When meeting new people it’s not uncommon to be asked, “Do you have any siblings?” An unsuspecting person asked me that last December. Tears welled up in my eyes and I somehow sputtered out, “Yes, a brother. But he died.” Fortunately, it was a sweet man in his seventies and we sat at a piano bench talking about life, death and family. I’m glad he was so gracious.
I’ve found that most people ask three questions when they find out my brother died. The first two are variations of the same question:
“What happened?” and “Was he sick?” I prefer the first question to the second. Even though there was cancer involved, I like the open endedness to the first question. I can answer it however I want to instead of ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
The third question is usually, “Was it sudden?”.
I haven’t found a good way to answer this one yet. Because logically, if I look at a calendar and the 20 months between Justin’s diagnosis and his death, and the 6 or 7 times the cancer returned to his body, well yeah, I suppose I could have seen it coming and it wouldn’t have appeared so “sudden”.
But I was too close. I didn’t really see it coming. Or more accurately, I didn’t want to see it coming. I was surprised. I mean, I knew in my head it was a possibility and that is why I prayed more for my brother than I’ve ever prayed for another human in my whole life. But I didn’t let the rest of me accept that possibility. Just a little corner in my head had those thoughts and I tried to shut them up all the time.
I think I come by this stubbornness naturally. In my family we’ve had several people cheat death.
My Uncle was diagnosed with renal cell cancer when I was a teenager. He was given six months to live more times than I can count. He lived for 18 more years. We were able to say goodbye to each other several times before it was the last time. In his last week we got to spend a morning together and he mapped out his favorite route for riding motorcycles out west. My husband was taking a trip with his buddies that summer and I was getting the low down on all the best spots. He knew the owners of little hole in the wall places and marked them on the map too. It’s one of my favorite things from him.
My Grandma was diagnosed with terminal lung disease when I was young. One time a woman lectured her on smoking when she saw my Grandma hauling around her oxygen tank. Grandma leaned into the woman and pointed her finger in her face and said, “Lady! There has never been a cigarette between these lips!” before huffing away and leaving the woman speechless. Grandma was diagnosed at the same time as another man with the same disease, same stage and roughly the same age. He lived 4 months, she lived almost 10 more years. As a grandkid, I credited it to her stubbornness of wanting to see all of us grow up.
My Mom was killed in a car accident, and after having a conversation with God, she came back to life. This probably sounds crazy, but no one was more shocked than the paramedic on the scene. He had checked for signs of life, found none, and completed the fatality report by marking all three people in the vehicle as dead. He came running back to their crunched car minutes later when he heard my Mom yelling the name of Jesus (no lie).
So, the history of not taking illness or even death too seriously was pretty well ingrained in me by the time Justin received his first diagnosis of tumors in his chest. I was scared. And I bawled my eyes out the moment I heard the news. But each time the Doctor would give him a course of action to take, I would relax a little bit because there was a plan. And Justin always talked about everything going on in his body with such confidence and conviction. He was easy to believe.
So yeah, it was sudden and it wasn’t. But it was to me.