The other night we spent a few hours in a place no one wants to visit. The hospice floor of a hospital, a place where life and death literally hang in the balance. As we made our way from the parking ramp to the fourth floor we passed signs directing us to many places no one wants to go – cancer center to the right, specialists to the left. Hospitals are where some of life’s best and worst moments take place, where life often begins and ends.
There in room 496 lay, my former brother-in-law, someone I’ve known for over 25 years, someone my husband has known since he was eleven and very much like his big brother. A man too young to die.
Yet there he was. His brain no longer functioning and his strong tanned body refusing to quit. When the staff removed the life support they said he’d likely take a breath or two and be gone…those that knew your stubbornness weren’t surprised you hung on for days. During our visit, he appeared to be peacefully resting. Gathered around his bedside a complicated mix of a wife past and present, his two adult children, sister, step sister, aunt, uncle, former in-law family, coworkers, and buddies. Familiar strangers connected by this one man.
A man who made me feel welcome into a family so many years ago. We had both married into a family unit that neither of us had quite known before. It was nice to have some company.
He was a big guy. Tall and broad shouldered. He had a big smile and a hearty laugh. He always had big plans and even bigger ideas. He had a big heart. He also had a big problem.
It seemed that pain from his childhood left a hole to fill. One that he tried to fill with a “go big or go home attitude.” Fishing was okay, but deep sea fishing was better. Having a classic car was nice, but why not build the quintessential ’32 Ford Roadster. If some were good, more surely must be better.
Sadly that thirst for more could not be quenched no matter how much he did or spent or drank. He drank away the life he’d built with his high school sweetheart. He drank away relationships with people who loved him and that he loved. He couldn’t get enough.
We stood around his bedside, listening to him snore, watching his chest rise and fall not knowing what to say or do. Life and grieving suspended in this strange in between place. Each one of us I’m sure watching our own personal slide show of memories of concerts, softball games, projects worked on, Christmas mornings, crazy shit, and the simple everyday stuff. It all played out in our minds.
Seeing my twenty-something niece and nephew watching their dad die was heartbreaking. They deserve decades more. Alcoholism creates abandonment though. It takes away the father of a someday bride. It steals away a proud dad from the stands of a college baseball game. It robs us all of future plans and clouds memories with the smell of beer breath. It turns a person we love into someone we don’t always like. It is cruel in so many ways.
The room was thick with sadness, but there were smiles too. Life is like that, joy and pain often intertwine. It was stories of his antics that brought laughter to the awkward silence. Even in this hollow state, he was the life of the party. He was even dying in a big way.
There on that floor where doctors rarely visit, life and death co-exist and everyone is on the verge of goodbye. In rooms, I was afraid to glance for too long I saw people living while waiting to die. They went for strolls in the hallway, watched TV, and if lucky they weren’t alone. Perhaps, in the end, that’s all we can hope for as we leave this life – to not be alone. People who love us despite our messes, our sins, or our demons show up in life’s darkest moments and help get us where we need to go. This man was surrounded by such people.
To my brother-in-law: regardless of formalities – former and in-law, you will always be remembered as family to me. You lived large and while I wish you could’ve found contentment in small that was not your style. You went big and now it is time to go home. I pray that you find the peace that eluded youin this life.