28 April 2012

War...and Peace, Part 4

When cancer is involved, a person's health can nosedive in the blink of an eye. I witnessed this first hand as I watched my brother morph from the person who had an occasional bout with pain into someone who could barely get up off the couch without it being excruciating torture.

It was only a few days after he returned home after visiting me that I got a phone call from my mother saying that he was going to the hospital again. I knew it was going to happen. I could tell by the way he looked, sounded, and acted the week before that something wasn't right, even if he wouldn't admit it when I would ask him about it.

I don't pretend to know what anyone is thinking at any given time. I don't claim to be a mind reader, and I don't think that anyone really has the ability to read minds, even if someone tells you they are (and will prove it to you if you shoot them $3.99 per minute after dialing their 1-800 number). But, even though I couldn't read my brother's mind, I knew that he was troubled with his situation, and I knew that he was counting down his final days.

I could just tell in his general attitude that something was wrong, and no matter how many times I tried to get it out of him he wouldn't spill. I knew it was because he was scared of what he was facing, though I never heard him admit it. Either that or he didn't want to burden me. At any rate,  I didn't push him too hard because the last thing I wanted to do was push him away in the time when I felt that he needed me the most (or the time that I needed him the most - I'm still trying to figure out which way it really was).

My fears were confirmed by the phone call from my mother. He was going to the hospital again, and I knew it wouldn't be much longer before we were planning a funeral. It's hard to come to terms with something like this, but we had no other choice. The fortunate thing for us was we had a chance to adjust to it, unlike many who have to do this sort of thing on the spur of the moment. We at least had some time, even if we didn't know how much.

My brother tried to make things easier on my family by attempting to live his final days at home, but he just couldn't do it. He wasn't able to be comfortable at home, because home didn't have the 24-hour nurse assistance that the hospital provided. So, he decided to go back to the hospital. Because he's the kind of person who puts others before himself, he decided that he wanted to go to the hospital that's only 10 minutes away from our parents' house, instead of the one that he'd been staying at (which is 35-40 minutes away) to make travel easier on our parents. (Once again, he was concerned with others even though he was the one near death.)

I drove a lot of miles back and forth on weekends for almost a month. I had to. I knew that if I didn't do it I would live to regret it for the rest of my life. I was faced with the decision: What's more important - spending time with my brother or putting mileage on my car? It wasn't a hard decision to make. So, I drove 3 hours one-way every Saturday morning, and drove the same 3 hours one-way every Sunday afternoon for three weekends in July/August.

The first two weekends were alright because he was able to sit in the bed and talk, even though he was in excruciating pain because of the tumors. We were able to reflect on our past and the fun times we had together as kids, and we were able to genuinely enjoy those moments because this time we weren't just talking to take up empty space - we were actually reliving those memories together.

Looking back, I'm glad we were able to share those times together while he was in the hospital, because it helped me cope with the fact that he didn't have much time left. I needed all the help I could get, and his ability to maintain a positive outlook was one of the few things that helped me get through the whole ordeal. He may not have realized what he was doing, but he was comforting me even though it was supposed to be my job to comfort him.

The final weekend I went to see him was the hardest. He had gotten so frail that he wasn't able to do anything anymore, and the pain was so bad for him that he was in a constant state of numbness from the morphine that was running through his veins. I knew the time was near. If you've never been around someone who's dying, I can assure you - you know when it's time, and even though none of us wanted to admit it, it was his time.

On Monday, August 8th, he requested that all his friends come visit him so he could begin saying his final goodbyes. He decided that he would have the doctors turn off the limit to his morphine so he could rest peacefully until his clock ran out, and he wanted to tell everyone goodbye before he was gone. I remember hugging him and telling him that I loved him, and I remember him saying "I love you too bro." to me as he hugged me. I felt like I was hugging a complete stranger because so much of him had wasted away because of the cancer, yet I couldn't make myself let go. I knew it would be the last time I hugged him, and I wanted it to last forever.

Unfortunately, it didn't last forever, and I had to leave so I could come back home to return to work on Tuesday. I didn't want to leave, but I had to. I shouldn't have left, and I knew I shouldn't have left as soon as I got home Monday night. One of my biggest regrets is not staying when I knew I should have, and even though I was doing what I thought was right, my heart was telling me the entire time that I should stay. I wish I would have listened.

I was eating my lunch on Tuesday at about 11:45 AM when I got the call. I didn't even have to answer the phone, because once I saw the number on the caller ID - I knew. My mother said two words to me, and those two words fell on me like a ton of bricks.

He's gone.

That's it. That's all she was able to say. I barely managed to mumble out "okay, we'll be up later this afternoon", and I somehow managed to call my wife and let her know what was going on. I don't know how, but I also made three other phone calls to spread the word, and I left work and went home to pack. As soon as I pulled the suitcase out, I sat on my bed and wept uncontrollably. I knew it was going to happen, and I'm still not sure how I held out as long as I did, but somehow, I was able to do it.

I was fine on the drive up, because I focused my attention on driving. Focusing on the drive was the easy part. The hard part was when we arrived and I saw my parents for the first time. The only word I can use to describe it is surreal. I thought I was dreaming, and I thought that at any moment I would wake up and the dream would be over.

Unfortunately I was wrong. I wasn't dreaming. My brother had really lost his battle with cancer, a mere 11 months after he was diagnosed with the disease. That wasn't even the hard part. The hard part was still to come, because we still had to have a funeral - a place where we would have to say our final goodbyes before he was laid to rest. That's the hardest part of all, because of the finality associated with it. There's no turning back from it, and I would be lying if I said it wasn't the hardest thing I've ever had to do.

To be continued...

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