Some of what follows has appeared in different form in posts from the past week. I would appreciate it, for my brother's sake, if you read on.
The précis of a life, which appeared in the memorial booklet:
Father, brother, friend, proud Marine, Vietnam Veteran, staunch UAW member, Very Rotten pig roaster, softball player and coach, storyteller, worker, hunter, mentor, poet, and thinker.
He was a leader who inspired many people. He always knew when others needed careful instruction, wise counsel, a strong shoulder, a funny story, or a kick in the pants. Born in Detroit, he remained a resolute Wolverine in the midst of Buckeye country. Countless people were touched by his life and remember him with love. Many, whether here or elsewhere, pause today to honor him.
Before speaking of my brother, I would like, on behalf of the family, to thank his friends and cronies here who loved him, who cared for him—to the extent that he would allow—, who played ball with him and ate piggy with him, who stood with him when the plant was organizing and supported him as plant chair, who hunted with him and partied with him, and . . . who put up with him. It was clear to all of us in the family that he found a home here. You all made that home, and we’re grateful to you.
Last Sunday, my brother’s oncologist told him that his cancer had returned, that it was very aggressive, and that he only had a short time left to live. Before she left the room, she told him that she wished she had met him under different circumstances and had known him longer because she enjoyed talking with him so much.
His son and I were with him when the doctor delivered this news, and after she left the room we could see that he was perfectly calm. A judgment that sends others into fear or tears or rage simply moved him closer to a peaceful center.
I know it might be a bit hard to think of my brother as tranquil, but believe me, that’s what he was.
Of course, he also started giving his son and me instructions about what to do. He wasn’t that serene.
Before she left the room, the doctor had said that the next morning she would talk to the people from a local hospice to arrange the next stage of his care. That Monday, when we came to the hospital to see him, a social worker and a nurse from the hospice were already there. They had come to explain what they do. There were six of us arrayed at the foot of his bed, the social worker and the nurse flanking it and his son, his lady, my wife, and I standing at the feet.
You could see that the social worker was searching for the right way to address this unfamiliar group of grieving people. How would they take this conversation? What was the right note? How would they react? “When we care for someone . . . who is . . . terminally ill,” she began haltingly, and paused, unsure of how to make the plunge.
In that pause, my brother seized the moment. He jerked in his bed, grabbed his heart with his right hand and said in his loudest whisper “Terminal? You mean I'm terminal?"
The nurse was startled. The social worker jumped a foot. The four of us cracked up.
His joke set everyone at ease. Clearly, he was confronting his last journey forthrightly and with courage. There would be no beating about the bush. Just give him the facts, and then he’ll deal with them. We tried to take the cue.
Later that day, when my wife and I were alone with him, another thing became clear. My brother had been told that he could stay up to ten more days in the hospital under hospice care. At that point, he would have to be transferred either home or to a nursing home, where the hospice care would continue. “I’m not leaving here,” he told my wife and me. “I’m tired, and I don’t want to be moved.” He also knew that either option would be difficult on his friends and family, and he refused, even then, to be a burden on anyone. And his faith told him that he would be in good hands afterward.
When he died just a few days later, then, we were not surprised. He was very ready to go. I won’t say that he willed himself to death, but next time any of us sees him, I’m sure he’ll describe how he organized his passing.
Later in the morning that he died, the hospice nurse called. She wanted to express her condolences. In that conversation, she said this. “I wish I’d have known him longer, because I could tell he was a wonderful man. It was an honor to care for him. It was clear he was a special person.”
These stories from the last week of my brother’s life reveal that he left it just as he lived it: with a strong will, with a desire to be as independent as possible, with clear-eyed realism and a deep faith, with a sense of humor that cut through any pretence, with an uncanny knack for saying the right thing at the right time, with the ability to set people at ease in the most difficult of situations, and with an incredible charisma that allowed people who had known him only for a short while, and only in a weakened state, to recognize nevertheless that here was an impressive man, “a special person,” someone who commanded love and respect.
Words and picture © AtHome Pilgrim.
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