The Only Woman Alive
Mourning the loss of my brother amidst quarantine
Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here came on the radio the other day. It opens with a long and sparse guitar intro, in which a cough can be heard across one of the tracks. The sound is startling, as though someone unexpected was suddenly discovered to be in the room. More than once I’ve looked over my shoulder when hearing it. It’s what I love about the song, a reminder that this moment has been and will continue to be shared across distance and time.
When I heard that transcendent cough this week, it articulated a feeling I had barely been aware of, though I had been experiencing it almost relentlessly the past three months. It began ninety days ago, the day my brother took his life. There it is. In writing. That tufted weight that tugs at the edges of my brain. It is the presence that accompanies me when I wake in the night, the heaviness that pulls at my eyelids when I open them in the morning, the static that buzzes beneath every conversation. I don’t have to be thinking about it to feel it. But every now and then, a cough sounds and I am reminded. And I am startled by the reality of it all over again.
He was just 34 years old. A Marine Veteran who saw active duty. A magnificently beautiful soul, a one in a million kind of guy. His death was a shock to everyone who knew him. He hadn’t appeared to be in a place of acute depression. He was outgoing, caring, and present for his own life. He had been doing the hard work of facing his pain and growing. He was not someone who runs from his fear.
We are not meant to make sense of senseless things.
Grief creates a strange disorientation to time. It suspends you from the world around. Hours stretch on while minutes fly by. Reality becomes permeable. Life zooms in on the most essential functions- eating, breathing, sleeping- and the most crucial elements of existence become crystal clear, situated on the point of a pin- love, time, substance. Within weeks of my brother’s death, I felt I had sloughed off the empty facets of my life that held no value. I assessed my vocation, my friendships, my faith, the minutes and hours of each day. Mortality had become so real, I did not feel I could afford to waste the living.
That was before quarantine began. Now, I can drive for 20 minutes without passing another car on the road. Somedays I feel like the only woman alive. But we are all here, suspended in time together. We grieve a collective grief. As strange as it may sound, I’ve come to see COVID-19 as David Gilmour’s unexpected cough, connecting us across distance and time. But it’s what we do in this moment that will define the impact it will have on our futures. This is an opportunity for all of us to take stock and slough off that which holds no meaning.
Last November, I shared Khalil Gibran’s poem On Love with my brother.
For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you.
Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses
your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots
and shake them in their clinging to the earth.
We were talking about the inevitably of hardship in life and love, and that, if used correctly, it could be the thing that invites us to love deeper and live more beautifully. Hardship is not just inevitable; rather, it is a necessity. Without it, we simply do not grow. We love and live with merely a fraction of our capabilities.
I can’t help but think that collectively, we are all now being invited to the threshing floor. We’ve crawled into our sheltered spaces where, inevitably, we’ve had to think about how we use our time and resources. We’ve been forced to contemplate the necessity and value of our vocations, the use of our money, how we live among the people we love, the truths we subscribe to. And too, we are forced to reconcile ourselves to all that remained hidden within the busyness of our lives. We have been stripped down to the basics of living. We can no longer hide behind the distractions our culture so adeptly put into place. We have been given permission to feel the weight of loss, to suspend that sacred American quest toward happiness, to breathe.
I invite you to pause in this moment. Allow the stillness of the world to move you. Allow the discomfort to do its work. Take the time to evaluate the awesomeness of each breath you are afforded, what brings fulfillment, the direction your hopes and dreams propel you. Look around at the people who are near you and the ones you long to be near. On what have you placed the value of your existence? What will you hold onto when the doors finally reopen. And more importantly, what will you let go of?
My brother’s death is the greatest pain I’ve experienced in my life. But I realized something else when I heard that song last week. It is that I have not been alone these last three months. The essence of who my brother was, and in a sense, his presence, has accompanied me as poignantly as the grief.. My brother has become the unexpected someone suddenly discovered to be in the room. The loss of his life has propelled me toward the most honest version of myself I have ever known. I am certain the years that stretch before me will be markedly different and more rich in purpose than I ever could have fathomed. I hope this time, as hard as it may be, will offer an opportunity of the same for you.