The word understory was gifted to me by a dear friend, as many good things are.
Its meaning can be assumed, because all humans have an underbelly that is not visible in the walking around spaces. The actual definition refers to when a tree or a part of a tree dies and falls to the forest floor and it begins to create a new story.
With the right damp conditions and perfect ingredients, green shoots of growth accumulate underneath the old, decaying parts. This new growth is called the understory, and it is what springs out of the old and the dead. I felt a heavy swoon with her description of the word, and immediately saw how the metaphor could apply to most human stories of loss and regeneration. After she gave it to me, I put the word in my pocket for later, and it was years until I spread it out on the table again. Unknowingly, I began to build my life on the philosophy of the understory, because there were so many little deaths that had come and were coming still. It was how I began to see the darkness as both food and fertile ground for bright, new things.
Some nights mark the calendar where nothing before or after is ever the same.
Exactly two months before I learned what an understory was, my known world stopped — then shattered, the day that my brother died from a drug overdose.
The details I remember are in color and slow-motion texture, pieced out over the years, and lying on the altar I have made for his legacy. I remember the tattered blue pajamas I was wearing and the way the phone screen looked when my dad called in the middle of the night. There was a tablecloth to the left of my bed that was purple velvet, and I had a small space for my graduate school books in the corner.
Mom and I had such a happy day the Saturday before Benjamin died. She helped me clean the house, and we bought fresh vegetables at the farmer’s market. I remember how crystal blue and yellow the day had been, and it was such a contrast to what was screeching towards us. She visited only a couple of times a year, and I am certain this trip was divinely placed in our family timeline. Recently, I asked her what she would have done if she had not been there and we each had to hold the news alone in separate pockets of the country. She thought awhile, and decided she would have driven from Alabama to Illinois to tell me he died. I cannot imagine that stretch of mother road for her.
We flew back to Alabama together early that morning, and it was strange to see people doing ordinary things like reading the newspaper and having breakfast.
We seemed to be looking down on tiny figurines, suspended above the earth with sharp and sudden grief. I could not anchor my body down or feel my feet, and Mama seemed to be on autopilot writing Benjamin’s newspaper obituary. We swung ourselves heavy and home and my forehead grew numb from pressing it up against the plane’s double-paned window and rolling it back and forth, asking him for a sign of the color red. Anything that might give me a clue that he was okay and oriented in peace or heaven or something I could reference. We knew he was spiraling but no one believes the ending is next, and I ached myself sick for another slowed down conversation of hope.
Acts of surrender can be small exhalations like butterflies landing on trees, or they can be heavy, wet flops on the tile of the bathroom floor. The surrender that I found after Benjamin’s death would take me from the bathroom floor to the butterfly, and the work it took to transform the grief into hope would be the most profound of my life.
Benjamin was 29 and I was 27. He did not want to turn 30, and he certainly did not want to grow up or inhabit adulthood in the regular ways. He said that precisely on our last conversation towards the end when both people linger and neither is sure how to get off the phone. I wonder if he knew then somehow, what was coming. His addiction had been ten years and counting, and I had camouflaged into a third parent and a manager of worry and sighs. He had slipped into stealing from medicine cabinets and severing ties of all kinds, and I had lost track of how to protect him. There is a strange turn that seems to happen for most people in their twenties, and it is a recognition of responsibility. We begin to understand, at least in glimpses and parts, that our life is our very own. Benjamin missed this bend in his road, because addiction covered his eyes. I believe he wanted to live, but he slid in and out of hope and trust that he would.
Benjamin did drugs to smooth out his brain and heart and find some order. We found so many lists and repetitive mantras in his journals and books that were living in his room. He even had a detailed list of grooming rituals:
1. Wash body
2. Wash hair
3. Clip fingernails
4. Wash under arms with special Lava soap
He didn’t take drugs in the center of the party, but instead he stayed mostly inside his room, insulated within soothing lists of control and calm. He died while napping with a list beside his head of what to do when he woke up. “Call Buffy” was the third item on deck, just after “Eat” and “Sweet Dog” (a name of one of his friends). I kept that list for 10 years before I lost it among countless apartment moves.
I spent the summer following his death in Montgomery, my hometown, walking in circles and smoking cigarettes and not finding him or red much of anywhere.
Somehow, being close to the humor of his friends and the stale smell of old and once vibrant potential in Alabama felt like the right thing to do, but come autumn I was ready for a fresh perspective.
I returned to my dance graduate program in Illinois at the end of that summer and felt like I had aged 200 years both in looks and in lungs. My body had changed from all the sobbing and snot and screams, but I was ready to take myself back to the ritual of dance class and firming my feet into the floor. I remember that first day back, and how important it felt to slide on soft pants and be barefoot on wood again. I was learning how to manage the pain by surrendering with my bones, and letting the dance carry the story more than my brain possibly could. It was a relief to be partnered with the ground, and it was one of the first times in my life when I remember using my sadness as food for something productive.
My dance professor, Sara Hook, thought she could draw on my grief and changed lungs for her choreography my final year in graduate school. I was pleased to be finally noticed, and her dance changed my life as hard things can. It was a piece she created about her lack of fertility and my loss of brother, and the movements were awkward and complex. I found a salve in moving through space with Nic, my dance partner in this duet. He was aloof but incredibly important to me, and the container of those rehearsals was medicine for my unprocessed grief. We even took the piece to New York and performed it, alive with nerves and the pressure of the stories it rested upon. It was called “Colly Wobbles”, which means bellyache. In my favorite part of the dance, we were facing away from the audience, hand in hand with me low to the ground. It was a walk like E.T. had toddled with Elliot, slow and full and spilling with hope.
Grief makes us resist, rage and spit bitter fire, and I had become a shipwreck of parts, clanging noisily and deeply tattered. I had cried myself soggy and I was angry, broken, and dehydrated. My friend Ingrid gasped when she saw me after a year of this, and I knew it was because I looked so different. I examined my own face and somewhere along the way my heavy grief had imprinted in tiny crevices, and just become part of my skin and body map. After that first dark year, self-care and morning light began to creep in. I shuffled around to find the understory of hope and possibility the best I could. Each morning I practiced smoothing my clothes and walking out into the day.
A friend recently asked me for some advice on how to support her dearest friend who just lost a brother. They were in their twenties, and, similar to us, ripped apart too early and suddenly. At the Benjamin time, the most helpful gesture was when people would pull up a chair and ask me about him directly. When they let me talk about him all night and coaxed it out of me, bone by bone, I felt some release and refuge. Those were my favorite people and my favorite comforts. The ones that held permission. I told her to get in the ditch with her friend, to wrap a quilt around both of their bodies, and let her tell every detail of her story. Then, know when to pull her out of the ditch to watch the sunrise with some strong coffee.
Benjamin, in some ways, never had a chance. I poured over old photographs looking for signs of the world to come. I saw a hauntedness in his eyes early on that none of us could have remedied. Seven years after his death, an intuitive healer told me that his job was to carry all of the sorrowful and dark DNA and usher it out of our family with him. Moving forward would be clean and bright like a hopeful, unfurnished room. She promised the birth of any future children of mine would not carry his sentence or sadness, and I believe her. My beautiful son, Otis, has no signs of the dark and worry that Benjamin carried, and I can see through his ocean blue eyes all the way to the bottom. His birth has healed us backwards in time, and I know even the restless ancestors can feel this as a balm for our family.
Grief is anything but linear and swirls over us in waves and sharp blows. Eventually, the wailing does slow down and good things move in to occupy the heart. In his teachings, Martin Prechtel, a spiritual teacher rooted in Mayan culture, talks about how in the West we are asked to zip up and smooth ourselves together quickly after a loss and what a shame this can be. People are uncomfortable with raggedy edges and things still sopping wet. The Mayans theoretically wrap a rope around the waist of the grief stricken and let them run and wail to the edge of the sea. They let them thrash and carry on, but when it’s time, they draw them back to home without letting them drown.
The sorrow and loss I felt close to this time began to show up in my relationship choices and the men I grew hungry for. I once tried to surrender my life and serve it up to a man who lived in the middle of nowhere in upstate New York. He was 20 years older than me and I fell in love with him mostly to move away from my own story. He left breadcrumbs of hope in sparse rows over a long stretch of time, because I am sure it was hard for him to let go of the unbalanced adoration. The idea of him was more compelling than the dusty old man himself, at least in the light, but staying in his house for 10 days lured me to drop everything else decidedly. He had gray stringy hair that stuck to his neck and a wicked smart brain but mostly I just didn’t want to hear my calling. I wanted to sit amongst leather and books in the wild country and become anonymous and quiet. He and I exchanged such rich letters where I learned more about myself as I cobbled out my history and heart. But the relationship was the wrong kind of helpless surrender, and the fall was not skillful or wise. It was the kind that feels addictive and acrid, and I wanted to swim home. Luckily, the relationship ended like a mercy killing, and both of us returned to our prescribed pathways.
It was the darkest of days, but something made of light kept lapping at my tired heels. I hate that it took Benjamin dying for me to become snapped awake, but it forced a reckoning that was important for my evolution. I never saw the world the same again, and losing Benjamin and the events that followed pointed me towards a brighter path. I remember trying to smoke the half pack of cigarettes he left by his bed, thinking it would cinch me in closer to his soul. Nothing seemed to happen again that wasn’t on purpose, because he had made sure of that. I began to learn how to sit in the middle of the darkness, which gave me the beautiful contrast that comes with the morning light.
Lately, I have started to look at my forest floor and take stock of the falls, the green, and the potential of the in-between. My wise advisors are gathered too, watching from the backs of trees and helping trim, water, and discard. I can count on dappled sunlight as well as the deep dark, both necessary for forest sustenance. If I can remember there is an understory ready to grow with wet, green life, then there can be a soar quality on the way down from the falls. I continue to gather beauty and sorrow, and try to stay awake as I feel the whole arc of my humanness. I believe that is the hope and the call to action, for all of us, as our forest floor collects the stories of the dead and the new growth rising.