Today is the second anniversary of my brother’s death.
I wrote the following piece a few months after he died. I edited it today… heavily.
I never wanted to be my brother’s keeper but no one else was willing, and people aren’t supposed to die alone, right?
With a thirteen year spread between my brother and myself, we didn’t spend a lot of time growing up in the same household. My earliest memory of him was the going-away party shipping him off to the seminary. I’m not really certain if mine qualifies as a memory, or if the one photo I’ve seen of the festivities established itself in the absence of actual recall. In it, my brother is sitting at the edge of the kitchen table, he is wearing a blue and brown striped pullover sweater and jeans; he’s smiling apparently contented, happy to be with family and friends. On the fringes of the photo stands a little girl in a ruffled white dress,a pink cardigan, tights and Mary Jane shoes. It’s an imprecise still life of “Rockwellian” proportions. My brother left for the Franciscan Seminary and to my mind didn’t resurface until about seven years later when my mother, opening the door to a knock, asked a bearded stranger “Can I help you?” To which she received the startled response of “Mom! It’s me!”
Up until the final year of my brother’s life, I have only a scant three, maybe four more recollections of times actually spent together. He truly was the stranger at the door. It’s possible that my other siblings nearer his age may have felt closer to him but can you really claim to know someone whom you’ve only been with a handful of times since childhood? I didn’t know him. When he left home he never really came back. If I was to believe the scores of affidavits and news reports that were revealed in the years before and after his death perhaps he was just too busy covering his tracks.
We all have secrets. I’m no innocent in this category. I can honestly admit that unlike my brother, I’m not concealing any incidents of malicious action toward another individual. Maybe it’s a rationalization, but I like to think I’ve remained an enigma to my family for reasons of self-preservation. For reasons of my own, I didn’t share with my entire family that I have an incurable indolent form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma usually found in sixty to seventy year old men.
My brother was sixty four when he died of metastases to his lungs from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In the world of cancer the word “indolent” refers to the nature of a disease which is tenacious, incurable and slow growing. I have therefore had ample time to come to terms with some basic cancer related issues. I don’t mind being dead. It’s the dying I don’t like. Over the course of twenty years I’ve had a few near misses. During those times, lying in the ICU, there was an awareness of the chance I could die, and it wasn’t particularly frightening. I remember feeling calm, a sort of acceptance about the idea, so I don’t think it’s the physical aspects of dying that concern me. It’s the notion that I could be defenseless. I’ve had a health care proxy for years. Watching how this all played out for my brother, I am concerned about the loss of my autonomy if my ability to make myself heard becomes an issue. I don’t want to be kept alive for the sake of some arcane religious concepts. I’d rather die alone than be surrounded by people who are there out of some misplaced sense of duty.
Two years prior, my brother had walked into an emergency room with a stomach ache and he never walked out. Watching the extent to which he authorized what he hoped were life-saving procedures became a painful realization that no one will avoid death. My brother was told he would most likely not survive the remaining six months of the year, yet he remained hopeful that intensive chemotherapy would save him. He authorized extensive abdominal surgery that essentially left him eviscerated and dependent upon mechanical intervention for him to eat or defecate. He refused to discuss palliative care so at the time of his death he was in an ICU, ventilated and had revoked the “do not resuscitate” status that we had discussed two weeks prior.
Standing at my brother’s bedside having made a decision to “pull the plug,” I realized he was completely helpless and a virtual stranger was making decisions about whether he would live or die. Two of the more devout Catholics in my family (who ironically had disowned him several years prior) made phone calls to the sick room for a stay of execution. They tried to argue that despite having the agreement of my mother and my brother’s few friends, the decision was not morally right, and I was making a big mistake. “It’s for God to decide when he dies.” But he was already dead. A crimped plastic hose snaked out of his mouth as his chest moved up and down to the slow rhythm of a machine at his bedside. The arrhythmic beeps of the equipment monitoring his vital signs became the target of my misplaced anger and fear. “Can we please shut that frigging noise off?” Even though I whispered this to the nurse it was probably not the best word choice in a room where two priests and a nun were now praying and offering last rites.
I find it ironic that it would be me (someone he did not know and who didn’t know him) whom he had asked to be his power of attorney. I have to think there was no one else to ask. Up to this point he had alienated everyone. Strangers and one guilt ridden family member were present at the time of his death. One friend who might honestly feel he knew my brother was present in his capacity as the head of the religious order, but even he didn’t believe him. I wasn’t there out of a sense of righteousness. At times I hated my brother for what I believe he had done, and I certainly didn’t feel any sort of familial loyalty to him. I would like to be able to honestly say it was because it was not my place to judge him or anyone else, but I can’t. Truth be known, I was there because I’m a bit of a coward and having to face my own regret of ignoring this one chance to show some forgiveness and compassion toward another, far outweighed my fear of bearing witness to his death. I was also there for the love of my mother who because of physical and emotional frailty couldn’t be present.
While I accept that each of us will deal with mortality in our own fashion, I have to wonder if a repressed sense of regret left my brother unprepared to face his fate. Thoughts of being defenseless are disturbing to me, but the idea of death-bed regret terrifies me. I’m not talking about missing the plans to parachute 20,000 feet on my seventieth birthday, yes, I will be disappointed. Going to my death with a Karmic wound because I’ve managed at some point to make someone else’s life a living hell, is regret.The time for regret is when you still have the physical power to change it, not on your deathbed or at the bedside of a dying man. Whether a victim himself or not, I don’t know, but my brother made choices that left him dead long before his bout with cancer. I pray to God that beyond this life he has found peace, forgiveness and a capacity to show mercy and compassion.