All the Way to Heaven

· Essays · , , ,

by Amy Shoko Brown
Originally published in Mountain Record journal: “Death and Renewal” (1993)

For a long time after Michael died I wanted to write but didn’t because somehow it felt like taking advantage of his absence. It was as if in some way Michael was looking over my shoul­der and saying, “How could you do this to me?” And now he’s just humming along, looking out the window at the sky most of the time and then at me and he doesn’t even have to read what I write; he just says, “Oh, I didn’t know you felt that way.” And laughs, sometimes pokes me in the ribs, and once while I was writing he cried, “I never knew you felt that way.” 

I was so frightened when it was just you and me in the hospital, and nurses and a doctor who never arrived in the emergency admittance. One day you were in such pain you could only say, “Amy, I can’t tell you how much it hurts.” 

And so we did not speak much and you slept as much as drugs would allow and I wish now we had talked of death but that was something that you had never spoken of, that I had only talked of or written to you about a very few times and now I only have my own letters to read and know for sure what I might have told you and you might have heard. 

This is not settled. I’m still confused about who died and if anything really changed on a fundamental level or if my heart needs to break, to break wide open. When I look at my legs I see Michael’s legs. Smaller, of course, and not hairy in the same way, not as skinny as in his last days, yet not as muscular as in his dancing life. His legs just the same. When I look in the mirror I see Michael’s face, my features rounder, his more defined, but Michael’s face just the same, and when I get my hair cut, Michael’s hair is cut. And sometimes my hands are his and I greet these revelations with ambivalence. Glad to be Michael, shocked when I think, ah yes, Michael’s hands and legs and face and what will become of it all? He died. I will die. 

Watching Michael die in my memory is watching myself die and this is the horror of it: Watching the decay and decline of my body, helpless to change it, unable to turn it around, my fate out of my control. Out of my control. Until death do us part. I watched a strong young body in three weeks grow old and die. But Michael? Who knows what he experienced? Just this—the recognition that I do not know what the experience of life is for another person even if I witness it. To admit I do not know is a relief. When it was happening it was not as horrifying as my memory of it. I was upset with the tubes and decay, but somehow I could go into the room and sit down and just be with him anyway. It was, like hell I’m going to let this shit get in the way of the last time I’ll spend with Michael, like hell I’m going to run away from him because he looks like…he’s dying. 

I remember the night we spent together, I at the foot of your bed, halfway out in the main intensive care room, your own room crowded with machines. Ken and I had just stopped by to see how you were doing. You hadn’t been alert most of the day and we hoped that when you were you would be able to look at someone you knew and feel that you were not alone in some foreign land of white sheets, white light, and plastic. We came into the room and you were wide awake. Eyes nearly bulging, looking out between the two of us. We told you we were here and that we loved you. And you lay there unable to say a word with the respirator pump­ing and you looked at the ceiling and tears fell from your eyes. 

And that night we talked about death. We looked into our eyes for the last time that night. I said, “Michael, are you afraid of dying? You may not want to talk about this. I don’t know, but you look frightened and I’m scared too. I’ve never died or had any great religious experience, so I don’t really know what to say. I don’t know how to die, but the best I’ve done living is to just really keep letting go. And that’s hard when you‘re afraid. But just let yourself be afraid. And go on. It’s okay to go on.” 

We stayed there looking at each other, holding hands, Michael’s gaze getting drowsy, and sweat pouring from his face, his whole body burning with fever. I let go of his hand to wet a cold towel to wipe his face. He woke up and reached his hand toward me—he hadn’t moved for days—and lifted his head. I reached for his hand and came back to his side. “Michael, I’m just getting a cold towel for your forehead, I’m not leaving you.” His hand did not loosen and I stayed by his side until it did, then got a damp cloth and wiped the white sweat from his face. He got drowsy again, his eyes open and more relaxed. A nurse came in to change sheets and whatever they do when they ask me to leave and close the door behind them. I came back in when she left, and let him know I would be nearby, I was just going to take a nap in the waiting room. This is the only time in my adult life that I remember Michael asking me to just be in his presence. 

My mother has told me that when she first brought me home from the hospital, Michael wanted to play with me. He was fascinated. He stood by my crib and looked at me and wanted to touch me and I cried. Maybe it was a bit much. But he was there from the start, and I have fond memories of growing up with both of my brothers. 

I think about our childhood because it’s nice to remember. It helps me accept these cycles and changes and to remember: Yes he died, but he also lived. 

Today was difficult. One of those working days where I’m thinking of two years ago, the last time I spent with Michael when he was well. This is the same kind of thought I have about my parents before I go home for a visit. I think of them and what they are doing at this time of year: it’s cold and the snow squeaks beneath mom’s feet when she takes Tabb for a walk. She drinks tea and does the crossword puzzle at the kitchen table while dad gets ready for work, fixes his own version of grits, and weighs his breakfast fish. 

These things I imagine, and though they are “memory,” they are recurring “memory”—as long as my parents live in that house, similar scenes will occur every time I visit. But with Michael, there is no hope for the future, and the disappointment is a dim throb in my neck and a sighing slouch.

What is practice in these times? I lose my grounding often and wallow in the pain of not being satisfied.

This life I practice is not pretty and perfect, is not grateful and willing to learn day to day. So much of zazen is failure. Yet it’s a mystery to sit and really feel “I don’t like this, I don’t want to breathe, I do not want to remember.” I’m constantly amazed that allowing myself to sit “bad zazen” leaves me open to the brush of a hand and wisp of a smile afterwards.

Of late I have been feeling better and that is as much a trap as the deep depression—wanting to avoid the deep depression and not think of things that may bring uncontrollable crying fits and unspeakable fears. And with the passing of time too the ability to be willing to have thoughts of unspeakable fears. And let the season blow the dry brown leaves away. And let the season cover the knotted season past. And let go of controlling these seasons, of doubting these seasons, of imagining that predictions have any value whatsoever.

The image of my brother’s body was with me for a long time. A great teacher. No matter how dearly we hold on, nothing and no one can avoid the passing seasons.

There are seasons to this grieving; this week is the return of the haunting fears, the dreams of violence, of being violated, of having everything taken, of watching my whole family, everyone I love, die. This season I try not to dwell in as reality, though I find it more tempting than joy.  

This is the season of worrying, of imagining a car wreck, the violation, the hospital. No one having my phone number. This is the season of anger at anyone who I blame for putting me in a vulnerable position, any position that I can even imagine as dangerous. This is the season of fear of losing myself.

A year ago today my father made the decision to take Michael off “code blue”—which meant if Michael’s heart stopped, they would not try to revive him with CPR and more drugs to jump start the heart. Michael hadn’t been conscious for days and had shown no signs of “turning the corner” or making a come-back, or any of those euphemisms that meant he was dying not recovering, so this decision was an admission, acceptance of the situation. And we wept. 

The teachings of my brother’s dying were not really any different from everyday teachings—there is only this time to write, only this time to cook, to make love—but his dying made all of these teachings painfully real. There really was no other time to be with him, there would be no tomorrow when things would be okay, when he would be healthy or at least alive and we would be together. There was no tomorrow to talk things over, to resolve anything more with him. 

That night, at his bedside, I leaned down close to his ear. “Michael, I was thinking about that Christmas when you sang songs for us. You know that was the best Christmas present I ever had (and I sang quietly for him: …you’re my best girl, and nothing you do is wrong. I’m glad you belong to me. And if a day is rough for me, having you there is enough for me.) I love you Michael. And I always will no matter where we are.” And I kissed him goodbye. 

The next morning Dad called, crying, “He died.” I said I would pick up Ken and we’d be right over. When Julie and Ken and I got to the hospital, Mom and Dad were waiting outside the intensive care unit. We all hugged and cried. Mom said she wanted to go in; she was waiting for us so we could go in together. So my parents and Ken and I walked the familiar path to his room and opened the door. My breath is taken: no IVs dripping, no machines beeping, no tubes from his nose, mouth, penis, or shoulder. Just his body. I had never seen someone dead, except all dressed up in funeral homes. Mom suggested that we each say something, so we all prayed in our own way, sharing that deepest communication with Michael together. Thinking of it now I could describe it as all of us breathing Michael and somehow admitting to each other how much we loved, not just Michael, but each other, and life, and having lived with Michael as we did. 

When we left the room, Dad turned and patted Michael’s foot, “Goodbye, little buddy.” 

There were arrangements with the hospital and finding a funeral home and things to be done, and we weren’t quite ready to leave that familiar spot outside the ICU, so we stood and talked. I asked Julie if she would come in with me and do a service. Again, the shock of his body. Keeping my eyes open and upon his body, chanting: 

“Maha Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra. Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva doing deep prajna paramita clearly saw emptiness of all the five conditions thus completely relieving misfortune and pain…Oh Shariputra, all Dharmas are forms of emptiness, not born, not destroyed, not stained, not pure, without loss, without gain, so in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, conception, discrimina­tion, awareness, no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind, no color, sound, smell, taste, touch, phenomenon, no realm of sight, no realm of consciousness, no ignorance and no end to ignorance, and thus the bodhisattva…” 

Julie and I looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders as if to go on, looked at the body, and backed up a few stanzas to try again, “no realm of sight, no realm of consciousness, no ignorance and no end to ignorance, no old age and death and no end to old age and death, no suffering, no cause of suffering, no extinguishing, no path, no wisdom, and no gain. No gain and thus the bodhisattva lives Prajna Paramita…” 

The words rang clear, the pure words that we had nearly skipped over: no old age and death and no end to old age and death. I heard the chanting as I have never heard the Heart Sutra. I saw my questions as I never had before me. I felt incredibly grateful to Michael for having given me his life. We stood in silence, then bowed out of the room.

Today it has been one year since my brother died. I’m taking the day off to spend some time with him, and to write, chant services, and paint. This I am enjoying, whereas the thought of going in to work today, of trying to force my mind into a task on this one year memorial day, was incredibly depressing. Michael gave his life for me, and died for me. He was not perfect, but whoever said Jesus was perfect either? Perfection has nothing to do with a gift. This is a special day, and it feels right to honor it 

I have regularly done services for Michael since his passing: on the 8th of each month and on any day that I’m thinking of him a lot. I do not know what happens during service, but I can say that something happens, whether it’s noticing that I feel awful or elated, or just struggling to bring myself back to the chant. In any case, I end with three bows and breathe more fully when I walk out of the zendo. Service has a way of bringing me back on track, of very viscerally, physically noticing, “ah, that’s what I think happened to Michael.” Or I hear a line from a sutra differently, notice that I thought a line meant something in particular. It’s not very often that I just chant. That’s something I always thought I was supposed to do during service: just chant, blankly. But it’s not at all blank! It’s incredibly dynamic, with all sorts of mind detours and distractions that are so important for me to notice, to acknowledge, and return to chanting. 

A lot of this death and grieving is appreciation of living and letting go of my fixation on goal. Grieving, both before his death and after, has magnified my habits and doubts, and continually noticing these habits and doubts has strengthened my faith. It’s as if the questions got so strong, so loud, so demanding, that I’ve just decided to look at them and live them and say, “Yes, I have to do this practice, I have to put effort into ‘accomplishing the Way.’ Even more importantly, I’m alive now, right now, and I’m sobbing and it’s not okay, and I’m laughing and forgot if it is or isn’t okay; what is okay is whatever I’m doing. I trust that I am going to make mistakes and still I am going to live. I trust that I am not the perfect practitioner and still I am going to live and practice Zen with all of my heart. And I hope I am not just another buji Zen practitioner, and if I am that’s okay, because I am going to show my true buji face and let it die. And I’m going to fail…and I might even succeed. But mostly I’m going to live. 

Michael at the San Diego Zoo admiring the sea lions, “My god, what a burp, worse than you after dinner. That one’s swimming upside down! They’re really incredible. I don’t think I ever watched them before.”

I feel like Michael has led me through the writing of this, given me permission and nagged me to follow through on sitting down and doing it, as he always did when he was alive. Though I’ve always thought of Michael and me as having very different values, it was his urging and pestering that pushed me to practice. His constant questioning of my choices, always thinking that I should do more with my life, and asking me where I envisioned my life going? What was I doing? Why do it? He was demanding, and I often cried during a barrage of questions, feeling the weight of both his and my own disapproval. This changed when I started to practice, and I made more decisions from the gut. One was to move to the Monastery. Michael said that there was more to life than hiding away, and added insults that I, thankfully, have forgotten. I didn’t argue. I felt my heart beat wildly and remembered to breathe and listen to him, and I heard anger. I let him finish and simply said, “Michael, I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’ve taken very seriously what you’ve said about really living my life, about how this is not a dress rehearsal. And I’m doing what I really want to do, maybe for the first time in my life. I’m sorry if you don’t understand.” He was quiet, and then said, “I’m sorry I got so angry. I guess I’m not doing what I’d like to be doing and I’m jealous.” 

Michael, Michael, there are things that I will never forget and experiences I can never remember that are living, breathing in me. And everyday I die to the Intensive Care Unit, to the AIDS news, to the little white dog I see on the way to work, to the laugh of a friend, to you. 

We may never get to heaven,
but it’s heaven at least to try.

—sung by Michael for our parent’s 25th anniversary

Spring rain drops cling to the willow
Petals fall from the magnolia
The unborn and the unextinguished are just this.
There are no traces to be found anywhere
So how can I express it?

Misty mountains
Endless rivers
The journey itself
All reveal the body of perfection.
Don’t you see?
All the way to heaven 
Is heaven itself.

—Daido Roshi’s memorial poem to Michael Brown, April 26, 1992

Addendum 2018:

The writing of “All the Way to Heaven” was (obviously) stream of consciousness. Even I was surprised when I wrote: “Michael gave his life for me, and died for me. He was not perfect, but whoever said Jesus was prefect either? Perfection has nothing to do with a gift.” Here I am, years later, having unintentionally reconciled with the Catholic church because of taking my mom to church for three years. It was the one place where she was most at ease, happy, even joyous, to sing and celebrate. As she declined I would speak the prayers right into her ears during mass so she could follow along. The more I freely gave my voice to her, the more I could feel her body resonating, celebrating the prayers. Through her, I learned to pray. It’s like she gave me a piece of myself back. So it is that I see Michael, my mom, really everyone, gives their life to me. Even dies for me. Moment to moment, as long as I don’t hold too tight to how it’s always been. In perfect imperfection. When I can receive it, it’s a blessing. 

How much those little moments mean: the only time Michael asked me to just be in his presence—knowing, from receiving that gift, how much we all want to matter to each other. And the determination to not let the mind get in the way of very real connection that’s possible, and healing, amidst these circumstances that don’t make sense. How many times did mom say absolutely crazy things, and if I just met her in it, we connected and both felt nourished. AIDS, Diabetes, Alzheimers, these illnesses that my brother, father, and mother died from, were truly the medicine that inspired us (or forced us) to let go of enough of our old patterns so we could experience the connection and love that we so deeply wanted. So grateful to all who have gone before. So grateful for all who are here now.

Amy Shoko Brown lives in Dayton, OH where she works as a therapist. 

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