During my first days of grieving for Alex, I was panicked to remember every memory I ever had of my brother. Searching for those images and stories was like trying to catch leaves falling from a giant Oak tree. The leaves were beautiful and of many colors, but I knew that if I did not catch them, they would decompose into the soil, to disappear forever.
I feverishly wrote down every recollection I could uncover, searching for that singular anecdote that would sum up my relationship with Alex, desperate to find that shining example of who and what Alex “was” to me. Nothing perfect came, my anxious mind and broken spirit lacked clarity.
As time passes, I discover that yes, my memories of Alex are like thousands of falling leaves, all unique and beautiful. I run myself dizzy and ragged trying to catch them before they hit the Earth, terrified I’ll lose them forever. But these leaves, I’m realizing, feel so small in my hand when caught. They are only pieces of something much larger.
I stop grabbing for the falling leaves, and allow myself to find breath.
I feel stillness.
I feel light.
I open myself, and I lift my eyes from the ground.
What I am left looking at is the tree itself, standing strong in front of me.
This tree isn’t the memory of Alex; it is Alex.
This tree is everything my brother stands for, everything he has ever taught me with his words or actions, everything I’ve ever learned by being his brother. His roots, I find, are deeper and more entwined with mine than I expected. The limbs are long and crooked, and while not always sure of their final resting place, grown with courage and intent over time.
It has been a privilege to stand in awe of this tree, to bear witness to Alex’s continual growth. I’ve stopped searching for the man Alex was, and I’ve begun seeing the infinite manifestations of what Alex has been, is, and will always be. A brother, a friend, a teacher, and a reflection of my own tree of life.
When I allow myself to listen to him, Alex tells me to go to nature. He tells me to use my body, and to respect it. In the wilderness I can open myself, and I see him. Sometimes he’s a buck, roaming the wilderness while deftly plucking wildflower blossoms from their stems. Other times he’s a fat, furry, whistling marmot. Many mornings he’s a beam of sunlight, sifting through the forest canopy to find my face. As I return from nature, Alex tells me to care for and protect my family. He tells me to be honest with myself, and to look, without fear, into the shadows my own branches cast.
I have many memories of Alex, and if you’d ever like to sit down with me, I’d love to share one with you. But no singular story could possibly represent my brother. Alex’s spirit is so much more complicatedly simple than that.
Alex is a silent walk in the woods. Ales is a naked dive into an ice cold creek. As you push past your body’s limits, Alex is a sparkling, salty bead of sweat on your nose, cheering you on. Alex is the dreamiest nap on a green patch of grass. Alex is the loudest, most outrageous giggle from my beautiful niece. Alex is the sweetest bite of the ripest fig, surreptitiously picked from a neighborhood tree.
If we allow ourselves to listen, Alex will continue to tell us his story. He is infinite.
I am beginning to find clarity, and I am discovering new ways to face the day. When autumn comes, Alex’s leaves will descend toward me. I will watch them pass by me, and I will witness them with gratitude. I will not panic and grab at them. I know they belong to the soil. They will nourish the growth of this forest, and in turn, nurture this tree as it continues to grow. I remind myself that the leaves will return come spring, and the tree will still be standing strong and wild.
I’d like to revisit one of Alex’s poems. I rediscovered this last night, and not until after writing what I have just read to you now. I hadn’t read this poem in years.
what it means to be happy with today
I wake from a nap on a park bench,
winter sun skimming the horizon sinks subtle
twenty, thirty, maybe forty slow breaths I took, asleep,
while the sunshine poured radiant, warming my body
blue sky, empty, flaccid
like the naked birch tree standing over me
its leaves let go, leaving the tree to endure the cold winter, alone.
they flutter and flip below me, as a north wind runs across the ground
the trunk, its thick body, feeding a linear pattern of branches.
predictable tangents, ending with summer’s supple growth,
naïvely thrust forth to experience the reality of its first winter
The entire life, span, height, of the birch,
meditation, repetition, on a whole of similar parts.
like my own twenty six years broken into months, weeks, days,
inhales and exhales entire.
as a human animal, simple flesh and bone born of natural causes,
I am prone to patterns, cycles
In spring, I grow my leaves,
a vibrant green to hide the safe comfort of my familiarity.
but even in the veins of my leaves repetition persists.
green turning to a fiery fade before they fall to the ground
where crows push them aside with the same beaks used to sort through garbage
My biggest fear is to be old, look back,
and be fooled by the illusion of a life entire and unique.
but on the air of my last breath look closer
and realize that when I was younger,
if I wanted to know what the rest of my life would be like,
I needed to only look at this one day, a small branch on my tree.
The sun’s warmth makes my roots eager
I will keep growing, a life each day my own, and when I die,
my tree will be the most gnarled, asymmetrical, goddamned unrecognizable, in the forest.