In May I arrived at Circle Yoga Shala, an organic farm and training center in the Ozarks where I completed a teacher training in 2013. Here, I began a year long apprenticeship after selling my home and moving my dogs and few remaining belongings from North Carolina. We now reside here in a precious one room sleeping cabin. Before arriving I spent the month of April by my brother Max’s side in the hospital. Two years younger than I, Max has special needs and nearly lost his life after surgery to remove a stage 3 color-rectal tumor.
Since arriving here I’ve witnessed time as she has appeared to both speed forward and creep by. There have been moments of extreme stillness and quiet, like sitting on the porch watching a rainy day or counting time in the garden weed by weed. Then suddenly, there is a hustle to empty compost toilets, wash dishes, collect eggs, feed horses, move hay and get lost in conversations about spirituality, philosophy, movement.
What a difference this place has made within my being already after so many years in the urban and business environment. Now, I wake in the middle of the night, step a few steps out my cabin door to squat and pee, while I stare in amazement at the stars above. Now, I sleep with open windows to the sounds of the moonlight and wake with light of dawn rolling in. I choose to walk barefoot over shoes now. I look forward to daily visits with the hens laying eggs. I watch as new teacher trainees step into a path that will shift them closer to the truth of themselves. I smile at the wonder, then confusion, then epiphany in their eyes. Now, I’ve all but forgotten what it feels like to have anything other than mountain air on my skin. This itch from poison ivy, ticks and the like can’t ruin the joy in this re-wilding for me.
This here-and-now is such contrast to the moment before where I spent most nights at Duke Hospital; a place where the outside air couldn’t dare creep in. It could have been weeks, months, years or just one long day, that time we spent taking precious short moments between the long train of Max’s post-surgery traumas. Short breathers just to rest in the hospital recliner that became my home.
Like a dream now I recall sitting there in the few times of stillness that came in the wee hours of the day. Watching, wondering if I was seeing my brother come back to life or seeing him die.
Right now and right then. These stark moments of my life that border one another are like day and night. This moment on the farm feels like basking in the daylight sun. Yet it has not burned away a sensation of the dark night still hovering close by.
On a recent day, I left the farm for town to purchase some essentials at Dollar General. Coming home, as I rounded a steep mountain curve, I viewed a small being flailing about on the pavement. As I got closer I saw a tiny fawn in the opposite lane, hit just moments before, now desperately trying to get its legs under it.
Instinctually, I pulled the car to the side of the road, jumped out and ran to the fawn. As its legs kicked, its neck flopped side to side, broken, helpless. Cars were rounding the corner toward us. I quickly gathered it in my arms and moved it into the grass. As I laid the fawn down it continued to kick and flop pitifully, its body a mangle of limp spine and flailing legs.
A truck had come up the road just behind me. The driver now approached us. I asked him if he had a gun. He said he didn’t. We stood for a moment staring at the baby as it struggled.
Then he said, ‘well you done good and at least got it off the road’, in this his thick Arkansas accent.
I looked at the few cars piling up behind mine. With such a narrow curve, I hadn’t room to pull off the road entirely. Conflicted, I left the fawn in the grass and as I climbed in and put my car in motion again, then recalled there had been a driveway just a little ways back. So I moved up the road a bit until I could safely turn around. As I pulled into the driveway just before where I had seen the fawn, I parked in front of a fence with a sign, ‘No Trespassing’.
As I walked back up the steep road to the fawn, I allowed myself to hope it had found its feet and moved on, though I knew it unlikely. Then I counseled myself, if it was still there struggling, the one thing I could do was to provide comfort and carry it back to the farm where we had a rifle to end its suffering.
I was disappointed to discover my instinct was correct as I came upon the fawn. I heard it first, still in the grass struggling, kicking its legs in valiant effort but still with no control over its head and neck. It had managed to flop its body down the hill a bit. So I side stepped down the steep hill.
“It’s okay little one,” I said as I knelt down and gently placed my hand on its body. There was a disturbance in the woods, foot steps. The mother doe hovered nearby. Again, I felt the strong desire to feel hope and considered whether the fawn could be saved. But I knew after this much time that the lack of head and neck control was a death sentence. It was surprising that it was even still alive. I witnessed it suffer so in such resistance to this sentence, fighting with vigor to flee from death’s grasp.
Softly speaking to it, I gently gathered up the fawn and began to carry it back to the car. I heard the mother in the woods again as I did so. I don’t remember what I was saying as I spoke calmly to the little creature. Periodically, I would stop to lay it back on the earth. All the while it held my gaze. Its gaze and jaw projected pain, denial, a fighting spirit emerging from such a small and innocent creature.
Finally, we got to the car and I laid it on the earth to make room for it in the passenger side floor board. Seconds later, I picked it up again and placed it inside. As I did, I noticed its gaze, while holding mine firm, suddenly shifted from squinted pain to big open, peaceful eyes. I laid the baby down and placed my hand on its heart. The last breath passed through and I felt the warm little body with no more beat in its heart.
A couple hours later, back on the mountain, when my teacher Holly and I buried the fawn we covered its eyes last with the earth. But not before saying a blessing with tobacco, cornmeal and sage. As I covered its gaze with earth, I kept thinking of the sound in the woods next to the accident. The mother standing by for her dying fawn.
“I’ve never watched something die so intimately like this,” I told Holly. She was quiet for a moment, then said, “Well, perhaps it’s just preparing you to watch mine.”
Later that same evening, I reflected back to a certain night in the ICU with Max. It was about 3AM and about 15 days or so into the 24 day hospital stay. At the start, the doctors had said he’d be there maybe 7 days. But Max has never lived within the normal odds.
All that day leading up to the night, his vitals had been crashing backwards after a rocking seizure. His lungs and digestive system were in great distress, and I spent the night next to him, unable to close my eyes as I watched his malnourished body pump his belly and chest like someone who had been running a marathon.
His whole body was swollen with fluids from so many days on the IV. As the nurses came to do this or that to him, removing his robe, I viewed over and over the surgical split down the middle of his abdomen. His colon cut in half and now projecting out of his skin where it emptied into the ostomy bag. The surgical output still oozing stuff in another bag out the opposite side of his belly. He looked like a bionic project with most of his abdomen cut up and the IVs and wires and tubes and bags everywhere.
During his fight I spent every other night by his side. Due to his disability Max shared no words with us and had limited understanding of what was happening to him or why. As fate would have it, my night shifts with him were paired up with every trauma he experienced. I was there for the many downward spiraling moments in which a day’s progress would suddenly and inexplicably crash backwards. And though I was beginning to experience the delirium effects of no sleep and witnessing more pain than I knew it possible for a person to survive, I somehow projected an outward calm and clear mind to assess Max’s needs when it was called upon.
This became our entire life, here in the hospital became the only thing we knew and so I created ritual to survive. Dad would arrive in the mornings from where he and Mom attempted sleep at the hotel across the road, and I would take break for a few hours.
First, I go down to the Starbucks for coffee and a sausage and egg sandwich. Then I would sit outside in the hospital courtyard while I slowly ate and digested what I had witnessed in the night. Just feeling April’s spring air, tasting coffee and watching and listening to people mill around would put me in some kind of trance. I felt as though I was watching a world that I was not a part of. My world was in the bed in the ICU where Max fought to live. My world was very lonely, yet I desired no company.
After a time I’d go across the street to the hotel room. Mom would have usually joined Dad in the hospital by now. With the room to myself, sometimes I would put my head in the pillow and scream, then sob, before taking a few hours nap. Then, I’d wake, shower and return to the hospital.
Despite the growing exhaustion, I always remained there as long as I could. Mom and Dad were strong, but had withstood many such trials in Max’s life and their heath was also fragile. Their ability to have rest was more important than mine, to me. And so, I learned about the endless depths of love. This is the place where strength and stamina of an inhuman kind lives.
However on this particular night, day 15 or so, I was losing the stamina of my hope. I sat in that hospital room watching Max in those wee hours and my outward warrior face began to crack open and tears started to trickle through.
Max hadn’t opened his eyes or responded to anyone in hours. He had been through so much pain up to this point. Seizures, digestive traumas, chronic coughing, a stint on the ventilator…and on and on.
He was a young man with special needs and an innocent heart and he’d not chosen this surgery. We had to make those decisions for him. All he knew was that he came into the hospital a happy man and then began dying an insufferable death.
My tears in that moment came from an understanding deep within me that he had gone to the brink to talk with the Great Mystery, the Source, God. And who wouldn’t at that point?
I sensed that in that deep place he’d now retreated to, that bridge between death or rebirth, he was beginning to gain an understanding of it all. I prayed he was receiving some sense of choice in the path forward. I wondered if he was beginning to see this cancer diagnosis, to see this surgery could be either only the beginning of such incredible pain or just a momentary blip of hell.
I felt that, if I were the one standing where he stood in so much pain and such close conversation with the Soul of the World, I’d be tempted to cross the bridge to permanent departure.
I leaned over to Max and whispered in his ear… “Max, you don’t have to stay for me or anyone else. I love you and I don’t want to see you suffer. You’ve given us so much already, so if you feel you are done with your work here, I just want you to know that while I don’t know how I will do it, I will live on and I will love you still. I know we are never truly separated. But Max, if you chose to stay, I promise to do all I can to make it worth your while. I promise to make it fun and to always be here with you, even if we land right back here at some point. I will aways be here for you when you need me and we will build many great things together and travel many places.”
Max didn’t open his eyes, but to my surprise, he furrowed his brow like he was concentrating, listening. The only sign of response we’d seen all day.
The next day, as the sun came up, his vitals began to improve again. He was weak, but alert again, opening his eyes.
I handed him my medicine drum made of moose hide. He took the drum stick and, eyes fixed ahead with an exhausted but determined gaze, he began to bang a steady and strong beat on the drum.
The doctors and nurses came in to listen. Relieved, and a bit surprised, they exclaimed joy to hear him beating the drum again. Max made few other movements and slept most of that day, but very slowly he started to make his way back into his body and heal.
I have never seen such a warrior spirit appear as what I saw in his eyes that morning as he beat the drum. He was no longer an innocent being. He had seen pain, seen darkness and though it was almost impossible to do, he had chosen to move towards life despite it all.
I’ve always known that I will bury my brother. Two years younger than I, yet an old soul indeed, he has skated so much on the edge of death from the time he was born. A seizure at 3 left him with brain damage and a host of chronic problems. Yet he has lived his life in an overtly joyful way and taught me much in doing so.
Our destinies have been so profoundly linked, he my greatest and dearest friend in this life. So the question of when will I bear the burden of seeing him pass has at times threatened to burn a whole in my mind. The recognition that I must have no expectation of more time with him while yet still holding firm to hope was brought home to me in April. It is a tall order of a mere human soul.
But the fawn gifted me a new nuance to understanding and seeing death. I will never forget the way the tiny creature held my eye and the quick shift in its gaze as death passed through its body, showing me that death can be peace, and life the real place of struggle.
My teachers often remind me that we are all dying. On the surface this sounds pessimistic, but they speak a truth that is freeing. It’s a truth that asks us to have reverence for the moment. Asks us to revel in the moment that reveals bliss, for it is fleeting; to take faith in the moment that reveals hell, for it is fleeting too.
It can be tempting to think that one can adopt this perspective and in doing so escape from suffering. But my teachers, and I too, also acknowledge this great and inexplicable thing called Love. Love is a sentence for even the most enlightened, for from my limited view, it seems all those with a human heartbeat are assured experiences of love that will lead to both heaven and hell within this lifetime.
It’s in this context that two of my teachers, my brother, and now the fawn, have presented a challenge to me in these recent weeks. They ask me to get incredibly clear on how it is that will I move through that full range of experience of hell and bliss. Will I do it with faith or will I exhibit resistance and thus get lost despair? Will I let it all, every moment, be an unfolding of potential wisdom even if requires transmuting grief and pain?
I am trying to answer these questions through my actions. Though I knew it not before, perhaps this all the ‘why’ for the path I have chosen. A path which has led me to dedicate 100% of my time now to learning from the spiritual teachers who’ve make a difference in my life.
I am also incredibly aware now that at this moment I stand in the place of mercy’s gifts. A place where self-reflection is not only possible, but required. Here, barefoot on the earth at the Shala, staring up at the night sky on a mountain with blessed little light pollution is the day to my previous dark night. It is not to be wasted.
For I know like all moments before, this one too is fleeting. And so, I work to soak it in for all it is worth. Soak in the cackle of hens and joy of a fresh egg, the wind as it bounces from tree top to tree top, the sounds of the birds and the insects as they shift in concert and day moves to dusk and casts its last light on the farm.
For this gift of deep awareness that I am experiencing of this moment right Now, I am also clear that I must thank Death as the giver. Though I will always dread the way in which she will come, though I know she will always break my heart into a thousand pieces, I believe now that I have seen the gifts in her work. I see that just to stand next to her requires one to give birth to some strength of spirit that was not possible until she demanded it. Though she is the dark of night, an unruly and seemingly horrific teacher at times, a trickster who plays with life and time, it is also she who gives context for the light, for the living. To see her in all her capacity, is also to deeply appreciate life in all her fleeting beauty.