“My suffering was taking place in a grand setting. I saw my suffering for what it was, finite and insignificant, and I was still. My suffering did not fit anywhere, I realized. And I could accept this. It was all right.
(It was daylight that brought my protest: ‘No! No! No! My suffering does matter! I want to live! I can’t help but mix my life with that of the universe. Life is a peephole, a single tiny entry onto a vastness – How can I not dwell on this brief, cramped view I have of things? This peephole is all I’ve got!’)
I mumbled words of Muslim prayer and went back to sleep.”
-Yann Martel, Life of Pi
By means of an unintentional analogy, narrating Pi Patel’s internal struggle of being lost at sea, Martel simultaneously described grief’s rollercoaster with utmost clarity.
Do you know what it feels like to dream that you are running away from something, or running toward something, but no matter how hard you try to run, you simply can’t outrun or catch it? Have you ever been screaming in a dream, but regardless of your effort, your screams remain agonizingly silent? What about that panicked, claustrophobic feeling that rises through your chest while, at the same time, your heart drops to your feet?
I’d felt this anxiety before, the “I must get out now,” feeling, but it had always been temporary, a relief upon waking up or a realization that this too will pass. It was not until I was hearing the words, “Sam, he didn’t make it,” that I was laying on the side of the road trying to regain my hearing, to make sense of what my eyes were seeing, that I felt the reality of this panic, a raw, excruciating clarity that this will not pass.
I’m confident that anyone who has lived through the extreme grief of losing a significant loved one will know that this aching feeling is not limited to a few instances in the initial days after your loss, though it might be more common. Rather, the tormenting clarity finds its way to me in bursts, when my mind has nothing else to distract it, or when something in particular distracts my mind. When the bad timing of heavy-heart pessimism and sheer lucidity collide.
How something so consumingly life-altering can require constant resurgence is strange, but I’ve realized that losing my brother was a nightmare so harrowing that my brain never considered it to be a future possibility. Yielding constant attention to the awareness that this nightmare did indeed become my real life would claim my ability to function ordinarily, resulting in the recurring shocks of reminder.
July, a delightfully yellow month, has been filled with rains, butterflies and vivid greens, yet the nagging knowledge that it has almost been 365 days since I lost my best friend has been anything but shy.
During one of our first weeks in Lomkao, John took us through some dirt roads, past student dorms, recreational fields and locals’ gardens, just behind the Lomkao market and temple to the rice fields. The sun was finally starting to ease off for the day, and peaking partially behind the mountains in the distance, golden hues lit our view. Husking had just barely begun, with most of the greenery still coating the acres of grain. The moon had already made its way around to say hello.
We skipped along the road, laughing and joking with passersby who happened to be former LKP students. Like so many other sights here, we were humbled, feeling peacefully small against the mountain range, the bountiful rice fields.
On a recent July night, walking home from Ben’s restaurant, I took in the view above – an uncharacteristically starry night for Thailand’s rainy season. There are only a few times I have seen perfectly clear night skies with stargazing potential, rare combinations of cloudless skies in limited pollution areas – once on Captiva Island, where Jenn, my mom and I were lucky enough to see the miraculous sight of the moon setting, and once, so far, in Lomkao. John, Jenn and I decided to make a night of it, grabbing a few Changs and heading out to the LKP soccer field, where our backs welcomed the cool metal of LKP’s bleacher benches in the summer air.
We used an app called SkyView on our phones that actually identifies which star, constellation or planet you are viewing when you point your phone at the night sky. To make things interesting, John introduced a game in which we spent a few minutes in silence stargazing until we felt a connection with a certain star. Once we felt certain that this star was one from which our attention would not waver, we identified it on the app.
The star I happened to select is called Altair, the brightest star in the constellation Aquilia (the Eagle), and the 12th brightest star in relation to Earth. Referred to as Alpha Aquilae as the brightest star in the constellation, Aquilia is also the southern apex of the Summer Triangle, a Northern Hemisphere asterism, stars of similar brightness recognized in a a distinctive shape. The Summer Triangle is unique in that all three stars come from separate constellations. Indian mythology describes Altair and its two flanking stars as the footprints of Lord Vishnu.
We admired the grand real-life planetarium show for hours. I saw three shooting stars, I saw Saturn and Mars jump across the blackness from the moment we laid down until the moment we left. I watched groups of stars become shapes, like watching the clouds become friends on warm summer afternoons. We talked about the universe, about aliens, about God, if there is one.
I read two quotes that had a significant impact on the course of my future, on my decision to embark on this journey. I read the first in the fall of 2017, a Calvin and Hobbes comic from June 30, 1992.
Calvin – “If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night, I’ll bet they’d live a lot differently.”
Hobbes: – “How so?”
Calvin – “Well, when you look into infinity, you realize that there are more important things than what people do all day.”
Stargazing in Lomkao was looking into infinity, letting the black, glittering blanket overwhelm us with our own insignificance and that of our own suffering.
The second passage was an excerpt from Nietzche’s The Gay Science.
“The heaviest weight. –What if one day or night a demon slinked after you into your loneliest loneliness and said to you: ‘This life, as you live it now and as you have lived it, you will have to live once more and countless times more. And there will be nothing new about it, but every pain and every pleasure, and every thought and sigh, and everything unspeakably small and great in your life must come back to you, and in all the same series and sequence- and likewise this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and likewise this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again- and you with it, you mote of dust!’
Wouldn’t you throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and damn the demon who spoke this way? Or have you ever experienced a prodigious moment in which you would answer him: ‘You are a god and I have never heard anything more godlike!’ If that thought took control of you, it would change you as you are, and maybe shatter you. The question in each and every thing, ‘Do you will this once more and countless times more?’ would lie as the heaviest weight upon your acts! Or how benevolent would you have to become toward yourself and toward life in order to long for nothing more ardently than for this ultimate eternal sanction and seal?”
Nothing before had impacted my grief more than reading this passage. Imagining an Eternal Return, the potential for this moment and the next and all that comprise my life to repeat themselves once again – would I not want this return to be a gift to my soul rather than a curse?
The hardest challenge, the most necessary reminder: I forgive myself. The heartache, the immeasurable pain of the loss of my brother was not within my control and is not something for which I should harbor any guilt – most importantly, no matter how much I hurt, it will not bring him back to me. But what I do control, the only thing we can control, is how much I lift myself up. How often I remember Swayze for every thing I love about him – for his wit, his laugh, his quirks, his impressiveness in so many different ways, our inside jokes, our memories – every little thing that made him my brother, that made me the person I am today, reminds me he is still with me. If I am in control, would I not rather choose to direct my thoughts in a way that I would want to relive?
Grief’s ability to intercept one’s relationship with existentialism, with their concept of reality, is striking. It really does feel as though a new world began on July 27, 2017, like the reality I now know is on the other side of a reality I once knew and will never again know.
And yet in that grand ocean, as Piscine Molitor Patel described, and along those rice fields and underneath that blanket of stars – the astounding, staggering, majestic universe around you shrinks your size, your significance and calms your finite suffering.
But if my suffering does not fit here, if my suffering is only a single tiny entry onto a vastness, what about the cardinals, the monarch butterflies, the tree frogs, the sea turtles, the black cats, the triple sevens – every little sign from Swayze, every single non-coincidental coincidence that simply cannot be logically defined as incidental?
“What this is saying, then, is that just as you don’t know how you manage to be conscious, how you manage to grow and shape this body of yours, that doesn’t mean to say that you’re not doing it.
Equally, you don’t know how the universe shines the stars, constellates the constellations and galactifies the galaxies. You don’t know. But that doesn’t mean to say that you aren’t doing it in just the same way as you’re breathing without knowing how you breathe.”
-Alan Watts, Divine God & Death
Maybe the two are incommensurable. Maybe the answer, if there is one, is to take a deep breath and choose to trust in the magic, to listen to the universe in whichever language we strive to comprehend, seeing to and smiling with each synchronicity because we have the choice to.
I’ll be spending July 27, 2018 on Railay Beach, Krabi, Thailand. If I’m lucky, I’ll have my toes in the sand, breathing in salty air and smiling at the sky. It has almost been 365 days without my brother. But I am fortunate enough to celebrate 8,513 days with a brother who made me who I am today, who is with me every day, who will be with me on Railay Beach.