intensity of her pain across the thousands of miles, praying Grief doesn’t hang around for good. My words that I hand over to her, slip through my fingers and lie between us, motionless, useless. Nothing brings her relief accept the thought that one day she will re-join him.
Two days ago, I walked through the snow, felt the crunch under my boots, searching for clues, something tangible to give Hope shape. As I sunk through the hard crust of snow to the softer underbelly, I had this thought: Grief can wrap its hands around your heart and imprison you in the past, turn your heart cold and hard, pulling the shade on light, slamming the door on beauty, on love, on all that’s good, and real and worth living for. Grief can do that…it can.
But here’s something else I’m learning about Grief. If it has the power to harden the heart, it also has the power to soften it, like that underbelly of the snow.
With each tragedy, every loss, space is left behind, leaving room for hope, for new love to bloom, for deeper roots of gratitude and appreciation for the good, the joy, the laughter and beauty in our life. For me, I’ve prayed for my brother’s passing to soften my heart and to make those moments of joy that much sweeter than they were before.