Spirit and the Boy

Mother to one, sister to the other—Karen Connelly on three interwoven lives and the call she will always accept.

Karen Connelly
4 March 2016
Illustration by Simone Shin.

Mother to one, sister to the other—Karen Connelly on three interwoven lives and the call she will always accept.

After I talk to my youngest brother on the phone, I call my son by his uncle’s name. It’s natural: they are similar in coloring, in physical grace, in humor. And, like me, they both have a tinderbox temper. “David!” I snap, and quickly correct myself, “Timo! Come and have dinner.” “I’m not hungry. Why do we always have to eat dinner? Every single day!” Usually the boy ignores the mistake, but this time he turns to me with uncommon gravity and pronounces, “And I am Timo, not David.”

The brother is thirty-seven and the child is five: worlds apart. Still, the slip of tongue and mind is not so easy to correct. My brother visited once and Timo adored him instantly, without question, followed him around like a puppy for four days, literally getting under his feet and running off with his shoes, his clothes, and one time his toothbrush. My brother was in a state of withdrawal then, not allowed to use any drugs in our house. He was often impatient with his nephew. Magnanimous one moment and grumpy, even nasty, the next. Yet that didn’t matter to the child; he recognized a kindred spirit when he met one, and his pure, insistent love won my brother over easily.

It worries me, this irresistible melding of two separate beings, but I see their similarities and try not to fear them. What we love does have a tendency to fuse together, to become entangled in the mind and the memory.

Despite years of Christian and Buddhist study, I am never fully convinced that lust and laziness are really all that bad. Or at least all that bad for me.

There are many moments when my son delivers me directly back into my childhood, as the older sister of a wild, handsome boy.

I, too, am like my brother, or he is like me. We have similarly passionate natures, which we love and with which we struggle. I am all the things that the holy texts of various faiths warn against being: selfish, quick to anger, lustful, slothful. It is amazing that I get anything done because I just want to post Facebook notices, read good books, and have two or three lovers to suit my various cultural leanings and musical tastes. It sounds like a joke, but I’m perfectly serious. Despite years of Christian and Buddhist study, I am never fully convinced that lust and laziness are really all that bad. Or at least all that bad for me. Other people, of course, should work hard and be good.

My husband and I often discuss this very subject, how I secretly believe I am exempt from the human race and its wiser conventions. Unsurprisingly, my husband sometimes confuses my name with Timo’s. This makes us all laugh. Having a child has made me grow up, mostly, though I’ve always had good reason to never fully surrender to my appetites. To do so would be to join the other addicts in my family. Born into a tribe marked for chemical slavery, I have steered clear of certain poisons: alcohol, crack, heroin, more alcohol. To grow up with one parent and several siblings trapped in active addictions was to look directly into the face of murderous appetite and recognize that my hunger, unchecked, would eat me alive.

Or maybe it wasn’t early wisdom that preserved me. I may have just been lucky, lacking a particular genetic predisposition or raised in more peaceful years than my siblings. It’s impossible to know.

My brother and I share more than powerful appetites. Our appreciation for the absurd regularly saves us from ourselves. I have been luckier in being saved. David has often fought for his life: both to survive, literally, and to make his survival more than that, a true life. And, sometimes, he has succeeded. He is a journeyman carpenter, a gifted sculptor. He is one of the most charming, funny men I know. And other times, the dark side of his struggle has landed him in prison for long periods of time.

Both of us already knew too much about dukkha—pain, stress, anxiety. This led us to appreciate the four noble truths, especially the first two, in which we have positively excelled: 1. Life is dukkha. 2. Through craving and desire, dukkha arises.

Though I’m the one who studied Buddhism for years, often while living in a Buddhist country, my brother is the more skilled and patient meditator. Prison is an excellent place to practice. At roughly the same time we came to Vipassana meditation. Both of us already knew too much about dukkha—pain, stress, anxiety. This led us to appreciate the four noble truths, especially the first two, in which we have positively excelled: 1. Life is dukkha. 2. Through craving and desire, dukkha arises.

It has proven more difficult to get a handle on the third and fourth noble truths: 3) The way to end dukkha is to relinquish one’s craving and desire (from the sea-monster deep of my ego: Oh, f— off! Are you serious?) and 4) The way to alleviate dukkha is to follow the noble eightfold path (Do we always have to try to do the right thing? Every single day?!).

Many years later, my brother and I are still at it, on opposite sides of the country, breathing in, breathing out, breathing in. And laughing. To live well in the world as it is, we have both cultivated an ability to find humor in what would otherwise be heart-breaking and crazy- making. And we like the ground. literally. We find joy and solace in the dirt, in things that live in the dirt, among dried leaves and twigs. Trees and plants and flowers. Creatures of various sorts.

My son shares these predilections. He is a lithe boy, quick on his legs, alive to earth and wind and smells in the air, a lover, like his mother, of spiders, pill bugs, centipedes, lizards, frogs. Sometimes, standing in the garden, he will lift his head and announce, “It’s going to rain.” Often he is right.

He reminds me, as I’ve said, of my brother. But he also reminds me of a little wolf.

One evening, as the boy is getting ready for bed— here’s the clean underwear, one leg at a time in the pajama pants, where is the story he wants to hear again?—he turns to me with that avid, wide-open expression. He will now ask a large or a small question involving, on the one hand, the universe, or physics; on the other, ants, or the location of his first baby tooth (we lost it somehow, and not to the tooth fairy). It is strange to know someone so well that I can read his face this way before he speaks. This knowledge is a form and an act of love. There is also some dread in it. For there once was a time when I thought that I knew my brother as well as I know my child, and I was wrong.

It happens that the question my son asks me this evening is one of the large ones. It is, perhaps, at the core of all religious and philosophical inquiry. Psychologists and psychiatrists would be happy to weigh in on this subject, but, alas, the only expert this five-year-old has tonight is his mother, exhausted after a busy day and anxious to usher him into sleep. but first I must respond to the query, “Do I have a spirit?”

“Yes, my love, you have a spirit. All people and animals have spirits.”

“Where is it?”

“It’s in your body. And your mind. And your heart.”

“It’s in all of me?” He puts his hands on his chest. Then on his bare heels.

“Every part of you.” Already I have given up rushing him. Here is a window into the boy’s private mind. I lean in, gingerly, and look around.

“Right now? Can I feel my spirit right now?

“Can you? Take a deep breath, then let your breath out slowly.”

He inhales, exhales noisily. Sticks a finger up his nose, digs.

“There. Did you feel your spirit?”

His face articulates a peculiar, small smile. Secretive but joyful. Almost an adult expression. “I feel it! My spirit!”

“That’s great. I’m glad.”

“But we can’t see it, the spirit?”

“Well, you can see your body, and your spirit gives your body life. So, in a way, you can see it.”

“But if it’s also in your mind, it’s invisible.” In a past existence, did he go to school among rigorous Jesuits, I wonder?

“That’s true. You’re right. So we can say that the spirit is also invisible. An invisible energy.”

The pause spans three or four colossal seconds. Invisible energy whirs inside him like a dynamo, but his voice comes out surprisingly quiet. “Can a spirit get broken?”

I look into the small, finely sculpted face. Only one scar on his entire body, and it’s on that beautiful face. His right cheek; he fell. It’s already faded, though, hard to see unless you know it’s there. “Sometimes a spirit gets broken when frightening or painful things happen to a person. And if that person is alone, without anyone to help them at the right moment.”

The theoretical disappears like smoke. Tears stand in my eyes as he gazes into them, but he doesn’t notice because he is busy following his line of inquiry. “Do you know how to fix a spirit?” he asks, meaning, If my spirit got broken, would you be able to repair me?

“The only way to fix a spirit is with lots of love and kindness. And with long walks outside, in the fresh air. That’s the way to heal a lot of broken parts.”

This makes good sense to him. The evening routine hops back onto its tracks; the storybook is chosen. I tell him not to wipe snot on his shirt. Or the wall. He laughs, then, and pretends to wipe it on my shirt instead. I begin to read. Soon, he is asleep, his spirit safe in his small animal body.

But the adult truth is more complex. After all the appetite, after countries, languages, lovers, music, after the long, rich, wasteful search for wisdom, at times so pointed and fierce, at times meandering, undisciplined, and always just like anyone else’s, perhaps the only question I have ever sought to answer is the one my son asked that night. What grief it has brought me, that the only broken spirit I could learn to fix was my own. It has never seemed like enough.

It was the first time in more than a decade that he had been incarcerated. I had hoped—and he had believed—that that part of his life was over.

Recently, I sat down one afternoon to meditate upon my brother. Or just to meditate, and allow the thought of him in, at last. He had not been in contact for over four months. No one knew where he was. He is usually good at keeping in touch, even when he has fallen off the wagon and started using again. He was supposed to get out of jail in July, but it was October and there was only silence.

I had begun to consider the possibility that he was dead. I had to begin preparing. He had been suicidal before going into prison—a state of despair that he had never experienced before, at least not to my knowledge. He had phoned me, sobbing, distraught about his latest descent, which had been a long, hurtful one. I talked to him. He was going to check himself into the hospital, but we both knew that they would release him the next day, as soon as he was sober and coherent. I was over two thousand miles away, but even if I could have gone to him, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to help. Within a few days he had put a band-aid on the problem by getting into enough trouble to be sent to jail. It was the first time in more than a decade that he had been incarcerated. I had hoped—and he had believed—that that part of his life was over. For him, returning to prison meant utter failure as a man.

I thought that maybe something bad—something worse—had happened in prison, and that he might have been released and taken himself off, figured out a way to disappear. It was not his style to do something like that, but when a person sinks down deep into the shame and muck of self-loathing, he is no longer himself. Sometimes he cannot pull himself out of that viscous, poisonous substance. It had already happened to another sibling of mine, an older sister, decades ago. Suicide can infect families like a virus, even generations apart. I decided it was time to stop running away from the thought and, therefore, was feeling silently, secretly frantic. It was a subject that I discussed with no one.

Well, not exactly. Just when I was beginning to use the word, in my own mind, in regard to my brother’s fate, one night my son asked me another large question. “What is suicide?” He deftly pulled my private fear out of the thin, spirit-filled air. “How does someone kill themselves?” I answered the question calmly, honestly; not too much detail, just enough.

I sat, I breathed. I am an emergency meditator.

How much is just enough? I know too well what my son will learn later, hopefully from a distance, from other people’s lives, from stories and movies, that the spirit can feel so broken that fixing it seems like an impossibility, or a pointless labor best abandoned. How do you fix a broken spirit?

So. I sat down to investigate my brother’s absence by breathing into it for a while. I am not by nature a superstitious person. At the same time, I know there are many things I will never understand, or will never understand completely. And I like that. It keeps me humble and curious about the world. I sat, I breathed. I am an emergency meditator. I sat, I breathed. I allowed the possibilities in with the breath. I breathed them out again. I observed. I did not cry. I just fidgeted. My hip was sore. Then my knee. Old wounds.

By the time I stood up to continue my workday, I was fairly certain my brother was not dead. I say “fairly certain” because it is a mistake, in these situations, to insist that you are right, that you know. I surely did not know. But I felt that he was alive, and fine. And that he had his own reasons for his long silence.

Last week the phone rang. It was an automated operator with her spiel: “This telephone call is from a correctional facility. All conversations will be recorded and monitored and subject to… blah- blah-blah.” It’s weird to be so happy when the prison rings, but I was already grinning. The dour, disembodied voice of the operator seemed melodic, truly, as though she were singing a lovely song a cappella: Will you accept this call?

I wondered: What do I feel right now?

I feel my spirit. And I feel my brother’s spirit.

Yes. Yes, I said, I accept this call. I will always accept this call.

Karen Connelly

Karen Connelly

Karen Connelly is an award-winning Canadian author. For the full story of her brother’s accident, visit gofundme.com/BringDaveyHome.