Eighteen years ago, my brother left me a gift so profound and beautiful that to this day I am still finding unmistakable reminders of his loving presence in my life.
They pop up along my path, like flowers blooming long after their seeds were planted. Paul gave me the gift of helping others to heal. Although, at the time of his passing, I would have given my own life to spare his, I am forever grateful for his bequest.
The last time I saw my brother’s face, his spirit had left and death had come at last. He was only thirty-six-years old. His wife called at 5:00 a.m. to tell us he had just died. We rushed back to the hospital to comfort her and say our last goodbyes to him. He was my baby brother; this was not supposed to be happening. He was not supposed to die before me and yet he died with such dignity and courage, he showed me a new way to be in life.
Our vigil at his hospital bedside during the last days of his life was heart-wrenching and painful, but we had to be strong for him and for his wife. After a long illness, Paul knew he was near the end. His body was so ravaged by his disease that his voice had been a whisper for months and on his first day back in the hospital, he whispered to my sister, “I know that I am not going to get out of here alive.”
We sat next to Paul, day after day, feeding him spoonfuls of ice chips and praying for him to be released from his suffering. He was not eating any food, and the hospital had not put in a feeding line. Once, as I helped him get back into bed and put my hand on his shoulder, I was shocked to feel no muscle beneath his skin, the shape of the bone round and hard under my palm.
My mother, an emotionally fragile person, was distraught yet unexpectedly stoic about her youngest child, her only boy, dying. I gently, but reluctantly, told her that she needed to give him permission to leave so that his suffering would not be prolonged by worrying about us. Paul always worried about us; we were the kind of family, at least during our childhoods, that seemed to bump through life from difficulty to disaster, trauma to tragedy, just hoping to get by.
IDYLLIC, ARTFUL CHILDHOOD
KayAnne, Paul and I were born to teenage parents in the late fifties and grew up in the turbulent sixties. Both our parents enthusiastically embraced the counterculture philosophies of the beatniks and hippies. My father, J.P. Pickens, a gifted and creative musician and artist, opened our home in Los Angeles and later in San Francisco to beatnik artists and musicians, such as George Herms, Wally Berman, and David Meltzer. My father was an influential figure in the early North Beach, San Francisco music scene. He was slightly older than the other musicians and consequently given respect for his bohemian credentials and experience. J.P. was one of those figures who helped to define the psychedelic rock genre as an influence for “insiders,” but was somehow invisible to fame.
Our house was a warm, loving bedlam of creativity, music, art, and family. My father deeply believed that “Life is Art, Art is Life.” We lived that creativity to the fullest. This was the happiest period of my childhood, and my memories of this time glow with golden sunlight.
LONG, SLOW DESCENT
Then, in 1967, my father was introduced to methedrine (“speed”) by a neighborhood pal. He began a long, spiraling descent that culminated in his death in a horrific accident several years later. Because of the chaos created by his addiction, we lost our family home to foreclosure and were forced to move into an elastic and nearly formless commune, the Digger/Free Family (described in exquisite detail by Peter Coyote in his book, Sleeping Where I Fall). My mother found our new borderless, chaotic life in the commune to be frightening and impossible to cope with. Although I desperately wanted a stable home with my parents, I rarely saw my father, and by the time I was thirteen, my mother suffered a major nervous breakdown.
I dropped out of school in the 6th grade and moved around the different houses the Diggers maintained as communes, from San Francisco to Black Bear Ranch on the California-Oregon border.
I read voraciously. Like my father, I possessed a deep desire for knowledge and a passion for the written word. I knew my parents loved us, but they were too preoccupied with their own problems to notice that my sister, brother and I needed more from them than they were giving. As the poet David Meltzer wrote about my father, “We realize our prison only after we design it and move in.”
HARDEST ON MY BROTHER
The hardships of our family life seemed to hit my brother Paul the hardest. Apparently he struggled with his demons throughout his entire life. He stayed with a family friend while he finished junior high school, and he was living with my parents in San Francisco when my father died in 1973. I was shocked when I realized this eerie parallel: my father died two months to the day after his 36th birthday, my brother, two months and 10 days after his.
The year my father died was also the year my brother discovered martial arts. For the next ten years, he devoted himself enthusiastically to the practice of Shao Lin Chuan. Shao Lin Chuan is an ancient Chinese martial art that builds strength, speed, power, and flexibility, and emphasizes self-defense. This martial art was developed by Buddhist monks in ancient China to cultivate a philosophy of wellness and self-defense. Paul loved Shao Lin Chuan so much, and was so good at it, six months after he started I also was inspired to begin practicing with his teacher, Sifu Kuo Lien Ying. We woke at 4:00 a.m. every morning and rode the city buses to be at our teacher’s studio in Portsmouth Square in Chinatown at 5:00 a.m. My brother and I both excelled at this arduous and demanding practice. We became dedicated, disciplined, and physically strong. I did not know at the time that this was to be the foundation of my life’s work, nor was I aware of how my growing excellence was healing a formerly warped and inaccurate sense of myself. I was blessed to meet my husband at Sifu Kuo’s studio.
Paul graduated from a technical high school and went on to become the captain of the gymnastic team at City College of San Francisco. He experimented with drugs and alcohol as a teenager, but later, in his late 20’s, the latent demons that had plagued him during his turbulent early years once again assumed power. Paul developed an addiction to drugs and alcohol. I discovered this only when he joined AA some years later and called me to “confess” as part of his 12-step commitment. Paul had a long series of short-term relationships with women, and his heart was broken many times, which undoubtedly led him back to the false friendship and comfort of drugs. When my brother eventually married in 1985, having found a woman who was devoted to him and who loved him for himself, it was not enough to quell the demons. Fortunately for him, and for his wife, one year before his death, living with the terminal illness of AIDS, Paul found the strength to quit drugs and alcohol and end his life free of addiction.
MY GREATEST INSPIRATION
My brother was charming, loyal, intelligent and honorable to a fault. Whatever horrors were eating at him, he never revealed them in his interactions with others, which were marked by selflessness, good-humor, and a willingness to extend himself far beyond what most people attempt to offer. My brother’s death was devastating to me, I loved him deeply, and I grieved for him for a very long time.
When Paul told us that he was HIV positive, I did not have the skills to cope with his illness. When he would mention the physical problems and pain he was experiencing, the fear of his death would arrive in my voice. He finally had to tell me that phone conversations with me were more and more difficult, he couldn’t handle my fear that he was going to drop dead at any moment. That was a turning point for me. I realized that I had to stop feeling sorry for myself because my brother was dying, and start focusing on my brother’s needs for however long he was to be with us.
My brother never once complained of his pain and fear. He never blamed anyone for his illness. From the moment of his diagnosis, Paul lived one day at a time. He bore the unknowable pain and indignities of a fatal disease with grace, charm, and courage, and gave me, by his unwavering example, the greatest gift anyone could ever have bestowed. Since Paul’s death in 1995, I have dedicated my life to easing the suffering of humanity, one person at a time. I am committed to teaching people how to increase the quality of their lives at whatever stage they happen to be living, whether their afflictions are physical, mental, or spiritual, or a combination of the three. Paul taught me so much about being with people who are suffering. The help I can give them is the gift I offer continuously to my brother’s and my family’s memory.
IN THE NAME OF MY BROTHER
For two years following my brother’s death, I looked deeply into myself, examining the ways in which I had allowed fear and grief to control me. I also examined the ways in which my love and compassion helped my brother. Experiencing his dying and his death helped me to find my true voice; it has shaped who I truly am. I realized that I care deeply about relieving the fear and suffering of others; that what really matters in life is how we are able to help each other, and we all need each other if we are to overcome our afflictions.
1997 Donald and I co-founded the Paul D. Pickens II Research Foundation, a 501-(c.) (3) nonprofit organization that provides health and healing information and classes to the public. Our desire was to help people of all ages and in all levels of health achieve greater balance and joy in their lives, and thus to heal the world one person at a time.
Today, August 10th, is Paul’s birthday, and for those who knew him, or who want to help us continue the good work, you can make a donation of any amount in his honor to the Paul D. Pickens II Research Foundation, a global health education nonprofit that has been dedicated to creating positive change in the world since 1997. Click here to make your donation.