As many of you may remember, Chris and I signed a contract earlier this year with Weiser/Red Wheel Books to write a book about our style of traditional witchcraft. We had been working on it for quite some time before the contract was even solidified, as we are both very pragmatic creatures with contingency plan upon contingency plan stored away in our heads, and we are quite happy to say that as of last week, the first draft has been sent over to our editors for the review-and-revise part of the show.
It’s an odd feeling, the finishing of such a huge project which demanded so very much of our focus for over a year. At any given point, one or the both of us will begin to wildly flail about because we’ve been suddenly overtaken with the urgent sense of needtoworkonthebookstopmessingaround. Books are hard task-masters and have little patience for lazybones or the idle. We’re attempting to channel that nervous energy into working on more projects, to ride that creative power from one thing to another- to stay in motion, one must already be in motion.
This is also a newly difficult time of the year for us, particularly me. For a variety of personal reasons, I have precious few family I associate with regularly, if at all. My older brother, Todd, stands as one of those very few. Last year, in January, he was diagnosed with stage IV cancer of the unknown primary (the oncologists later changed it to stage IV kidney cancer, but by the time that change happened, it really didn’t much matter). From January through August, we bore continual witness to what felt like an endless slog as Todd grew sicker and sicker, needing procedures upon procedures, and nothing he underwent seemed to accomplish all that much of anything other than pull all of us deeper into black despair.
It was hellish. Todd was young, only five years older than me, and having been also raised by the same wolves as me- fiercely independent and extremely solitary. From 2002 to 2004, I watched our mother slowly die from stage IV colon cancer and it was wretched. I’m no stranger to the horrors of cancer. Having gone to mortuary school to be a funeral director, I’m also no stranger to the death process and can find a strange solace in clinically observing the bodily changes as the disease marches on. This was different though, not the least of which because Todd and I were so close in heart and in age. Your parents are supposed to die before you, it’s the natural order. Having a sibling pass away gets in under your armour, it forces you to confront your own mortality. Death bares its teeth at you from beneath the skin of one’s peer, hiding just below their face, and this sudden knowledge permanently colors the rest of your days.
We had only just begun working on the book when Todd was handed his diagnosis, so my attention was immediately drawn away into caring for my brother. Chris did what he could to help me, but also continued writing whenever and wherever he could, sometimes simply tapping away on his iPhone as we sat by Todd’s silent bedside towards the end. We all find our own ways of coping with situations, of reaching for control in a powerless age. And as August drew to a close, so too did this chapter of our lives. Todd’s birthday was September 1st and by that point, he had been home from the hospital and on hospice for about three weeks. We had a small and awkward gathering that night, me and Chris and some of Todd’s closer friends, but none of us really knew what to do. How do you wish a dying man happy birthday?
The next couple of days were brutal, but we bore through them, and then on the 4th, just around 10:30 in the morning as I arrived at his house for my morning check-in/clean-up, he rattled his last breath with me and his friend, Bill, at the bedside. He thought he finally had the room to himself, the son-of-a-bitch. A bunch of his friends had been staying at the house for the past few days since his birthday, keeping his roommate company- a preliminary wake. Todd had been almost completely unresponsive to just about everyone other than me since his birthday, but they came and talked to him all the same. That morning, all of them had gone downstairs into the basement- they’d been pretty much up all night. Bill had come back upstairs when he heard me coming into the house because he had been concerned about the alarming sounds Todd made as he breathed.
Death is not an immediate action, most people don’t know that. It’s a drawn-out process that takes a surprising amount of time to complete, especially for someone dying of an extended illness. The hospice nurse and I had explained this to everyone several times, but bless him- Bill had a sensitive heart. I prattled on at him about Cheyne Stokes breathing as I put on latex gloves and started arranging the supplies needed for Todd’s morning clean-up. With Cheyne Stokes, an individual may have large gaps of time up to thirty seconds between each breath and they can sound quite alarming, all gasps and rattles. I had explained this all to Bill before, but I explained it again- it comforted both of us to do so and gave us the illusion that at least someone was in charge and knew what was happening. And we’d all heard Todd breath like this before.
This time was different, Bill and his sensitive heart knew it. This time was different, one great and gasping breath, then silence. This time was different, Bill opened his mouth to speak and I raised my hand for him to wait. This time was different, I counted the seconds. This time was different, I stood there clinical-minded and in rubber gloves with Todd’s liquid morphine in one hand. This time was different, I counted the seconds while my own sensitive heart shrieked and screamed at me. I’d stuffed it into a cage months ago, but it beat against the bars. This time was different. This time was different. This time was different. The end had come. Finally, blessedly. The end was here. It was really happening.
That was September 4, 2016. I write this on on September 5, 2017. My world has a definitive Todd-shaped hole in it and I am still recovering from his loss. I am angry for him, at the shit end of the stick he was continually handed all throughout his life that couldn’t even stop at the end, the same shittiness I knew he himself raged against in his last days. I am sad for him, I am sad for me. My heart is broken in a way I’m never quite sure how to describe or whether it will actually ever heal and scab over, like when our mother died. This summer has been an exercise in keeping myself together on several fronts, a strangely familiar routine. I marked the passage of time by comparison to what was happening at the same point last year.
Our deadline for the book was September 1st, a marked case of coincidence impossible to disregard or ignore, and I was hellfire determined to have the book draft ready well before that date, both because of the similarities to the trauma of last year and in spite of them. In the last weeks we worked on it, I wrote like a witch possessed. It was the only choice I had, to grasp this singular and fragile control and steer my tiny world away from the rocks. We threw ourselves into it with everything we had. The apartment turned into a pit around us, we ate like naughty 12-year olds with no parental supervision, and we accepted few visitors or social calls. Again- a strangely familiar routine.
Yesterday was the one year anniversary of Todd’s passing and since the book has been submitted to Weiser as of last week, I’ve had nothing much to focus on. Chris and I went to the Pine Barrens yesterday with a very dear friend of mine, Anthony, and his sweetheart of a pit-mix, Pullo. We wandered the trails and I photographed flora and fauna- mushrooms were sprouting everywhere in the pine needles and leaf litter, preparing for the coming autumn and creeping winter. We startled some type of small lizard and it clattered noisily up a nearby black oak, then froze in stillness in hopes we would forget it was there. Pullo rolled on his back in the dirt and I cheered him on. We passed other hikers, most of them friendly enough. We laughed loudly and at length.
This particular point of the forest is the one Chris and I go to the most frequently, it’s only about a twenty-five minute drive from our apartment and the trails are generally easy. The almost 54 mile-long Batona trail cuts through this area and there are hidden cedar creeks for swimming. At the start of this station, there’s an old church and graveyard that’s still in use. Up until very recently, there was also a glorious yew tree standing sentry over the churchyard and when we arrived yesterday, I shouted in shocked dismay when I saw that the grand yew had been cut down, stacked in piles and branches close to the deadfall next to the church. There aren’t many yew trees I’ve ever come across in New Jersey and the sudden loss of this one cuts deep.
Taxus baccata, the English yew or European yew, is an ancient tree species largely associated with death and rebirth, the transcendence of death- hence its custom of being planted in churchyards and cemeteries. It’s an evergreen tree, so it doesn’t die with the winter and instead, bears silent witness to a still and frozen world. Given its death associations, some cultures bring yew branches to the grave sites of their loved ones to guide them home again. Yew is seen as being extremely potent in protection against any evil and serves as a strong means of connecting with one’s ancestors. It helps us overcome our natural fear of death by showing the process as a transformation instead, rather than a final end. Death is not the end, yew tells us- it is the beginning of a cycle. With this knowledge, it unites us in death and life. Yggdrasil, the great tree of life and center of the cosmos, was typically seen as an ash tree. However, a scholarly debate has now arisen regarding the truth of this and many claim that Yggdrasil is actually a taxus baccata and was mistakenly attributed to the ash instead. Another name for the yew in Old Norse was “needle ash” and the Eddas call Yggdrasil an evergreen. Ash is deciduous, it drops its leaves in autumn, but yew holds onto its needles all year.
On our way out of the Pines and back to the world, we stopped and picked through the yew piles. I found a few good pieces of the tree wood to take home with me, one which will eventually make a suitable walking stick for myself and a few smaller pieces for other projects not yet fully formed in my head. The coming weeks will find me stripping bark and trying not to impale myself with a utility knife. I’ve never carved wood before, what the fuck is this nonsense? It feels right though and my heart, my sensitive heart, isn’t quite as heavy as it was the day before or the day before that, it’s been transformed. I left behind that small heaviness, I buried it in that deadfall by the church. I’m still sad, still mourning the loss of my brother, but the grief is different. It’s no longer grey and all-encompassing. I took his death, I offered it to the yew, and I walked away from it with my heart strong and whole.
When Chris and I were finishing up with the last touches of the book’s first draft, we had a brief conversation surrounding the idea of a dedication page. Did we want to dedicate it to Todd, to my mother, to someone else? We’ve lost so many over the sixteen years we’ve been together, Todd is only the most recent and the freshest pain, and we’re both not so foolish as to believe he will likely be the last. It doesn’t feel right though, to single him out over everyone else just because he happened to win this particular race, shitty as it may be- who wants that trophy? No one. No one does.
Instead, we decided on this: For those who have gone before and those yet to be. A fitting tribute to all the ones we have loved and the ones we have lost, as well as the spirits and souls and hearts we’ve not yet met. We continue to walk the paths of our lives with the lesson of the yew in mind- death is not the end. It’s never the final end. As witches, this is intrinsically tied to our work and is a concept interwoven all throughout the pages of our book. As human beings, this gladdens our hearts and allows us to persevere through grief. We endure because we know well the lesson- death is only the transformation of energy from one existence to another.
Go hug someone you love. Love them well.