Musings on This Life After My Brother’s Death

My siblings and I were all born in Salinas, California. Our dad drove back and forth to the PG&E power plant at Moss Landing on the coast where he worked. He wanted out of California and anywhere north seemed better, so in 1961 we moved to Redmond, OR. My oldest brother was 12, my youngest sister 2 when our family arrived in Central Oregon. We all graduated from Redmond High School before moving on with our lives. My youngest sister, stayed, brother number two, also. The rest of us dispersed.

My brother Kirk had an artist’s sensibilities and talents. For reasons at the time confusing to most of us, he enlisted in the Marine Corps, the Viet Nam war ongoing though winding down. I always thought that this was an attempt to mold himself into something else. He never saw action. I think most of us at the time thought this was fortunate. When he got out he moved to Portland and got involved in his church. This relationship became central to much of his life. It wasn’t something we could discuss. We had been raised in the more ‘flexible’ world of the Presbyterian Church. This was very different. I would characterize his beliefs as ‘fundamentalist’ and evangelical, those who didn’t believe as they did, were doomed, including myself and the rest of the family. It mattered not that others might claim a belief in the same christian god and had taken Jesus into their hearts, as he explained it to me…others were not on the righteous path…apparently it was singular. Not only would those of other faiths, but those christians of other denominations had been ‘mislead’ as well and would ‘pay’ for their error in the after-life.

He paired his religion with a politics that was neo-conservative and strongly nationalist, at least compared to mine. There was much we could not discuss. But he was my brother…so I tried. We both spent most of our adult lives here, in Portland. Our meetings inevitably wound up with him ‘preaching’ at me. He knew my buttons and would soon come around to the topic of the creation, the environment, of how little they ultimately mattered, their destruction of little concern to him, because what was of ultimate value was our relationship with god….The end was coming for us all and, what ever we did, was excusable if we had accepted Jesus….He would see me rise to the ‘bait’, smirk and continue on. I had seen him do the same thing downtown, preaching at Pioneer Square at those who would respond to his provocations. One particular evening, I told him that if he wanted a relationship with me he would have to stop the preaching at me, the continuous baiting. In my memory, he only smirked and then began again. That was the end of my relationship with my brother. Now he is dead.

I don’t remember when I first heard about it, but he was diagnosed, sometime after our ‘split’, in his 40’s (?), with a Frontotemporal Disorder, a form of dementia, which is an umbrella term for a group of uncommon and progressive brain disorders, that primarily affect the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. These areas are generally associated with personality, behavior and language. In his case, over time, his frontal lobe shrinking, his personality changed, causing a kind of behavioral ‘regression’, the limits on his behavior, his ‘governor’, weakening in ways that made him more ‘childlike’. His family took on his care, making sure he wouldn’t get hurt, or wander off and become lost. Over time the symptoms became more widespread his dementia deepening. It is incurable and, so far, there are no treatments that slow its advance. Eventually it leads to death, sometimes in as few as two years…my brother suffered from it for over 20 years. (More info on FTD.

I wonder when it first began to effect his self-control? Was it a factor in the deterioration of our relationship? Did it cause him to ‘blurt’ out what ever thought came to his mind. Family members and others are often put off by the ‘behavior’ of those with this, their internal checks and balances no longer effectively acting to limit what they might say or do. No, it’s not the same as Tourret’s, a nervous disorder which results in ‘tics’, uncontrollable movements or bursts of speech, which are inappropriate and generally unprovoked.

I only learned recently, because of my lack of relationship with him, that he suffered from severe blockages of both of his carotid arteries, an assault upon the blood supply to his already compromised brain. His end came after falling at home and breaking his hip which required surgery to repair. He also suffered rather severe osteoporosis. At some point, soon after the surgery to repair his hip, they realized that he had suffered a severe stroke when his usual ‘chatty’ self was silent. He could no longer speak or swallow fluids. This combined with his FTD constituted a massive assault on his body, he was not going to get better. From the fall to his death in the hospital was just a few days. He is the first of six siblings to pass, third in the birth order, and it would seem that he has received the genetic ‘short stick’ of the mix of our parent’s genes, genes which delivered to them longevity and good health.

Our mother died with severe dementia, though it was of a different sort, beginning in her 80’s after a stroke. Still relatively strong physically to the end, she became progressively robbed of herself, a ‘cruel’ way to go, difficult on the increasingly frustrated individual, at least until they become ‘lost’ to themselves, and on their families as well as they watch and support them in their decline. With the stroke she lost her musicality, stopped playing the violin and piano, stopped painting and our father took on her care and most of the domestic duties. Each of us will have much to handle in our lives as we attend to our several ‘stages’. It is truly sad how we often unnecessarily burden our lives. Each of us are limited and we regularly over complicate them. We are not aided when we judge and condemn others, and far too often fail to celebrate the joys and victories, of the simple daily miracles around us. In so doing, we diminish them, lessening our own experience, as well as those with whom we live.

Our father fell gradually into the frailty of advanced age gradually acceding more and more of his once vital capacities. Neither of our parents took much of any prescription drugs throughout their lives. In his 90’s my father went on blood thinners, for a clotting problem, but was later weaned off of them. He did suffer glaucoma and took some drugs to control the pressure inside of his eves, pressure which left uncontrolled, could lead to blindness. Always physically active, even into his 90’s he did reluctantly use some pain medications because of the advancing stenosis in his spine. He sought milder alternatives, though he had trouble with the idea of taking cannabis products. Eventually, suffering from Sick Sinus Syndrome, his specific condition called Tachycardia-Bradycardia, in which his heart would race well over 150 bpm before suddenly dropping to 30 bpm or so, pausing as it switched. His system held on for as long as it could before faltering, when it could not come back to center, he died, last year, in January ’21, at 98. The Sinus Node is a cluster of cells in the right upper chamber of the heart which initiates each heart beat, the source of the rhythm responsible for pacing or adjustment of our heart rate to meet the demands of our bodies.

My brother is now gone. Arguably we had each excluded the other long ago, but as brothers, that’s not really possible, because when we do this we carry their absence with us…now his absence is permanent. As the FTD advanced the window of opportunity to make amends passed. My relationship with Kirk was never the one that I wanted. I could not change him in earlier times and he was never going to change me with his unrelenting fusillades. I had, and still have, a hard enough time, doing the work of healing myself and becoming a better, more evolved person. The exclusion of others, whether done to limit one’s own pain or for any other reason, can also be a limitation of one’s self…while at the same time, we must remain wary of those who would ‘hurt’ us. Boundaries are necessary. But we need to be sensitive to how some barriers can cause more harm than they might defend us from. 

A casualty of our separation was the relationship between our respective families, children growing up separate from their cousins, diminished by decisions they had no part in or understanding of. I struggled with this…did I give up to soon? Was my choice unnecessarily selfish? How much within us is really within our own abilities to ‘fix’? I know that forgiveness and acceptance are essential here in all ways. Injuries multiply. Focusing on pain, loss and want, will never resolve them. We need to free ourselves and give others the opportunity to do likewise. Such pain may be imposed on us unwillingly, while at other times we might do this to ourselves. Whatever the source and reason it becomes a loss. We are all wounded, but how we deal with that is up to each of us. Much of our lives can feel out of our own control, but it is our responsibility to ourselves to do our best, to be kind to ourselves. Ultimately, this will drive us to being so to others. We are all in this life together.

All that lives will one day end in death. A cynical person may reduce this to, ‘we are born to die’, but that view is a failure to recognize the meaning of an individual’s life, that intervening time between birth and death, the ‘weight’ that it carries along the way. It also ignores the larger community, this living planet, of which we are a part. To do this is to ignore biology and relationship. Denying meaning in the life of another is also an injury to all and oneself. 

Meaning, learning, understanding, are gifts, born out of living…the more fully we commit to it, the ‘richer’ we are. Living is a process of enrichment, of adding value, making connections, building relationship, adding complexity and diversity, a recognition of the power and agency in others, and ourselves, of positively enabling them, of honoring relationship and necessity. Life is not a simple hedonistic pursuit of pleasure, nor is it a denial of it. Meaning is inseparable from living.. It requires that we shed self-importance, doubt and fear, and live our lives fully committed, courageously, with surety, compassion and humility. When we feel empathy for others, we acknowledge our connection, and through it provide them the opportunity to benefit from the ‘gifts’ we each have to offer, developing more fully in the act of supporting each other. We are reflected back to ourselves by the way we treat others. Their health, vitality, successes and beauty are in part our own made possible through our generosity of spirit.

Every individual, every organism, carries within themselves, and through their connections, our relatedness, value and the meaning inherent in wholeness. We have been ‘trained’ to not see this. All life is linked as it flows endlessly through relationships from one to another. We are ‘of’ this world. It is not here ‘for’ us. Life nourishes life…literally and directly, in many ways, in terms of energy and biology. Life sustains life and it does so through both the living of each individual as well as in its sacrifice, as when one body, fruit or seed nourishes another, death necessarily supporting the living via consumption directly or, alternatively via ‘rot’, and the ‘freeing’ of nutrients from older, discarded structures, making them available for plant growth and the beginning round of another ‘trip’ around the trophic cycle. This nourishment also comes from the sharing of love, knowledge and art, our connections to place and community, that which replenishes our mind and spirit, adds to our experience, skill and wisdom. Such learning is requisite for a fully lived life. As is ‘belonging’, as belonging is a manifestation of our relationships. Denying the importance of others blocks our understanding of all that lives and of the intimate relationships between us…all of us, in our many forms. Life is more than simple longevity, it is foremost about its quality and that is gained from engagement with others, in relationship with.

My brother Kirk and I, denied each other the fullness of our relationship and in doing so the value and meaning that each could have contributed to the other. We do this to ourselves in the broken and denied relationships we drag along with us. In our case the link was broken voluntarily and somewhat selfishly and ignorantly. Our lives and those of our families, were lessened by this. Its impact has been similar to any such ‘break’ between ourselves and others. In denying them, we deny ourselves. 

Familial relationships, parents and siblings, are unique, in their ‘scale’, their intimacy, different in these ways from any others we might ever take on. Family is acquired directly, not as a matter of choice, as are those many purely biological relationships, those linking connections.  All of our other relationships will include some element of ‘choice’ and opportunity. With our families we share not just our genetics, we also share an intimate history over our formative years which sets the stage for all of our relationships to follow. Family connects us more intimately to the flow of time and the constant ‘dance’ of birth and death, renewal and loss, but it is there all the same. Our ignorance or awareness of it does not change this reality…it effects only our perception of it. While we age along with our friends and neighbors, schoolmates, coworkers, neighbors  and acquaintances, even strangers from across the planet, it is with family that we feel the passage of time most acutely. Over time we lose our grandparents, then most likely our parents, next our siblings, a partner or spouse, our friends and ourselves. Each stage is a reminder of our own mortality. It is our relationships which lead us to the depth of our feeling of loss. Outside of family we feel a loss somewhat less deeply. In living rightly it is absolutely essential that we understand loss and behave accordingly, not so much as others might think that we should, but in accordance with life itself. All things will pass into non-living, necessarily so. It is through our expression of loss that we most honestly express the value with which we held the departed, which gives depth of meaning to the relationships we remain actively in. Whether tragic or heroic, at a biologically basic level, each death is necessary. Through our mourning we demonstrate our understanding of life and our role in it. In my case with Kirk, that feeling of loss began long ago, before his death. It diminished me. 

I imagine that some believe that without relationship to others they themselves will suffer less loss….That may be, but if it is, it is only because their own capacity to feel, was so diminished by this denial, that such a loss is little felt. We fool ourselves in our attempt to isolate ourselves, in defense from such pain. Yes, it is imperative that we defend ourselves, that we protect ourselves from those assaults which do damage to us. The difficulty lies with how we might assess such damage as to whether it will ultimately harm or strengthen us. Families all around us suffer damaging dysfunctions and abusive relationships that profoundly injure members. Our relationships with our family members are so close that it is difficult to see for ourselves, but we must. How we feel, our state of health, whether we feel ourselves to be advancing, progressing, developing a positive self-image, or in confidence, realizing goals…recognizing that we are in the process of ‘becoming’, a process central to life, these are not easy to see, and they require that we defend and nourish ourselves and others.

Having said all of this…in my studies of the life sciences, evolution, quantum biology and physics, as well as in my readings of the peoples of various indigenous cultures, I have come to understand that this life is less material, less ‘individual’, than we have been ‘taught’ to think in western cultures. Any one individual is far more limited than the promise of the moment to come. Substance ‘dissolves’ when we look close enough, and ‘fast’ enough. This moment, this cutting edge of time and life, is more of an energetic wave, existence, an infinite series of moments, moments we cannot really closely examine, because as soon as we attempt to, the moment is gone, swept away into the past and memory. We consciously, and necessarily clumsily, string these moments into history, each of us, cobbling our own together to ‘make sense’ of time’s flow. Our stories and substance take on weight as we examine them, as we tell our stories. This is just as true for our own bodies. Who are we? What are we? Existence, life occurs in each moment and cannot be held. We string our thoughts together from the past, as we attempt to navigate a present that is in no way fixed, so that we might anticipate a future, which can only ever be probable. Because of this we can never truly know what is to come…we can barely comprehend ‘now’. We belong to the ever advancing moment of life’s evolution. Every individual plays a role in its unfolding. The further ahead we attempt to look, the less certainty we can have when we attempt to predict it. No individual has anymore significance or importance than any other and it is here where we run into ‘trouble’ as individuals and peoples.

I miss my brother or rather the child that I grew up with, his smile, his creative spark and the childlike promise, innocence and character all children are born with. That person has been gone for a very long time. We are born with a certain amount of toughness, of resilience, optimism which adds so much to our fitness for this life. It enables us to come back, knocked down time after time. We are born into families and communities in position to support us when we need it, to protect and love us so that we might grow up to be the best version of ourselves. That’s the person families and communities would benefit most from, our ‘best’ self.  To help and support those in need is ultimately not altruistic, because what is best for a child, for anybody, is also what’s best for all others. We truly are in this together. 

Part of the loss that I feel is for the person my brother could have been! Who we all could be. I don’t believe this is a naïve or pointless thought. I believe that a nurturing, caring, supportive world, is a part of our natural state. I recognize that pain and suffering will always be part of this world, but I refuse to accept a world that embraces that while abandoning the world of relationship and cooperation, of love and inclusion, of a world which embraces and respects every part of it, however humble. There can be little beauty, meaning or joy in a world which has largely abandoned it, embracing only the hard edge of competition, of seeking and taking advantage, in which holding power over others is a goal to be emulated. Such seems to be the world we live in today.

Somehow we have gotten distracted away from that which truly matters. It has been hung just out of our reach as a prize. We are told, time and again, that if we first do this one thing, we will get what we truly want and we are set against each other in its pursuit. For some reason we keep believing them, accepting what they offer us. 

I’ve never understood a politics or religion that denies others , that in fact takes such a position as a basic tenant of their belief. Such beliefs can only lead to a divisive, broken, world, one of domination over, of denial and enslavement, the annihilation of others. Such believers do this while claiming a righteous path, but as I’ve written before, righteousness is a commitment to an idea or belief, which may, or may not be, committed to life and wholeness. Such beliefs appear to be dominating today. How one can take comfort in them, denying all others, while professing a love of mankind is to me an  impossibility and profoundly sad. Claiming the sanctity of the soul, which we all possess under their belief system, while denying those who believe otherwise, even though they too possess souls, denying them the simple comfort and support any living person requires and deserves, creates a split in the believer which is destructive to all things. Caught up in this inhuman conflict are today’s political, economic and social institutions, each perverted into weapons violating that which these believers profess to value. Where is the loving God in any of this? I am agnostic not Christian. I see little more than an intentional ‘cherry picking’ of the Bible by so many at work here. They dole out tolerance and forgiveness to their exclusive club of believers, alongside an intolerance and ready cruelty for all others, souls judged by simple membership. What flimsy philosophy.

__________________________________________

Abusing, forgetting, dismissing, demonizing, criticizing, hating, hurting a child, or anyone, does harm to us all. A damaged person is less able to care, to support those around them, in the way that someone healthy and in an active, supportive, relationship with us can. Family is that most direct form of relation. We thrive on or may be destroyed by it. Parents ‘owe’ their children. From them children learn to be. Adults and mentors are in a prime position to aid the young in their development, to add to and build a stronger, healthier and more vibrant person and society…just as they are so positioned to do the most damage. Parents have children, but they are no more theirs than anything can be. We are each our own…and a part of the whole. The concept of power over, of ownership, is perverted when the powerful use such power to their own benefit at the detriment of others. There is no justification for such treatment, beyond the brutal argument of ‘might makes right’. ‘A man’s ‘home’ is his castle’ easily becomes permission for abuse. It pushes us toward a world in which power and our ability to defend what is ‘ours’ is foremost and so it sets the ‘table’ for conflict. Relationship is pushed aside.

I believe that a nurturing, caring, supportive world, is a part of and a key of our natural state, at least as much as is the violent, struggling existence so many claim it to be. There will always be a natural push-pull, a balance between consuming and nurturing. Organisms are dependent upon each other for sustenance. There is a tension between life and death as we move from one to the other, pulling the world along, an uncertain yet evolving path. Thinning, winnowing, granting success to those most fit, cannot last long without regeneration, the continual birth of new life to fill vacancies and niches, creating new, perhaps better ‘equipped’ individuals as others fail or wear down. Without all of this to support it, Earth would soon be exhausted. ‘Natural Selection’ and evolution is a long process, occurring over multiple generations. Knowledge can serve as guideposts in our individual lives. We are free to follow them or not. We could choose to be stewards, to acknowledge our relationships and avoid pointless suffering as we attempt to support life in its evolution or we can literally pave the way to an armageddon and an ‘end times’ that condemns so many people and species to life in a devastated world. Who does this philosophy serve?

Somewhere along the way many of us have traded away our individual hopes and dreams of a better, richer, life, for this crassly material one. We have suffered injury and in doing so lost faith in our fellow ‘men’. Instead many of us search for meaning, health, joy and accomplishment in competition and consumption. This has proven to be false, a seductive ‘lie’. You commonly hear that everything has its price, and now we live in a world in which meaning is largely abandoned, and value with it, along with the concept of ‘relationship with’. Value has become something awarded by the marketplace, governments, churches, even at times the faulty judgements of less formal peer groups, fearful of losing advantage, not something inherent to a community, person, place or any living thing. The world that matters is reduced to assets and resources. We are more and more a society of disconnected individuals, populating a world which is as foreign to us as aliens from another planet…out of relationship. In such a divided world, we find ourselves breaking it further, more deeply, focused more and more on differences, forgetting entirely what is shared in common and its necessity. The fractures deepen and split as differences, of all scales, become all that we see. To what end? Where is the mending, the healing, and birth with its promise of a future, that binds all of nature into one?

Kirk did not have an easy time growing up…artistic souls rarely do.  Life can be difficult for most of us. Success for anyone is not possible without support and opportunity. In a world which denies this to so many, society can only fall short and fail us. Do we all not deserve better in this world? It is our choice. Can you imagine a world in which we first ask, ‘What can I do?’ “Where do I fit in, in the processes of life?” instead of, ‘What can I claim as mine?’ The first path is one of abundance and celebration, a world in which we are a part of rather in opposition to our fellows. The second is one of scarcity and denial, lives stripped of meaning, a society defined as less than….Possibilities never realized. Any species so limited will be short lived in nature. We, in a limited sense, are individuals, but as individuals, we can live only very limited lives.

Kirk William Wright
born Aug. 12, 1952
died Oct. 30, 2021

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