My Friend Atticus

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It was about this time last year that I noticed the perfectly preserved Monarch butterfly that had chosen my bedroom curtain as its final resting place. I would come to spend many hours studying this beautiful specimen- as exquisite in death as it was in life. My friend Atticus was in the final months of tirelessly fighting brain cancer, and I was having trouble parsing out the reality of the situation. Every week I called my best friend Lina, Atticus’ partner of eight years, doing my best to be present with the great weight of what we both knew, on some level, was imminent. Most 26 year-olds are having existential crises about what to do with the rest of their lives. Atticus, incredibly, never seemed to be in crisis. Not during his first diagnosis during our junior year of college, nor in the last two years of his life. Each time I flew to LA to visit him and Lina our time together was spent doing beautifully ordinary things. Living life. Walking their dog, Boo, around their Silver Lake neighborhood, camping in Ojai, deciding to buy both kinds of ice cream bars at the corner store because- hey, life is short, right? Atticus never wanted people to treat him any differently for being sick, including himself, and few people knew the reality of the situation until the very end.

The day before Atticus died a huge rainbow appeared in Malibu Canyon, ending right where Atticus lay in bed. We gathered together there, a small group of friends and family, making our final jokes with Atticus, reflecting on all of the adventures we’d had together, and folding paper cranes. I laughed through my tears as I recounted the time he brought Lina a laundry bag with straps to use (in addition to the real hiking pack he’d acquired) for what we did not realize was (in total) a 22 mile hike. The straps broke immediately, and Atticus and Ryan ended up trading off carrying the bag for the duration of the hike. Five miles in, Lina’s knees were giving out. Atticus took her pack from her, carrying it on his back with the laundry bag in his arms for the next 6 miles until we reached our final destination. “You are incredible,” I said to Atticus. “You know,” he said calmly, “Any time I can come to Lina’s rescue, that is a great day for me.”

My friend Atticus never sweat the small stuff, always had a silly joke ready, made the best bacon and eggs, and loved Lina with his whole entire heart. As cliche as it feels to write, seeing him off on his departure from this world has really shown me that life is short. In an incredible way, risks that used to terrify me now seem like obvious choices.

After Atticus left I went to Hawaii for a month, to grieve in my own way, while working on a farm. I decided to move through my fear of rejection and apply to graduate school. I’m now in my sixth week of getting my Masters in Counseling Psychology, on my way to becoming a Marriage and Family Therapist. When I got back from Hawaii, the Monarch was gone.

I think back on the first moment I contemplated the Monarch, wondering if the universe sent it to me to help me see the beauty in death. As we’ve studied existential psychotherapy in school, I’ve been contemplating my thoughts and feelings around death and grieving, something that is rarely mentioned in my age group. All I know is that I see Atticus in the future clients I work with, in Lina’s decision to become an acupuncturist, in each Gibraltar I order, and every piece of perfectly cooked bacon I eat.

My friend Atticus was a rad human, who left an incredible lesson with my soul. Wherever he is now, I’m sending eternal gratitude his way.

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Lowercase grief

When the big, existentially sad thing happened, capital letter emotions came with it. CONFUSION. SADNESS. ANGER. GRIEF. They stuck around for a while, sitting shiva with the heart. The world continued turning, and the limited number of capital letters moved on to fulfill other duties. One day little lowercase grief arrived to stay, quietly setting up camp next door to the heart. “Why hello there, how can I help you?” asked the brain, noticing the new arrival, but the responses given by little grief were unintelligible. The brain shrugged to the heart and went about its business. The heart, on the other hand, sat down on the ground next to little grief and waited. After a few days little grief crawled into the hearts lap, and the heart began to gently rock it. They quietly stayed this way while the brain stayed busy, keeping the legs running and the hands moving.

Weeks passed, and the heart waited.

The brain projected and stressed, searching for distractions and answers to where little grief had come from, and how to send it back. The teeth gnashed and the fingers scratched. The stomach showed up to help with a familiar coping mechanism. “How wonderful!” it thought, “I almost thought this one was history.” And still the heart waited, cradling little grief, rocking it back and forth.

Finally the brain tired itself out. It came back to the heart, and this time it listened patiently to the mumbled noises of little grief. To the brain’s surprise, the mumbles began to change into intelligible sentences. “My name is grief, and I’m here to stay,” said little grief. “I am here to remind everyone that life is finite, but love is infinite. If you give me regular acknowledgment and honor my purpose your existence will benefit. If you ignore me or try to fight me, I will simply transform and show up in bigger, badder places.” The heart, still rocking, nodded quietly in agreement. The brain went for a long walk to consider little grief’s words.