September 20, 2014

There is Only Love: My Journey through Tragedy. ~ Natalie Brandsma

Natalie Brandsma and father

“So just see that life is a dream, that everything will disappear sooner or later, dust into dust. Nothing abides here. We cannot make our home here. It is a caravanserai, an overnight’s stay and in the morning, we go. But there is one thing which is constantly there and permanently there—that is your watching, your witnessing. Everything else disappears, everything else comes and goes, only witnessing remains.” ~ Osho


July 20, 2009.

The day my world changed forever. The day I felt my heart shatter to the core, my world flipped upside down and backwards in a few moments, and I understood  the absolute preciousness of this life.

July 20, 2009 started as such a normal day. I grew up in Durango, CO climbing mountains with both my parents—but especially my father. He was a man of the wilderness—quiet, steady. There was a deep well of understanding that coursed through him—a wisdom and a comfort.

I always felt so safe following in his footsteps, one after the other, up, up, up until we couldn’t go up any more.

It had been a while since we had climbed together, and I was so excited to see him, to hang out with him, and to get our precious time in the mountains together. I always felt like we were going to our place of worship up there—feeling so alive and expansive.

Connected to the earth and to the deepest part of myself. My earliest experience of what we call “yoga” was up in those high places where I felt my connection to the earth as steady and sweet.

Landing in my heart and my body, proud to have made it to the top I remembered that deep Self beyond the daily experience. I felt myself as whole, perfect, healed.

Long’s Peak in Estes Park. We started early—3 am. With headlamps. Watched the sunrise from above tree-line.  Took our own route up to the loft, rather than the standard keyhole; which meant we were totally alone on the mountain, just me and him, for hours. He wasn’t feeling well—we thought it was last night’s dinner. Still, one step at a time, we continued up. Crossing snowfields, scrambling up and over the more technical sections.

We made it up to where the routes meet, and he told me he was really feeling the altitude, and to go ahead and summit—he’d be making his way up slowly. Taking his time. I remember thinking it was the first time it seemed like dad really was getting older.

He would have been 62 in another month.

I made it to the top—the clouds were low and little bits of grapple fell around me as I asked a fellow hiker to take a quick photo. I signed the register for both of us—me and dad. I made my way back to him and was surprised to find he was still moving slowly up. He told me to wait—he wanted to make the summit even if he had to move slow. No way—I thought. I’m going with you. We must have been 10 feet when he decided he had to turn around.

I could almost reach up and touch the summit—it’s a technical class three scramble…and dad said sometimes its the most honorable thing to turn around. He wasn’t feeling good. He couldn’t catch his breath.

I started to worry.

We made it a little ways down before the heart attack hit.

Hollywood heart attack. I had never heard that term used until later, when I sat in my yoga therapy teacher training, tears streaming down my face as my teacher Nischala spoke about the dramatic and sudden end. I remembered trying to save him, feeling so helpless, calling other hikers to come and help me. We did it all right, they told me later.

There’s nothing that could have been done.

I’m proud of one thing: I was brave enough to be by his side, to tell him with every ounce of my mind as he slipped out of consciousness how much I loved him, how glad I was to be there. I remember trying to visualize with every ounce of my being him healthy and happy and aging. But belief alone could not re-shape my destiny.

Natalie Brandsma fatherThe moment time stood still:

Lying there, looking up at the vastness of the sky. Raven soaring free: unbounded.
And then I looked at him. The body. His face covered with his black fleece we had tried to get on him before he collapsed.
The body. Corpse. Stiff and cold.

Not my father anymore.

My breath a gasp caught in my chest.

Go back, go back, go back!

But I couldn’t go back.

I looked up at the raven, and thought Damn it! I can’t follow you anymore.

There was a moment, the moment when I realized he had left his body, when I felt an overwhelming sensation of peace and love. I have just glimpsed the core of the world, I thought, and it is all love. It was only an instant, but one burned into my memory forever—a comfort, a friend in the dark days, weeks, months to follow.

One of those who had tried to help me with CPR grabbed my pack, and took my hand and said “come one, let’s go”. The ranger made it to the scene in a little over an hour. His back covered with sweat.

“Well, I brought oxygen…” he said—almost a joke… No one knew what to do. I was shaking, I realized when I looked at the nurse—another fellow hiker—next to me and saw her shivering violently. She hugged me fiercely. And the ranger hustled us along, worried about weather. I’ll stay here and we will get him, er, the body, down. He told me there would be rangers waiting for me down below.

Down I went. Alone.

I stumbled, fell, and realized I had a choice to make…and I had to choose life. I had to make it down safely.

And I had to call my mom.

Those next days, weeks, months, were so strange.  Shock protected me from feeling the intensity of the pain, it helped me to find laughter and joy in the present moments, and I treasure the time spent with friends and family. I am so grateful for the overwhelming support and outpouring of love. Loss has a way of bringing community together. I have never been more aware of the healing power, and the necessity of love. Of laughter. Of the sweetness of the present moment. The present was my sanctuary.

It is true, what they say: time heals all wounds.

Time and tears and allowing ourselves to feel it all. And friends and family and animals and mountains and yoga.  Now it is five years later, and on July 20th this year I stood on the summit of Mt. Sneffels with my best friend—who drove me and my dad’s ashes home from Boulder after it happened—her boyfriend, my boyfriend and our dogs.

I spread some of dad’s ashes and felt him so close, held in my heart, yet so expansive and so free.

I would like to share a poem I wrote while at a yoga retreat I attended in June, almost five years since losing my father. I realized at this retreat that I have emerged through the dark forest of grief.

This small black stone.
A raven, standing there.
Simultaneously reminding me of the depths of pain and shadows–loneliness, separation.
And my incredible strength.
Wings spread, dancing through this sky where we live
Free. Light. Full of the joy of flight.
And though I feel the impression, the resonance of that deep grief a dark fog in my belly
A tightness and the occasional desire to shrink inward, inward crunching cringing (maybe if no one sees me I cannot hurt like this again…)
Though that memory lingers in my cells, I am awake now.
I have moved through the darkest of nights:
The thousands of tissues that have piled by my bed eyes swollen and red with the relief of tears.
He left me. HE LEFT ME!
That fearful voice cries.
But now I stand on the other side. Whole.
Looking back at that dark forest of grief and I remember that raven
Wings spread, dancing with grace and ease.
And I know. I KNOW.

I can attest much of my healing to yoga, to the wonderful teachers and mentors in my life, to my friends and family.

I know that only by letting go do we reconnect. I know this experience has served to wake me up and start exploring. I have learned to sit with the darkest of pain, mine and others’, and not to try and shift it or hide it, but to hold space for things to be exactly as they are.

I believe the most healing force is love; and if we are willing to shift our perspective to the difficult things that happen in our lives, we see that they are preparing us, always, to feel more love.

To give more love. To see love in everyone and everything. 

And I have my good days and bad days…still.

But I catch myself more quickly in moments of dwelling in sadness, and I remember to take a look around at my present moment. To feel the sun on my face and to see the look in my dog’s eye when I offer him a treat, and to feel my heart soften when my boyfriend looks at me a certain way. And I know that there is no one, no one, who can love me as much as I do.

It is the “job” of loss to blast our hearts wide open. So awake. So connected. So present.

Deep knowing…it is our job to stay open. To feel it all—the pain and the vast love that accompanies the pain. It is our job to let our own light and love fill all the broken and dark places and trust that our journey through the shadows is preparing us to feel so much light.

Love elephant and want to go steady?

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Apprentice Editor: Kimby Maxson/Editor: Emma Ruffin

Photo: Author’s own

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