- March 3, 2016 in Bloggers
My Brother — a death in three parts
06 September 2010
My brother is dying.
As I write this, he is laying quietly, oxygen mask covering most of his face, sedated beyond recognition. He’s been like this for days. Every so often, his breathing becomes labored and he becomes agitated. Great rasps then, desperate, gasping rattling breaths. So much so that we strive to breathe for him, will air into him. The nurses come to inject more of whatever it is medication that they are giving him, into the ever-present tubes that snake in him and around him.
The meds are not life sustaining. They are palliative. We hope.
The doctors say it will be soon.
And so we watch, and wait. We sit in a dimly lit hospital room, the sibilant hiss of the oxygen so constant that it is almost inaudible. Almost, but not quite. There is so much that is almost, but not quite these days.
I have been composing this particular post in my head for almost two years now. I want so much to honor him, to celebrate him and his life. I do not want to sink into the maudlin. I do not want to appear trite. I want this whole, painful, drawn-out, uncomfortable, scary, sad mess to be over. I want everything back to normal. I want my brother to be healed. Made whole. I want him to be at peace.
I want to blame someone, something. It feels as if there is so much blame to go around.
But this is not about blame. As easy as it would be to sink into that messy pit, all shiny and burbly and self-righteously fatuous, thereby avoiding all the hard stuff, like love and meaning and fear and a thousand other difficult and honest things — this is harder.
This is about my brother, who is dying, and me trying to find some meaning in that.
I cannot talk about his death, find meaning in it, without talking about his life. He was intense and passionate and fiercely protective of those he loved. He was stubborn and opinionated. He was courageous beyond measure. He was human beyond measure, and so had his moments.
He lived on caffeine and nicotine. For decades, he walked around with a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other (and one tucked behind his ear, just in case). He moved constantly — walking, pacing, jiggling a foot when sitting, tapping out a rhythm to some private noise in his head. It makes watching him now, so still and silent, all the more difficult, because it is the antithesis of him.
He hasn’t opened his eyes in a few day. The last time he spoke to me, he said “This is not — this is not — coral!” Coral? Really? The drugs, perhaps the cancer, perhaps both, were stealing words from him, even as they stole his grace, his energy, his life. It meant something to him, surely, but the path to meaning, to connection, was becoming buried and tangled. They tell us, the nurses and aids and doctors, that he can hear us even in his stupor. So we talk to him, reassure him that he is not alone, that he is loved. We tell jokes and stories. We sit, quietly and lovingly. We hold his hand and comfort him through touch (we comfort ourselves through touch).
My baby brother is dying, and there’s not a god damned thing I can do about it. All I can do is be with him, witness his journey through that dark and shadowy valley, love him. And hold his hand.
08-09 September 2010
Mom called while I was at work. “Come now. The doctors say it’s a matter of hours.”
I felt the ice in my center radiate outwards, a sheath of cold and darkness. God no. Please God no. Not today. Okay — not ever, but really not today. Sundown will be Rosh Hashanah, the new year, the celebration of the world’s creation. God will open the book of Life and Death tonight. God will record who will live in joy, who will die in pain. Please: don’t let my brother die.
Don’t let him die before I can say good bye.
Another round of sitting. Hand holding. We soothe and comfort and cry and watch. There are no masks now. His breathing, labored and difficult and strangled only a few hours earlier is quiet. Steadier. They’ve taken him off oxygen and he is breathing on his own. Slowly. Shallowly. We gather around him, quietly talking, reminiscing. We are learning how to care for one another again, be a close family again. After years of wear and tear, strain and hurt, we are learning to love each other again. We are fragile and cautious and have on kid gloves.
For Randy, we will do this. It is one more way to honor him.
I can’t sit for long. Sitting with family is both easy and hard. It is as if our voices are rusty. If not our voices, then perhaps our hearts. We have been separate for so long. It doesn’t take much time to find those familiar patterns, sink back into the rhythms that defined us for decades. What is more difficult than relearning and reestablishing those rhythms, is reaching out to others, to prepare them for the worst. After all, we are here, together, with Randy, cocooned by our love and fear and sorrow. But we are here, together. The others are outside, separate. Although we try to bridge that endless chasm, we fall short. We are here. They are not here. There is a difference. They love him, us, no less, but there is a layer between them and this death, a thin, membranous shield. There is that microscopic difference, though the sorrow still flows in steady waves, carrying us to one another close as breath, as light or air. But, there is a difference.
The hours wear on and we continue our vigil. Randy continues to breath, to dream, to struggle against pain. It is almost sundown, almost Rosh Hashanah. “Go,” urges my family. Pray, and talk to God. Find comfort and peace and struggle and light. And so, tenuously, I welcome the new year. I can lose myself in the music of the service, in its rhythms and cadences. It is the birthday of the world and God’s Book opens. I shudder at that thought, even as I sing those ancient hymns. It hits me, suddenly, that this is merely another kind of vigil.
Thursday morning. Randy has had a rough night but he is stable. Ish. The nurse tells me it could be any time. Mom tells me to go to services, to pray. Another holy vigil. A small solace in the face of despair. In going through the motions of that holy dance, I get lost again, for a few hours. I feel surrounded by something, protected, sheltered. I even manage to sing B’Rosh Hashanah without stumbling, without trembling:
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be;
who shall live and who shall die…”
The shofar sounds at last. I rush back to the hospital.
And so we sit, and wait. A softly, murmuring watchfulness. Randy lies quietly, his breath soft and slow. He hasn’t opened his eyes in days. We talk softly, we surround him with our love, with music and stories and love. And one last time, Randy opened his eyes and smiled and died.
23 October 2010
It’s been over a month since my brother died.
Those first few days were an impossibility. Grief so palpable I could feel it rise, slow and inexorable, threatening to drown me. Guilt just as present, because I lived, because I don’t have cancer, because whole minutes, sometimes hours would go by and I would realize that I hadn’t thought of Randy once, that I wasn’t grieving, that I may even have laughed or smiled or forgotten for just a split second that Randy had died.
We buried him on a magnificent day in September. The sun shone in a cloudless sky. The leaves rustled, still summer green with just the barest suggestion of gold. There was a coming together that day. A sharing of sorrow and grief and memory. There was a gentleness that seems to be missing so often from the quotidian pace. There was a sheltering grace in that day. It went too fast and spun too slow. It was filled with sadness and laughter and family and love.
It was about honor and courage and frailty. Death was there, certainly. But life too. Little boys tumbled like puppies, shrieking with laughter and competition and exuberant joy. Adults did their own dance of remembrance. Sadness laced our speech, but we carried one another to firm ground, sheltered one another with peace and strength. Randy’s final gift.
I miss him. There is a…missingness. The quality of something missing. Slightly empty and lopsided. But only out of the corner of my eye, in hindsight. It is a passing thrum, a tremor of memory and desire. I think about stories I want to tell him. What I wouldn’t give to just sit with him for a few thousand years, not saying much of anything, or maybe saying everything, coffee in hand.
I miss him, and there are bills to pay and laundry to do, and work and school and oil changes and piano lessons, and…life. There is life, an abundant and full dance — sometimes a waltz, sometimes a two step, something that fills the space of the day. If you’re lucky, it morphs suddenly into a jitterbug or the Charleston, a celebration of life and joy, before slipping back to familiar paths.
I miss him. I remember him. I love him. And that’s it. That’s the deal. It’s what matters — not the completion, but that we journey for a time together, touch each other’s lives and hearts and souls. We remember, and we live, and love and grieve. And we go on, whether it’s done or not, whether it’s complete or not. We walked a lifetime together, my brother and I. I am grateful for our journey, for the lessons he taught me, for the light he shone in my darkness.
Ever and always, Randy.
Maya Spier Stiles North
- March 3, 2016 at 7:30 pm