Last night I woke up with a startle. I thought I’d heard the ringtone on my phone that is assigned to my brother, Christian, who lives with his family in Germany. The weird thing is, this ringtone is muted. I couldn’t possibly have heard it.
A few months ago, late last summer, this ringtone had started to haunt my nights. Imagine a handful of tiny silver bells echoing as they hit the surface of a frozen lake. That’s what I used to think of when, mostly in the middle of the night, I’d wake up from this eery, tinny jingle. I sleep in my contact lenses, and once I wake up it takes a while for my vision to adjust. Blurry-eyed I’d grab my cell phone, trying to decipher the words on the luminous screen. I’d fumble in the dark to find my eye drops, usually without success. Waiting for my eyes to become more lubricated, I’d lie back down and close my eyes for a moment again.
A familiar picture would take shape in my mind. Surrounded by a huge body of black water, a very small, wooden house seems to shiver in the cold, blue night. Dark waves are lapping at its doorsteps. The house feels nauseous, its throat is tightening. Frozen fingers grip its heart.
During those summer weeks, Christian would text me updates on our mother’s disintegrating health status. He is a busy surgeon, and Germany is nine hours ahead of our time here in California. Waking up to the nightly sound of the silvery tinsel bells, usually announcing more bad news, turned into something I would learn to dread. Over the course of several weeks, my mom’s scheduled heart surgery turned into a nightmarish sequence of complications, strokes, heart failures, moments of hope and multiple surgical procedures that ultimately couldn’t save her. My mother passed away as I was on my way to Germany. I spent two weeks in my hometown to take care of the funeral arrangements and to help my father, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, settle into his drastically changed life at an assisted living home.
Back in California, the chameleonic onslaught of grief caught me off guard. Mingling with the deeper layers of depression I became wary of its many shapes and moods. I yearned to connect with my brother, to talk, to write, to share — if not our feelings — then at least some moments of open awkwardness, of clumsy silences, of saying something unexpected, of strained laughter that might turn into tears, anything really. Anything but trying to bridge the gap between us via text or email and waiting for replies that never came. For reasons I haven’t completely unraveled yet, our modes of communication have rarely gone past the written, digital word since our mother passed away. Perhaps we are too busy. We both live active lives. Perhaps having to be the closest relative and contact person for our father weighs more on my brother than I know. Perhaps he wishes that I didn’t live in a far-away country, that I could be of more help. I wish I could do more.
Perhaps it’s just that each of us has to stay in our individual bubble of grief for a while longer. Perhaps talking to one another cannot mean, as it might for others, the finding of mutual comfort by sharing our feelings. Perhaps we are both afraid of touching each other’s raw spots. When I get lost in the maze of stories in my head, sooner or later I find my way back to what I know is true. I’ll always love my brother. The best way I know to love him is to let him be. And the best way I know to take care of my grieving self is to mute his ringtone.
Last night, when I woke up because I thought I’d heard the sound of the icy silver bells on my phone, I felt the familiar fear again. The fear of more bad news. The ringtone, real or imagined, revived the image of the little house, the surrounding dark water rising dangerously close to its entrance. My mom’s sweet face floated by. And then my dad’s, more serious and drawn. The disorienting, nightly darkness took a hold of me again as I fumbled for my phone only to realize that, even if I could have made out the words on its screen, there would be no message from my brother. It was just a dream. Fear gave way to sadness. I lay back down. My hand reached over to the far side of my bed and found the purring warmth of my cat, Cassidy. I don’t know who fell asleep first.
I wake up from the pulsating vibrations of my muted cell phone on my nightstand. Dawn fills my bedroom with its grey-blue light. I look at my cat as he yawns and stretches. I remember the weird dream of my brother’s ringtone last night. Cassidy gets up, walks across my stomach and settles down on my chest for his morning cuddle. I pet him, glad for the warm, rumbling weight on my body. His reverberating breath against my rib cage comforts me. For a moment I close my eyes again and drop back into last night’s dreamscape. The ringtone. Christian. The little house in the black water. Mom. Fear. Sadness. And then the fear again.
‘What is the fear about?’ I ask.
‘What do you think?’ It asks.
‘I don’t know.’ I say. ‘I’m anxious. And sad.’
‘What is the sadness about?’ It asks.
‘My mom passed away last summer. My dog died a week later. I wish I could do more for my dad. My friend Warren passed away a couple of weeks ago. I miss my brother. Last week Velvet, one of our horses, colicked and had to be put down.’ I say. ‘There’s been a lot of death and dying lately.’
‘What does that mean to you?’ It asks.
‘It means I’m losing loved ones.’ I say. ‘It means I miss them. It means things end.’
‘And what happens when things end?’ It says.
‘It hurts.’ I say.
‘Ok.’ It says. ‘I can see that.’
We breathe into the silence.
‘Can you surrender to the pain?’ It asks after a while.
‘What do you mean?’ I ask.
‘I mean, can you be ok with it? Can you accept it?’ It asks.
‘I don’t know…’ I say.
‘Can you see that the pain is not all of you? It’s there but it can not overtake your being unless you let it.’ It says.
‘Yes, I remember. Eckhart Tolle. The pain body.’ I say. ‘And what about the fear?’
‘What about it?’ It asks. ‘What does it mean to you?’
‘It’s fear of loss. Fear of darkness.’ I say. ‘Fear of being left alone.’
‘Can you surrender to that fear?’ It asks.
‘I don’t know. It seems so big and overwhelming.’ I say. ‘It’s like the black water that rises all the way up to my neck.’
‘And then what?’ It asks.
‘I don’t know. It feels like it’s going to swallow me.’ I say.
‘And then what happens?’ It asks.
‘I just want it to go away.’ I say.
‘And then what would happen?’ It asks.
‘I’d be without fear.’ I say. ‘Fearless.’
‘And how would that feel?’ It asks.
‘Wonderful.’ I say.
‘How about breaking it down into smaller steps?’ It asks. ‘Could you fear less?’
‘Hmm.’ I say. ‘Fear less?’
‘Yes, rather than jumping into the deep end of the dark water, you could take it slow. Get your toes wet, then your feet, and so on. Give it time. See what happens until you know it well enough to fear it less. Eventually, you may go from fearing less to feeling fearless.’ It says.
‘Hmm.’ I say. ‘It’s worth a try.’
‘Remember, surrender can mean coming to terms.’ It says. ‘Coming to terms with your fear will take you to accepting it. Acceptance will take you to healing.’
‘Hmm. I can see that.’ I say. A warmer, lighter feeling spreads through my being. ‘Thank you.’
I open my eyes and look into Cassidy’s face. We stare at each other for a while. I reach over to check my phone. I can see clearly now. There is a text message from Christian saying that our father has had a bad fall, that he has been taken to the hospital with a fractured femoral neck and that he is scheduled for surgery early the next morning. I take a deep breath. Fear less.
[First published 02-24-2017]