The hospice room is cold. But that’s the way my brother wants it, and it is his death, so be it. He wants it dark as well. So the blinds are pinched tight, so now, even at noon, just the barest sliver of sunlight seeps inside. And quiet…so very, very quiet. The television that sits upon a pedestal in the wall is dark and mute; voices behind that wall waver somewhere between hushed and a whisper. That’s the way he wants it, it's his death, and I am but an observer.
One sconce wall light aims a pale glow toward the ceiling, and, with the door closed tight, the silence and darkness have a tomb-like feeling. My brother's physical being has already begun to take on a waxy pallor, almost translucent…a delicate, ivory container of a soul preparing to drift. He lies on his back, his breathing a soft snore. He wakes sporadically, or appears to wake, his slitted eyes barely focusing with just a ghost of a glint, his mouth barely moving, suggesting just the hint of a smile. This wonderful man, this brother of mine, always bigger than life, always pleasantly loud, and with a presence that crowded rooms in a comfortable fashion.
Where is he going, this brother of mine? I knew where he had been, I knew where he thought he would be going over the next several years of his life, the silver, golden, and platinum years, but melanoma stepped in and said, “Hey there, Buddy, hang on a minute. There’s been a change of plans.” My wife said that she was mad at the melanoma and I told here that hey, it’s just cancer being cancer. Truth told though, if I could have personified it, I would have grabbed it and choked the life out of it, and sent it back to the bowels of hell from whence it came.
I profess my love over several hours but suspect my timing sucks. It isn't the first time I've told him I love him, but I have to admit that the two of us only came to terms with terms of endearment late in life. But I suppose that when it comes to expressing love, it may be late, but it doesn’t ever have to be too late.
I hold his right hand. The one that I shook so many times before we got comfortable with man hugs. If we ever did get comfortable with them. His hand is cold, really cold. And it makes me think: you know, it just isn't right for him to be lying there in that bed. That’s not the territory that he is supposed to be exploring. He is supposed to be on the beach with his wife and with Dude, the rescue dog, while Pearl, the rescue cat, waits for them to return to their retreat on St. George Island. He is supposed to be cleaning his pool or claiming a stalk of bananas from his tree out back or seeing what's good on the tube for the evening. He is supposed to be walking and talking and breathing big, huge breaths of humid, salty Gulf of Mexico air. Or planning to head back to the farm on Champ Road in Kelso to help Deyton prep the seedlings for the upcoming garden season. Or just sitting on the front porch of his cabin and gazing in the direction of the Elk River, wondering if the herons would return in the spring though a tornado had turned their century old habitat into splintered and twisted ruins.
He isn't supposed to be taking shallow breaths and making restless movements in a metal bed in the hospice wing of a hospital in Panama City, Florida. He isn't supposed to be battered and beaten by a nasty, aggressive cancer that made the fury of last year’s tornado appear as innocuous as a pesky April breeze. He isn't supposed to be dying in front of my eyes.
Little brothers aren’t supposed to die before big brothers. It’s the big brother’s job to see the little brother all the way through. A big brothers’ work doesn’t stop at holding onto the back of the bicycle until the little brother learns the physics of balance… running alongside him as he gains confidence…faster and faster…until the little brother says, “Hey, I got it!” Until he wobbles and twists to that point of no return, and, if you love him, you let him go.
It doesn’t stop at sideline coaching at Little League games. A big brothers doesn’t get to stop pacing the floor when his little brother with brand new driver's license isn't home at midnight or when you stand with him at the altar waiting on the love of his life to walk down the aisle or any of those times as an adult when he ask for a little advice he doesn't plan to heed anyway. It doesn't stop just because you're both north of sixty and with more age spots than hair.
Oh, I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. Because I’m here to tell you it does. I’m hear to tell you that little brothers sometimes leave this world before big brothers. Oh, yes, they do. And it isn't pretty but it is what it is.
So I sit in that cold, dark, quiet room and listen to my little brother breathe. I whisper I love him in case he can hear. I pat his hand and kiss his forehead. I cling to the back of that strange ride he’s on...as he goes faster and faster as I strain to maintain my grasp. Until eventually something tells me he’s got it…that, yes, he has reached that point of no return.
And then, because I do love him, I’ll let him go.