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.
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.
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.
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.