Brothers under another sky
I’ve just returned from one of those once-in-a-lifetime journeys that prove to be in fact life changing. Soon after the abrupt death of my youngest brother this past June – the first of my siblings to die – we learned that my younger brother in Australia was facing yet another serious surgery of his own, with radiation and chemotherapy following. We are all of a certain age now, and so with the death of one brother and the serious illness of the other, it was clearly time for my older brother and me to go to Australia to be with John, and for all three of us to spread the ashes of our youngest brother together.
One doesn’t really just simply go to Australia. It’s an incredibly long and rather difficult journey, involving the crossing of the dateline and the equator into another hemisphere, into a different season of the year, and under another sky. Landing in Melbourne – at precisely the same latitude south as we are north here in Sonoma – was like going through Alice’s looking-glass: everything looks exactly the same, only backwards.
The landscape and the climate – the villages along the streams and the pathways through the trees, the cafs and the bookstores, the wineries and the farmers’ markets and the gold country – it’s all just like our own. It’s the differences that stand out in stark contrast that demand attention – the strange flowers, birds, and animals, and the way people talk, the left-sided driving, and the startling fact that it is suddenly spring all over again. Australia is a good place for three brothers to recognize their similarities, and to appreciate their differences.
The four of us, all boys, were raised on a small farm in the apple country out near Sebastopol, far apart enough in age to develop entirely different interests, and to live entirely different lives. Now it was time to meet again, to learn about one another, and to discover how deeply old assumptions had influenced our relationships.
It’s interesting to see how a new discovery today can change everything we had ever believed we knew – and how it can even change us, by changing our minds. We talked late into the night each night, learning what each of us had thought and felt “Back Then,” a half century before. The events we remembered began to take on more meaning, as we realized that we were not alone in our childhood after all. We discovered a companionship that had been there all along without our knowing, and still (I think) it was a companionship deeply desired.
It’s said that our siblings compose our first society. Our parents may be our first relationships, but they establish the pattern of authority that we learn to appease throughout our lives. Our brothers and sisters, on the other hand, set the appetite and tone for the friendships and lovers we seek and find in the years that follow. To square things with our siblings, even this late in life, seems to help set straight our place in the world.
One evening, drinking brandy – and I won’t say whose idea it was – we decided to cut down a tree that had died in John’s back yard. The next day, as he and I pulled on a rope tied about the upper branches, our older brother stood on a ladder, cutting into the trunk with a chainsaw. When the tree began to topple, the rope abruptly broke, and we fell together to the ground, and I heard the sound of John’s arm breaking. The doctors were less concerned than the children and the grandchildren, and set the bone and sent him home. It should heal quite easily, they said, and this will only enforce some needed rest. My brother, I noticed, wore his arm in its sling afterwards with a certain swagger.
My oldest daughter has since reminded me of the Japanese practice of kintsugi – in which broken pottery is repaired with glues that are infused with gold to accentuate and celebrate rather than disguise the damage, and make of its scar an enhancement rather than a disfigurement. The way we feel damaged by our experiences is simply our negative opinion of the way we are changed by our experiences – wanting, in a nostalgic way, not to be changed by life. Rather than attempt to repair the damage, we would be better off repairing our opinion – and, letting the past go, we may then welcome change.
The three of us finally brought Timothy’s ashes to the place in Andersons Creek where gold was first discovered, there in Australia, just after it had been found in California. We sifted his ashes into the waters, letting them drift into the eddies and surges that swirled about the rocks before carrying them away. “Ashes to ashes,” I said quietly to myself, “dust to dust – and gold to gold.” And so it is that I then returned home, changed.