A perfect balance: ‘We live. We die. We love.’
Duluth News Tribune
Sunday October 25, 2020
Lou, my second-oldest brother, who never smoked or chewed, had tongue cancer. In his early 60s, he looked forward to retirement only one month away. Although his cancer couldn’t be cured, his oncologist told him four days before the day he died that his tumor appeared to be shrinking. She also said he was nowhere near the point of needing hospice. Lou was a bachelor who made it clear to the rest of us five siblings that, “I will do what I want. When I want. How I want.” Mom was in the nursing home under lockdown, so my two sisters and I became the nagging “wives.” My other two brothers offered their services and did for Lou what he allowed. We all figured he had at least another year.
I can still picture Lou explaining how he felt about his diagnosis. He held one hand up and said, “You live.” He held his other hand up and said, “You die.” He then threw both hands up in the air and explained to me in simple terms, “That’s just how it is. That’s life.”
I tried not to cry. It seemed I was more frightened of him dying than he.
I did what I could to stay optimistic. In order for me to do that, I negotiated the bad news. When the doctor said Lou may only have a year or two, I thought about today and tomorrow. When the doctor said Lou would most likely end up with a feeding tube, I thought about how easy g-tubes work. A g-tube is just a plastic tube inserted into the stomach. You attach a syringe to the top and pour the liquid nutrition down. When the doctor suggested Lou may lose his tongue, I thought about the many ways non-verbal communication could work. Simple nods. He could answer yes and no. He could still use a pen and paper. We needed time for the experts to find a cure. I figured as long as there was life, there was hope.
It was routine that, after chemo treatments, Lou’s cheeks, eyelids, and lips would double in size from water retention. A trip to the hospital for an intravenous treatment solved the problem. The last time it happened, a few weeks before Lou died, I made my brother promise he’d go to the hospital sooner than later.
“We need to take care of this, Lou.” I pleaded with him. “The chemo is kicking the cancer, but we need to keep the rest of you healthy, too.”
That Monday evening after work, I didn’t have to beg him to go to the hospital. The only condition he had was that I had to drive him there in his car. I felt my eyes tear with relief as I moved my vehicle out of the way and brought his around. When I came back inside, I saw my brother fumble as he dressed for the trip. I offered my help to put on his socks and shoes. I’ll never forget how both honored and humbled I was when he nodded, “yes.” When I knelt to the floor, I thought of the story of Jesus washing His disciple’s feet and His promise of eternal life for those who believed. It was at that point that I finally saw that my brother was dying. I felt a rush of sorrow as I weaved Lou’s socks over his toes, wishing his suffering to end. Praying for a miracle.
By 8 p.m., the swelling went down, and my brother rested comfortably. A CT scan showed no blockage in his head or neck, so we still did not have the cause of the water retention. I texted my siblings that our brother was sound asleep, that not even the prick of a needle could awaken him. At 11 p.m., I asked the doctor if I could go home.
Just two hours later, soon after 1 a.m., I got a call from the doctor that Lou had taken a turn for the worse. I needed to come soon if I wanted to say my goodbyes. Lou didn’t even wait for me. I wasn’t surprised. Lou would never have wanted to see me cry.
I was devastated. Our perfect family of three boys and three girls was destroyed. There was no balance to the number five. The future without my brother in it felt like a nightmare that would never end. I’d wake. I’d mourn. I’d go through it because I knew I had to.
The cruelty of Lou’s death brought a lifetime of painful losses to the forefront. I felt an ominous presence, wondering who would be next. In my life, the mathematical measure of threes, whether it was appliances, bad luck, or loss, was something to be expected.
I added a prayer each night for those closest to me.
Lou lived with Mom. After he died, I went to Mom’s house every day for a week so I could mourn his loss without any of life’s interruptions. I went through the house and collected all his dirty laundry. I wished Lou would have accepted my offer to do his laundry while he was alive. It would have been no big deal for me. With each piece of clothing I picked up, a painful tear fell down. When I pulled his clothes from the dryer, I smelled each piece before folding it into the laundry basket. I wondered again why he wouldn’t let me help him. When I picked up the basket, I knew that it didn’t matter that my brother had his laundry done. Nor did it matter where I put the basket.
I went across the hall and stood in the doorway of my brother’s room. I almost burst in pain as I tried to force his body to reappear. I needed to see him sitting in his lounge chair. I needed him to look at me and give me that wrist wave from the arm of his chair. I needed to tell him to keep fighting; it’s not over yet.
I knew for me to get over it, I had to go through it. Throughout the first week I went to Mom’s empty house and wandered in and out of the past and present. How would our family cope without Lou?
The second death happened 15 days later. On March 26, I opened my Facebook feed and was stunned to read about an old high school friend, Jim, who died the day before. After reading the many posts written to Jim on his Facebook feed to “rest in peace,” I contacted my lifelong friend Sharon to find out if she had heard. She hadn’t.
“It’s on Facebook,” I said. “Lots of people making comments about him passing away. I didn’t hear he was sick. It makes me sad. He really did have a good heart.”
“Wow,” said Sharon. “More and more people our age.”
I started searching the comments to see if anyone mentioned how Jim died. I found nothing. I leaned back into the couch and stared at the computer screen. I had just lost a part of my past. Memories of my brother and the innocence of that time in my life were what kept me going. I was sickened to have a black shadow now dropped on those memories.
I started thinking about my losses as a set. When I thought of Lou, I thought of Jim. When I thought of Jim, I’d think of Lou. I wondered if Lou greeted Jim in the thereafter. I wondered if Lou, one of the newbies, showed him around. I wondered if the two of them would play a round of golf.
If there was one person outside my intimate circle who would completely understand my pain of losing a big brother, I knew it would be Jim’s younger sister, Kathleen. Although I couldn’t remember if I ever met her, on March 30, I reached out to her on Facebook to offer my condolences. The connection to Kathleen helped me move forward.
There was death all around us every single day. My journey into the throes of loss gave me a deeper understanding of how precious life was. Accepting that I, too, was going to die someday was an odd transformation revealed. It seemed like I saw colors brighter. Sounds were more musical. Aches felt less painful.
The third death affected my husband, Andy, more than me. On June 24, Andy got a call that his lifelong friend, Mikey, had committed suicide. Andy heard that Mikey’s sister, Pat, tried to get Mikey to get help for his depression, a depression Andy knew nothing about.
The loss of Mikey was different than the others for me. Mikey represented more of a present time of my life. He was the friend who came to visit us every summer, and his absence from our fishing excursions the following weekends reminded us he was gone.
I was raised in the perfect number of siblings, something I am thankful for. Death came at me and affected my thoughts of my past, present, and future. Yet I’m thankful for a life filled with love, lessons, and blessings. I have my Christian faith that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are with me always. I am reminded within that faith that being human is only one part of our journey.
I think of that day often when Lou told me so simply that you live, you die. It seemed so basic to him, something I wasn’t ready to accept or understand. Maybe it was because the most important part of his message was the third part that happened between life and death. The part about how we were thankful for the opportunity to have loved each other in a deep and meaningful way. We live. We die. We love. The perfect balance of threes.