December 16, 2011 § Leave a comment
Every night for two weeks, I waited for the phone call telling me my brother was gone. I didn’t know what was worse, the knowing he would die, or the waiting for the call to tell me that he had.
The family had watched for months while he shrank, grew frailer, paler, and struggled for each breath. Every visit we made ended in sorrow. How many times can you say goodbye? How many times can you leave thinking, praying, that he wouldn’t have to suffer much longer? How many times must my eighty-year-old mother bend to kiss him goodbye and whisper, “Be a good boy, now.”
I came to believe the agony of waiting was hardest. What was the purpose of it? What good could possibly come from this extra time he lingered with us? The family had long-since accepted the cancer’s victory. My brother and I had remembered countless childhood hours, every grandparent, aunt, and cousin, every summer of pick-up ball in the vacant lot next door, each tiny brown paper bag stuffed with Mary Jane’s and Sugar Daddies. We had explored every shadow, every hurt, and offered and accepted forgiveness for each. What more was there to do? To say? What more did we have to learn from this?
And then, late one Friday night, my phone rang. My sister-in-law needed to talk. She was weary. Heartbreakingly sad. Carolyn and I talked through the usual run down of the day: my brother’s meds, the visitors, the hospice reports. But, there was a difference about that night. It didn’t come from the words or tears we shared, but rather in the form of a familiar warmness spreading through me—the same warmness I had experienced at other times when loved ones had left me. It felt as if some gentle hand rested on my head, sending rivers of radiant heat down my spine.
“I’m on my way,” I said to my sister-in-law.
Carolyn didn’t argue. She had cared for my brother through every interminable hour of his illness, and I believe she sensed something different that night. I think she knew she needed someone there, and I believe that particular someone needed to be there. That someone was me.
I made the two-hour drive through misty fog, and even as I walked to the front door of my brother’s home, I could hear his gasps for breath. Carolyn met me at the door. We hugged, and I prayed silently before I went in.
My baby brother lay as he had lain for weeks, on his back, head and shoulders propped up on pillows. Every breath rasped from his lungs, his skin had yellowed, and his eyes were clouded. He turned his head toward me as I sat next to his bed, but he couldn’t speak.
I sent Carolyn to rest and took my brother’s hand. He had no strength left to hold mine in return, but his eyes followed every movement of my body.
I rubbed his arms, his hands, his chest, but his moaning grew worse. He couldn’t seem to get comfortable, in spite of the morphine that pumped regularly into his swollen veins. I placed my palm over his heart and talked again of long gone summer days, bream-fishing in the creek, rides in the bed of our grandfather’s old truck.
“Remember how the yellow flies swarmed around us when we came to that certain part of the woods, and we’d yell for Daddy Bill to ‘Hit the gas!’ to outrun them?
“Remember the snake that swam between your legs at the old branch? And how your lips would turn blue and you’d shake from cold but refuse to leave the icy water? Remember Roscoe, our mule, and the hobbledy-walks he carried us on? The fireworks in July, the homemade ice cream, the time you had a dart stuck in your head? Remember…? Remember…?”
The night turned to wee morning hours, and still my brother struggled.
Please, God, help him. Take him.
I never dreamed the thoughts I would think through that next hour as I sat by his side—thoughts of extra morphine drops, of pillows over faces, of a hand pressed too firmly on a frail windpipe. Thoughts of silence. Of release. Of goodbyes.
But I couldn’t act on any one of them.
I massaged my brother’s head, running my fingers along his scalp, brushing back the strands of hair that fell across his forehead. His moaning grew fainter, but he continued to stare at me.
“Remember those crazy songs Daddy Bill sang to us?”
Another raspy breath.
“‘She’ll be coming ‘round the mountain when she comes… She’ll be coming ‘round the mountain when she comes….She’ll be….”
My brother’s head turned slightly toward me.
“Oh, how ‘bout Ol’ Dan Tucker? That was one of your favorites. “Ol’ Dan Tucker was a funny ol’ man. He combed his hair with a frying pan….”
I sang what I could remember, and then my brother’s silence of the last few days broke.
“Ugggghhh!” He uttered.
I stared at him. He stared back.
Then through tears and laughter, I said, “Well, Bucky! I know I don’t sing that bad…”
He scrunched up his face. I stared. Was there a lift to one corner of his mouth? A little more light in his eyes?
Perhaps I just imagined that somewhere in his heart and mind he laughed with me. I can’t say for sure. But afterwards, he grew quieter and stiller, and the harder I prayed for the Lord to take him—“Please”—the slower his breathing became. With each forced breath out, I watched and waited, sure another rasping intake would follow. But, finally, with almost a sigh, he breathed out, and the room grew quiet. I moved my hand up to check the pulse in his neck.
The clock behind me ticked.
I pressed my hand gently against his heart. I put my ear close to his mouth. And still, only the ticking clock broke the silence around us.
My brother had gone—just like that.
Once again, that familiar warmth spread through me—a gentle, loving invisible hand touched my soul. The memories of all the tortuous weeks of waiting, all the hours of suffering faded away. I didn’t have to question why anymore because I knew the answers to the questions I had asked for so long. I had been given a gift. Except for the births of my children, no other moment in my life compares to the beauty and sacredness of watching my brother leave this world to be born into the next. Nothing can compare to that last, weak smile we shared.
I cried as I gently closed his eyes and watched a grace-filled peace settle on his face. He was free. He was safe. And I knelt in grateful prayer.