Fourteen years ago, my brother George passed away. He was 54 years old.
George called on the evening of May 2nd, 2004 and told me that death was coming soon. My response: “Can you hold on until tomorrow? I’ll get there as fast as I can.” His response was, “I’ll try.”
Thanks to my husband Ray, who called the airlines and reserved a rent car for me while I rushed upstairs to pack a bag, I was at LAX in a little over an hour and soon on an overnight flight to Dallas. I arrived right at dawn on May 3rd and drove the back roads to little Leonard, Texas where my brother lived with his wife Sandra and their daughters, Leslie, Katie and Mahlon. On the drive, I watched the sun come up and prayed that George was still alive. It was too early to call and besides, whatever the situation, I was heading straight for my brother’s house, no matter what.
I was listening to Alan Jackson, George Strait and Gretchen Holmes on a country radio station while I drove on the two-lane roads that wound through the country from Dallas to that little North Texas town. The fields were green, the bluebonnets in full bloom and the sky streaked with orange and pink as the sun rose. I’m not sure the day could have been more beautiful. The line between vibrant life and peaceful death seemed to hover right there in the air.
George had esophageal cancer that had metastasized to his lungs and he had been given 16 months to live. He was now on month 18 and we all knew that every day was tough on him. He had spent all those 18 months being home with his wife and kids, going to basketball games, school programs and family related functions. He had also stayed in close contact with his daughter from his first marriage, Casey. He’d sought out second and third opinions on his medical condition and every doctor had said the same thing: terminal cancer with no treatment available.
The day he told me that diagnosis, I was upstairs in my bedroom talking with him on the phone. “Sixteen months,” he said. “That’s all they’ll say.” After that conversation, I curled up in the fetal position on my bed. This was my closest sibling in age and my oldest friend. I had already lost my older two brothers to AIDS and my mother had died four years before. All I could think as I lay there was, “Not George. How will I make it without George?”
So, there I was on that beautiful spring day heading to my brother’s house either to say goodbye or to find him already dead. This was a very sad spot to find myself.
When I drove up to the house, everything looked exactly like it always did: the trampoline in the backyard, the cars in the driveway, the dogs running up and barking at the car. I tried the front door and it was locked, then went around back and turned the knob on that door. It opened. It was about seven o’clock in the morning and the house was quiet. I walked up the stairs to George and Sandra’s room, dreading what I might find. I tiptoed down the hall and peeked in the open door; there they sat on the edge of the bed, Sandra with her arm around George’s thin shoulders. George looked over, saw me and said in a weak voice. “Here’s Len!”
I could see that George was happy that I had made it. My brother Sam had arrived the day before, my sister Leslie was on her way. George hugged me and lay back down in bed. He soon lapsed into a deep coma. The hospice nurse came and checked on him. She said that it was unlikely that he would awaken, that from here he would simply drift away.
By late afternoon, my sister Leslie arrived. We explained the situation. George had been in a coma now for at least six hours. We all went into the bedroom so Leslie would see him. She leaned over and kissed him, talking to him softly. Within a few seconds, he began to move his legs and slowly he roused himself from that deep sleep. He didn’t talk, but he clearly wanted to get out of bed. He pushed himself up and tottered on the side of the bed. He walked stiff-legged to the door and pointed that he wanted to go downstairs. We all protested that he needed to get back in bed, but he walked to the stairs and then sat down, as if he was going to scoot himself downstairs if we didn’t help him. My brother Sam helped him navigate the stairs and then Sandra, Leslie and I followed.
George had recently had a new carpet and new tile floor installed in his living room and kitchen. He clearly wanted us all to see how nice they looked.
We sat on couches and chairs while he tottered over and leaned against the kitchen cabinet. He was straining to breathe.
While I think George wanted us to admire the new carpet and tile, I soon realized there might be more to his motivation. We were all so terribly sad about his dying; none of us wanted to say goodbye.
In those ten minutes of listening to him gulp for air and wheeze, everyone in that room understood that his body was no longer capable of sustaining any quality of life. It was as if we all came to the same awareness simultaneously: it was time for George to die.
Sam picked him up and carried him upstairs. George made Sam put him down in the hall and then he pointed to the doors of his girls’ rooms. Sandra called for them to come out. George went from one to the other and hugged them, then he turned to all of us and hugged us one at a time. We helped him back into bed, where he immediately lapsed into a coma. He died a few hours later.
I have been at the deathbeds of several people over the years, but I have never seen anyone die with as much awareness as George. He not only announced that the time was near, but he waited until everyone was there and personally said good-bye.
I sometimes think George didn’t so much die as transcend. It was as though he accepted that life was over for him and he needed to move on to whatever was waiting on the other side. I know he grieved about leaving Sandra and the girls, but by that 4th day of May, 2004, he’d moved into acceptance about his condition. He was at peace.
As for me, I’ve learned that my brother is never far away. The love we shared is still very much alive and well. I have also come to see that I can indeed make it without him, though I still would much prefer he were here. I do miss him, though, and hope there will be a day when I see him again. My faith teaches that this is the case; I am a believer, but I suppose I still think, “Well, we will see.”
As Leonard Cohen so aptly wrote,
My love goes with you as your love stays with me. It’s just a way of changing like the shoreline and the sea. But let’s not talk of love or change or things that we can’t untie. Your eyes are soft with sorrow, hey, that’s no way to say good-bye.
Ah, so very true.
George and Len at Brother Jim’s Wedding