March 28, 2007


Mortality assessment weekend

I haven't posted lately for the simple fact that, as happens to everybody, life got in the way. This time it was by way of that common irony in life - dealing with someone’s death. I learned last week that my eldest sister, all of 57 years old, is stricken with terminal cancer. Her condition was reported to be quite grave, a perfect storm of symptoms that prompted me to travel to my hometown where she and a majority of my immediate family still live, fearfully holding a hope that I could be with her one last time.

The night before I left I was lying in bed with my wife and my newborn son when the fear and grief took hold, and I sobbed harder than I can ever remember, taxing the nearest pillow so as not to frighten the baby. After I calmed, my wife said something that struck me at first as a bit insensitive. “It’s tough being a grown-up, isn’t it?”

What do you expect? I thought in a classic kneejerk that was more from embarrassment than from anger. Quickly I came to know that what she said was no insult. I didn’t immediately reconsider that I’ve made it 41.5 years on this earth without the loss of anything more painful than a favorite pet. I say reconsider because that fact was made apparent a few weeks back when I read a moving post about sibling death that Don wrote. A fellow commentor mentioned that after her older brother died, there was a strange passage, “a particularly odd time,” that she and each of the younger siblings went through when they reached the age of his death. I considered that as the sixth of seven children I was likely to have to go through similar odd times, quite possibly several. I also thought that the first of those would be closer to 20 years from now.

Another commentor, who has lost three siblings, said that losing them "also meant losing my witnesses,” which is particularly poignant in the case of my sister since, in another revelation I had over the weekend, she and my eldest brother (turning 54 next week) were “the family” for 10 years before the baby boom of five latter day siblings that arrived every other year beginning in 1959. As adulthood caught up with each of us and we scattered about the country, phone calls and visits home usually revolved around the here-and-now and the “great to see you,” with only occasional discussion of family history. Thankfully my mother was somewhat diligent and proficient in the media of family journalism, photography and 8mm silent film. Still, that archive leaves much to be related, pardon the pun, given that my rather taciturn father requires Mike Wallace-caliber probing to recall anything and my mother’s spiral into the darkness of Alzheimer’s now sadly precludes her further contribution (visiting her this past trip sped up the emotional see-saw that was already cranking). My sister’s condition has stabilized to the point that she is fully lucid, if quite beleaguered. So with a greater hope of having her with us a while longer, I am committed to my part of chronicling the family reserve.

Beyond that simple task is the decidedly more complicated one of dealing with her imminent passing and the support she and her husband and daughters and granddaughter will need from here on. And then of course that her father, four brothers and two sisters (we’ve decided that it serves no purpose to inform mom) will need to cope with a loved one lost far too soon. But there are myriad others who have dealt with this, and I will as sure as anything be seeking out them and/or their writings in order to bring myself and my family a little comfort and wisdom.

Nora Ephron recently wrote a commentary on John and Elizabeth Edwards’ situation regarding her cancer and Elizabeth’s proclamation that she had two choices: to go on living, or begin dying. Ephron respectfully disagreed with the simplicity of that, offering this jewel that for me settles the mud in the puddle of meaning just a bit more:
“I believe instead that at a certain point in life, whether or not you've been diagnosed with illness, you enter into a conscious, ongoing, unending, eternal, puzzling, confusing negotiation between the two (choices). Some days one of them wins, and some days the other. This negotiation often includes decisions as trivial as whether to eat a second piece of pie, and as important as whether to have medical treatment that may or may not prolong your life.”

And I was reminded recently of the grace, dignity and humor with which musician Warren Zevon faced his terminal diagnosis. His chief nugget of wisdom (the simplicity of which just about brings me to tears every time I think of it)?

“Enjoy every sandwich.”

So the deli of my soul is now open 24/7

And there are more I remember
And more I could mention
Than words I could write in a song
But I feel them watching
And I see them laughing
And I hear them singing along

We're all gonna be here forever
So mama don't you make such a stir
Just put down that camera
And come on and join up
The last of the family reserve

Lyle Lovett

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I don't know what to say, man, except I'm glad you're okay and dealing with it all. You know where I am if needed.
I'm so sorry you're having to face this. I'm in awe of the grace with which you're doing it.
Oh man, I'm so sorry. Strength and peace to you, mate.
Wow, I am really sorry for your situation. There's no sense in me trying any pithy phrases, since I've never gone through what you are facing - and even if I did, deep down this is one of those truly solitary things.

However, you have a family and friends who will be there if you need them. I hope you get a chance to spend some good time with your sister.

Peace, mate.
Yes, enjoy every sandwich (I saw him say that on Letterman that night...choked me right up.)

You know, I had to admire what Elizabeth Edwards said, and still do, but Ephron, of course, is right on the money here.

I wish your sister peace and happiness in her remaining days, and all the best to you and your family.
41.5 years.That's pretty lucky. My dad died when I was 32. He was 56. My best friend from childhood died on valentine's day.He was 47. I'll be 46 this fall and hope to last more than another ten years. Yes, it hurts a lot. It's okay to cry. Now you are an adult. This only happens after you are forced to deal with a body blow like losing a close family member. It's a defining moment in life. You now realize that your days are ticking by faster and faster towards their foretold conclusion. This is why you must never miss a chance to live, laugh, hug, love or do something nice for somebody (even a stranger). I don't know if there is a hereafter (I like to think so, otherwise I'd crack under the pressure, I don't know how atheists can do it)but if there is I hope that we'll all be together there. Enjoy your boy Max. He is your replacement in the scheme of things, the next link in the circle of life. Take solice in the fact that she was loved by so many siblings as well as you Mom and Dad.Peace bro.
Thanks for sharing that, Tim. Like Fez, I haven't gone through any of this either, so it's hard to know what to say. Hugs and best wishes to you and your family.
What they've all said before me.

And then some.
I don't know why....but it seems to sound better coming from her.
Hang in there, man. Life just is, you know? Your heart sure shows. I'm about a year and a half younger than you, and it seems this is the time when death suddenly begins to overtake us here and there, snatching people we assumed would be there always. I know I thought that, subconsciously, even about those that were much older, because the world revolves around me, right? :-)

Anyway, it never seems to get any easier with each passing. I hope and pray that you and your family have a very meaningful and beautiful time of transition, that it's as long as possible (without prolonging her pain) and that you guys don't leave out a word or a thought.

Death is hard, but there can also be a beauty about the time around it, when you come to the time that it just can't be avoided. Perspective is an amazing thing, and I think no one finds the sort of clarity elsewhere that is found in the company of death.

Best to you and yours.
I know I haven't said it lately, but I loves ya.

I have been thinking about you since I first read this post a couple of days ago. Call me if you need anything and I'll do my best to respond/react.

And thanks. You know what for.
A strange and difficult time unfolds. My thoughts of course start with your sister and her family, but that falls right back into the Empty Room trap that somehow diminishes the grief experienced by siblings. I guess the passage is unique for everyone. I don't know. As I said in that entry you kindly linked, I was an infant when my brother died. Then a small number of people two generations above me trickled away, but five years ago my father in law passed and the world changed. It seems that as all of us somehow keep getting older, the world will change terribly once in awhile. I hope this time leaves everyone in your family full of love and without regrets.
All: Thanks for your sympathy, empathy, kindness, and wisdom.

Tim: It's astonishing how even in entering middle age there are realizations of how much growing up there is left to do. Aside from (and somewhat from within) this family struggle, I am also realizing that this is not undesirable.

Looney: I hope that as far as transition goes, it somehow will get easier, because right now we're all about clueless. There will be a paradoxical beauty insomuch as we've been given notice, and can choose to make the most of the inevitable. It brings the most bittersweet gratefulness.

Don: Your wish for us to have no regrets is especially poignant. I appreciate it in contrast (and complement) to what Tim told me after Max was born and I thought it would have been nice to have him here ten years ago. An intense passage it is to have new life and first meaningful death arrive in such close proximity. I hope I can make the most of it on profoundly unselfish terms.
This was a beautifully written post ... full of sensitivity and such grief that it brought tears to my eyes. I'm so sorry about your sister. My thoughts are with you.
Lost my pop 4-1/2 years ago from the C. He was 51, I was 33. I still think, "I gotta call Dad!" while I'm watching a Michigan State game, as was our ritual. I miss him every day, just as much as the last. But that's driven by the fact that I think about him every day, and I think about something that makes me laugh (my Dad was a funny, funny dude). That laughter makes me miss him terribly, but it makes me feel him, and that's precious. Feel your sister every day.
I wish you didn't have to even think about losing your sister, O'T. I suppose it's inevitably true that the more we love, the more loss we have to eventually face. As an only child, myself, I can't imagine how painful it must be to lose a sibling ... and some days, I wish I did know.

(Do I know you well enough to send you a cyberhug? It's a manly kind of hug, I promise.)
"It's a manly kind of hug, I promise."

That's why I send:

*Viking hugs*

Ain't nothing more manly than a Viking hug.
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