Hello from my upstairs,
If my older brother were alive, he would be 65 years old, old enough to collect social security. It is late on the 9th of February as I begin to compose this latest post, but I am pretty sure I will not finish it tonight. Part of that is because it is after 10:00 and more importantly, I am tired. . . . it seems I was a bit more prophetic than I anticipated. It is now Wednesday morning and while it started a bit ordinary with a snowy February morning and the use of the snow blower, since then it has been anything but. I got things finished and planned to meet my cleaning person at Dunkin’. However, she, uncharacteristically was not there. I waited for some time and she did not show. More about that in a bit . . . and the irony of it.
What I was to note here was that I was a student much like the ones I was lamenting in my last missive about those paying to be educated. I was a student at Iowa State University and while I thought I had some idea about the ins and outs of being a student, I was mistaken. During that January into February of 1977 my older brother, Robert (aka Bob or Barney to his friends), was struggling to hang on to life after a construction accident in which he fell and hit his head. He had a massive brain hemorrhage and was in a coma. He was so different than I was. He was a whiz at math and physics and he was even more gifted as a musician. In high school he was part of a band (much like the first CTA, if you know that album before they had to change their name or like BS&T and again, if you are not sure of these bands, you will have to Google away). This basement/garage-beginning group of high school friends had created a following that got them noticed by Mid-Continent and before it was all completed, they had an East Coast tour. Through a wide array of jobs following the band and now being a husband, he was back in our home town of Sioux City and he had been accepted into the apprenticeship program to become a journeyman electrician like our father. He and I were different in other ways. He was a product of his late 60s teenage years and was certainly much like others who had sat in their living rooms wondering about the lottery and if they might be drafted. As I have mentioned before, had his number required induction, I think he would still have a different accent be cheering hockey for the Oilers or Canadians. He was actually quite shocked when his undersized, squirrely, and rather lazy brother somehow enlisted in the United States Marine Corps.
Most of that quarter I sat in Ames, Iowa while he laid in an intensive care ward at St. Vincent’s Hospital (now Marian Health Center). While I was registered for classes, I seldom if ever attended and was content to spend my afternoons burning herbal substances and evenings in a bar called “The Lucky Cue” which was located on Welch Avenue between the Towers and campus. It was a cold winter and that was often the reason we used to not go to class, but making it to the bar down that wind-tunneled street, which was only about a block or more from campus seemed to offer no hardship. Go figure. February 10th was a Thursday that year, 39 years ago and for whatever reason – I really do not remember what the reason was – I traveled home to Sioux City. I think it was because someone was headed that way that I knew and could catch a ride. My brother was of slight build and not overly tall, about six foot, and during the spans of time since his accident (January 4th to February 10th) being in a coma that entire time had emaciated his slender build. He looked worse than some of the Holocaust survivor pictures I have seen in my life. From the surgery to release pressure on his brain to the loss of weight (he weighed less than 100 pounds), from the taping of his eyes to allow them to close at least for some time to the skin that started to deteriorate, this shell of a body that was once brilliant and talented was my first experience to help me realize that death could be compassionate. I remember holding his hand and trying to speak to him. I was the last of the family to actually see him. The vigil and corresponding pain that my mother and father and my sister-in-law, Carolyn, had held and endured at his bedside was beyond my comprehension. While I was overwhelmed I felt left out because I had not been there. I felt guilty I think. Yet in my selfishness, I was too proud to admit my mistakes or be accountable for the time I had wasted in Ames.
We are told that in spite of the inability to respond that the human brain is capable of processing information even in a state where there seems to be little or no activity. I remember trying to talk to him and being at a loss for words. My sister-in-law, whom to this day is one of my best friends, and my mother and I were there at his bedside that night doing what we could with our mere presence. The complications he had endured since that seemingly simple fall and hitting of his head were legion. He contracted meningitis; he began to have seizures; and his lack of mass left him with very little to battle against these complications as he wasted away. To this day I can actually feel the shock I experienced as I entered his little cubicle. I also remember the nurses being terrifically kind. Then he began to have one seizure after another and we were scurried out of his room. We gathered in a family room and called my father who had decided to stay at home that evening because of a cough. By the time he got to the hospital, maybe a half hour later, my brother, his eldest son, a husband, and a father to three young children had passed away. My father, much as was always his way, shook his head as his eyes welled up in tears and stated softly, “It is better this way.” His body started to tremble and he began to cry. It was the first time I had ever witnessed him in tears. I was smaller then than I am and I struggled to hug him. I felt so inadequate. Carolyn, my amazingly beautiful and now 25 year old widowed, sister-in-law, merely sat there in the chair. She did not cry; she calmly and simply sat. The weight of the past six weeks and what her life was to now be seemed to crush any response she might have hoped to make. Three young children, who had not seen their father since the accident, would never see him again. There would be no closure for these little ones. There would only be our words trying to help them understand that Daddy was not coming home again. I was 21 and I was selfish and self-absorbed. I wanted to help because I felt inadequate and underprepared. I was struggling with some of my own issues, and what I know now is that I was aimless and lost. My anger had gotten the best of me in a couple of ways and there were consequences for that anger. It was something I would have to learn. Within months, that year, my grandmother, who was my hero, would also pass away. It was an unbelievably difficult time for me and I wondered in a Jobian manner if God had left me. I wondered how I could manage such grief and loss. What I would learn is those losses would prepare me for other things I had to yet experience. There was when a high school friend would lose his brother and I understood. There was when I was in a chaplaincy situation and I could understand the loss of those who were in the hospital.
There was this morning when I found out that the reason my housecleaning person missed her coffee time with me. Bekah, my amazing cleaner, came into my life by accident. I was washing clothes at the laundromat that day and she was cleaning. She was industrious, careful, and she was beautiful. The beautiful was not necessary, but it was stunning. I asked if she cleaned outside of this professional situation and she said, yes. As the saying goes, the rest is history. She has been my cleaner for the better part of 5 1/2 years. I loved coming home after she came to clean because the house smelled fabulous. Long story short. Bekah has suffered with heart issues for most of her life, and over the past year there were appointments and different doctors and different hospitals. I encouraged her as strongly as I could, without being an enormous pain, to please get something figured out. She had not gotten all the pieces together and on Tuesday of this week she had an episode. Without giving out too much information, she is in very critical condition and some of my experiences that were mentioned here are now in play again, 39 years later. Life is so incredibly normal and simultaneously fragile. We are so resilient and then with a slight change, unbelievably delicate. The veil that keeps us in this life versus the next is much more sheer than we generally realize. We seem dimly as Paul wrote, but when we are faced with the concreteness (versus the abstract) of our mortality, that veil comes crashing down and we are left to wonder how it all happened. We wake up every morning with a plan (sometimes more and sometimes less) and we expect it will just happen. Yet in the last 48 hours a family, a daughter, a mother and father, a sister, sister-in-law, and so many other friends, acquaintances, and others are left to the memories of the past and wondering painfully what the future might hold. I thought she was coming last week to clean and because I had been gone she had shuffled some things. I expected yesterday would begin as always. She would show up in her relatively new (at least to her) white bug with her gorgeous eyes and captivating smile, needing her morning coffee. We would chat about the newest drama in her life (there was always some drama, mostly because she had an incredible ability to care) and we would confer about health issues. After catching up, I would follow her to the house and she would let me know what I had forgotten as far as cleaning supplies, yet again and to work she would go.
In the last two days, I have been to the hospital each day and spoken with her parents. I have imagined all of the possibilities. It is what I do. I have prayed my prayers, asking God to do what is best. We as humans do not know what is best at times. We have our selfish preferences, and understandably so. We have the things we hope can occur. She is an amazingly strong woman and has had to be. As I write this, I know she is fighting as she always would, but how does one fight against such odds. I only wish I might have seen her one more time to remind her of how she brightens my day, of how blessed I am that she has been in my life. I am not sure what the night will bring or tomorrow. There are no promises and even fewer guarantees. What I do hope she knows, even as she seems to sleep comfortably is that so many people are in her corner. What I know she knows is that she has made a profound difference in so many peoples’ lives. What I hope she knows simply is she is loved.
Thanks as always for reading.
One thought on “39 Years”
“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That’s why we call it the present.” A.A. Milne.
I for one can empathize with you and am sorry for the loss of your brother and friend, I know first hand how hard that can be. I really like how you asked god to do whats best, and not to let her be one way or another… I often pray that way because lets face it, its a loaded pistol if you ask god for strength he’s not giving you strength he’s giving you opportunities to be strong and that doesn’t always fit in with our schedules. Keep the memories, share the love, and they will live on through you.