A Death in the Family

My brother with his son.

My brother with his son.

So my oldest brother died last Friday. He had been sick, then he was on the mend, then he was dead. There was no time to prepare, no long goodbye, just a terse email from my sister on Friday afternoon, “Multiple organ failure. They’re making him comfortable.”

They’re making him comfortable. It is painfully clear what that means, and yet I wasn’t sure what that meant. Was he going to survive? Did he have weeks? Days? Hours?

It was hours, as it turned out. I went to bed, and when I awoke, it was over. We had lain in beds 4000 miles apart, one of us sleeping fitfully, one slowly slipping away. No ER drama, no crash carts, no ‘CLEAR!,’ just a 56 year-old man lying in a hospital bed, his three children saying goodbye, his wife doing her best to hold it all together, his mother trying to wrap her head around the fact of her son’s death, one of his brothers watching the shallow rise and fall of his chest for the very last time.

What does the death of a sibling mean? It depends on the sibling, of course, and the circumstances. For me it has been undoubtedly painful, but the deepest source of my sorrow was not that I would never see him alive again (although that was a portion of it), but the thought of what this death, this sudden, stupid, senseless death, meant to five people – my mother, my brother’s wife, and his three children.

He was forever building contraptions like this 'airplane'

He was forever building contraptions like this ‘airplane’

I can’t tell their stories, though, because while I can certainly try to imagine how they feel, I can never really know. What does a father’s death mean to a 9 year-old girl, a 13 year-old daughter, a 16 year-old son? How do they recall the past, compartmentalize the present, conceptualize the future? How do they make sense of it all? I can’t say. What is it like to say goodbye to a man with whom you’ve shared roughly 40 years of your life? How can a mother look at her son in a coffin and come to terms with what that means?

Too many questions, and I don’t really have an answer to any of them.

What it means to me strikes me as insignificant compared to what it means to them. And still it’s the only tale I can tell.

Steve's the oldest, I'm the youngest

Steve’s the oldest, I’m the youngest

It means that all of his siblings have been confronted with their own future, and that future has but one ending; his death has pushed us all just an inch or two closer to our own mortality.

It has made me realize that there are things that should be expressed, thanks that should be extended, appreciation that should be shared, before it’s simply too late for any of that.

It has made me want to make sure that I take better care of myself so that my children never have to stand next to a hospital bed, saying their goodbyes. Not for a long while, anyway.

It has made me want to keep in closer contact with my brothers and sister, to make sure that we never again go months without communicating, to be damn sure that the next time we talk it’s not because something terrible has happened.

It has confirmed in me the knowledge that unless you’re close to the cure for cancer, airlifting supplies to desperate refugees, negotiating a peace treaty, or otherwise helping people in a fairly large and comprehensive way, what you do for work is probably not nearly as important as you think it is. In the brief spell when he was out of the hospital and his health reasonably stable, my brother went back to work, even took a short business trip. In hindsight, that time could probably have been better spent with his wife and children. If you ever have a choice between working or playing, take the latter every time.

Where he was most at home, on his boat. Or any boat.

Where he was most at home, on his boat. Or any boat.

I’m writing this in the Frankfurt airport, on my way home. In the 3 or so hours I’ll be sitting here, dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of people will pass by. Each one is a tiny finite universe of hopes and fears and loves and desires, each a unique bundle of strengths and stumbles, faults, foibles, triumphs and failures. Each one will have experienced joy, sorrow, loneliness, perhaps the loss of a brother, a child, a mother, a lover, the entire emotional gauntlet of any life as it’s lived.  My own experiences are commonplace, my own sorrows small. But they are my own.

Steve, thanks for the memories, thanks for the lessons, thanks for the love. You were a good man, a great father, and one hell of a sailor. And really, in these little lives that we all lead, I think that’s probably enough.

The brothers

The brothers. I’m all the way on the right, and Steve has his hand on my shoulder

48 thoughts on “A Death in the Family

  1. Matt, I am truly sorry for your loss. I can’t begin to imagine what that must feel like. This is probably amongst the most painful wake up calls. May you have the courage and the strength to remember the good times and the bad ones cause this is what life is all about. Thinking of you.

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  2. Hugs right back at ya, Beth. Losing your sister that young must have been truly, truly awful. I really appreciate your thoughts, and keep your fingers crossed and your optimism indeed eternal. (Because if you don’t, you’re pretty screwed.) Cheers!

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    • Thanks, Cuttlefish. I think it was really hard for him, but he just didn’t want to fight anymore. The worst was hearing his son speak at his funeral. He was amazingly composed, and it was beautiful, but when he said that his father had told him he’d always be there for him, I lost it completely. Anyway, thanks for your thoughts.

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  3. Hugs. I unexpectedly lost my oldest brother eight years ago. It’s a lot for you to process right now… there’s nothing I can say, but this is a beautiful post. And more hugs…

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    • Thanks, Linda. It is a lot to process, but as I wrote, it’s nothing compared with what his wife and kids are dealing with. It will get better in time, but it’s going to be quite some time, I think. Hugs right back.

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  4. Very sad to hear of your loss. You write very beautifully and eloquently about your family, and life, and death. Thank you for letting us see the photos of Steve, his family, and your other siblings. My mother lost her sister (only sibling) and own mother within a year. At the time (I was 16) I could not comprehend her loss. Only later did I realise what agony it must have been for her. We see things so differently once were “grown up” with kids of our own. You’re clearly the sort of person who fully understands the importance of nurturing your relationships with those dear to you. Un abrazo fuerte.

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    • Thanks, Fiona. There were so many threads running in my head, so many things I could have said, but I settled kind of by default with simple and straightforward. It true, having kids of your own alters your perspective on these things enormously and irrevocably. Thanks for the hug. I hugged everyone in sight while I was in the States for the funeral, but one more never hurt.

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    • Thanks, FMNZ. I’m past the age when I’m going to friends’ weddings – now I’m sending condolences for the loss of their parents, but I never thought I’d be burying my own brother before my mother. I appreciate you taking the time to write something. I really do.

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  5. Pingback: Roasted Figs with Honey, Cointreau and Mint {and Contemplation} « Laura's Mess

  6. Sorry for your loss. It really is not easy. My wife lost 6 people in her family in two years. It was very hard for all of us, especially my wife and her family. My condolences to you and your family.

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    • Thank you, and good Lord – 6 family members in two years. That must have been extraordinarily difficult. Thanks again for your thoughts, and for taking the time to comment. Family’s what we’ve got, so there’s all the reason in the world to be generous with time, with hugs, with love.

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  7. Thank you for sharing this. It can be very difficult to write about losing a loved one. I’m deeply sorry for your loss and for the loss of your brother’s young family. May you find comfort in your happiest memories.

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    • I wanted to write something – for a memorial, for catharsis, for my family – but there was just too much in my head, so it ended up being fairly random. I got an email from my mother soon after, though, and she said she’d read it, and reread it and reread it, and it made her feel better. That’s something, anyway. Thanks, Mama.

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  8. Aw, thank you for sharing this story. When my aunt passed away 7 yrs ago, she was the first of her siblings, 12 of them total, to do so. My mom was very very sad and felt guilty for not being there enough as they were the closest in age and lived near each other while most everyone else lives on the other side of the US. My grandmother was so distraught that she could not even attend the funeral etc. I’ve often thought of that day when one of my siblings or even myself will pass away. I wonder how one/I will react. One wonders so many things. Warmest regards.

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    • Thanks, Annie. I’m sure you’ll react as most of us do, with grief, hurt, maybe even anger or fear for a while, but in the end you recall the time you spent together, because that’s all you’re left. And you know what? It’s quite a lot.

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  9. Sensitively written and deeply felt. What you write is so true – time and family are the most precious things that we have. Your photos are beautiful but the best memories are in the heart where I’m sure your brother will continue to shine his special light.

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  10. Beautifully written Matt, I hope it provided a little bit of catharsis. Grief is such a difficult and unfortunately lifelong journey. My thoughts are with you and your family.

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    • Hey, Susan. Thanks for your thoughts – I know you’re no stranger to personal loss. It gets better, and I’m thankful that his family has lots of people to count on for help and support. They need a lot of both right now. Hope all’s well in your snowy corner of Maine!

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  11. So sorry for your loss. My thoughts and prayers go out to your family right now. That’s one thing I really dread, living oceans away from my family – that phone call that would tell me that someone is gone or dying. I’ve had two deaths in our family since moving to England, although (and thankfully) not anyone from my immediate family, but still family members nonetheless and their deaths really affected me.

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  12. Matt, reading this has reduced me to tears. I am so sorry to hear your news and cannot begin to imagine what you are going through. My thoughts are with you and his family; especially your mother, his wife and their children. Be strong, Fran x

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  13. Such a beautiful eulogy and testimony to your brother’s life.I know how hard it is when you have to pool all of his life and all of your feelings into a 1000 word post where you feel like there’s so much more to say but there just aren’t any words. I’m so sorry for your loss and for the loss of his family.

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    • You’re absolutely right – I had so much to say that I wasn’t sure I could say anything. I’m not even sure in the end that I did say much of anything, but you’re very kind to call it beautiful. Thanks for reading!

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  14. I’m sitting here at my desk at work, staring at the screen. That last photo of you as brothers is a beautiful one; family, brotherhood, the oldest and the youngest side by side. There aren’t enough words to express how difficult it is to lose family members, particularly when you know that your loss is shared by their children, spouses, parents… an endless chain of sadness that is presently raw and unresolved. I’ll be thinking of you all and praying for your family; Steve’s wife and kids in particular. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and reflections on life. There is a lot of truth in this post, particularly in regards to priorities for our time. Relationships should always come first.

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    • Thanks, Laura. The sadness is rather raw, but I know that of course in time it will scab over. I think the best thing to do is cook a lot, spend a ton of time with the people you love, get outdoors and enjoy the world, and yes, plant some figs.

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  15. I’m sorry to hear of your loss.

    I loved this bit of your piece:
    “Each one is a tiny finite universe of hopes and fears and loves and desires, each a unique bundle of strengths and stumbles, faults, foibles, triumphs and failures. Each one will have experienced joy, sorrow, loneliness, perhaps the loss of a brother, a child, a mother, a lover, the entire emotional gauntlet of any life as it’s lived.” When struck with tragedy, I think there is a tendency to feel exactly that, struck, as if no one has gone through anything similar. You see people living their lives and feel as if you are in a bubble of sadness. I liked that you identified the people around you as having experienced similar things. It shows great maturity of thought, but also is a comforting thought in times of stress and sadness.

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    • Thank you, Oneinamillion. And congratulations! Best of luck with the little one. If you’re looking for excellent advice about being a new parent, well, look elsewhere. If, however, you want to feel normal and maybe have a bit of a laugh, feel free to check out some of my older posts about the early days of parenthood. Cheers!

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  16. this is beautiful and heartbreakingly sad. i am so sorry for the loss of your brother, for you and for the rest of the family and all who loved him. it sounds like steve was a very special man. you make great points about making the most of every minute of our lives. i lost a sister when we were both in our 20s, and i still miss her and think about her every day. hugs ) beth

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