“Grief is just love with no place to go.”
Our family has always loved bunnies. When I was 11 years old, I was given a pet rabbit for Easter. I named him Bixby. After Bixby, we welcomed two other house bunnies that we cared for and loved. People started giving my mother and me rabbit trinkets. Before we knew it, we had a collection of rabbit decor for every room and every occasion.
Unbeknownst to us, the best “bunny” that would enter our lives, had already been born on Easter Sunday 1940. His real name was Gilbert Castillo, nicknamed Bunny, for obvious reasons. Gilbert, “Bunny,” was destined to become my mother’s second husband; and to me and my brother, the best stepdad anyone could ever ask for. Just as with every bunny to enter our home, we cared and loved Gilbert beyond measure, during his life and now with his passing. And like our love for him, our sorrow, too, is beyond measure.
The Stages of Grief don’t come in order, nor with a timeline. They are convoluted and lingering. Gilbert was so precious in our lives, that his passing deserves whatever time it takes to make the marks it is sure to leave behind.
It’s been over a month that Gilbert passed unexpectedly. I’m still trying to process exactly what happened. Did this really happen? But whether I figure out the what & whys of it all, the end result remains the same. He is gone from this realm in which we dwell and in which we now mourn.
When my father died of cancer in 2002, I remember having a sense of relief. There was relief that he would no longer experience whatever his disease process would bring. We were mentally prepared, as much as one can be. When he died, I was 29 years old with a lot of living left to do. With Gilbert’s death, I feel no relief. There’s a sudden void, surrounded by sadness and confusion. And with whatever living I have left, I still want him to be a part of it.
“It was not Gilbert’s time,” I heard many say in the weeks following his death.
My aunt stated it perfectly, “It’s like he’s been snatched up.” It’s as if he disappeared before our eyes. I think I would believe it more if a big spaceship had come down and had taken Gilbert away, rather than losing him to a senseless accident. Those types of accidents happen to other people … not Gilbert.
You see, Gilbert was the most cautious person I knew. He wore driving gloves when he drove (the speed limit); he decided early in the day whether to have a cocktail or desert after dinner, but never both; he kept up on medical appointments, home inspections, and yearly subscription dues. It wasn’t his nature to wager on the side of danger or loss. He lived a wonderful life through the sage advice of moderation. I never heard him complain nor try to control another person or situation. He went with the flow, taught my mom to do the same, and encouraged her not to worry—he believed problems would work themselves out.
His humor prevailed. When his daughter asked me if there was anything of his I wanted, I asked for items that reflected his personality: A “Complaint Form” the size of my thumb; a “Gilbert Pounds Mexico” headline with a double entendre that I’m sure he appreciated, and a red Polo sweatshirt, his favorite color and a sweater he wore in a photo with me. Like the Dr. Seuss quote captioned in the first photo, I add that most objects in life don’t matter, until they become small cherished tokens.
Gilbert was right. Nothing is in our control. Nothing. Ever. Control is just a grand illusion. For the control freaks (and worry warts, like myself) who are reading this, you may disagree with me. You believe you have everything under control. You don’t. Things just happen to be working out for you (today) and you think you’re controlling it. But in a fraction of a second, it could easily go awry. At first, I was baffled and angry by this revelation. Now, knowing that nothing is in our control, it makes me calmer. This is the one lesson I’ve learned from Gilbert’s death.
I wish I could show everyone how Gilbert had so much living left to do. If you had known him, you’d have a better understanding of what I’m talking about and would be angry of his passing, too. We, who did know him, still have more laughs to share with him. My mom still has more love to give and receive from him. He still has season tickets to the Giants baseball games to attend, damn it! I still have pharmacy questions, life questions, and riddles I need to ask him. There are many of us that had him in the circle of our lives. And our circle, our lives, aren’t the same without him.
The day after Gilbert died, my aunt said my uncle was deep in thought about the events leading up to Gilbert’s death. He then shook his head and asked, “What is going on? This is bullshit.” I’m sure Gilbert would have the perfect simple response to this anger we feel.
Gilbert had a unique pattern to his speech, that makes it easy to recall in my mind. I can still hear his voice reciting this silly Spanish poem:
Tengo mocos pero pocos
Mi hermano Tomás tenía más
Pero mi hermana Maria… hasta las comía!
He was a master (in Spanish and English) at jokes, sayings, and riddles. He’d drop riddles into any conversation, with anyone, leaving them laughing or scratching their heads.
In Zen Buddhism, monks spend their lives meditating on koans. By definition, a koan is a paradoxical anecdote or riddle, used to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment.
It seems that with his death, he left us with the greatest koan of all. The logical reasons for his passing are inadequate. I may spend the rest of my life trying to go beyond logic to understand: Why him? Why at this time? Now what do we do? What is this riddle here to teach me?
I do know why Gilbert’s death has been the most difficult death I’ve experienced. He provided stability, protection, love, and immense joy to my mother. When Gilbert was present, I never once had to worry about her. He took care of her better than anyone could, including myself. Gilbert was the type of man that EVERY girl should strive to marry. There are few men like him—honest, kind, funny, a man of integrity, a true family man, and a gentleman.
The reason it’s also been tougher, than even my father’s death, is because I experienced more of my adult years and grown-up decisions with Gilbert. He was present, and a guide, when I changed careers from music publisher to nurse; he was there when I bought my first home. Years later he pointed out, “You own the land not just the home,” when he realized I didn’t know anything about taxes and being a property/homeowner. Of course, he thought that was hilarious. Gilbert walked the streets of Memphis with Marc and me long before we decided to move here. He stood in the pews as we married. And on the steps of Graceland, he was there, not as my stepdad, but as the father of the bride. I am forever grateful for all these moments that I thought were just about me. They weren’t. In reality, they were about Marc, Noel, my mom, and me, because he was imbedded in all of our plans (present and future). He showered us with unconditional love, and was steadfast by my mom’s side. Like my mother says, “He was a true partner.”
As my birthday approached this year, Marc asked me what I wanted. “Nothing,” I replied. What I want, I can't have. I would love to give years off of my own life and hand them to Gilbert to live. If I could, I would. Years, I would give years. And if that isn’t enough, I’d relinquish the possibility of all my aspirations coming to fruition. What good are all these years? These dreams? I don’t want a new baseline. I don’t write these feelings to be melodramatic. I write them, because it’s how I express my grief and to say I’d trade in what I value to have him back. But death is non-negotiable.
My neighbor told me about when her father died. She felt there should be an indentation in the landscape to show that he once existed, that he mattered. It saddened her that her entire life had changed, yet the world somehow remained the same. She envisioned a sandy desert, like the Sahara, and that her father’s passing was visible with a divot, a slope, or a gap in the landscape, with the smooth sand all around.
Loss should be seen the way it is felt. I’ve been walking around, forcing my smile and getting through daily life. But grief dominates whether seen or not. It feels like gravel, roaming around, scraping, without mercy, in the pit of my stomach. It has the weight of a heavy magnet over my chest. It grows like a hot water balloon being filled at the base of my throat. There’s not enough room for it, yet it keeps expanding, flaring and burning my nostrils, watering my eyes. And without forewarning, anything can trigger its release. But the release provides no relief. No consolation.
My neighbor left me flowers and a card. She wrote, “I’m sure all Gilbert’s loved ones who preceded him to heaven were singing and dancing for joy when he arrived.” I hope so. They should have.
All this, the waiting and the grief, is temporary. When it’s my turn to exit this life and live the next, our energies will, and must, meet again. I’m not through with Gilbert yet—his silliness, his wisdom.
I draw my hope from the fact that scientists say there is more unknown than known in the Universe. In that estimated 96% of the unknown, I have faith therein lie the answers about death, our inadequacies of logical reasoning, and afterlife.
I can picture Gilbert clearly. It’s a Wednesday night in downtown Memphis, Tennessee. We are on Beale Street for Bike Night. He’s strolling alongside a row of motorcycles, asking the bikers questions, taking in the atmosphere with a boyish grin, eyeing the tricked-out Harley-Davidsons, his arms folded across his stomach. He’s at the end of the street, patiently waiting for my mom and me to catch up.
We will be along shortly. So, wait for us once more, Bunny.