The room was cold…morgue cold. But that’s the way my brother wanted it, and it was his death, so crank it down to smoke house level, and I’m going to love it. He wanted it dark too. The blinds were shut tight, so tight that even at noon, just the barest sliver of sunlight seeped its way into the hospice room. And quiet…the television jutting from the wall was a mute appliance; voices wavered somewhere between normal and a whisper. That’s the way he wanted it, it was his death, and I was determined to be an advocate.
One sconce wall light emitted a pale glow toward the ceiling, and, with the door closed tight, darkness prevailed. His body had already begun to take on a waxy pallor, almost translucent…a delicate, ivory container of a soul restless to wander. His breath was the slightest of a snore. He awakened sporadically, or at least he appeared to awaken, his eyes barely focusing with just a ghost of a glint, his mouth barely moving, suggesting just a shadow of a smile. This wonderful man, this brother of mine, always bigger than life, always pleasantly loud, and with a presence that crowded the room in a comfortable way.
Where was 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 professed a lot of love over several hours. It wasn't the first time I told him I loved him, but I have to admit that the two of us only came to terms with terms of endearment late in life. But when it comes to expressing love, it may be late, but it doesn’t ever have to be too late.
I held his right hand. The one that I had shook so many times before we got comfortable with man hugs. If we ever did get comfortable with them. It was cold, really cold. And it made me think: you know, it just wasn’t right for him to be lying there in that bed. That’s not the territory that he was supposed to be exploring. He was supposed to be on the beach with his wife and Dude, the rescue dog, with Pearl, the rescue cat, waiting for them to return to their haven on St. George Island. He was supposed to be cleaning his pool or picking a stalk of goodies from his banana tree or checking the schedule to see what was on the tube for the evening. He was supposed to be walking and talking and breathing big, huge breaths of humid, salty Florida air. Or planning to head back to the farm on Champ Road in Kelso to help Deyton prep the seedlings for the upcoming planting season. Or 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 even though the tornado had turned their century old habitat into splintered and twisted ruins.
He wasn'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 wasn’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 wasn’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. Big brothers’ work doesn’t stop at holding onto the back of the bicycle until little brothers learn the physics of balance… running alongside them until they gain enough confidence…faster and faster…until the little brother says, “Hey, I got it!” Until he reaches 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. Big brothers don’t get to stop pacing the floor when little brothers with a brand new driver's license aren’t home at midnight or when you stand with them at the altar waiting on the love of their life to walk down the aisle or any of those times as adults when they ask for a little advice they don’t plan to heed anyway. It doesn't stop just because you're both north of sixty and with more wrinkles 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’ll sit in that cold, dark, quiet room and listen to my little brother breathe. I’ll whisper I love him in case he can hear. I’ll pat his hand and kiss his forehead. I’ll hold on tight to the back of that strange ride he’s on...as he goes faster and faster... until I hear him say that he’s got it…until he reaches that point of no return.
And then, because I do love him, I’ll let him go.