This is a story about my big brother Tom (Thomas Francis Edmund Gallaher), and my little sister Stephanie Ann Teresa, and me; and about my brother dying.
My brother died on September 30, 2015.
My sister and I had visited him at his home in Healdsburg, CA, for several days two weeks before. I write about what I remember of that time and the weeks leading up to it, and even at this close remove, my memory may not track the events, or include them, as they occurred.
But, it is my memory, after all, and the truth of the things I tell is truly that. What I write is worth writing, worth telling, worth remembering. What I don’t write, isn’t.
What I Learned on the Phone
I knew my brother Tom had prostate cancer. I remember the telephone call from him a decade or more before when he told me that, and our conversation; the usual one it seems everyone has about prostate cancer. “There’s nothing to worry about that,” I probably said. “You’ll probably die of old age before you die of prostate cancer.” We weren’t worried we told each other. I think I even forgot that he had prostate cancer.
That isn’t too hard a thing for me to do, either. I can forget that my feet end in toes.
It was sometime in July or August of this year (2015) when the phone rang in my house. It was Tom on the phone. “Hello,” he said in a business like way. This, I knew, was going to be a different kind of call from my brother. Most of our conversations, the vast majority of them, have been lighthearted talks about nothing, really . We would fill the time with what might be called “banter”; a weird variety of the form where we become other people, chattering nonsensically, making fun of ourselves and everything else under the sun, until one or the other of us noticed “someone coming up the walk” and the call ended.
I have tried to remember the number of times Tom called me on a serious matter. I can’t really remember making more than three or four myself; and think of the same being true for him. I suppose some might find that odd, but in a way, Tom and I never grew up on each other. We were still the boys we had always been, still the teenagers, and the world the two of us inhabited still the world whose center was the little apartment on Bailey Avenue in the Bronx – the place, messy as it was – called home.
Well, this time he called to tell me something far from home. He had decided not to continue with any more treatments for his cancer, which had metastasized about a year ago. Had he told me that? I cannot remember, and did not then remember. Nevertheless, it now proved resistant to all treatments. His doctor in San Francisco , one of the best in the country for this disease, held out a slim hope that Tom might qualify for an experimental therapy. That would mean another evaluation of his condition after treatment ceased for a while. He would stop, and wait. Even if he did qualify, he said, he wasn’t sure if he would try. What use was it, he said, to endure such pain and difficulty for months to reap at the most six or so months more of life, weakened and half crippled by his treatments. Perhaps, he said, it was better to die from the disease, that live half dead from its cure.
The promise of the experimental treatment for his disease was, he reasoned, a mixed blessing. He wondered aloud whether it would be worth the effort. If it was advice he sought, I could not give it. It was an effort I had witnessed in the trying once before, and witnessed its abandonment, too, when all the risks and difficulties were considered.
With my brother sounding like some character in a film or novel trying to decide if he should row across the ocean, or walk across the desert with nothing more than a good attitude and a ham sandwich, to bring back a rescue party for the rest of his stranded and desperate party; and me sounding like those hope filled few, we said goodbye. We were, after all, still the same. Distance, years and disease had changed neither him nor me. I was smiling when I said goodbye and had the strong feeling that he was too. Before the last goodbye had been said, he asked me not to call our sister, Stephanie. He would call her with the news.
I said I wouldn’t, feeling sure that she would call me soon after her conversation with him. Years ago I read an article somewhere describing what wonderful consolation sisters are for bothers as they age. Old men, the article told, do better as their lives wind down for having a sister or two on the scene to watch and worry over them. She would call, I was sure. I wasn’t wrong in thinking so.
I sat quietly for a while after the call ended. I sat in that part of our home we’ve named the oratory. Sat in the same chair I always sit in when Mariellen and I pray; the same chair I lived in during the last year of Sheila’s life, the year I call an “acid bath”. It is a year of wonderful and terrible memories, the year I learned the truth about love. Ahh, but that’s a story for another time.
A little bit, though, might help to explain my own frame of mind after The Call.
Trying to imagine my brother now, knowing the disease was going to win, and sooner than later, I wondered was he reacting as had Sheila when she made the same decision he’d made. On the way home after she’d told Dr. Baker, her oncologist, that she was ending all treatment of the disease, she wanted to find a nice place to eat. She looked and sounded relieved. She’d asked me in front of the doctor how I felt about her decision, and the only answer I could give was that I did not have cancer. And so, we found a nice place to eat. Finding a nice place to eat was exactly what we had done on the day we got married. Thus we began taking leave of our long life together and our dreams of golden years and sunsets.
I felt somewhat the same as I did then, and through the long months that followed; as if I was walking quietly from the room and closing the door. Now, I thought, I would have the pictures and the memories.
Stephanie and Plans
Stephanie called me a day or so later to ask if I’d heard from our brother, to find out what I thought. We talked about trying to go out to California at some point, vague plans. She had lost her husband to cancer; his death much swifter than Sheila’s fourteen year long journey from original diagnosis. And she wanted to know whether a trip now, or later, was the proper thing to do. When might I go? To be frank, I had hopes that Tom would travel East, and spend some time with family back here, and hadn’t begun to think of going to him.
But he was still strong, we reasoned, so we still had time. We decided to wait. But, while we waited, we both kept in closer touch with him…and he with us…and with each other; exchanging impressions of the state of things. “Tom sounded just like his old self today,” we would say. Or, “He sounded stronger.” Meanwhile, the disease progressed, despite the sound of our brother’s voice. We should have known that we were hoping in vain, dreaming of Christmas that would never come.
Toward the end of August things with Tom got worse. His doctors told him he wasn’t eligible for the experimental treatment. Personalizing the disease, as often happens, I remember him saying that he thought the cancer knew every detail of his condition, and of its strengthened position against him. All the usual things happened with their usual ferocity and terrible frequency; ground was lost, cities fell and casualties…well at some point, one simply counts them no more. What is the use? Stephanie and I had been there and from a distance could see clearly. Her memory being better than mine, she could see much more clearly. That was a blessing for me.
In any event we both saw that need to go to Tom would come sooner rather than later. Mariellen made reservations for my travel in mid-September and gave my schedule to Stephanie who made reservations from New York on the same day. She would meet me in San Francisco and we would travel together to see our brother. Now, the only worry was whether we had waited too long; would the disease wait three or four weeks was a worry I didn’t need, but a cause for prayer. There are silver linings, I suppose.
Our calls to Tom were more frequent and many of those were frustrated. He was sleeping longer and more often each day. The three hour time difference itself was something I never could deal with effectively, and kept me from more than one call. But, when we spoke, together, it was within the frame of our usual nonsense. Except for occasional weakness in his voice, sometimes little more than a hoarse rasping whisper, and the rare description of the latest milestone in his Long March, we might have been at home a million years ago.
I couldn’t dispel the worry, though, that it all might be in vain; that he would die before we even left to go to see him. I should have remembered my own experience with Sheila, remembered a truth well known. We can endure a lot more than we think we are able to for something we think is important. And even as implacable a foe as cancer can be resisted…perhaps defeated…in certain instances. On the day she died Sheila rallied and held on until her children came to her. Only then did she begin to let herself go, well prepared for the journey in every way possible. Some of that memory percolating through my mind had its effect in a fruitful way I could not then foresee. But, it was a seed planted in fertile ground I guess and lovingly tended by unseen hands.
The Long Journey
Stephanie and I spent several hours, it seems, over the course of the next week or two coordinating our flights from New York and Boston so that we would arrive close to the same time in San Francisco. Mariellen, my travel agent among her many other duties here, and Stephanie’s daughter Jennifer, from Portland, OR, made all the necessary reservations for flights, with Mariellen additionally arranging for a car and hotel at our destination. Since Stephanie’s flight was going to get her there earlier than mine, she reassured me that she’d be waiting for me at the gate when I got off the plane.
I thought of telling her that I had flown across the country once or twice before, but, I enjoyed being “sistered” too much to deprive her of the opportunity, and myself the luxury. In the meantime, as the day approached I acted on my impulse of a few days before. Consulting on it with Mariellen, I sought the advice of some people she suggested I see, people who would know how to go about bringing this seed of an idea to fruition, or as close as possible to a good end; leaving the rest in God’s hands.
Having done what I could, then, she assured me that God’s hands would be sufficient to the need.
I was at the airport about three hours before flight time, expecting to stand in line and take off most of my clothing, be x-rayed, probed, poked and annoyed and then drag myself through several miles of carpeted corridors before waiting impatiently for my flight with a crowd of other hurried, grumpy and variously bothered and bored people I would never see again. Instead, I found myself waiting most of the three hours at the “gate” for the flight to be called. Something must have happened. Whatever it was, I gave thanks; even for the wait.
Flying is mostly sitting and waiting on a different level, in a too small chair; and then wandering half lost and usually late in a strange place. I was used to it. But, Stephanie, Lord love her, made this bit different in a way I could never imagine. I had left the gate, luggage in hand and stopped off at a “comfort station” to attend to business. Returning to the broad shop filed concourse with the broken moveable walk I began to slog once more to the main terminal when I heard myself being paged, and commanded to pick up the nearest courtesy phone. I would have done so, gladly, but could find not a one; nor could any of the variously uniformed employees tell me where one might be found. I decided to ignore the call, whomever it might have been from.
Several minutes later, I reached the terminal and found my sister awaiting me, grinning like the Cheshire Cat, arms held wide in an anticipated embrace. Summoning my best smile from some reserve of good feeling, I greeted her and listened to her tell me all about her own journey so far. When she asked if I had heard the page, I replied I had, and listened to her tell me more; her idea of a reassuring message. I had had visions of ambulances and desperate medics. We made for the shuttle trains then, and the short ride to the car rental center; short in distance, incredibly long and boring in time spent getting there. Getting there in order to wait for an hour and a half for the car we were renting before entering auto combat in San Francisco’s abominable traffic. Enough of that! We were on the ground and on our way.
Three hours after landing at San Francisco we arrived in mid-afternoon in Healdsburg, a mere fifty miles or so north, checked into our hotel and drove to our brother’s house where we met him at about 3:00PM.
Weak, wheel chair bound, scare-crow thin, gray complexioned, with a few wild wisps of white hair barely covering his scalp our brother greeted us with his trademarked slight wry smile, and the remark to me, “Your hair looks great!” To which I answered, “Yours does too.” His smile broadened. He was, despite the obvious disguise cancer had put on him, still Tom, our brother whose eyes twinkled and mind was still clear. And we became the three we had been beyond the years between our youth and that meeting moment in the small house nestled against the round hills full of grape heavy vines.
It’s not necessary here, I think, to go into details, but this much I’ll say. My brother’s approaching death was a thing neither to be hated nor feared, and the vessel cancer carrying him to that destination seemed in the circumstance, and making allowances for it, to be as good as any for the purpose. I was thankful for modern medicine and the “travel aids” it provided him. He was alert and pain free, and while I knew the energy it cost him to visit with us, still I was grateful for it and his generosity with it, a real gift, and the ability it provided him, the window it opened for us all to be companions once more. This one last time.
Several weeks before as reports from him alerted us to the progress of his disease, I’d wondered about by brother’s life after death, then become a looming certainty. Tom and his childhood faith had come to a parting of the ways years before. I had no idea now what he believed or what he practiced. But, I was pretty sure he hadn’t seen a Catholic priest except to pass one by in the street, nor been inside a Catholic church for any reason other than to “look around”. I wondered, too, about my obligations to him, my duties to my brother in this new to me situation. This was the “seed” I was tending; or that was being tended carefully for me.
Following Mariellen’s advice to speak to a priest back home about my “problem” with my brother, I did just that. In fact I went her one better and spoke to two. From them both I learned what to do; get in touch with a priest out there, a priest nearby, and explain to him the situation and my concerns about it; and leave the rest to God.
And so, I placed a call to the Chancery of the Diocese of Santa Rosa in which Healdsburg was located. As I was telling the nice lady in California who I was and what I needed, she interrupted me to say that the pastor of St. John’s in Healdsburg was just going by her desk that moment. Would I like to speak directly to him, she wondered? It was the first of two incidents which have convinced me that The Gardener was busy tending the seed,; had, in fact, planted it.
I spoke with Father Sean Rogers who listened and perfectly understood what I needed him to do. Of course, he said, he could visit my brother and his words and the tone he took made me understand he was no stranger to the project. He would approach the whole situation with tact, deference, gentleness and kindness; above all kindness. He told me to tell Tom that I knew a priest who would visit him any time he wished and to leave the decision up to him. Then Father Sean gave me his own phone number and said he’d wait for my call.
The call and conversation with Father Rogers was a relief. It was a confirmation, too, that I’d done something that needed doing. Now, I had to figure out how and when to mention this to my brother.
I should have remembered my sister. During the drive to Healdsburg after we had gotten away from the traffic, Stephanie and I settled down sort of into a running commentary on the drought blasted countryside, and fires and other things peculiarly Californian. In our family fashion, we even discussed taking Tom our during the grape harvest to go Wine Picking, understanding, of course, the long practice wineries there have of hanging bottles of the latest vintage on the vines so they could be picked by thirsty connoisseurs. Of course we spoke of what we were there for; of what the next few days would bring, and how we would respond. She mentioned a set of rosary beads she’d brought with her to give to Tom, and I mentioned a prayer shawl, like the one I had gotten from the Parish back home, knitted by the same woman who had knitted my own. I also told her about my conversation with Father Rogers about Tom. Fade to black as they say in Hollywood…
One of the first things Stephanie did when we met Tom was give him the Rosary she’d brought from home, the one her grandchildren had placed with great affection and devotion on her dog’s grave out in the backyard. And then, she surprised me by telling Tom that I knew of a priest nearby if he wanted to receive the last Rites. Our brother simply nodded and pursed his lips, looking over at me in a way I’d often seen him before, a wondering, considering glance. After a pause of some seconds he said, “I’ll let you know.” I said a silent prayer, and passed on to other things.
Sitting there in his wheelchair, looking like someone who had just finished the Bataan Death March, he was the same fellow I had grown up with; spending my first seventeen years as his roommate. He was at ease, and so were we, sitting in his little kitchen being nothing but the three of us. I kept thinking though of others possibly present, unseen and silent, watching us and waiting for him; our parents, aunt and uncles, and perhaps another whole host of other relatives gone before even them. Not for the first time in the past few weeks I found myself while not quite envying Tom, yet more than a little curious, wondering about, hoping for and in a way wanting, but not just yet, what was coming soon to him.
Tom went to sleep at about 10:00pm. He did that all three nights we were there. Stephanie and I sat talking quietly about the day just passed and what was to come. We both agreed he was ready to die, and we were ready to let him go. It was a much easier thing to do than I had thought possible.
He had asked me earlier in the evening how much longer I thought he would live. I answered honestly that I had no idea; but that it could be two weeks or he could see his next birthday on November 12. He had seemed more than ready when he answered my birthday comment with, “I hope not.” But that wasn’t really part of our conversation. Chiefly we wondered what we could do to make his life a bit more easy; what was left of it. Tom had always been a neat orderly and clean fellow. Those were not the circumstances we found him in. And, so, we set about to see how we might improve conditions a bit to make what time he had left in the place he lived more comfortable and livable.
I left Stephanie with Tom that night and drove back to the hotel, the air heavy with smoke from the many forest fires, the news full of stories about damage and evacuations.
As I closed the door to Tom’s house, my sister was already at the kitchen sink doing the dishes.
Morning Was Smoking
A curtain of smoke colored the morning gray, and the place smelled like a dead fireplace. The parking lot was filled with huge muscular trucks and the coffee shop across the street with huge muscular men on their way over the hills to the east to fight the fire, the Valley Fire it was called, that was eating its way closer. I got my sister a coffee, entered my rental car, a Tinker Toy next to the others, and drove off wondering if we should think about how and where to move Tom if worse came to worse. Stephanie was already awake and cleaning while Tom slept on, undisturbed. She’d slept well, she said, on the air mattressed bed in the next room. We chatted over coffee and tea, and she put me to work sweeping and cleaning while she blasted clean the dishes in the sink, and condemned a number of rather ripe vegetables and other life forms to ignominious deaths in the compost heap outside; a duty that she thought I would enjoy executing. It was to be our routine for the next two days.
While waiting for our brother to join us, of course we talked about him; remembering him as he was and who he was to us, and comparing those impressions to the one he made on us now. Stephanie wept, not as strongly as she had the night before when she walked outside to say goodbye before I drove away, but still… For myself, I was simply happy to see him, to touch and hear him, and to love him, a sentiment I had no doubt Stephanie shared for him, and that he felt for us.
We weren’t, of course beyond showing our “unredeemed” selves either during our time together. These little things don’t matter in the larger narrative, though; momentary annoyances, like summer showers, are over before they happen, it seems, and forgotten as soon. We were three old friends, old companions keeping watch in the small house, alone and happy in the pleasure of each other’s company at the end.
Others entered and left from time to time, of course. That afternoon Tom’s landlady stopped in with the mail. She and her husband, a big man, good with his hands and good with his brains, too, a professor at a nearby college, lived in the large house a few dozen yards behind Tom’s cottage. She brought the mail up from the mailbox down at the road’s edge, and Tom did the honors. We sat and talked for almost a half hour. I could see that he’d charmed the two of them over the years. Of course, I’ve found that folks in that part of the world are easily charmed, not as easy as Texans, perhaps, but ready to believe the best of whomever they meet. Often to their detriment and the rest of the country’s, too. I remember Berkeley and the Free Speech Movement, The Summer of Love in the Haight.
Outside on the drive after she had taken her leave, we spoke for a few minutes, walking slowly towards her own place, stopping from time to time. She was curious about the three of us; a natural thing I suppose, wondering about Stephanie and me, and the relationship among us. Perhaps she had expected a more solemn pair of siblings, a sadder one, and a cup of tears instead of the cup of tea and laughter, along with the stories, that we shared freely. I troubled to tell her that there was indeed a serious side to us, but it is not the usual reaction we have to such things; with most things in fact. Then she told me that she had cancer, too. It was in remission, now, she said, but she knew well enough that it could reappear at any time.
As we walked and talked, I wondered if my brother’s illness had in some way helped her in her struggle. Then, she told me that it did. In so many words she said that she’d found in Tom both a companion and a guide on her journey.
She went back up the drive to her place and I returned to Tom and Steph. But, not before hearing her tell me she thought we, my sister and I, were extraordinary for coming out here on this “mission”. I knew her to be using the word not in its military sense.
Inside the cottage Steph was busy cleaning and removing clutter. She interrupted her bustling about to tell me of an idea she’d had. When her husband Frank was ill, the only things he could tolerate were baby pears and some of the juices sold for infants. I turned to my brother sitting there silently and asked him if he’d like to try her suggestion. He brightened at the idea, and our sister, ever the caretaker of her two boys, made a couple of more suggestions for the palate. Tom gave me directions to a Wal-Mart store in the next town and I was off on an expedition in search of rare and exquisite delights for the dying.
I was back in under an hour with the baby food, and also a chicken sandwich from Mc Donald’s for my sister. We had really found nothing we could eat in the place, and little time in which to do it anyway. The chicken sandwich was gratefully received and made short work of. She did offer me a share in her bounty, but I have grown used to chicken sandwiches from another place. Then we both turned to on our work of straightening the place. I went outside to work a bit on the gardens, and Stephanie, whose nickname Baby Bleach given her long ago by a mutual friend, scoured every surface seen, and quite a few not.
Tom had gone back to his room to sleep after he had given me directions and was, I hoped dreaming the most peaceful dreams. While working pulling up weeds and turning over dirt I wondered about his dreams and who he might be meeting in them. Not infrequently I dream of Sheila and Mariellen become one person in my dreams; who might be visiting Tom right now I thought as I mulched some too old vegetables from the kitchen.
The tomato patch, though, I left untouched, and brought in a small harvest of some very delicious grape tomatoes. Perhaps Tom would be tempted to try one when he woke up later. Alas! But, he did eat a mouthful of baby pears which made Stephanie beam and me feel very good for the effort I had made in search of them. It was a small victory over the enemy cancer.
That evening we watched a film, one that Tom had picked; one which I have totally forgotten. I couldn’t say today if it was a drama or slapstick comedy. We chatted throughout, Stephanie providing most of the momentum in that direction. Else we probably would have sat there silently, spectating rather than commenting, criticizing, questioning and laughing. When the film was finished, Tom went back to his room to sleep. We helped him into the bed, and prepared his meds and water for him should he need some pain relief during the night. He’d need the rest, I thought. It would be a busy day for him when he awoke I remember. His Hospice Nurse would be paying a visit, a lady much highly spoken of. It would be busy for us, too. We had a number of questions about care and medications and such.
Once our brother was asleep, my sister, still about her task of shining everything brightly and ever solicitous, sent me back to the hotel for the night with instructions to bring her coffee and something to eat when I returned in the morning. Her motives, you see, were not wholly pure. Nor was I in a mood to offer resistance to her mostly open hearted suggestion. There were only two places on which a person might find rest in the house. She had one and Tom the other. There was a couch, of course, but, we had not reached the point of restoring it to the conditions we both considered acceptable for a night’s rest. Having already seen our brother to sleep I left. She waved me out the door with washrag in hand.
I should also mention here, that among her reasons for sending me the few miles up the road was the fact that she wanted no part of driving in California. I agreed. Driving there was no day at the beach
On the short drive back to the hotel I thought about the day just done, how normal it all seemed, how simply routine my brother’s dying had so quickly become. But, hadn’t I been through it all before? I still had the living memories of Sheila and Mariellen’s parents with me during times like this. Driving up the 101 to the hotel I paid attention to the red glow of the Valley Fire over the hills to the east, and imagined great spirits hovering in the smoky filled night air. It wasn’t the most restful night.
There was still the sting of smoke in the air, a pall before the sun, when I arrived at the house with my sister’s coffee and a couple of sweet rolls I’d picked up at a little store across from the McDonald’s, owned by a Mexican couple. I wanted to get some coffee there, thinking how much better it would have been than the other, but it was too early for them; and McDonald’s never closes.
Stephanie was up, sitting at the table, covered with Tom’s meds, notes full of questions and directions and phone numbers; the ordinary look I think, of any house where a dying person spends their last few days. Whoever is the caretaker always seems to find the kitchen table the most convenient place for that purpose. The kitchen, the real center of any home, becomes the sacristy for the liturgy taking place; for that and vigil keeping when a quiet corner’s not available. Eating is done on any bit of clear space next to the sink, a window sill; any flat surface, really.
So sat my sister at the table when I walked in at about 7:00am, who told me that Tom had had some trouble during the night; not too terribly serious trouble. But, he had called her, pounding on the wall between their rooms, asking for some more methadone for pain. He slept now and she did not think he would wake up for a while yet. I gave her the coffee which she offered to share with me. But I wanted to try my hand at making some with the French press. So, while she “set” the table for our breakfast, I went to the sink and began work on rehabilitating the old thing. It didn’t take too long, and soon we were both at our ease, talking quietly, eating our sweet rolls and being two old people full of youthful memories and recent ones, of family and friends still here and long gone, keeping vigil while the real work was being done behind the door only a few feet from us.
It was quite a peaceful and comfortable moment; one of the best I think I was to have during those few days.
Tom had had some trouble during the night, not too terribly serious she told me. But, he had summoned her (pounding the wall between them) to give him some more methadone for his pain. He slept now and she did not think he would awake any time soon. As we sat we could hear the sounds of the grape harvest making itself known by the rumble of huge trailers carrying containers of grapes through the misty/smoky morning to the presses. And we went to work, too, continuing the task we had set ourselves the day before with the added incentive of preparing the place as well as we might for the arrival of our brother’s hospice nurse sometime in the hours ahead
As well as I could with the tools at hand, and quietly, I set about cleaning the little living room, and took down all the curtains for Stephanie for Stephanie to wash. They had long ago it seemed contained sprigs of lavender, now dried and gone to seed. So, of course, the seeds had fallen all about me as the curtains came down. While I conducted a harvest of sorts under the furniture, in the corners and between the cushions, Stephanie took the curtains up the path to the landlord’s house. They had offered their washing machine if we needed it.
Done with the living room, I turned my attention outside. The weather was still nice, and the air had cleared somewhat in the morning breezes. We thought Tom might enjoy a little time on his deck outside under the walnut tree. The tree, as trees will do, had contributed many decorative accents to the deck in the form of nuts, and squirrel devastated shells, and twigs, and, well , just plain dirt. I took the hose to the whole thing imagining myself Hercules. The Russian River being too far away (and too drought depleted) for washing, the hose made a good substitute. At least it was only one tree, a few dozen squirrels and the sheltered birds doing the work , and not enchanted cattle.
From inside the house, Stephanie brought out the mat from the bathroom, to beat the dirt from it. As we chatted in the cool soft breeze, I turned the hose on the poor abused thing. It was one of the thick and comfy type whose memory is deep and full of the presence of every person (and more) whose feet, wet or dry, had stood or walked on it; this one, in particular, was very full. The hose had work to do. While I directed its efforts, my sister talked to me about our brother, undergoing a different kind of cleansing, I thought, preparing for his final trip behind the door to the room on the other side of the house. Sometimes, maybe most times, Purgatory takes place on a bed in a small room. We refreshed each other’s recollections of our life with him in the town we called home, and the people who made up the “supporting cast” in that tragi-comedy long ago. It’s a show we never tire of re-viewing, even though the sound’s lower, the light’s dimmer on some scenes. Nor were we each present for all of them. The fog of age and memory, sometimes simply difficult to endure, edits. There are no “director’s cuts” this side of heaven. But, we did our best in the growing day.
Finishing with the poor bath mat, Steph asked me to turn the hose on the walls outside where legions of spiders had spun web curtains under eaves and window sills. “California is full of spiders,” she said seriously. Not all of them eight legged, I thought. And as I worked away with my “water thrower” it started to sprinkle and we went back inside. Rain, much needed, would continue off and on through the day; no downpour, ever, but enough I suppose everyone hoped to help re-color the khaki hills a homely green.
Inside I made another coffee and we sat for a few minutes quietly wondering about what folks in our situation wonder about.
Shortly, I got up and went to the door of Tom’s bedroom. Finding it slightly ajar, I pushed it open and met Tom, up and sitting in his wheelchair simply staring straight ahead. My entering startled him not a bit. His sitting did me. “Good morning, Tom,” I said. Quietly, and as if returning from some other place of distance, thoughtfully considering the matter of the morning and we both there in it, and that it was good he answered in kind, “Good morning, Peter.” His soft voice was true, clear, but in itself reinforcing the sense of distance for me. It was a feeling I’d had before when in the presence of the dying. I wonder now where he might have been, what he might have been doing. He had his fingers to his lips; a thoughtful gesture and pose I remembered of him, one I used too, time to time, in quiet moments. It’s the gesture that prompts “penny for your thoughts” questions. I kept silent then, knowing I’d not get an answer I guess. Like me, my brother had places inside where he took no company. Doesn’t everyone?
Still, I wondered where he might have been, or been preparing to go, and with whom. And while wonder persisted I asked him how he spent the night.
He answered as above, supporting Stephanie’s report, and asked to be wheeled to the bathroom. I did, and when I offered to help him through the door to the toilet, he declined politely. So, I simply kept the chair steady in the doorway, his move of a foot or two to the toilet exhausting him. His breath as he sat came in great gasps. Aside from the pathetic evidence of his labor the house was silent, but that was enough to fill it. I glanced over to Stephanie and saw her sad face, her pitying eyes. I stood behind the chair, and in a minute or two he signaled he was ready by standing, bent in half. I helped him dress, supporting him as he pulled up his trousers over his ill fitting flesh. Once more in the chair I wheeled him around the short distance to the kitchen, my own heart torn with pity and pain.
He sat quietly, speaking softly with Stephanie as she, smiling, offered him a variety of lovely little things for breakfast; yogurt, baby food, juice in a box. He settled for water, a sip or two sufficing. Stephanie, God love her, remained cheerful and bright, welcoming him and the day together and making a suggestion only a mother would think of: would he like more comfortable loose fitting clothes?
They both thought the best thing then would be sweat pants, and so I would make my second trip of the visit to Wal-Mart, and another stop at McDonald’s for another chicken sandwich for Stephanie, later that day after the hospice nurse had come and gone.
For she came soon after that and Tom’s breakfast of a few sips of water; a bright young woman whom I could see had a kind of affection for him that was deeper, more personal I thought, than a simple “professional” attitude. I wondered if this was the way of it with all of them dealing with people getting ready to die. Of course she took the time to deal with the professional nature of her visit, but beyond that , once done she lingered as a friendly enjoying Tom’s company and ours; and we enjoying hers. The visit took on a personal melody, even a pastoral one, and that kind of work was two-way I think, she to us and we to her. She was there the better part of three hours I think, drinking tea, listening to our stories about growing up in The City and laughing along at the craziness we lived through which today would be considered a poisonous mixture of neglect, abuse and community madness…on the part of everyone.
During her visit she carefully explained Tom’s meds and their use, and other aspects of his care. She scheduled a visit from a personal care assistant who would bathe and shave him, and told us, finally, that we could expect delivery of a hospital bed tomorrow.
And, then, she left. I was sad, a bit, to see her go, knowing I would never see her again. Such things, once rather common, I thought, are becoming more and more rare these days. I cannot remember her face any longer; just that she was there.
We knew only one place where it could be placed, and as Tom went back to his bedroom for a nap, Stephanie and I continued cleaning, putting special emphasis on the “office”, a large, bright and airy room that opened on the deck and had a wall of windows with a view of the garden and lawn. It was an especially difficult job moving the furniture, some of which came apart like a carefully assembled puzzle, and cleaning all of the nooks and crannies, including several in the high ceiling which we thought at one time in the recent past to have been the home of some sort of wild creatures, squirrels, birds or bats…or all three. Tom did live on a farm, after all.
We continued our ministry of cleaning and restoration for the rest of the afternoon, and then, towards evening, I made my second trip to Wal-Mart for my brother’s wardrobe update; two pairs of sweat pants. As I checked out I couldn’t help thinking what a neat dresser Tom had been…and how that helped me who had often helped myself to his clothes, so neatly stowed in his bureau, and the closet we shared. Well, he had no pretensions to style now and pronounced my purchase not only good, but very good, and comfortable, and warm. They became the last things I gave him, who had over the years supplied me with more than enough shirts and ties. I have come to think them as full payment for all I “borrowed” from him, going back decades; including the Rogers Peet suit I wore when I was first married…and still have… and which I will wear to my grave some day.
We passed another quiet evening, the best, I think, of our last short time together in this life. Tom was interested in watching the Republican Debate on TV. Alas, his sense of the time for it was wrong, and ours was completely lacking. We hadn’t a clue. That was fine with me. There were better things to do, even if they amounted to sitting quietly, talking softly. Eventually we spent some time watching the talking heads re-visit and comment on the highlights, telling everyone what was important and what wasn’t; making fun of everyone, man, woman and dog, connected with the thing.
We had no arguments about anything, but I discerned from his comments that Tom was most definitely on the red end of the political spectrum and left of the both of us. I begrudged the clock, then, because I would have loved to have explored its genesis and development in him. I remember one comment from years and years ago, when Tom and I were playing around for our parents; one of our “shows” we used to put on for them, about anything and nothing. We were parodying speeches, and he pretended he was FDR reassuring the country during the Great Depression during one of his Fireside addresses. You know, the two turkeys and garage kind of thing. He ended with, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself, and my ugly wife Eleanor.”
That night, Stephanie was to go back to the hotel, and I would stay with Tom, sleeping in the room next door. And so, that was the way it was; she leaving at about 10:00pm. I saw Tom to bed, made sure he had all the necessary medications and enough water nearby and went into the other room to ride the air mattress, and perchance to sleep. Perchance was a swift certainty.
Perhaps an hour or so later Tom’s cries and his pounding on the wall awakened me. “PETER! HELP ME! PETER,” I heard, and the wall shaking with the dull thuds of his pounding on it. Without bothering to dress I left the bed and went as quickly as I could to his room. Too late! He had needed to use the commode, but his weakened condition had prevented him getting there in time and he had soiled himself and the bed sheets. He sat, naked from the waist down, at the bottom of the bed, exhausted, weak and a mixture of sad, angry and upset…near tears, I thought. I was struck with contrition for my own failure to arrive on time to help him. In time, I cleaned him off and helped him get dressed. At least he had taken off his new sweats. Then I helped him lay back down to sleep on a clean and dry part of the bed. After I’d made sure he was settled and as comfortable as a dying man could be I asked him if there was anything else. “Yes,” he said. “Tell your friend I’d like to see him.”
I left and went back to my room. The rest of the night was quiet. Just in case, though, I never did get back to sleep. Later the next day, Stephanie spoke with the nurse on the phone reporting Tom’s episode. She explained that it was “normal” for people in his condition to evacuate nothing but water. He had, after all, taken nothing but a few sips of water for more than a week.
Stephanie arrived at about 7:00 in the morning and I brought her up to date. In her typical fashion, after closely questioning me, making sure she did indeed have all of the facts, knew all the nuances, she needled me about all of it; saying it was only right that I got no sleep, having left her alone with Tom on the two previous nights. She was right. I was grateful for the bed back at the hotel; given the alternative. She was glad to hear, though, that he had asked for a priest.
As soon as I could, I called Father Rogers leaving a voice message asking if he could come to see Tom that day. An hour or so later, Father called to say he would be by at about 3:00PM. God willing, and Tom cooperating, in one day he’d receive the Last Rites and get his hospital bed. I celebrated with another cup of coffee. Stephanie reminded me that the bed would arrive sometime in the late morning.
We really had little to do after that but sit and keep watch. The house had received a decent cleaning, mostly by my sister, the world renowned “Baby Bleach”, whose capacity and skill for cleaning rivals Hercules. Tom was soon up and feeling fine. We took the time to make a good job of cleaning up the mess in his room from last night; and re-make his bed, more neatly than had been done in the darkness of mid-night. Now all Stephanie and I wanted to do was spend what time we had left with our brother.
Tommy and I were the quiet ones. Stephanie has a gift for conversation, for asking questions, for curious probing and wondering, and we were content to let her take us where she would; both to entertain and to draw us out. Quite without realizing it, I suspect, she was mothering us in a way, as well as assuming the role of a good hostess. At least that’s the way I saw the three of us. Between offering me “at least another cup of tea or coffee”, or asking Tom if he’d like a sip of “nice fresh water” or a small bit of juice, she fixed and fussed; getting rid of old newspapers and magazines cluttering the table and some nearby flat places when Tom asked her to, and returning to know if there was anything else she could do to please him or me.
Both landlord and wife, and their big dog, a gentle black monster called “Brutus” if I remember correctly came for a longish visit. We relaxed in their company, their genuine affection for Tom a lovely sight to see, and a lovely thing to witness. It had the flavor of a long goodbye that had been going on for weeks, with nothing forced or phony about it; at once a service of charity and a piece of friendship shared. Old friends in the doorway waving goodbye, is what I think about that afternoon monistry of presence for another.
They left in a misty rain, and from the doorway as they walked back up towards their own house a few dozen yards away, I saw a car enter the driveway. It was Father Rogers, come at last. “Christ enter now!” I remember thinking rather joyfully as I turned to tell my brother and sister of Father’s arrival.
“Lord!,” I said to myself, “He is a big man!” He was a young fellow, at least 6’ 4”, good looking, dark haired, cheerful and smiling; a regular Father What-a-Waste. Broad shouldered and barrel chested, I wondered if he would make it through the door. But, he did, cheerfully greeting Tom and Stephanie as I did the introductions and we all spent a few minutes getting acquainted. Then easily transitioning to the matter, Father asked Tom if he would like to speak privately with him, and Tom said yes.
Father smiled at us all, and wheeled Tom into his room, closing the door behind him, and we were alone and quiet. I think Stephanie and I said a Hail Mary. And, it was probably her idea.
After about 45 minutes the door opened and Father Sean, he had become Father Sean during our short introductions, and walked over to us. Smiling he said, “You can come in now. Join us.” The smile was food for the eyes to see. We followed him into the room where Tom was lying in bed. All was silent as we stood at the foot of the bed, and father, big man that he was, edged up to Tom in the narrow space between bed and window. From there he told us that he and Tom had had a fruitful conversation, remarking that we three must be an extraordinary people. I can’t remember what, if anything, any of us said to that. Our proper Gallaher response would have been a humorous one, but I think, this time, it was silence; and a bit of surprise on my part.
Father picked hp his stole from the little table by the window, or he may have been wearing it all along, I cannot remember, and he said, “I am going to anoint Tom, now.” He continued, briefly explaining the sacramental ritual, its purpose and effects. Then turning all his attention to my brother he asked, “Tom, are you sorry for all of your sins?” And Tom, softly but clearly, answered, “I am.”
I think that was when I began to weep. This was what I had hoped would happen, the reason I had made the trip. Beside me, I heard my sister weeping too. As the ritual continued with Father Sean bending over Tom I thought of a doctor attending his patient, as I listened the words of the prayers, and watched Father’s hands anointing hands and head, and healing, and unbinding, literally. I noticed my brother, too, weeping himself, poor soul; him practically dehydrated being profligate with his tears. The tenderest thing, though, were the tears falling from Father Sean’s eyes and cheeks onto my brother as he bent over him, praying. I watched, surprised, thankful, as several tears fell from his cheeks onto Tom in another anointing.
Father finished shortly after and put away his stole and oils. He gave Tom a final blessing. My brother thanked him, and told us standing at the foot of the bed that he would like to take a nap. We left him then, and closed the door behind us. I walked Father Sean to his car after he had said goodbye to my smiling sister, radiant with her gratitude. On the short way to his car repeated that he thought us an extraordinary family. I told him I thought he was an extraordinary priest, and would have hugged him but for two things. I knew I would not be able to get my arms around him, and I feared his return embrace. I would have been most like hugging a bear. I settled for a handshake.
As he drove away and I turned to walk back inside I became convinced that there was really nothing more I could do there. I had given my brother his parting gift, and he had accepted it, liked it. I think I spoke the same to Stephanie, and we reached a decision. The shawl would be a reminder, I supposed, the beads an aid, and he had been well prepared for the journey he’d soon take, his last one. In my heart I began my journey home.
Tom came out to join us later that afternoon. The neighbor/friend/landlord stopped by again briefly to visit and say goodbye. They were, we knew, selling the house and moving, soon, too. All was very quiet. The rain continued to fall softly, off and on throughout the afternoon and evening.
Once, and only for a few minutes while our brother was taking a nap we stepped outside for a little bit to watch the rain and some buzzards circling the hills around us; graceful I thought, and usefully, productively, I hoped. I’d gotten rid of more than one dead varmint in the past few days. They needed to pick up their game.
We were once more three in the evening, talking quietly about what was and what may be. And then, at about eight in the evening, because I had one last, long, errand to run, I took my leave of my brother. I helped him into bed and kissed him as I laid him down. “Goodnight, Tom,” I said. “I love you.” “I love you, Peter,” he answered. Those were the last words we spoke to each other. That was the last time I saw him. Our seven last words we exchanged in the same order, saying the same words, as I had with my father nearly fifty years before.
I put my hand briefly on his poor thin shoulder, then left. Returning much later that evening I found Tom was still asleep. Stephanie told me he had not stirred since I left. Quietly, we both gathered what little we had at Tom’s house, and went back to our hotel, a soft rain falling, and to sleep.
We left at about 5:00am for the airport and home.
I will never go back to California!
(The Birthday of Our Mother, Eleanor Rita Downs-Gallaher)