Monday, December 15, 2014

For My Brother

An oncologist, a neurologist, and a cardiologist walk into a bar. The bartender says, ”What’ll it be?” 
They say in unison, “A miracle.” 
The bartender looks under the bar, on the back bar, says, “Sorry, we’re all out of miracles.” Then he adds, “How about a round of hope...on the house?” 
“Too late for that,” says one of the three and they leave.

Actually the three specialists meet in room 7104 at Barnes Jewish Hospital. They are there for a good reason: my brother, Barry, who lies silent on the bed.

The oncologist says, “I think he needs A.”
The neurologist says, “I’d like to pursue B.”
The cardiologist says, “I suggest C.”

The patient says nothing. It’s Barry’s life they’re discussing, but it’s all he can do to maintain his breathing, keep his heart pumping and his mind from floating into that nether world where the line between reality and illusion has been erased.

Eventually the scene plays out. The three caballeros agree on next steps, Barry is wheeled into three different rooms over the next five days, with brief stops in ICU and cardiology before the sensors are disconnected, the monitors switched off, the drip stops dripping, and he takes a chauffeured ride in his own personal ambulance 23 miles west to his villa in Chesterfield, to await the arrival of hospice, a special bed, raised toilet seat, little bottles of vanilla Ensure, pads and swaths and other appointments associated with “End of Life” care. 

You know as well as I that it’s really a “Death Watch” but everyone wants to avoid the dreaded “D” word. “End of Life” sounds like a play that is over, and everyone goes out to get a bite to eat.

For five days, we - the family and those closest to him - wait. None of us are really interested in the Blues or Tigers games but they dominate the large-screen TV in the living room. No one is really hungry but we eat whatever is set out on the table. This is the kind of scene that calls for a grandfather’s clock ticking loudly down the hall, chiming away the hours, a cold wind and swirling snow outside the windows, candles flickering in the drafty room. That’s one version, had it been described by Charlotte Bronte or Charles Dickens. 

Then there’s the Norman Rockwell version of “The Wait”: Gentle days and feathery clouds, a lowering sun, the family gathered as for a Thanksgiving dinner or birthday portrait, from the bed a faint smile, a few final meaningful words, the gentle send-off. That is the ending we had expected. 

That’s not how it happened. Eventually it became a silent ship, slipping away from the dock, headed through the dense fog to a rendezvous at an unknown destination. 

When Barry exhaled for the last time, about 12:20 on the afternoon of Monday, Dec. 8, I expected the world to perhaps pause a little, a slight hesitation or flicker, just for a nanosecond in recognition of the passing of this most extraordinary man. But traffic continued to speed by on Olive Boulevard, venti lattes were brewed and served without cease, the gray clouds maintained their slow crawl across the heavens, and CNN didn’t break into its never-ending tales of protest and politics.

Where is it written that the older brother give a eulogy for the younger brother? If it is indeed written, it must be in the chapter titled “Planning Your Life and Other Misconceptions.” Because just when you think you have it figured out, along comes a surprise. His eulogy was difficult to write, even tougher to say aloud to the more than 200 witnesses at the temple on Wednesday. But, later on, I was lifted by the stories I heard about his acts of kindness and charity, his role as mentor, organizer of lunches and dinners with old friends, and his exemplary decisions throughout the highs and lows of his life.

Barry and I were different. 
His passion was sports. Mine, music. 
He was a short, chunky kid. I was tall, thin. 
He had fun at Washington U. I studied. (Got mediocre grades. I should have done it his way.)
He was a CPA. His career was numbers. Mine, words.
But in so many ways, important ways, we were alike. A product of loving parents Milt and Diana, a recognition of the importance of family, love and support for our kids. And we cared deeply about each other, stayed in touch over the decades through lunches and jazz concerts. 

How quickly the older generation is replaced by the younger generation, as they themselves soon become replaced by the next. With each passing, we lose part of ourselves. On that Monday, part of my foundation broke away. I now feel off balance, slightly askew. I know what’s missing but have trouble finding solid footing. For now.

A good friend of mine sent these beautiful words:
“Every loss is just that, something not to be recovered, but remembered well in the swirl of memories that make up our lives.”


When Barry was three years old and I was eight, we lived on Midvale, across from Flynn Park. He used to follow me everywhere. I would leave with a couple of buddies to go across the street to play in the park, and he would tag behind, his knickers down to his ankles, his nose running, his shirt out. My little brother. On this particular day, I didn’t want him following us. So I got a long piece of rope from our garage and tied him firmly to a tree in our front yard. We left. Barry yelled and cried, but couldn’t get loose.

Now I realize that whenever I look back, my little brother will not be there. Not a footstep, not an echo, not a shadow. But I know his spirit - a warm, shining presence - will always be with me. And with his family and many friends. Perhaps that is a form of eternal life. I hope so.