Sean Michael McMillen, born February 16, 1982, died March 14, 2012. Thirty years old and twenty-eight days. I miss him with every breath, I feel the pain of his loss in the hollow of my bones, his absence lingers ever present like a phantom limb. If I could trade my life for his I would do it in an instant without second thought, without hesitation. But, I cannot, so instead I remember him and honour him.
A friend told me: “A loss like this is not something you ‘get over’ or ‘get through’. Grief is a process of skills acquisition, you develop the skills to live with it, each and every day.”
Sean was a remarkable person. The world is lessened by his absence, and most of all by his short time here. He was singly the kindest, most compassionate and most intelligent person I have ever had the privilege to know. I have no doubt that had he been able to live to old age he would have become one of the leading philosophical minds of our time.
In the last year I have received letters, emails and phone calls from thousands of people who knew Sean in various capacities. While no one speaks ill of the dead, the compassion and grief expressed by these complete strangers shows the tremendous impact Sean had on the lives of others regardless of the quantity of time he was acquainted with each. Sean had a remarkable ability to connect to people at their core, to value them for who they were as a person, to give each individual a space free from judgement, a gift of peace.
At the beginning of each term we asked the students to pick a nature name for themselves. For the term at Bronte Creek the students would be known by those names. When we got to Sean he quietly said he picked the name “Lotus”. I wondered if he knew. Did he know the significance? Did he understand what it meant?
Sean kept the name Lotus for years. In fact, many of the people who wrote to me knew him mostly as Lotus from his years spent at The Bronte Creek Project. And, yes. Sean knew the significance. More importantly I believe he did his best to live it.
One of Sean’s close friends asked me if Sean ‘was always this way‘. Meaning was he always this kind, compassionate person? Specifically he asked ‘didn’t he go through that angry-young-man phase?’ As his sister I feel I should have some stories of Sean the nuisance, Sean the brat, Sean the annoying little brother, but I don’t.
Sean was always this way. It’s not that he was complicit or did not experience anger. He was profoundly affected by the injustices he saw in the world. He had a deep sympathy for what Canada has done to our First Nations people, he walked lightly on this earth and modeled that behaviour for others, he believed strongly in individual freedoms and was frustrated by the voices that would limit peoples opportunities based on sex, gender, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. I remember him saying that although he loved philosophy he did not want to be called a philosopher because it was people who were calling themselves modern day philosophers who were, all too often, spouting hateful philosophies on broadcast channels. So, while he did experience anger it was always placed towards the act or idea or behaviour, and I never saw anger consume his being.
The way Sean approached philosophy was from a practical lived perspective. While he loved a good philosophical discussion he did not preach, he showed. Sean had a gift that made people want to follow him. He modled good ideas and good ways to live that felt simple and good to do.
Another friend wrote “Being around Sean made me want to be a better version of myself.”
In the end, this is what I miss most about my brother. He was my inspiration, my raison d’être, my motivation. In life, I never had to go searching for a soul mate because mine was born in my brother. Although he was younger he was my teacher, my mentor, the person who I looked up to the most and the one whose opinion counted above all others.
I have been a year without him. There have been dark moments. Moments when the thought of living without him another hour, another day, feels like an insurmountable obstacle. In those moments the desire to simply cease to exist is stronger than any other single emotion I have ever felt in my life. It is attractive, seductive and feels safe, secure and simple. In those moments it is incredibly difficult to place any value on my own life. And yet, thinking of him in those moments still saves me.
Sean is gone from this world, and I do not believe in a life after death, nor did he. We laid Sean’s body in the ground and we covered it with earth ourselves. The person that is Sean is no more. But, I can still remember him, and that memory brings me pleasure and purpose.
I remember him when I speak with Alyssa, his partner of seven years. When I hear her soft voice, laugh about his crazy expressive face, and uncover yet another pocket treasure he stole away from a moment in time. In each other we find comfort from a love born out of our shared love and loss of Sean.
I remember him when I hear from one of “the boys.” Sean, James, Andrew, Bryce and Devon knew each other since grade one. It’s possible that they spent as much time with each other as they did with their families. They became brothers in a very real sense. When the boys left to go to school all but Devon went out west. Sorting through Sean’s writings (a work in progress) I came across several writings penned by “Breams” a group-hive-mind name combining Bryce, James, and Sean the three who lived together in Victoria BC. Hearing even the small details of their lives provides a continuum for Sean’s life.
Most of all I remember Sean in the touch of a spring breeze, in a cold lake, in the smell of mowed grass, lying under a tree in a park, jumping over a fence, climbing the money bars on a children’s playground late at night, chopping onions and garlic, peeling sweet potatoes, having a beer on the deck, when my fingers touch a guitar string, and in the music… so. much. music.
These small ways that he permeates my everyday life are the most important. They are what keeps me alive. What reminds me to search for the good life. To ask the philosophical question: What is a good life? And to engage in the search for that answer with all that remains of me.