This is life. Right now. Breathe.

Kate Turnbull’s brother Jay died in 2009. He was her first dharma teacher.

My brother’s ears looked huge on his dead body. Huge. Dumbo-like. I knew he had a big head, many people with an intellectual disability do. But there was no way those were my brother’s ears.

I crept closer. And when I say crept I mean I pushed against the unseen force that was pushing me in the opposite direction. “GET OUT! BE ANYWHERE BUT HERE!” I made it as far as the first row of the empty viewing room at the funeral home. There Jay was, in a nicely crafted box with his newly acquired big ears and his body would be aflame tomorrow so I might as well get involved now. His face was puffy. And grey. My favorite person on earth was dead and his face was puffy and grey. I could see the small streaks from the make-up sponge on his face, an attempt to give life to where it was clearly—so clearly—gone. And then, wait, didn’t I just see him breathe? He must have just breathed. His lips were slightly opened as if he had just exhaled, placed so perfectly apart but some unseen latexed hand that surely breath had just traveled through them. So I waited in that moment of suspension— floating above the reality of the dead body in front of me wearing the socks and underwear that I had carried into the funeral home the day before. He didn’t breathe. He was dead. He was cold and grey and lying in a box with big ears.

And I just surrendered.

This is life. Right now. Breathe.

When I was a child, my brother had “behavior problems.” This is a polite way of saying he had a terrifying way of losing control seemingly without warning and would do harm to himself and others. One of my earliest memories, I must have been two or three, was of him banging his head against the cement wall of the Kansas City International airport while wailing at the top of his lungs. My Dad was trying to pull him off the wall but Jay’s frustration was stronger. I started to see his dark red blood every time he pulled his head away from the wall. It was soaking his thick curls and the divots in the wall. I wanted him to stop. I wanted all the people around us to stop staring. I wanted to go away.

And I just froze.

This is life.

I was in sixth grade and in a fight with my sixth grade girlfriends. There is no cruelty like the cruelty of a sixth grade girl. Jay had moved into a house with two housemates who didn’t have disabilities. He had a job at the University. My folks were trying to get him comfortable riding the bus to work by himself. His chest popped out with such unapologetic pride when he felt on his own, independent. “I’m a man, not a boy” he used to say. His house was by my school and I came running in that afternoon in tears. I threw myself down on the couch and sobbed in my despair that I would never be accepted for who I was, that they were never going to like me again, that I would never be happy. He walked into the other room and retrieved a box of Kleenex. He sat down on the couch next to me.

He gave me a tissue. “It’s ok, Katie. It’s ok to be sad some.”

He reminded to me breathe. He lifted his hands above his head as I would see him do so many times and he said “Deep breath, JT. You’ve got to breathe some.” And then he felt my forehead with the back of his hand. I was never safer or more loved.

And I just melted.

Right now.

We went to the student union for lunch. I was aware, for the 10,000th time in the life, of all the many eyes on us. People stared. They always did. He had the aforementioned big head and moved very, very slowly–not out of condition but because he just didn’t see any reason to move faster. We waited in the big line. He talked to me in his loud voice. He probably picked his nose. We got to the ladies behind the counter in their hairnets and plastic gloves. “Hello, JT. Turkey sandwich, right?” What was this feeling? Was I slightly jealous of my brother’s celebrity?

Jay Turnbull

Jay Turnbull

How could he go around being so thoroughly himself—which included everything from giggling with strangers to sharing secret handshakes to turning off people’s lights in their office if he was feeling anxious that day to farting unabashedly in public to phases of taking glasses off people’s faces and breaking them or even to phases of violently pulling on friends’ and stranger’s ponytails when he was feeling out of control—and continue to be so thoroughly loved?

How did he accept himself in such a complete way and therefore invite others to do the same? “Yes. And a sprite.” “Would you like a cookie today?” “Ok.” I ordered my lunch. She did not know my order.

And I just yearned.

This is life.

I was in the library in Brooklyn when I got the call. He had woken up on a cold Wednesday morning in January. I imagine that he laid there for a while on his back with his hands behind his head. In my mind he was wearing his red flannel pajamas. He had about five pairs of the same kind. Sometimes he and my Dad matched when he slept over at my parent’s house. His housemate, Tom, came in and asked Jay what he wanted for breakfast. Jay said, “Waffles.” He then got up. He probably scratched himself several times. He walked to the bathroom. He sat down on the toilet. He had a heart attack. He died. My knees buckled. I gathered my things. I walked home in the rain. I packed. A car service picked us up and the driver didn’t know how to get to Newark Airport. Did we look at a map? We didn’t have smart phones yet. My boyfriend would leave his phone in the waiting area. Mine would die from the water from the rain.

And I just shook. For days.

Right now.

My last hurrah with my brother was over Thanksgiving weekend, 2008. He and I drove out to the country to visit a family friend. Jay had a slice of three different kinds of pie. He loved pie. On the drive home, we were singing along to the soundtrack to Hair playing at a dangerously high level in my Dad’s car. “What a Piece of Work is Man.” “Good Morning Starshine.” Silence tells me secretly, everything. Everything. Let the sunshine, let the sunshine in, the sunshine in. I didn’t know he would be dead in a month in a half. But I did know in that moment, singing into each other’s eyes, letting the music rush over and in us, releasing all the hope and grief tied up in the music and in our memories of it, that I was painfully, delightfully alive and looking at me from the seat next to mine was the person who softened hearts, who knew his basic goodness, who constantly led me to uncover mine. I was deliriously happy. And profoundly grateful.

And I just sang.

Breathe.

His big dead ears. His hand on my forehead. His blood on the wall. His singing voice in my ear.

Is this what they mean, Jay, when they say that everything is included? That everything is workable? That every moment has its place?

I’m still breathing, sweet man. In this life. Right now. Breathing. Letting the sunshine in. Finding the courage to let it all in.

Kate Turnbull2Kate Turnbull is an actor, teacher and lover of books who recently moved to Los Angeles with the two gingers in her life–her man and her cat.  She’s acted on the TV screen, on off-Broadway stages, on regional theatre stages, and in living rooms.  She has taught children and youth in schools and hospitals in all five boroughs of NYC.  She first heard about Shambhala from a friend of a friend over drinks and feelings after a sparse and beautiful production of OUR TOWN in NYC.  She finds that fitting.

5 thoughts on “This is life. Right now. Breathe.

  1. Tender and real, right now, this allows so much. What a gift: your brothers Life and your telling. Deep bow.

  2. Kate;
    I am forever impressed by the beauty of your soul! Thank you so much for sharing your inspiring story.