My brother-in-law, my sister’s husband, is dying from cancer.
There are lots of details of how it started five years ago with a simple skin cancer. Treatments. Recurrence. Spreading. Treatments.
Now he is leaving the hospital after his kidneys began to fail. He’s going home, to finish his journey “on his own terms”, as my nephew, his son, states.
Not only a beloved family member, but a contemporary. Just a few years older than my wife and I. Stuck in denial? It’s unreal. It’s unfathomable.
I’ve always looked up to and admired Bob, since I met him when I was about 16. I remember the first time I saw him. My sister Bonnie and I were driving through Johnstown and there he was, playing basketball on an outdoor court.
“There’s Bob!” Bonnie screamed as she saw him, turning down the volume on the rendition of “Bobby’s Girl” she played repeatedly.
We couldn’t stop right away because she’d just finished a cigarette, and Bob hated cigarettes. We hit the drug store for soap and breath mints.
Thirty-plus years later, Bob lies dying.
Bob is a third-generation farmer, but a college-educated one. A degree from Cobleskill Ag & Tech. When his father got out of the dairy business, Bob went to work for the town and stayed there until retirement.
He was cantankerous, sarcastic and flawless. He never smoked, and drank little.
When they were married, Bob, along with help from friends of all kinds, built the house he and Bonnie would call home, (I mean he built it, he didn’t have it built for him) eventually filling it with a girl and a boy and dogs and cats over the years.
Bob went down to the creek and hand-picked the stones to build the double-faced fireplace, the centerpiece of the living room and kitchen.
I guess I really don’t simply look up to and admire Bob, but am in awe.
As I grew into a young man, Bob’s example was quite a high bar to reach for. Like great people from history, Lincoln, King, Kennedy, Salk, I always felt that Bob was one of those people whom I could never equal. I could never be all the things Bob was, but I could try to emulate as best as I could.
Now, Bob lies dying.
These days are fractured. At work I am distracted by demands, and the pace of the day engulfs me. A tech calls for support and I run to the parts room. FedEx Freight is on the line about shipping from Houston. Someone relates an anecdote and I laugh. Then I remember. How can we be laughing? Bob lies dying.
At home I fall into the routines of daily life. Filling the pellet stove. Letting the dog out. Letting the dog in. Then I remember. How can these things fill my mind while Bob lies dying?
I drive to work. I drive home. I think of Bob as he lies dying. I think of my sainted mother, our dear late friend Mary Mone, her husband Frank. How life and work and laughter and driving and letting dogs in and out just continues as we lay dying, as we entomb our loved ones and friends, as the flowers on the graves fade and wither and are removed by cemetery caretakers.
I think of my own death, my own funeral. How strange it is to think that family and friends will be mourning my passing (perhaps), while all around them and dead me the world will keep going. It won’t hesitate for a moment. It will make little difference to anyone other than the undertaker.
With this thought I am kindred with Bob. And all the Bobs and dead me’s that have come before us. We are never ready to say goodbye.
And the world and the pellet stoves and the dogs and FedEx carry on. It’s a strangely warm sensation that they will continue with nary a skipped heartbeat for those that still have them. The world will keep spinning, and the universe expanding. Babies will be born, Bonnies will be married. Bobs will build homes.
Many years ago, behind the hearse in a procession of cars a mile long, we wound our way to the cemetery. The procession moves slowly, as if it helps to slow down the parting, spread out the pain and loss. Someone at the back of the line was not in the procession. They peeled out and raced past the cars and the hearse, on their way to work or responding to an ambulance call or going to see their sister’s new-born baby. Even in that moment was an understanding that we can’t all join in the procession. The world can not slow down because you died.
And I am writing blog posts and approving overtime and buying Gravy Bones for the dog and I remember.
How can we write and approve and shop as Bob lies dying?
In New Orleans, the band plays jazz ahead of your casket as it wends its way to the cemetery. I don’t know much else about a creole funeral, but I know it embraces the concept of celebrating a life as we move the decedent to their final rest.
My mind is fogged with all of these thoughts. In little glimpses, my armchair zen reveals lessons learned. The sense of the constant and timeless universe. The sense that we are all but specks on a speck of a rock in a far-flung galaxy arm. We come and go as through a revolving door and the universe is unaffected.
Still, something in my upbringing, my life, my past, my desire and attachment, feels impending loss despite conscious efforts to navigate this in a learned and wise fashion. Now is the time to bring all my living and zenning and caring to my sister and Bob. Their kids. Their grandkids. There is work to be done. I must go now.
As Bob lies dying.