Magnificent, My Brother

Ronald Lee Wiggins
1942 – 2019

A friend of my son once asked him about his uncles.  Ben said, “Oh, the Wiggins boys – they’re all crazy, but in a good way.”   Ron was crazy, but in the very best of ways.  He was the best of brothers, the best of friends, the best of hearts.

I was maybe 34 when Ron called me out of the blue.  I asked him what was up.  “I’m calling to apologize,” he said.  

“For what?” I asked.

“I wasn’t a very good big brother,” he said. “You deserved better.”  I acknowledged that there were some rough patches, but that is to be expected among high spirited brothers. “You reminded me a lot of me, and back then I didn’t like myself very much.  I took it out on you,”  he said.  I countered that in those days I was so self-absorbed that whatever his offenses, they did not weigh on me as they did on him.   Nevertheless, he asked me to forgive him. This was a request easily granted.  Ron then spent the next  forty years demonstrating just the kind of big brother he wanted to be.   And in this he was magnificent.

To be clear, Ron never laid a finger on me.  The only fight we ever had was short lived and started by me.  I was ten and he was sixteen.  I got the bright idea that if I broke a toy pool cue over his head, the balance of power between us might be shifted   He caught the blow with his left hand, squeezing my wrist with a strength I had never before felt.  He then grabbed my belt with his other hand and launched me across the room onto the soft couch.  I bounced up unharmed but chastened.  He stood there very much the Alpha male – but he was not angry.  Rather, he seemed amused by the presumption, and maybe a little proud of me for trying. 

What I carry with me from my childhood with Ron are not the inevitable moments of friction but the innumerable small, sweet moments that arose out of his true nature.  He really did have the sweetest of hearts.

When I was four, he helped me catch Japanese beetles swarming the bushes in our yard in Long Island.  When I was five, back in Gainesville, he taught me how to make cinnamon sugar toast, and how to do summersaults on a mattress.  That same year, he helped me decipher a Scrooge McDuck comic.  He and Steve could read but I could not, and I felt stupid.  He told me not to worry, that I would be reading before I knew it. 

A few months later I fell from an oak tree snapping in half my radius and ulna bones just above my wrist. It was a terrible injury.  I remember it was Ron who put the splint on my arm and warned Mom that I was going into shock.  

It was Ron who introduced me to rock & roll.  Ron was cool and if he liked Bill Haley & the Comets, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers and the rest, then I did too.   The fact that he was also fond of ear candy by the likes of Patience & Prudence did not dim my hero worship. 

As we grew up as brothers, it was Ron who first showed me how to shoot an arrow from a bow, how to escape a half-nelson, and how to turn your glove to catch a baseball thrown at your face. 

The same year that I tried to whack Ron with the toy pool cue, I wrote a short story for class. It was about a boy, his dog, a woodpile, and a mountain lion.  I had obviously seen Old Yeller more than once.  Writing was a serious matter in our family, good writers were revered, and Ron was already a good writer.  Much to my dismay,  Mom shared the story with Ron.  I feared that my effort would be met with some withering remark, as if I had once again knocked over my drink at dinner.  But Ron took my story seriously.  He read it carefully.  And I was stunned by his response.  He said he was impressed, that it was really good, and that I should write more.  Holy smoke, he was proud of me!  My big brother, proud of me!  What a feeling!    

Events swirl and the timelines fold back on themselves.  There are so many childhood moments with Ron that I cherish.   But there is one memory that is particularly sweet.  On cold mornings Ron would take me to school on his motor scooter.  I would sit behind him with my arms wrapped around his waist, my belly and chest pressed against his back.  I would poke my head out so I could feel the cold wind sting my face. I would then return my cheek to the smooth leather of his jacket.  We were not a hugging family back then and I luxuriated in the feel of him. This was my big brother, so cool on his scooter with his leather jacket, so solid in his body.  I loved him so much and in my young heart I could feel the love he had for me. It is the purest and sweetest of memories.

There is another memory I would like to share, this one from our adulthood.  Twenty-four years ago this April, I stood before family and friends on an Easter Sunday and delivered the eulogy for our beloved daughter Claire, who died at the tender age of fourteen.  The love of family and friends sustained me that day, just as the love we all feel today sustains us now.  But after the service  I needed my oldest brother.  Grief knocks us around; for some reason I needed to know that I was okay with Ron, that this horrendous loss had not somehow distanced us.  He was among the first to reach me.  He put his hands on my shoulders, looked me directly in my eyes, and said simply, “Magnificent, my brother.” 

So in this moment, when words are inadequate, I imagine Ron standing before me.  I put my hands on his shoulders and look directly in his eyes. And I say this to Ron:

Magnificent, my brother. Thank you for your love.  Thank you for being the best of brothers, the best of friends and thank you for being crazy.   Go in peace.  May God’s love continue to embrace you, may the wonder of existence continue to delight you,  and may the light of your beautiful soul continue to shine on us, one and all.

323 Monkeys & One Is Named Murphy Brown

Two days before Christmas, I changed the world for the better in one breath.

I was in the check-out line at a local dollar store, just as the sun was relinquishing the day to a full moon.   I stood there frustrated and testy.   Perhaps I should not have spent the day, isolated in my new apartment, sorting through boxes filled with fifty years of unfinished business.

Some bearded guy with a baseball cap painfully counted out his pocket change, as if each coin was a shovel full of dirt on his grave.  Two women in front of me – they looked like sisters –bristled as two girls and a boy – siblings and cousins, I think – milled around the displays.  One of the women half-snapped at the boy not to wander off, which seemed unnecessary as he was pawing various packets of candy.  The girls pushed each other, traded gibes, and then one whispered something to the other and they both laughed.

My impatience grew.  I needed distraction, not dyspeptic observation.  I reached for my cell phone but remembered that I had left it in the car.  I scanned the racks; there were no magazines to be found. “Damn,” I thought. “I might have to be actually present.”

I decided to breathe consciously and ground.  I dropped my shoulders.  I felt my feet.  I like to think of love as God’s gravity, always there to pull me gently back to my center if I will just let go of my resistance.   I did this and felt the comforting embrace of that pull.  This is when it happened; this is when the world changed.

Now the bearded guy seemed troubled, but kind and self-contained.  He wished the cashier a Merry Christmas and meant it.  The sisters and the kids were on edge, but there was something lovely about how they bumped up against each other. Sometimes the best part of family is knowing that grumpy is okay.

As I stepped up, Shelly, the cashier, was telling a teammate that she would be working Christmas Eve but planned to cut back from two days a week to one.   This was not her only gig. There was something about her.

“You ever get a day off?” I asked.

“Not in 385 days,” she said.

“What do you do?” I asked.

“I take care of 323 monkeys,” she said.

“Simians?” I asked, just to be sure.

“Yes,” she said.  “I feed them every day.  Even give the diabetics insulin shots.”

Question bloomed. What if the monkey doesn’t want the shot?   Where do you find 323 monkeys in Gainesville?  How did she end up here?  Why monkeys? Why not cats, dogs, or giraffes? And what about hippos?  How would that work?

“You must like monkeys,” I said.

Shelly said she loved monkeys and had from as long as she could remember.   Shelly had even adopted a capuchin monkey as in infant, that she’s now twenty-three and diabetic.

“What’s her name?” I asked.

“Murphy Brown,” she said.

“Great name,” I said. “Does Candice Bergen know?”

Apparently, Ms. Bergen does know.  I then learned that Shelly had been in the entertainment business in L.A. but had moved here on account of the monkeys.  She said that decision even shows up in the lyrics of a famous artist’s song.

It didn’t take long for Shelly to ring up my items and hand me the bag.  There was a line and I didn’t want to be the guy who lollygagged. I wished her a Merry Christmas and headed for the door.

Three minutes before I was in a world of grim lines moving slowly.  But now I was in a world of wild love where a scrubby man is the gentlest of souls, siblings lean into each other whispering happy secrets, and the cashier casually affirms our deep connection to all sentient beings.

And how about Shelly? She takes care of 323 monkeys and one of them is a diabetic named Murphy Brown! There is a love story here and perhaps one day she will be kind enough to share it.

Stay tuned.


A Shiny Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day is coming up and I’ve been thinking about the best love letter I ever read.  It was written by Tommy, a private in the army who could barely spell his name.  

The year was 1972.  Tommy was jailed in the Fort Hood stockade awaiting discharge from the Army.  I was on special assignment there as sort of a clinical social worker.  Tommy was one of my clients.  With an unblemished record and only six months left in the service, he went AWOL.  A few weeks later the MPs found him in his hometown of San Antonio, working in a hospital as an orderly. 

I liked Tommy.  Everybody liked Tommy.  He was a sweetheart. I asked Tommy why he went AWOL – a relevant fact not in the file – and his answer was simple.  His grandmother needed him.  She had been hospitalized and so he went to her.  It did not occur to Tommy to check with his commanding officer for emergency leave or perhaps for an early out.  His grandmother needed him 150 miles to the south and so away he went.

Tommy was arrested at the hospital where his grandmother had been treated.  He was teaching himself to take blood pressures because he thought he could get paid more for that than just mopping floors.  He was unfazed about being kicked out of the army because back in San Antonio he had a grandmother who still needed him, a job at the hospital, and the girl-fiancée he loved.  

One afternoon I found Tommy at the empty mess hall, on his knees cleaning with a toothbrush the crack between the molding and the floor.  I asked him why he was still there, given that KP had ended more than an hour earlier. He said that he wanted the mess hall to shine and he wasn’t going to leave until it did.  To my eyes the place was already shining, but I had sense enough not to interfere.  I left him there, toothbrush in hand, happy with his work and happy working.

A few days before his release, Tommy came to my cubicle with the letter to his fiancée.  It was written in pencil on lined 5” X 8” paper.  It’s been 46 years and I don’t remember the name of the girl, nor do I remember the letter word for word.  But I can come pretty close.  He had filled the entire page in pencil with a childish scrawl:  

Miss you. Be home soon.  I love you very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very much.  Love, Tommy  xxxxoooo 

That last “xxxxoooo” slanted off into bottom right hand corner where it ran out of room.   

“No, I can’t make this better,” I said. “It’s perfect.  But I can make it sure it gets to her.”   The envelope had his fiancée’s name as the addressor and his name as the addressee. I said something like, “the name of the person you’re writing to goes here and your name goes here.”   Tommy was pleased to learn this new thing, and happy to hear that his letter was good and that it would soon be in the hands of the girl he loved.

Tommy’s love letter still moves move me.  In my more jaded moments, I see romantic love as a rush of endorphins and neurotic projections destined to fade, more of an addiction than something rooted in the divine.  Even when I am not as dyspeptic, I weary of the fact that love demands in us the inner strength to do the challenging work of surrender, self-discovery, and transformation.  Love is not satisfied by cheesy cards of sentiment or by pie crust promises, the kind Mary Poppins warned against as easily made and easily broken. 

But then I think of Tommy ‘s letter and I recall occasions, both recently and in the past, when my heart was pure and I said to another, “I love you very much” just the way Tommy did.  There must be a timeless place where love sinks its roots, and, maybe, like the Dude, it abides.   Maybe love just abides and the vicissitudes of my character cannot screw that up.  Maybe this is true for everyone who has loved like Tommy.  There is a whiff of redemption here and I am in need of it.  

So I close my eyes, breathe; I remember how it felt to read Tommy’s letter, and how sweet it felt to say to someone “I love you very much.”   This sweetness, however, is mixed with the sadness of loss, which has me think of my late daughter Claire.  As always, the loss hurts but this time I chose not to turn from the pain. There is a memory from 1994. Claire has heard Love Is All Around, by the Troggs.  She’s delighted that someone “did it before” the song showed up in Four Weddings and a Funeral.  I tell her that the Troggs were great and that Love Is All Around was a favorite. And now in this moment, a quarter of a century later, I feel the connection we had and continue to have; I feel our hearts resonate; and I hear the tick tock percussion of the song, as the Troggs begin to sing in my head,

I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes 
Love is all around me and so the feeling grows …

I let it grow.  I feel it in my mind, heart, and belly. I feel myself surrendering, opening, resonating.  And I feel a very deep peace as I unfold into an unplanned loving kindness meditation.  

I feel love for myself, for Claire, for Ben, for my family, for everyone I have ever loved.  I feel this love for everyone I’ve ever hated, disliked, resented, or held in contempt.  I feel this love for everyone I have ever hurt and for everyone who has ever hurt me. I forgive and ask for forgiveness.  I feel this love for all beings and wish that they all may be happy, joyous and free from suffering.  I feel the mysteries pulling me into that place where I am able to find refuge in the spaciousness of the moment and its ineffable beauty.  And here I abide for a while.

It becomes time for me to rejoin the day.  I open my eyes and look around.  I see that the world has been born anew, just in time for Valentine’s Day.


The Heart Yearns For Connection

This is what I believe: the heart yearns for connection. I believe that throughout the Cosmos a billion billion hearts beat so that they may connect with other hearts.

What the heart wants from us is connection, not perfection. And yet we plod on in the hopeless struggle to be perfect. If we can only get it right, we believe, then everything will be all right; if we can somehow overcome our obstinate flaws, our self-destructive treachery, we can be all right. If we can learn something new, some skill, some trick, some magic words, we can be all right. And if we can be all right, then, maybe, just maybe, we will be worthy of love; maybe we will then feel the gentle kiss of grace on our cheeks. Maybe then we can put down our swords and our armor; maybe then we can rest in peace.

The heart gives us a choice between perfection and miracles. Perfection is the enemy of miracles. Perfection says that our ideal is greater than anything life can bring us as a surprise. It seduces us into contaminating not only the space between our beating hearts, but the space between the beats of our hearts. We junk up that luminous space with the baggage of a billion billion years.

The heart says, don’t do that. The heart says “choose miracles.”

So let’s clear the space and let our hearts resonate. Let’s clear the space from the chatter, prejudices, judgements, indignations, and incessant demands of the false ego. Let’s set our hearts loose to resonate one with the other in this luminous space between us that is and always has been the very ground of our being.

The heart says, “I am calling to you into the luminous space of your being: answer me and miracles will happen.” I believe it. I believe it is telling us the irrepressible truth. I believe we were born to be the connection, to answer the call, to make the connection. This is what I believe: if you answer the call, if you give life the chance, it will amaze you with its miracles.


To open to wonder in this world is to receive God in a way that is uniquely your own.   Wonder lies in that gap between what your wounding tells you is to be feared and what your heart knows is true:  Life can be trusted.

You may find yourself suffering, embittered.  You may look around and declare that nothing makes sense, and that you are powerless in the face of an existence that is mostly pain and eventually wears you away into nothing.  And in that moment you may wonder how any rational person could believe in a higher power.

You might pause to note that, despite being overly impressed by your own miserable circumstances, some part of you remains free to wonder. A part of you is anchored in something deeper than the maps you draw on napkins.  There is a part of you affirming that Life can be trusted because it is happening everywhere: inside you, outside you, and between you and everything else that you think is not you.  In that moment, a part of you knows that Life Itself is aching to flow through your body like a mighty river so that it can be known in you, by you, and as you.

Let it flow.  If you are not sure how, then let yourself wonder.  Acknowledge the river that you feel is distant and then listen: you will hear it from within, calling your name.

Answer gently; this is not the time for shouting.  Express gratitude for this moment of liberation from frozen habit.  Gratitude opens you to your own feelings, which in their present state are blocked.  As you continue to wonder in a state of gratitude, you will become aware that within yourself something is moving.  You are becoming unstuck.

There is work to be done here, sacred work.  You are enlivening your soul, your unique channel for the one Self.  You stand at the very edge of all that is precious and good and true in the world: it’s all right there, patiently calling your name, inviting you to serve creation simply by allowing Life to flow through you.  You are about to awaken from the dream of reality.

Let it flow.