My baby brother became one with the universe on Memorial Day. It still hasn’t quite sunk in yet. I’ve lost many people I’ve loved in my life, but the loss of a sibling is something else. He was 52 years old, with an extraordinary wife, Carla, and two remarkable children, Desmond, 13 years old, and Sophia, who is 10.
In April 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic shut-down, Michael called with the devastating news that he had been diagnosed with stage-4 uncurable cancer. His PET scan lit up in six places, showing cancer had spread through many of his internal organs.
Stubborn and a fighter, just like his big sister, Michael suffered through rounds and rounds of chemo for nearly two years to extend his life as long as he could. He didn’t want to leave and was willing to tough it out for more time with his family. Never underestimate the power of tenacity.
Of course, the whole family wanted to rush to his side, but the spread of COVID was too risky. Especially for my seventy-something parents. It was a fight to convince my mom that we wouldn’t let her take that risk. Finally, last summer, we all started taking turns visiting Michael and his family in Denver.
We came together at Christmas and got to say goodbye one more time earlier this year. It was gut-wrenching to hug him every time I left, wondering if it would be the last time. We both had a hard time letting go. I was grateful most of my face was covered with a mask on the flight home since it made it harder for the people around me to see my ugly cry on the plane.
My little brother had a unique way of looking at the world. He was a deep thinker and loved to share what he was reading, watching, and listening to that impacted him. In a way, he was teaching us to consider different points of view and question our way of thinking. I will miss that. I learned so much during his transition, and I hope it will help you.
Knowing is a gift.
Having advance warning that Michael’s time was limited was a gift. We all had the opportunity to have conversations with him about any past business that needed to be resolved. My brother left this reality, having made peace and resolution with all his past regrets and mistakes. No,” I wish I had told him….” These talks were healing for my whole family, and I am grateful.
Going with Grace.
My paternal grandmother died of cancer when I was a teenager. As children, she showed us what it looked like to die with grace. We talked a lot with her about mortality and what may come next. She was a spiritual woman and told us that she wasn’t dead yet and planned to live each day to her utmost until it was time for her to go to heaven.
Now, as an adult, I realize that we were shielded from the worst of her passing. Dying is messy, physically and emotionally, and while no one can control how they’ll respond on the day-to-day of dying, I’ve seen these two examples of what it means to go with grace.
Tell people how you feel.
Last July, our family had the difficult task of how to celebrate someone’s birthday when you knew it would be their last. So we created an online Kudoboard and asked people to post stories, pictures, and videos and “love bomb” him for his birthday. We didn’t let people know Michael was sick since we wanted the site to be a celebration rather than an obit. He loved it, and I’ll always treasure the loving memories and silliness posted.
Michael put this post on his Facebook page two months before he died. (I’ve edited for brevity.)
“Well, folks, I guess it is time to deliver some bad news. And I am going to be pretty blunt about this, because that’s who I am.
I have spent the last several days in the hospital, and found out my kidneys are not functioning very well and are not likely to recover. I was told I have anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to live. I have been sent home and will get together with at home hospice to make me comfy and set me up with plenty of happy drugs to help me over this final hurdle to find my peace.
Anyone who has been waiting around for an opportunity to call me an asshole, now is the perfect window, but if anyone wants to say a goodbye, I welcome them at this time. Warning: I am quick to tears these days so you will probably hear me blubber a bit. But honestly a FB message is great too, and I promise not to haunt anybody or hold any grudge toward anyone who is not up to the task, and I completely understand not wanting to. I just wanted to put that out there in case anyone feels a need.
I leave you with a quote from the Gatekeeper from the Nightmare video board game that keeps spinning inappropriately in my mind, “Ghost train is coming kiddies!”
But also, be nice to each other out there while I am gone. Love you all!”
This message reveals so much about who Michael was. Many people took him up on his offer to say goodbye, which meant so much to him. Interestingly, when you’re sick, lots of energy is spent comforting other people, but these calls and messages gave Michael strength.
You never know your impact.
Getting treatment during COVID was especially challenging. The staff was exhausted, and the hospital protocols meant Michael had to endure a lot of what he was going through alone. He found out that one of the nurses on this chemo team was having a birthday. Michael sang “Happy Birthday” to her, and ever after that, the nurses asked him to sing to them with his beautiful voice. When his doctor told him it was time for hospice, all the nurses let Michael know how much they loved him and how he always added some joy to their day.
The last time Michael was in the hospital, alone and scared, he asked the nurse if she could just sit down with him and hold his hand while he cried. After sitting with him awhile, the nurse told Michael how much it meant to her that he asked her for some compassion. She told him that the last year had been so hard that she was thinking of changing occupations. Michael had helped her remember what she loved about nursing.
Don’t take relationships for granted.
I’m going to miss my brother something fierce. Because of our age gap, I’ve always thought I’d go way before him. I’ll miss his wicked sense of humor, nearly as warped as mine. His Tigger-like energy, constantly bouncing around and practicing stunt moves like falling down the stairs when he was a kid.
But, one of the memories I hold most dear is when he thanked me for being the oldest and breaking the parents in so that by the time he started rebelling, he could get away with murder. I never expected to hear that. My teen years were turbulent, and his appreciation of those battles touched me.
Give yourself some grace.
My brother and I have talked on the phone so much lately I’m still finding myself cataloging in my head what I want to talk to him about. I didn’t realize how often I think of him. Every time I catch myself doing this, it reminds me he’s not on the other end of the phone.
I feel like I’m in all five stages of grief at the same time, all mashed together. Anger and depression seem to win most often right now, but I realize this is going to take some time and to give myself the time and space to experience the emotions. Writing always helps me process, and writing this today has certainly been emotionally cathartic.
Michael asked that everyone who loved him honor him by posting a quote on their social media from one of his favorite books when he died.
“My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today.”
From the book Watership Down by Richard Adams
Love your people,
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