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Shambhala Sun | May 2012
You'll find this article on page 23 of the magazine.

A Complicated Burden

There was nothing SANDY BOUCHER could have done to prevent the tragedy. Yet decade after decade, she has carried the burden of guilt. This is a meditation on living with what cannot be undone.

After months of intensive study of Shantideva’s The Way of the Bodhisattva in a class with Pema Chödrön, my classmates and I were invited to take the bodhisattva vow, which is a commitment to dedicate oneself to all beings that is at the very heart of the Mahayana Buddhist path. The vow was explained as an aspiration only, not necessarily a strict obligation to future selfless action, and many Buddhists after some consideration do not have any difficulty taking it. But I hesitated, wondering how I could make such a promise. I did not trust my willingness to give or sacrifice for the benefit of others. For decades I had carried with me the question: What could I have done, what sacrifice could I have made, to change my brother’s circumstances so that he would have wanted to go on living?

My brother George—a stocky, dark-haired, handsome man, shyly smiling—shot himself at the age of twenty-eight and disappeared from our lives. Just nineteen at the time, I was so traumatized by his death that I floated solitary and desperately lonely for days and months that stretched into years. In the half a century since he died, I have spent countless hours trying to understand, accept, and mourn his violent exit—grieving for George because apparently he thought he had no other option, and sorry for myself because my precious, only brother disappeared, robbing me of knowing him as he aged and changed.

I believe that George killed himself at least in part to punish our father, with whom he had struggled all his life and who had broken his spirit by constant denigration and occasional physical abuse. Dad was a carpenter, a big, blunt, outspoken man who was king of our house. He was served the first and largest portion at dinner; he held forth at length while my mother and we children kept silent; and he criticized us children with cold contempt. Each night at dinner my father berated George for his dissolute lifestyle. I would watch my brother’s head lower in angry shame as Dad called him a loafer, a ne’er do well, a bum. On the one hand, I agreed with my dad that George seemed disreputable in his grease-stained pants, beer in hand, puffing a fat cigar, and I knew he often acted crudely and carelessly, but, on the other hand, I felt George’s humiliation as the blood rose in his cheeks.

As the youngest child, I was my father’s favorite, identifying with him and loving him deeply. When he held me on his lap, his large workman’s hands clasped my tummy with warm reassurance. When he lifted me in his arms, I knew the world was safe and that I was protected. When I pranced around the living room showing off and he laughed at me, I felt showered with grace. My sister and I loved to watch him and my mother, all dressed up like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, twirling across the floor together at the lodge-hall dances. In the kitchen he demonstrated a wacky Charleston for us, his long legs scissoring out to the side, while we choked with laughter.

As I grew up, I came to understand that my dad had wanted to be a doctor and had even made it through pre-med school at Ohio State, but his hopes had been destroyed by the Great Depression. He was eaten up by the conviction that he had been denied his chance in life, and so he handed to his only son the task of realizing his dream. When George chose to smoke cigars, drink beer, and work on jalopies instead of going to college, my dad vented upon him his relentless, frustrated rage.

My role as daddy’s girl brought with it a complicated burden of confused loyalties. Standing with my father meant I had to denigrate or dismiss my brother and sister and many others in our environment. This pressure caused a creeping discomfort in me and, so, as I grew from child to teenager, I developed a pattern of secret rebellion while offering a smoothly accepting facade to the family. After my brother’s suicide, I escaped my father by leaving my Midwestern home, sacrificing the support of family ties and a connection with my birthplace in order to create a life less distorted by his bitter view of the world.

Yet one never fully escapes one’s family. I still often feel the pull of my relationship with my dad, and also my mom, who are both dead now. I wonder if my brother would have survived if my mother had acted to protect him. I saw her put herself between them only once, when after a shoving match my father lifted my sixteen-year-old brother above his head and, from a landing several steps up the stairway, poised to throw him to the floor. Mom begged my father to put George down, and he did, turning away with trembling arms and a weirdly hangdog look, his fury crumbling into shame.

Now I see that day in the living room—in the stillness after my brother had escaped out the back door and his jalopy had roared out the driveway—as my father’s chance to stop and take a look at himself. My father might have gone out on the porch or into the backyard and pondered what he had done. He might have made a choice, alone or with my mother, to do all in his power to stop himself from continuing the cycle of disrespect and dominance in which he was caught. As an adult, in my own practice, I try to catch myself—I try to stop the forward thrust of anger and pull back into attention. After all, so many times I watched my father start on the path of rage, amp up the feelings, and stoke the conflict until any self-awareness he might have had was consumed by the roar of his emotions. My father never took that opportunity to stop.

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