My brother Roger passed away in an accident three days before his 45th birthday.
He was a thoughtful and loving, and I suspect his highly sensitive soul never felt truly at home in this world.
When my mom called to tell me, I sensed that something was wrong even before we’d said hello. Her voice quivered and I could hear the tears in it.
It was a sleepy August afternoon and I was pulling my big yellow Sprinter van out of the theater parking lot where I’d taken my family to a matinee.
I’d been in meetings with Roger just a few days before, but I had no idea that it would be the last time I’d see him.
I tried to remember what we’d last said to each other. It was an ordinary goodbye.
Our family gathered at his house the night he died.
I helped write his obituary. As I did, I thought about a book I own that challenges writers to distill life stories into six-word memoirs.
I came up with this for Roger: “Cars and computers—never fast enough.”
He loved anything with lots of horsepower or a CPU.
Although I missed Roger terribly, I’d had an experience just a few weeks prior that gave me tremendous comfort in the wake of his departure.
I’d gone with my wife to Ecuador to experience the Amazon firsthand and to spend time with some of the indigenous people who live there.
We spent more than a week deep in the jungle—far from home but deep in the heart of life—learning the stories, crafts and ways of life of the Achuar tribe.
We participated in a morning wayusa ceremony, a daily ritual for the Achuar, where family members wake before sunrise to gather around the fire, drink tea and share their dreams from the night before.
We also participated in traditional plant ceremonies.
We were instructed to enter these ceremonies with a question we were seeking an answer to.
My question was, “What is the purpose of my life?”
I might have been holding onto the question too hard, because I didn’t get much in the way of an answer. Fortunately, a few days later, I had a chance to try again.
I entered this ceremony with the same question, but with an openness to whatever came (or didn’t).
When I again experienced myself clinging to the question too hard, I released it.
Lying on a banana leaf under the light of a full moon, on a small cliff above the banks of the Amazon with the soft, continuous warble that emanates from the jungle at night, it spontaneously occurred to me to ask a question I hadn’t even considered.
I wanted to know, “What happens when we die?”
In my mind’s eye, I immediately saw an image of a fertile field. It was as if I was suspended above it, and the rich soil filled my frame of my vision, extending to the horizon on all sides.
Then, as if observing time-lapse photography, green shoots burst from the ground, growing rapidly upward. They just grew and grew without ceasing.
Life’s impulse was unstoppable.
It was as if my answer came: “Life. There’s only more life.”
We sometimes think of life and death as opposites, but I don’t think that’s quite accurate.
Birth and death, maybe, are opposites. But I don’t think that life has an opposite.
I suspect that life is just one relentless process that continues forever, unyielding and ultimately uninhibited, and that we experience suffering when we forget that each of us—and all that is—is part of that process.
The form of things constantly changes, but what interests me is the essence beyond (and inside!) all things.
My brother’s body is gone, but somehow the life he’s a part of continues, and I think it always will.
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