He came to the States as a teenager and quickly found himself in uniform helping his new country prevail in World War II. Then he helped rebuild the nation with its most prized import, eager immigrants. Dozens of families are here because Jerry and others saved their pennies and nickles and used them to provide passage and lodging.
A quiet and gentle man of enormous influence and modest status. A man of great faith and little piety. A lifetime bachelor always surrounded by family. He was everyone's favorite uncle.
And he couldn't breathe. Thus began two vigils, Jerry in the hospital and Mike at home. Mike's imminent passage was certain. We assumed Jerry had an infection in his lungs and would be home as soon as it cleared up. We had always consulted him on important matters and it never occurred to us to keep him in the dark regarding Mike's condition. Jerry began having trouble breathing days after we told him Mike's would die.
We can't be certain if Jerry sudden downward spiral was caused by grief for Mike or a sense of duty to him. He had been Mike's caregiver years before my involvement. Whenever Mike got up out of his chair, Jerry followed, positioning himself to help Mike catch his balance when he inevitably stumbled.
We had ordered no life-saving measures be taken, and would discover the gray area in such an order. They clear the lungs if he can't breathe. This is a life-saving measure, but also a comfort measure. Not breathing is damned uncomfortable.
I had begun to look forward to more time with Jerry. Mike had required most of my attention over the last six months. I wanted to spoil Jerry more. I wanted to see the smile on his face when I plugged a Fellini movie into a portable DVD player. I loved how he giggled when we soaked his feet in order to soften up the toenails. He needed showers more often than I had been giving them. I was going to fix that.
Mike never responded after the last time I had shaved him. A priest performed the Last Rite's of the Catholic Church. When his night called, he went gently. Mike's son was at his side. Jerry's nephew slept in a cot in Jerry's room at the hospital, just a few minutes from our house.
We called the hospice service and someone arrived within an hour to sign a death certificate. We said another prayer. We phoned the funeral home and they arrived promptly and said all the right things. A high school buddy and his brother run the place. They had taken care of my folks years ago and they were wonderful, but what a business. I could never do it.
They advised us to leave the room while they did their job. We huddled in my kitchen, and I couldn't help but peek over to see them carrying Mike out in a stretcher, zipped up in a heavy black bag. This is why they ask you to leave the room.
I became an innkeeper for my wife and her brother over the next few days, cooking, sweeping and mopping as the siblings made arrangements for Mike's funeral. There is great healing in performing these tasks and I left them to it, selecting the readings, the flowers, the music. They made calls to Italy, where most of Mike's family had chosen to remain, unlike Jerry's. I felt I had already grieved for Mike, been at his side for some final communication and connection. We can't see the spirit leave the body, but I had felt it.
Their generation placed great stock in securing burial plots shortly after marriage. Mike would again lay next to Yolanda, his bride who had died in 1990. We donned our dark suits on a blistering hot August day and it was done.
Jerry stayed in the hospital until Mike's services were over. We were puzzled that our doctor hadn't suggested sending him home, but were grateful someone was watching over him as we attended to Mike's arrangements. The doctors were fine, professional and attentive to our questions and concerns. The nurses and nurses' aides were lovely. They doted on him, tucking pillows here and there. They patiently answered questions over and over as family members rotated in and out of his room. They were impressed with us. Jerry was alone for only a handful of hours during his week there. They brought us cots and breakfast.
The day after the funeral I saw for the first time the procedure to clear Jerry's lungs. A plastic tube is inserted through the mouth. Jerry cringed and gagged and turned dark red as the suction tube went down his throat. There was fluid buildup outside his lungs. It was drained from the outside with a needle. It was horrifying and it was the only thing keeping him alive. We had a decision to make.
I asked the doctor for a prognosis. He recited the list of things they were doing. I asked again for a prognosis. How long? A few months? Oh, no. Not one month. Soon. Very soon.
"He can't die now," one of us exclaimed. "I'm not ready."
That perfectly summed up our quandary. We thought we could plan this. Mike had been defying the odds for years, but not Jerry. Two weeks ago he could dress himself if I let him, slip on his shoes, button the buttons on his shirt, read his watch to see how long until lunch.
Now he can't breathe and we have to let him not breathe.
We brought him home that day with an oxygen tank and mask. No ventilator, no more tubes down the throat. He kept lifting his arms asking to be pulled up. The more upright he sat, the easier to breathe. But he was up. He didn't understand why I wouldn't help him.
The hospice service wouldn't arrive until the next day. I insisted they send the morphine and haldol immediately. It arrived within an hour and I began administering every four hours. It worked. He was soon comfortable. The fear in his eyes went away and was replaced by the same stare I had seen in Mike. He wouldn't speak again, nor would he suffer.
The following days provided a surreal sense of deja vu. The hospice service pulled Mike's equipment and installed Jerry's the same day. Half our den now sat empty as I went through the exact routines with Jerry I had gone through with Mike, the sponge baths, the fruit smoothies, the Italian music.
I hosted visitors as they paid their last respects. I felt sorry for the older ones. I recalled my father's depression each time a brother died. The list of lifetime relations grows shorter. One after another they depart, and folks can't help but ask why they are still here when their loved ones have all gone.
Jerry didn't live long without Mike. One week, to be exact. His nephew dozed next to his bed. My wife walked down just after 3 a.m. and heard nothing. She knew the shallow breathing had ended. The hands of the clock compounded the eeriness of the events. They showed the exact time Mike had died, within minutes.
We lumbered through in disbelief. Dialing numbers. Signing certificates. Another black bag out the door. More flowers and songs and prayers and finally the wrinkled dark suit I hadn't yet sent to the cleaners and another blistering hot day.
Jerry was buried not 30 paces from Mike. Close enough to keep an eye on him again and forever.