Like many people, I grew up believing in a cause-and-effect relationship between how you live and what life brings – in other words, if you treat others with kindness and work hard and do your best, you will be rewarded with good things such as long life, happiness, and security. However, after cancer and the loss of my brother as well as witnessing the difficulties and heartbreaks suffered by so many people, I have grown to believe that no consistent, trustworthy connection exists between what we do and what life hands us. Our castles, no matter how brilliantly engineered and lovingly constructed, are built on sand. These days it surprises me less when one of them falters, when sand shifts as sand will and a castle crumbles into a heap.
But the present-day castles we live in are not the only ones we construct. We also build castles of the future – invisible castles, designed by hope, constructed with beams of expectation. Sometimes we work on them deliberately, and other times we build without thinking about it. We build them for ourselves, and we build them for others we know and love. They add to the challenge of coping with loss, especially in the case of an untimely death.
Although imaginary, our castles of the future feel as real to us as brick and mortar. Their comprehensiveness reflects the power of vision – a continuing topic of human conversation from ancient times and texts to TED talks and the success strategies of today’s athletes. The castle of the future has substance without being visible or palpable. When you know that substance in all its glory, it hurts all the more to see it destroyed.
My brother built a stellar castle of the future, its construction embellished by many of us who knew and loved him. I was certain he would have his own ed tech startup. I projected him into the future moving back to the New York area, taking his company to amazing heights, setting up his family for a comfortable future, and making a difference for students in creative and engaging ways. He had a vision and moved confidently ahead toward it. The castle grew more grand every day – but I didn’t realize how grand it was, how detailed, how very real, until it was obliterated in an instant on a Saturday in June two years ago.
Castles of the future come down in different ways. Some of them are firebombed in a split second, like my brother’s. Some are dismantled piece by piece, like a Jenga game, until they collapse. Some slowly fade, with elements gradually disappearing – walls, furniture, everything familiar – until only the bare skeleton of a structure is left and quietly settles into a heap. Some become obscured by fog – as when a loved one goes missing – and you wait and wonder, exhausted from the daily effort of peering through the fog in hopes of a glimpse of the structure. No matter how it happens, losing that castle adds a devastating and perhaps unexpected layer to grief.
When I hear of someone unfamiliar to me who has died, I feel sad, perhaps tremendously so. But I do not feel quite the same as I do about my brother. I think this is partly because if I don’t know a person, I have never known their castle of the future. I see a life cut short, but I don’t see the whole structure of possibility come tumbling down.
I mourn Frank's castle of the future along with mourning him. Now I understand too well how strong it was, how beautiful, how full of possibility. In the wake of my loss, I see my own castle of the future more clearly. I am more driven than ever to keep building it, despite its fragility. Can I salvage something from the wreckage of Frank's castle that will fit into the construction of mine? Perhaps. Will I have a chance to live in it? I won’t know until I cross the bridge from my present-day sand-foundation castle to my future castle – or until I don’t. But I can hope, and I can envision, so I will build.