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On this fourth anniversary of my mom’s death, I wake up to an email from my dad. Written at 2:19am, he says he cannot sleep, as she’s very much alive and busy in his thoughts. I picture him seated at his desk, alone in the spacious home that once safely held our family of six, with the glow of the computer screen revealing the etched grooves of joy and sorrow on his sixty-nine year old face.
It guts me, imagining him pecking along on his keyboard, thinking of just the right balance of words to deliver to his children– words of grief and loss on the wings of hope and gratitude. I don’t envy his position; being the man who is left to grieve his wife and also the father who remains as the thread trying desperately to keep his family woven into one tapestry of wholeness, however frayed, worn, or weathered.
He writes about how reality is what we make it and how in every moment we are given the gift of choice. He says to choose to make it great. That he chooses to believe in his very bones that his wife, our mother, has transitioned to the other side and is doing what she’s meant to do; how she wants us to do what we’re meant to do here. He says to ask her for guidance when we need it and to offer gratitude for the countless gifts she has bestowed upon all of us.
Toward the end he says, “We are very fortunate, life is good. I think of you all everyday– 3 living adult children…”
You see, he has to address us as his living children, because his youngest is no longer.
And with salty tears rolling down my face, I am at once struck by the beauty and brutality of this world. More specifically, the microcosmic world of our nuclear family.
It boggles my mind that any of us are carrying on with life. We go to work, we raise our children, we grocery shop and fill our cars with gas. We’re doing it, I often think to myself. Look at us, we’ve experienced such tragic loss and we’re still standing.
This four year anniversary means everything and nothing. Everything because, holy shit, look at us! We’re still moving forward. Even without her here, we’re getting new jobs, the family is growing, we’re making new friends, and nesting in our new homes. Because for four years, we’ve lived with the undeniable active volcano-like rumble of indescribable loss in the space between our thoughts, the pause between our breaths, and the layers within our words and actions. For 48 months, 1,460 days, and roughly 35,043 hours, we have carried the weight of her death with us everywhere we go. Some days the load feels light and manageable and some days it feels like we have cinder blocks as shoes and a suit of medieval armor as clothes. And we’ve each discovered that we do need to wear some sort of armor in this world now, because it hurts too much when the winds of the outside world or even the loving touch of a friend makes contact with the raw, exposed lesion that is the absence of such an effervescent and larger-than-life woman. The woman who was the nucleus of our little family. She was the bright, warm sun around which we all spun. Do you know what happens when an actual sun in outer space dies (which they all eventually do)? It vaporizes the surrounding planets. Everything around it dies with it.
But here we are, each of us carrying her light and warmth within our hearts; holding on fiercely to the pieces of her that she generously left behind, because she knew we would need them to survive.
So, it’s amazing that for four years we’ve been this way; all at once devastated and grateful, brought to our knees and hopeful. We’re resilient and sad, lost but finding our way.
And yet, I cannot help but feel distraught by this four year mark. Each year, I think Wow, we made it through another year, we’re getting there. But there is no there. We’re not racing to a finish line, there is no end goal. The goal is to just keep moving. We’ve made it through four of however many years until each one of us makes that transition from human body to formless spirit essence.
Another level of understanding sets in today. This is how it will be for the rest of our lives. Contrary to the fantasy I have spun in my mind, we do not get a 5 year reward next year of her coming back to life just for 10 minutes– just for a hug or a smile, or a mundane conversation about nothing. No, this is it. Next year will just be five years, then six, and so on.
So how do we go on? What keeps us from crumbling into a heap of brittle, tired, destitute pieces on the floor?
We let ourselves be sad, to feel the pain and give it permission to help us grow. And we are the keepers of the pieces my mom left behind, so we guard them with our whole being and share them with the concentric circles of our family, friends, and our children who will never know her in the physical form. Like my dad said, we have a choice and we make the choice to go on.
Life is beautiful and brutal. I recently heard a term that Glennon Doyle Melton coined: brutiful. And that’s life in a nutshell: fucking awful and irresistibly extraordinary.
So here we are, we’re doing it. And we’re able to do it because we shared her when she was here and now we share her memory. And with each other, we continue to move forward. One step at a time.
Gone Utterly Beyond
During my senior year of college I lived with one of my best friends, Katherine. We decided early on that our apartment needed a little extra life. Adopting a cat or dog seemed like an irresponsible choice, as our schedules were busy and, frankly, it was a daunting commitment. We got fish instead.
We selected two beautiful shimmery gold fish from the local Pet Smart along with some tacky, but what we deemed “necessary”, sunken pirate ship décor to spiff up the bottom of their shiny new bowl. We talked to them on the car ride home; telling the duo all about their new digs, who we were, and how excited we were to have two more roommates.
Naming them was easy: Infinity and Beyond. The names just came to us in an instant and we never questioned it.
Infinity was slightly lighter in color and his scales seemed to have more sparkle. Beyond was a deeper golden hue and Katherine and I agreed he looked wise.
We set their home up in the finished basement right next to the egress window. They had light, water, food, and a retired pirate ship to explore among bright pink and aqua-colored stones.
And yet, even with the clean water and unbeatable interior design, Katherine went down one morning, just a few days after welcoming the fish home, to find Beyond belly up.
She raced up into the kitchen where I was making coffee.
“Julia!,” her brow was furrowed and her breath was labored from leaping up the stairs, “Beyond.”
“What?” I asked, “Is he ok?”
“He went.” She paused, “ to the Beyond.”
“Beyond went to the beyond?” I asked. Then clarifying, “He died?”
Now, Beyond was a goldfish and we weren’t super attached, but it was still a sad and disheartening feeling to have had a pet for a mere two or three days before saying goodbye forever. We thought it was so apropos that Beyond was the fish who had passed.
“It’s like it was his destiny or something,” Katherine contemplated aloud while we prepared a small, ornate box in which to place his cold, little yellow body.
I had a flashback to my dad tossing my dead beta fish, Simon, down the garbage disposal when I was 16. Simon had been in my care for several years at that point and though it’s hard to cultivate a deep, loving bond with a fish, I did like him and I felt as though his remains could have been handled in a more sensitive manner. Instead, they were shredded to bits with leftovers from that evening’s dinner.
And so, in an effort to do what felt right, we placed Beyond in a fancy fish casket and dug a hole in the back yard. If I recall correctly, we even had a few friends join us for the funeral (it’s hard to know for sure, because we also hosted a bird funeral later that year after the poor little guy flew into a closed window).
We each said a few words about the being we barely knew. We kept repeating the phrase, “Beyond went to the beyond!”. It was a loss, but not a very impactful one. After the funeral, we probably got back to our homework, or TV, or went out with friends. He was buried and we were on to the next thing.
What we didn’t consider was what beyond meant. Where was the beyond? Was it nearby or galaxies away? Where did any of us go once the body shut down?
I grew up in a fairly spiritual family and had been practicing yoga for a few years at that point, so I had a vague idea as to what beyond meant to me. I refused to accept the notion that there was no afterlife; that everything just….ended. I envisioned there being some sort of place where people went reflect on their lives after they died. A place where they could watch over the loved ones they left behind and maybe even offer guidance from afar. I imagined the spirit as formless and, yet, able to take on any form (like showing up as an eagle soaring over the Grand Canyon or manifesting as the ladybug on a little girl’s arm).
As a twenty-year-old, I had no real reason to think deeply about the subject. I had experienced very normal losses for someone that age: a few fish, a dog, and both grandfathers.
So beyond just meant beyond. It was more or less a grand mystery and one that needn’t be solved with any urgency.
What I didn’t know back then, in 2008, was that just four years later the most important person in my world, the center of my Universe, the life that gave me life, would go to the beyond. And that just three years after, my younger brother would choose to join her there.
In Buddhist scripture, there is a sutra, or teaching, called the Heart Mantra:
gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā
While there are numerous translations, the basic idea is something along the lines of:
Gone, Gone, Gone beyond Gone utterly beyond, Oh what an Awakening!
This succinct but potent teaching tells us that to be gone beyond, gone utterly beyond, is not bad. Quite the opposite: it’s an awakening! Here, gate means Gone from suffering to the liberation of suffering. Gone from forgetfulness to mindfulness. Gone from duality to non-duality. Paragate means gone all the way to the other shore…beyond that which we know.
By the time my mom died, I had been studying Eastern philosophy for about a decade. I quickly took to the concept of the infinite nature of the soul. It made sense to me that there was such a thing as “the other side” or “the spirit world”, and that one day our work there would be done and we’d inhabit another body to learn more lessons on Earth. I believed in some higher force, call it Love, The Universe, or God, that had our best interest at heart and shown a light upon each of our unique paths. It was comforting and easy to adopt these ideas as an invincible barely adult with a healthy, whole family.
But things changed. When cancer pushed my mom out of the world as I knew it, everything broke. My confidence in the Eastern belief system began to dwindle and I questioned everything.
A part of me wanted to dismiss all that I had believed and adopt a “fuck it” attitude. I almost romanticized the thought of going down a dark messy spiral that led to self-destruction. And yet, I couldn’t help but see the uplifting signs as they began to emerge around me.
The parting of the clouds as I drove up to my parents’ house, unveiling a ray of sun beaming directly upon the room my mom passed in. Ladybugs everywhere! On my yoga mat, my leg, in my car, and even on my bathroom mirror in the cold of winter. Her name, Rita, showing up in unusual places; a bumper sticker on the car in front of me, getting lost on a road trip only to find myself driving along “Rita’s Way”, the cashier’s nametag at the supermarket, the protagonist in my daughter’s bedtime story—the list goes on.
Old gifts from her seemed to materialize when I needed them; a whisk when I was making muffins, a silver guardian angel token when I was feeling anxious and lost, a hand-written grocery list slipping out of a cookbook when I feared my memory of her everyday existence was fading. I even had dreams that felt like visitations rather than fantastical weavings of the subconscious mind. We’re standing in the corner of the kitchen laughing, or driving in the car talking about normal, mundane things (Should I get bangs? I’d like you to ask me before you borrow my clothes. Want to go for a walk later? Let’s go get a coffee downtown.)
My inscrutable, earthly, visceral grief and the sometimes esoteric, “beyond me”, teachings of Buddhism and Vedic philosophy had begun to converge. It was liberating to realize that I didn’t have to choose one over the other. I could be the heartbroken daughter with a face of tears smushed into the pillow and the daughter to saw her mother everywhere, as an infinite, free, truly joyful spirit.
I went through a similar process of unraveling when my brother shot himself. Once again, but perhaps even more dramatically, the very foundation I stood upon crumbled fiercely and unapologetically. Any final string tying me to the illustrious idea that the world is made of love and we are all one, and everything is played out in the precise way it’s meant to was dangerously frayed.
A year later, while the piercing sadness and pained confusion linger in my heart, familiar signs from the beyond are, once again, coming to light. An old email from him shows up out of nowhere on the day I need it most, I meet eyes with a man downtown who looks so much like him and I get a wink, Facebook reminds me that two years ago he tagged me in a music video dedicated to me and my “yoga posse”, I find a pile of his clothes at my dad’s house and the fibers carry the smell of his warm, still alive, and moving body.
I don’t have it all figured out. Nope, not even close. But I do believe that to be Gone, Gone, Gone beyond Gone utterly beyond is not to be gone forever. Perhaps the beyond is a place where we simply exist in a different way. Maybe to be gone from here and to cross beyond to the other shore is a journey of true awakening. It’s possible that everybody who has entered the beyond is watching all of us here on earth spin in circles and play out our dramas and our joys, explore our wants and needs, love and heartbreak while they indulge in bon bons and laugh with an ease and delight we have yet to know.
I think that the veil separating the world as we (think we) know it and the world(s) beyond is thin and permeable. I believe it’s important for all of us to constantly be looking beyond; beyond seeing things at face value, beyond our own assumptions and prejudices, beyond our own limiting patterns of thought, and beyond even that which we see as real. Because when we do look deeper, we make ourselves more receptive to that which lies beyond.
with Julia Howe Sullivan
February 6, 2016
4:30- 6:30 pm
Beneath the stories we weave around who we are in the world, behind our stuff, and in between our thoughts, we are but one thing: Love. This is not a theory or a new, novel idea; it is the Truth. This energy, at the very core of your being, is infinite and unconditional. In this class, we will explore various techniques in an asana setting to help peel back the layers in order to reveal the bright, soft, eternal pool of love within.
I walk briskly down Church Street, feeling as though I’ve temporarily left an essential part of me behind. Rushing to an early morning massage, I think of my seven-week old baby at home with my Aunt and Uncle. She’s in loving, capable hands and I feel like I’ve stepped out of the new baby vortex, if only for an hour. My feet are pounding pavement, but I swear I am hovering a few inches above ground. Floating from point A to point B. It’s as if without those twelve pounds in my arms, I’m not actually connected to Earth. This must be akin to the phantom limb phenomenon.
Catching my reflection in a shop window, I see a body that is still unfamiliar to me; a bouncy chest, a round belly, and a…let’s say voluptuous…bum. But I don’t nit-pick at all of the softer rounder parts, as I would have a year ago. Rather, I see a body that built another human body; a body that housed another human spirit. And not just any human; my perfect, beautiful, curious, sweet daughter. I’ve only been gone ten minutes, but I wonder what she’s doing. Is she sleeping? If she’s awake, is she fussy or contentedly alert? Will they remember to give her the bottle of freshly pumped milk on time? What if I didn’t leave enough?
My gait is wider and perhaps more clunky as I make my way to the massage studio. I take in the scene around me; the colors, scents, and sounds. Things actually look different now and my perception of the space around me has shifted. It’s as if when my body expelled my baby, my old way of seeing the world slipped out with her.
I look at the shopkeeper, the pack of teenagers, the sleeping homeless woman, the uniformed cop, and I cannot help but see them as infants. They were once as new and vulnerable as my little girl. Someone loved them enough to feed them, hold them, wake up during the wee hours of the morning with them. I mean…that’s amazing.
I see that there’s no place for judgment in this world and only room for love.
When I birthed my baby, a new version of myself came through as well. Or perhaps I’m back to the old version of myself; the me that existed before I thought I knew right from wrong, good from bad. The me that existed before expectations, both self and other-imposed, weighed me down. Perhaps motherhood is the joyful yet challenging journey of coming home. Returning to that place where naps, snuggles, and play are more important than laundry, showers, and looking like you have your sh*t together.
I run up the narrow stairs to the massage studio and see that I’m a few minutes late. Formerly, tardiness was a personal pet-peeve but now I see that the world remains enact when one arrives a little behind schedule.
The massage therapist asks about my body and areas that need attention. I describe parts of my body that could use a little extra TLC. But it’s not just my body anymore; my daughter depends on me, on my body, to survive. My neck and upper back are sore from trying to find the perfect nursing position. My breasts are tender from feeding and pumping. My left arm is fatigued from holding her as my right hand attempts to accomplish basic everyday tasks. My low back aches from months of carrying her inside of me. My hamstrings are tight from an uphill walk with her in the stroller. My eyes are tired from interrupted sleep.
But my heart. My heart is alive, full of gratitude, and in awe of myself, my partner, and our baby. We’re doing it, we’re actually doing it. And we will have graceful moments, we will have clumsy moments, we’ll do things right, and we’ll mess up. But we’re all swimming in our most raw humanness together and it’s happening.
I disrobe and lie down on the massage table, eagerly anticipating a full hour of tranquil music, warm hands, relaxing scents, and nothing to do. This time is precious and cherished. I close my eyes and feel the weight of my body on the table. From the outside it appears as though I am just me, one person, alone on the table. But I know that will actually never be the case ever again. My daughter has arrived. There is and always will be an invisible string connecting our hearts. I feel the strength of that and I know she’s ok. I know she feels safe and loved. I softly smile as I revel in this new version of me. I am whole, real, vulnerable, and happy. And I am ready for a frickin’ massage.
Hello beautiful yogis! Last time I saw most of you, I was waddling around in the heat of summer with an 8.2lb baby dancing around in my belly. I’m thrilled to share that our little girl came into the world on July 19th, 2015 and has brought such joy to our family. She’s content, curious, alert, and smiley. She has certainly propelled into me a very new realm of yoga practice; the practice of showing up, being present, patient, and loving. Also a practice of letting go, letting go, letting go. There’s so much wisdom we can learn from these little ones if we open up to receive it. It’s challenging and enriching. I feel like becoming a mom has a way of instantly stripping a woman of the many layers of stories upon stories and revealing the raw, vulnerable truth of what it is to be human. I am so grateful and blessed that Mabel is here to teach me those deep lessons as I do my best to guide her through the world in a compassionate, authentic way.