A year ago my younger brother died. Like any sudden illness, his passing came as a shock to both friends and family. He was active, took care of his health, loved his family and his life. In this past year I’ve had time to think about his life and his death, some of things he taught me, and some of the things I wish I had always told him.
Death of someone close to you will do that–make you think of things you should have said.
We were only 13 months apart and during his 51 years we had some similarities and some differences, some laughs and some heated discussions. He was into sports. I was into work. He was into getting a higher education. I was into making a living. He was into traveling. I was into helping raise two children. He was into skiing. I was into plowing snow.
Over those years we found time to see each other. Although distance often separated us, we always knew we could share a laugh and a phone call with each other.
As life moved through different stages our relationship grew distant and closer. He married and invited the wedding party for a four day river trip. In the twenty years that followed while he was the one often seen steering the raft on rivers and the first one scouting the rapids for the best course, his wife kept the family grounded with making responsible choices for the future. Like every relationship their love for each other was evident where ever they were even through the tumultuous times.
After they were married, they joined the Peace Corps. They signed on for two years in Paraguay in South America. But their experience there would be short. Six months later they were attacked when returning to the US Embassy during a coup. He and his wife were flown to New York and he was admitted for emergency surgery to repair a broken cheek bone where a rock had just missed his eye. He told me it could have happened anywhere but that he hoped he would never hear his wife scream like that again. I asked him what he was going to do? He said with a laugh, “Kathie and I are going to start a home and make some babies.”
He was never bitter about his experience in South America and returned to get a teaching degree. After two years in college they moved to a small university town in Central Idaho. He taught ninth grade junior high school Earth Science and Spanish. His wife started a private physical therapy practice and they raised two beautiful children. When the dark winter days were short, on weekends they would go skiing in the surrounding mountains. When the warm summer days returned, they would go hiking, mountain biking and rafting. Often he could be seen riding his bike around town with his children bundled in the bicycle trailer behind him. Or playing his guitar with friends or for anyone that would listen. With the help of the community he started several organizations.
All that he loved about life suddenly changed one afternoon when he was rushed to emergency unconscious with a brain tumor. He didn’t want to accept he was going to leave this life behind. He wasn’t ready. It was months later after the chemo andradiation when his doctor told him there was nothing that they could do—the tumor was growing again—that the reality started to set in. He was going to die.
In the year that followed I’ve had time to think about what he taught me.
It was what he didn’t say. It was by watching him that I learned the most. Over the years when we would visit there was always something to fix. He would ask how to cut a board, hang a door in his house or repair his car. But to the end it was he who was the esteemed teacher.
He taught me that there is a very fine line to walk between taking care of oneself and taking care of others. One cannot be sacrificed over the other. They are both of equal importance.
He taught me that giving and receiving a hug is as important as breathing.
Play and being ridiculously silly is a form of humility.
To be humble when looking foolish.
He taught me about forgiveness.
But as an older brother watching his last fourteen months, the most important lesson he taught me was about death. Is there such a thing as a “good death”, to die comfortably and responsibly?
One thing I am forever grateful for is that he did not die a violent death. While the last breath’s of life are never the easiest to witness he died early in the morning in his wife’s arms at their home with his son and daughter close by. For fourteen months those that knew him followed his journey to death through blog post, hikes in the mountains, ski trips, rafting down rivers, music, phone calls and visits with him.
He taught me how to die with dignity.
In the last three months after the final prognosis, he invited family and friends over to say his goodbye’s. He was taking anti-seizure medication and could no longer drive or ride his bike and was starting to lose his speech but he could go for moderate hikes with friends and he enjoyed having someone sit with him while he slept.
One afternoon it was just him and I at a friends home. The sun pored through the large glass windows as we sat in wooden rocking chairs over looking pine trees and the valley bellow. It was early fall. The temperature was cool outside, but the sun warmed his ailing body. We talked of the past. By now he had moved from fearing death, to accepting death.
We talked of different times, years before when we were younger, our first set of skis, climbing mountains and relationships. We talked about the love he has for his son and daughter, their future and for Kathie, his wife. We talked about what happens when we die. “The lights go out”, he said. “Thats all . . . zip, and we’re gone.”
“Do you believe our conscience survives death?” I asked.
“Nope,” he said, shaking his head.
“Well, if you find out different brother, please come and tell me.” All he could do was smile and nod.
We talked some more and he said he was getting tired. He shut his eyes and took a deep breath and put his hand out. It was hard to tell if he was still breathing at times. Suddenly he would let out a gasp and fill his lungs. As we sat there quietly in the sun, I held his hand. His skin turned from a pale white to a very cold ashen gray.
Three days after he died something stopped me at the top of the stairs at our apartment. It felt like the joy of a first run skiing through knee deep powder, and the adrenaline of rowing an unforgiving rapid. It felt like the warmth of a genuine hug that held me for a moment and I knew then that the peace I felt inside was his final goodbye.