The Spirit is Free to Go Anywhere

The Spirit is Free to Go Anywhere


I set out for a short hike on the last weekend of August 2014. It was a hot, dry evening. I took pictures of the golden light on various trees and the growing shadows of me on the trail. Oddly enough, as I traversed the dusty trails, I never encountered anyone on my way up or back. The rare gift of solitude felt a little uneasy, but my apprehension gave way into appreciation and I took my time soaking in the beauty of the natural surroundings. By the time I returned to my car, twilight was quickly approaching and the street was unusually quiet. I immediately checked my messages to see if my brother had returned my call from earlier. To my surprise, there was nothing. 

Early the next day, I called my brother again. There was no answer and now his voice mailbox was full. I thought, “this is odd”. We spoke to each other almost everyday, if not every couple of days or I’d at least get a return voice mail, his booming baritone saying…”Rooommmy Ann, its your brudda!” Call me back!!” Even though something felt “off” to me, I chalked up his absence to his demanding work counseling addicts in rehab, vets and at risk youths. I told myself he must be working with some kids and is to busy to call back his sis. My last conversation with him was now five days ago.

“What are you doing this weekend?’ 

“Watching, the games, football season starts this weekend!”

“I bet you you’re ready!”

“Yeah, sis, talk to you later!”

A couple of days later, I finished teaching and went to my car in the parking lot. I checked my cell phone for voice-mails---nothing--- and for some reason, although it was never my habit to do so, I went to glance at Facebook before heading home. At the top of the newsfeed, was a picture of my brother wearing a graduation cap and gown. The title of the post read…

“Rest in Peace Brudda” 

I froze and stared at the picture. I thought, is this a joke? I went to his FB page and saw a some “likes”, a few comments which my brain bareley registered and some condolences. My mind was racing and my heart starting beating wildly…THIS CAN’T BE TRUE! Iimmediately called my mother. 

“Mom, I just saw something terrible on Al’s FB page!!”

My mother started speaking before my words were even finished.

“Romy, where are you!  I want you to get back to your place, someone is meeting you there!” 

It was true; my brother was dead. 

Photography by Rinko Kawauchi

Photography by Rinko Kawauchi

My brother would often say, our family, had bad karma. Al had experienced years of trauma; a long, painful, recovery from the near fatal accident that crushed his legs and left him with a permanent limp, addiction and his battle back to sobriety. In spite of it all, he was the most loving and generous person I knew. We loved each other unconditionally and we could spend hours talking on the phone. He would visit me often in Los Angeles and we would take road trips, eat, watch TV together. During those times it was like we were still kids who never grew up. We were almost like twins. I always felt deeply that Al was too good for this world. In an instant, the karma reached out and claimed Al with finality. I was despondent.  

Only two days later, on a Saturday morning, I was in Baltimore sitting with my mother in a funeral parlor, emotionally and physically exhausted, planning my brother’s funeral.  Something I never imagined doing, ever.  Much to soon.  So much would happen over the next few days. Relatives coming up from the South, planning the details of the funeral, securing his home.  

The funeral miraculously came together. I walked though the proceedings in a focused fog. I set aside my mourning in service of the numerous decisions, organizing and details that seemed unending. The crowd for Al’s service was impressive. A letter of condolence was sent from the Mayor of Baltimore. I went to comfort a woman sitting there at the viewing with her children and she said to me, “Your brother was a star!” While I knew Al was doing important work, I wasn't truly aware of the impact he was having on a daily basis until that awful day. 

The procession of cars on the way to the cemetery wove its way through block after block of my brother’s beloved Baltimore. As his coffin, draped with the American flag arrived at the chapel at the cemetery two soldiers played taps. As their notes still hung in the air, the two soldiers folded the stars and stripes and handed it to my mother.   

Photography by Dina Gavrysh

Photography by Dina Gavrysh

In my grieving, I had sent Al’s obituary to Fred Rasmussen at the Baltimore Sun, who surprisingly called me for an interview. We spoke about Al’s earlier life - his brief time at the Air Force Academy, followed by business school and his battle with drugs and alcohol. Without my brother’s descent into the hell of addiction and his battling the demon through rehab, the work and life he built after would never have happened. After rehab, Al spent over 13 years of sobriety counseling addicts, primarily at the Baltimore Station, and organizing over a 1,500 volunteers to do great things in the city of Baltimore. In spite of his middle class upbringing and education, he had no problem living amongst and helping a multitude ofunder privileged inner city residents. ..even going back to school to get a degree in Social Work at Coppin State University. He lovingly refurbished his modest home built in the 1800s and created a garden oasis in his back yard complete with a Japanese maple that was the pride of the neighborhood. He had received much recognition for his work, the highlight being named in 2007, AmeriCorp Volunteer of the Year and receiving the honor directly from George Bush Sr. Right before his death, Al, after being prodded by many, had begun to explore a run for public office. I was stunned to see the impressive placement of his obituary in the Sunday edition a day before his viewing and funeral. The words, however, served as a small consolation to my sadness and grief. 

Shortly upon my return to Los Angeles, I had a dream. A figure of a man appeared at the door of my brother’s home wearing a cap, which shadowed his eyes.  There was a violent skirmish and I was startled, awaking suddenly. Something was off about this whole thing.

As the days unfolded, to my shock and dismay, the revelation of foul play compounded the emotional pain for both my mother and I. We would try to move forward grieving in disbelief, tremendous stress and fear.

During the first few weeks after his death, I had a vivid dream; I saw my brother lying on the kitchen floor and then he got up and walked out the back door of his home into a blinding bright light.  He never looked back. 

One day I walked into my counselor’s office and from deep inside me emotions welled up and I began to choke me up, after a while of not being able to speak, I blurted out in tears, “HE WAS EVERYTHING TO ME, MY BROTHER, MY FATHER, MY BEST FRIEND. HOW WILL I LIVE WITHOUT HIM!”

Over the weeks and months ahead, I had periodic visions of me running in the night or speeding in a car away from someone. I could never see who was chasing me and I always seemed to get away. I had a gun. I fired into the darkness.

Photography by Gary Csuk

Photography by Gary Csuk

One morning in Ashtanga class, someone who had been sitting silently in meditation after his practice, came to me afterwards and placed a large, quartz crystal in my hand. “He said, “This is for protection.” He hugged me and walked away. I cried after he left. 

An avid multi-tasker before Al’s passing, following the tragedy, many of my usual activities fell away. In my therapy sessions, I said that I felt like a locomotive that had been steadily chugging along and then there was a crash and all of the cars piled up top of each other and I couldn’t get them un-stacked, they wouldn’t budge.  The bills piled up, the phone and t.v. disconnected. I got an eviction notice. My counselor assigned projects to help energize me. She suggested listening to Baroque music. She wanted me to meditate.  Spiritually inclined, she believed in the afterlife and encouraged me to keep writing in a journal to maintain the ongoing dialogue with my brother.  I also started writing a yoga manual for a project.  I even began driving part-time for Uber just to carve out time away from being alone in my apartment and force myself to be with other people. A passenger once commented after she asked about my family and I told her what happened, “this is good for you, it's movement, motion.” A yoga private for many years, said that I was looking better, like I had turned a corner. “You just lost six months of your life.” If only that had been true.

Photography by Giuseppe Mastromatteo

Photography by Giuseppe Mastromatteo

During this time, I had the opportunity to lead a teacher training in China. My brother had been a pivotal part my accepting trainings abroad; going without his encouragement and support would have been a challenge for me and I don’t think I would have said yes if not for Al. On my very first trip to Japan, he thoughtfully gave me a complete Japanese version of the the Rosetta Stone, each time on the three month stints abroad, he would schedule regular Skype calls, making sure relevant details of my personal life stateside were running smoothly, send me memory cards for my camera, wire funds if needed, or be ready to help out in an emergency.

“I got your back Sis. I love you, you’re my best friend.” 

When I retuned from each new training abroad, he would always be relieved and say “Glad you made it back safe.” He loved photography and was rarely seen without a camera in his hands. In my upcoming trip preparation, I photocopied my favorite photos of him at different stages of his life, with the intention of commemorating him at the major sites. I created a packet, which included, tape, markers, glue and our photos that would now accompany me on every trip tucked away in my carry-on or knapsack. 

Once in China, I climbed to an upper tower of the Badaling section of the Great Wall and placed picture of him beaming with a wide smile around age 7-- on the stonewall. “ALARIC WAS HERE!’ I took a picture and smiled.  Suddenly a gust of wind lifted the photo and it fluttered around my head, like a butterfly, then rushed off into the valley. I laughed and felt for a moment that my brother was there, fluttering happy in the breeze, playing with me once again. My spirits were buoyed. I later posted the image on his FB page “THE SPIRIT IS FREE TO GO ANYWHERE”.

In the following months, I would start to feel more energized and I was avidly practicing six days a week. My brother’s longtime friends, namely Tanya Hunter,  enthusiastically got on board creating a scholarship fund event I was organizing in his honor. Overall, I was pushing myself to get moving, gain momentum, to show up.  

As we approached one year of his passing I was crying less. But my Mother and I rarely ended a conversation without saying how “we would never get over this.” I flew home, often, at least four times in the first year. The pull of my brother on my spirit to be near him held firm. 

On the first Christmas after his passing, under a very dark and dreary sky, my mother and I visited his grave. It poured what seemed the heaviest rain imaginable, the torrent of water mirroring my heavy emotions. I wasn’t feeling well that week, I had been to an acupuncturist before I left and they said that my blood pressure was really high.  Higher than I thought possible, I was seeing white spots and feeling dizzy. 

After returning home to LA,  my mother and I would discover the shocking culmination of the mysterious saga surrounding my brother’s death - foul play, theft, betrayal by a small group of former friends, a cover-up. What made it even sadder was there was no legal, criminal or means for Al to receive "justice." The news was too much to take. My health failed to improve.

As I was walking toward the back of the room minutes before teaching my Wednesday evening class, I suddenly felt a sharp pain shoot up the left side my neck and my head seem to explode. I felt like I had been struck by a thunderbolt. I started to feel tingling and numbness on the left side of my face, I was stunned. Although I knew something was wrong, I calmly taught my class.  Afterwards, instead of going to the emergency room, I went home. 

I woke up the next morning with a black left eye, numbness on my left side of my body running down into my foot.  I pushed on to see a client that morning before going to the doctor. I was in serious denial. Later at the doctor’s office, I told him my body and brain felt like a revved up engine with the accelerator stuck in gear.  The fact that I was walking and talking was a good sign. However, my blood pressure was extremely high.  They gave me an EKG and put me on medication immediately. I said I was supposed to leave in two weeks to go to Japan and teach a workshop. Would I still be able to go? The fact that I was in such a dangerous physical state and still was more worried about my “next class” or a training abroad spoke to how disconnected I had become since Al’s death. The doctor was very concerned and said I should run some test before I went anywhere.

Although, I had friends and family saying not to go and I was very worried about what happened to me, my mother especially---she wanted me to write my will--I went any way. A project I was working on for months was finally happening. I couldn’t back out!  I flew over and my legs swelled up. I taught intensely for one week. Literally on the last day I became quite ill. I had a high fever and was coughing uncontrollably, but even in this state I was unable and unwilling to rest and stop. I had already made plans to spend a few days in Kamakura and my stubborn self said to still go. I wanted to give this gift to myself and Al even at the cost of my own well-being, a pattern that was now playing out with greater frequency and increasingly more dangerous results. I made it there and collapsed, spending an entire evening in bed. 

Photography by David Lynch

Photography by David Lynch

I felt well enough the next day to do some sight seeing. I went to Hokokuji, The Bamboo Temple. I thought, “my brother would love this place” I took a picture of him against bamboo stalks, and then quickly buried the photo in the ground under damp bamboo leaves.  I asked someone to take a picture of me. A gentle smile. The next morning I posted the picture I took of him at Hokokuji on his Facebook page “Always with me, forever in my heart. “ The crying slowly began to build to sobs as I made my way to the station. On the platform, I couldn’t control myself. I boarded the train and an old woman sat beside me, trying to comfort me. She didn’t speak English, but offered me candy and spoke to me in Japanese then she said “family”?  Which triggered more sobbing.  We rode for a while and then she left, I thanked her “arigato”. I spent the rest of the day exhausted from crying, finally making it back to LA.

Once back in LA, I went to see a specialist---a cardiologist. I would later find out that I had a minor stroke from sustained elevated blood pressure.  The cardiologist said that I was fortunate that I was in such good shape when this happened because it could have been worse. A major stroke would be devastating for me.  However, he was furious with me regarding my denial—taking the trip to Japan instead of admitting myself to the hospital and not taking care of myself sooner.  He said “get with the program young lady--you’re going to be seeing me for a while!!” In a year or two when you’re feeling better, you are never, ever going off your medication.”

In the days and weeks that followed I would literally be knocked off my feet.  No energy, I felt like a fuse box that had exploded. A little depression was sinking in. My muscles ached. Practicing yoga was out of the question. Just walking around the neighborhood was a challenge. I was forced to slow down. But I would sit in a brief meditation each morning. More like a prayer and way to compose myself for each day. I still had to teach, but in retrospect, I clearly projected negativity—people stopped coming to class. My numbers were dropping. I had already lost many students and clients after my brother died, now this recent event in my life was taking its toll.  I had to let go; there was nothing I could do about it.  Worrying about being popular and numbers seemed trite. I needed to heal. I was learning the hard way that one of the major challenges of being a yoga teacher is that we often can’t show a vulnerable side. We can’t be human. 

Somehow, even during this period, I still managed to continue developing the scholarship fundraiser. The event required a tremendous amount of hard work and energy that I didn’t have, but somehow we were able to create an incredible event. The Scholarship Fundraiser was so uplifting. Thanks to Tanya and many others, there was a generous outpouring of gifts from the community---donated food, corporate sponsorships and teens from our HS alumni created a fantastic photo essay for a competition “What does Family Mean to Me” One of my brother’s best friends, Kevin Peddicord, a prolific artist, created paintings especially for the exhibition and offered the proceeds of the sale to the fund. Something about the event was wholesome, loving and reaffirming—a wonderful way to honor and recognize my brother who suffered so much and had died in such an undignified way. His life meant something, he had dreams like anyone else, it should be valued and respected.  My mother and I were quite pleased and we know he was too. We felt blessed and appreciated the support.

I had two trainings scheduled, feeling more humbled and less in denial about my condition, I wasn’t sure if it was wise to go. I was still experiencing side effects—tingling nerves, muscle weakness, my left eye would puff up when exhausted. My doctor said to go, just take it easy and take your medication. So I went to Shenzhen, China, although I wasn’t up to speed. I had such doubt and reservations, that I missed my plane. However, once there, I worked hard and got into a nice rhythm, rising daily at 5:00 am followed by 10 minutes of meditation. The short walk to the studio was less than 5 minutes. I ate every day at the nearby vegetarian Buddhist restaurant and seafood dinners some evenings in the nearby fishing village with students. The experience was surprisingly very rewarding. In fact there were approximately two weeks when I was symptom free. I was glad I went after all.  

A month later I’m in Osaka, Japan. For some reason, this training would be my best in spite of my health condition. This small group of students were so gracious and lovely, soaking up everything I had to offer but the combination of the schedule, unbearable heat and medication was taking took its toll.  I was in distress and almost had to go to the emergency room. 

Coincidentally, the last day of that training was the second anniversary of my brother’s death. The chest pains that had subsided for a while had re-emerged with consistency.  I burned a small candle in front of his photo that I carried everywhere in my wallet and questioned whether or not I should follow through with my plan to study Zazen at remote location in Kyoto. This had been arranged over two months earlier. I had searched and searched for a place where I could study Zazen. This was suggested to me by students years ago during my first training in Tokyo. I was always curious and felt that this would be the right time.  However, it was extremely hot, and I had to take a train to Kyoto, then two buses to the center. I didn’t feel strong enough. A student met me and walked me to the train station, which helped.  I started out on my journey, leaving Osaka by train, then from Kyoto on another train to Kameoko in the Kyoto Prefecture, then finally a cab instead to the center. 

Photography by Eamon Mac Mahon

Photography by Eamon Mac Mahon

I stood sweating while standing waiting for a cab at the Kameoko train station in the brutal hot sun. I was instructed to tell the cab driver to take me to Jotoku-ji, he didn’t speak English but, knew exactly where to go and dropped me off at the gate of the temple, Kokusai. After he took my luggage out of the taxi, he bowed to me and then sat and looked at me as I walked toward the temple gate. The Zendo, was surrounded by acres of rice paddies and small farms at he base of forest-covered mountain range. Complete isolation---silence. To my surprise, I was met by the resident monk “Francisco” a Mexican national who spoke fluent Spanish, Japanese, English and could read Chinese and Sanskrit. A young scholar, who was a monk in training running the Zendo. I spent three days with William, a Canadian journalist who was a meditator and considering priesthood:  a woman from France, Dora, an attorney who practiced Ashtanga; another woman, Crystal from Los Angeles would arrive later that weekend. My hours unfolded into a rigorous schedule that began at 4:30 am---hours of meditation---eyes half cast, chanting, interspersed with chores---washing dishes, pulling weeds in the garden, and cleaning temple inside and out, from top to bottom.  The complex ritualistic Spartan meals were probably 300 calories at the most and took the thrill out of eating. My legs would fall asleep during Zazen and then I would stumble to get up---the room spinning.  When I signed up, I had envisioned something different, this wasn’t a relaxing Onsen or my image of “Zen” that I expected I thought why am I here?  I began to lose track of time as the hours blended into each other. The three of us banded together and spent our intermittent breaks in deep conversation, discussing books, what came up in our meditation sessions, the challenges, walking in among the trails amongst the rice fields or in the woods. At night after tea, we would take our futons out of closet and lay them on the tatami mats, closing the shoji screens in time for lights out at 9pm.

Francisco would lead each mediation and chanting session, simultaneously striking three instruments, and reciting by heart chants while we followed along: 

“Shar-Ri, Shi, Shiki, Fu, Ku, KuFu, Shiki, Shiki Soku Ze, Ku, Ku, Soku, Ze Shiku…

He would go on eyes closed, singing as if he were in a trance. I struggled to keep up. Dora and William who were more focused and lucid recited the syllables clearly. 

On my last night, we sat in darkness for our night- time mediation session. Sitting in our assigned positions, in a row on a ledge overlooking the rock garden, I could make out the dark dense outline of the mountains in the distance.  We were as still as stones. Suddenly the rain stated to pour down.  Booming, loud thunder illuminated the sky. Then the screen door in front of me slowly slides open on its own…a gust of wind sweeps in, en-circling me.  The storm raged on.  In time, Francisco, chimes the bell to complete our session. We rose and walked in a procession, around the zendo hall in the darkness. Later Crystal who was sitting next to me whispered …“A spirit visited us here. It seemed like someone slid the screen door open!”  I agreed with her.  I thought to myself, was it my brother?”  

The next morning, I was relieved it was my last day—However, Francisco had a surprise for us and wanted us to meet him at the temple gate.  We were taken to see his teacher, honorable Roshi Genzo Hozumi at his temple, Toko-ji, a mile away. We walked in single file with our hands over our hearts in the hot sun. Once there, he let us walk the grounds of his temple and take pictures. He then had a special tea ceremony for us. Francisco translated. The Roshi, the leader of the Kokusia Zendo,  wanted to create a place for Westerners to study Zazen in Japan and he was so pleased to see the international make up of our group.  He invited us to mediate with him in his Zendo and said that many great monks had sat in this hall.  Of course we felt honored to sit as guest in his Zendo for silent mediation.  I felt blessed to be in his presence experiencing this moment—it was phenomenal, something that would probably never happen again in my lifetime---I travelled so far to get here. As we sat there stoically I got it, the rigorous program, Zazen. Franciso taught us well and he was proud of us.  I went to so much trouble to find this place because I was supposed to be here--I felt transformed and began to tremble--as tears began to well up in my eyes, the Roishi chimed the bell.

After we walked back to Kokusai, I said goodbye to everyone, I feltso much love for them and cherished our strong bond made from this special life-changing experience.  We hugged and exchanged contact information. They told me that I met each task with a smile on my face. I never told any of them about my situation, death, grief and sickness.  They just knew I was a yoga teacher from LA.  Francisco would later tell me that I was strong and had“Joy in my heart!”  That many people who come here leave on their first night--I was always welcome to come back. 

I packed then walked around the empty rooms of the Zendo, I took a picture of my brother in the hall near the altar. He was wearing a suit for a special occasion; he looks regal, like a handsome King. Suddenly it was if I woke up out of a foggy dream and I was aware of the passing of time. I realized that I had spent two years of feeling numb and disconnected.  I deeply felt that I really wanted to truly feel happy again.

I headed off to Kyoto to begin my long journey back to LA.  Once there, surprisingly I felt more energized than I had in the past two years, my legs seem to carry me through the streets and to sites-- I walked at a quicker pace. There was so much to see and although it was overcast, the colors seemed brighter. I felt alive, healthier, and stronger. As I walked, Al’s voice began to speak to me: 

“You deserve to be happy again”

His deep voice resonated in my head…

“You have joy in your heart.”

it grew louder….

“I want you to live, Romy. Truly live again.”

For the first time in two years, his name, his face, his voice, my brother before me in all his beauty, filled me with pure happiness and joy. I smiled broadly as I answered him back.

I want to live, AlI want to live. I want to live!

Photography by Rinko Kawauchi

Photography by Rinko Kawauchi

The Spirit is Free to Go Anywhere By Romy Philips

Cover Photography by Jeremy Chandler