Grief is a sacred journey

Three Little Love Stories on the Anniversary of A Brother’s Death

With Jim and Mom in Arizona, 1950

1950

Jim and I sat in the backseat, our faces out opposite windows. The wind dried our sweat into salty white stains. Daddy was sick, so our parents had pulled a tiny Airstream to Arizona for a virus-free winter.

We packed into that  trailer like canned sardines. Daddy ran a driving range and gave golf lessons. Money was tight. I’m not sure why my parents gave in when Jim and I begged for a puppy from a mongrel’s litter. Maybe they thought their kids, nine and five, needed a break from Daddy’s illness. Besides, Daddy loved dogs. Mommy did not.

“We’ll name him Amigo,” Jim said. Amigo, it was. A squirmy, short-haired white pup who loved his chow.

With Jim and Amigo, 1956

One afternoon, I sat with Jim in the desert dirt of the golf range. The song “Vaya con Dios” blared over a loud speaker while Jim spoon-fed Amigo from a can.

“I’ll take a bite if you will,” Jim said. “I dare you.”

“You go first,” I said. I was pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to eat dog food, but Mom served lots of brown mushy food from cans. Jim heaped a teaspoon high, the same spoon Amigo had just licked, and grinned as he swallowed it down.

“Your turn,” he said re-loading the spoon. He waited. He was my big brother. I couldn’t go back on my word. I held my nose and swallowed a spoonful in one gulp. Jim gave a round of applause. Amigo wagged and wiggled, waiting for his turn.

With college roommates (me in middle), 1964

1963

On Sunday nights, I waited in my dorm room for the phone to ring in the booth down the hall. Someone knocked on my door when the call was for me. Each ring sent a wave of fluttery anticipation through my body. Finally, someone knocked. I ran for the call.

“Hi Elaine,” my brother Jim said. “How are things this week?”

I told him about classes and my social world. He was 22, but took on a fatherly role. Dad had died four years before, and Mom had abandoned maternal duties and taught elementary school for overseas Air Force dependents. Jim and I did the best we could to support each other on opposite coasts.

“I’m afraid I’m failing German. I can’t keep up with the kids who were exchange students or spoke German at home.”

With Jim, 1965

“I wish I could help,” he said. It helped that Jim was interested. It helped when he listened. Calls from California to New York were expensive, but phone calls from France, Germany, or Okinawa were out of the question. Mom never phoned. Neither Jim nor I had much money—two scholarship kids—but somehow he paid for our weekly calls.

“I just got a summer job in Washington, DC. Why don’t you come with me and get a summer job there?” he said during my sophomore year.

He’d just tossed me a life-preserver.

We spent that sweltering summer in a one-bedroom apartment without air-conditioning. We slept in twin beds in the same room, like we had in the Airstream, and ate canned corn-beef hash that looked suspiciously like dog food. We went to free concerts on the White House Mall and danced at cheap nightclubs.  We created a sense of family.

With Jim, Vic, & Jim’s wife, 2006

2006

“The local oncologist is sure Vic has lymphoma, but he doesn’t know what kind,” I told my big brother on the phone. I sobbed the word “cancer.” It was harder to swallow than dog food.

“After ignoring Vic’s calls for a week, the oncologist finally called Vic. ‘I sent your tissue sample to five labs and no one can diagnose it.’ he said. ‘We’ll wait and test again in a month or so.'”

“That’s ridiculous,” Jim said. “I’ll talk to a few friends.” Jim was on the Board of the New England Journal of Medicine. He called his colleagues, even though it was Labor Day weekend.

The Tuesday after Labor Day, Jim called again. “I have a doctor at Strong Hospital, a lymphoma specialist trained at Dana Farber. My friend says he’s the best anywhere. They already made an appointment for Vic and requested the tissue sample.”

Back to the beginning with Jim, 1945

I sobbed with relief. A glimmer of hope after months of trying to figure out what was wrong with my husband. Our general practitioner felt Vic wouldn’t survive another month while his lungs filled with mucus and his throat closed with swollen glands.

After the doctor’s visit at Strong, I called Jim to report. “Their pathologist figured it out,” I said. “It’s bad. Incurable and extremely rare. But at least we have a diagnosis. They’ll begin treatment next week.”

“That’s better,” Jim said in a quiet even voice as I flooded the phone line with tears. “Vic couldn’t wait. If he needs more, you can come here to Cambridge. I love you. I’m sorry. I’ll call on Sunday.”

I knew I could count on Jim.

***

Do you have a sibling or friend you can count on when life is tough? How do you honor them? I found it helpful to write these stories on the first anniversary of Jim’s death. For other articles about facing illness, see When Dad’s Die Young or The Thief: When Cancer Returns.

29 Comments
  1. Dear Elaine, Thank you so much for sharing your three, beautiful, and heartfelt stories. Oh my goddess, you’ve lifted my heart and soul up high today! Three entwining tales of love, patience, understanding and a bond no absent mother could break. Beautiful, beyond words my dear friend. You’re an exquisite writer whose grace and poetical prose I greatly admire.

    Sadly I have no family of origin siblings, or family I can count on, although I did gratefully receive an email last year to let me know that my mother had suffered a heart attack and was hospitalised. For that small kindness I am eternally grateful as it provided me the opportunity to visit my poorly, elderly mother and speak to her for the first time in over eighteen years.

    Jim was there, although sometimes in the background, however never far away as the heart connection between you and he never faltered. When it mattered most, he stepped forward. You’ve greatly moved my heart today and so I’m here now, writing in tears, knowing how important this anniversary is to you and your family. Love and blessings always, Deborah.

    • Thank you, Deborah. There are other stories, including long years after our marriages when we didn’t make time for each other. There were no arguments. Just a slow drifting apart. My sons didn’t know him well because they were growing up during those years. When he let me know his daughter was struggling, I showed up and we stayed closely connected after that. When I asked for his help with Vic, he came through. I’ve been fortunate to have many loving men in my life from grandfathers to husband to brother to sons.

      Your family story is heartbreaking. I’m grateful there was a goodbye visit at the end of your mother’s life. Vic and I traveled a long way with a 3 week old baby for a goodbye visit to his father who was dying of sclerosis of the liver. Vic had only seen his father a few times in his life and the last time had been 16 years before. The suffering Vic saw that day began a long process of transforming Vic’s anger and hurt into forgiveness.

      Loving is so hard. Often our families bring the hardest lessons. Sending you love and gratitude.

      • Thank you so much Elaine for your compassionate, kind-hearted words. As I haven’t heard, and didn’t want you to think otherwise, I believe my mother lives on … so the time that I spent with her last year was precious. It’s enough, it’s more than enough. We both knew, and talked openly about my “goodbye” visits … which were beautiful, beyond language.

        It’s great to read everyone’s wonderful, and deeply heartfelt comments. I also love how you weave the myths into your reply. Sending you much love and gratitude during your remembrance week, Blessings always, Deborah.

  2. The main reason I moved to Florida was to be near my sister, in hopes that we will grow old together. We’re as close as two siblings can be ~ always have been. I simply cannot imagine life without her. I’m so sorry you’ve lost the physical presence of your beloved brother Jim, dear Elaine, along with your darling Vic ~ two of the most important men in your life. My heart is holding you close on this special day of remembrance, and I am thinking of you ♥

    • Thank you, Marty. I love knowing you have your sister close by. My mother-in-law (101 now) was so upset when one of her two living sisters died last winter. The three of them were in contact by phone every day even though one was in North Carolina (with a son), one in Connecticut, and one here in upstate NY. It was nice to have my son and his partner here on my brother’s death anniversary so we could light a candle, gather flowers, and tell a few sibling stories. These strong bonds last for life, whether we get along well or not. Thank you for sending loving thoughts. I appreciate it.

  3. Hi Elaine. Your story move me as usual and I’m thinking of you on this anniversary. You really could count on your brother that’s for sure. Love Lori

    • Lori, we went about 30 years without seeing each other often, but even during that period I knew I could count on him. Fortunately, I didn’t need to, but he and I both wished we’d made more effort to stay close those years. Lots of us wish that at the end of life. I hope we can get together for a walk soon. Rain, rain, rain…

  4. What resilience you and Jim developed with an absent, detached mother and a father who left you all too soon. Exquisitely crafted stories, Elaine.

    Yes, I do have siblings that support each other as we navigate the imminent death of my beloved aunt now on morphine while continuing the arduous task of clearing out her house.

    • I know you have close siblings, Marian, and I’m glad for you. And your wonderful husband, children, and I imagine a whole community. It’s such a gift in these times of fragmented families and friends–and lots of work sometimes as in the case of your aunt and my mother-in-law. Ah, Aunt Ruthie must be nearing her final days. I’m glad she has the faith to carry her through.

  5. It’s healing to me to read these snippets of Jim’s big brother support Elaine thank you – and inevitably reassuring that when the love is strong you were there to support him and his family. Your question re who would I turn to when life is tough got me thinking – it’s an important question – and I’m not sure who that person would be which is of course a reflection of myself. My sister and husband after thinking about it –

    • I’m glad it was healing, Susan. They are such personal stories, but we all have snippets of memories that hold on through time and give a sense of continuity when we look at them all together. It’s a good thing to name those people we can count on. I turn to my sons and a few friends, but more and more I turn to writing and in that way to the Self. My mother-in-law teaches me how much support we need in our last years.

  6. The way you have selected three memories: one from childhood, one when you where becoming a woman and one when you had to face death, it is such an excellent choice. Without ever meeting Jim, I have a clear picture of what a nice man he was. How he had to grow up maybe a tiny bit too fast, just like you but how you both balanced out each other.
    Thank you for this post,

    Sincerely,
    Susanne

    • Thank you, Susan. I’ve thought a lot about Jim’s and my relationship through the myth of the brother-sister Apollo and Artemis. I haven’t written about this connection, but it helps me see our very different paths and mutual respect. Jim was a well-known scientist and administrator in the world of Public Health and had an ability to soar above without becoming emotional which could be interpreted as aloofness. Apollonic fit better than aloof. He was intellectual, but fierce in supporting his family, his students, and his worldly work.

  7. What lovely stories of what true family is. You were indeed a lucky person to have your brother in your life.

    • I was lucky, Joan. For years, Jim and I had less frequent contact, but when life grew more challenging in his family and mine, our mutual support was still there. I’m glad we could help each other through hard times–and mostly I’m glad I was able to respond to what he said after cancer returned: “I’ll need you at the end.” He needed me. I needed to be there.

  8. Heart-touching dear Elaine. Thanks for sharing in your wonderful way. Sending much love, Peggy

  9. Wow, such heartfelt memories Elaine. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how far distance is or how often we keep in touch, but the cement that bonds and the memories that remain within from the simplest and quality of times spent with that loved one. Your relationship with Jim was so special.

    • It was and is a relationship to remember, Debby. And those memories stick like glue. I’m always curious about why we retain a particular memory and not another. Sometimes it’s clear, but not always. Jim didn’t remember the dog food incident, but he got a good laugh about it when I told him the story when he was sick.

      • I suppose it’s just like writing our memories – memoir. The way we remember a particular moment, or something that struck us special may not be remembered the same way by anyone else. The magic of individual feelings. 🙂

        • So true. In my brother’s last years, we spoke often of our childhood. Not about big issues, but from the feeling interpretation, it was sometimes hard to imagine we were speaking about the same parents and family.

  10. What an amazing collection of stories, Elaine. I absolutely loved how you took me from childhood to young adulthood to the recent present, all with Jim and love, and the bitterness of what one has to swallow in the course of living. And the photos. Sigh.

    • Thanks, Robin. I’m finding more photos as I go through boxes of my mother’s stuff. Most to be tossed, but then there are treasures. Lots of bitter medicine mixed with life’s sweetness. My depression antidotes are getting tested by the constant rain and low skies. Hanging on to the bright beauty of the bluebird boy who perches over the nest with his lady inside sitting on eggs and the ruby breasted grosbeaks visiting the bird feeder.

  11. I love your stories and the pictures. The one from 1964 is how I remember you. What were we, 18 or 19 and thought we were so mature and grown up. Oh how young we really were and how the coming years would mature us in ways we could never imagine. So glad we reconnected last year.

    • 1964 is around the last time we saw each other–when you were a student in Michigan and I was in Ithaca. I’m glad we reconnected, too. I look at the photos in this piece and so much of it feels long, long ago.

  12. Elaine, it’s been too long since I visited your site. Even though both Jim and Vic are familiar characters to me, I think this essay sheds new light on their relationship to each other and to you. The dogfood story is the tie that binds.

    I too have only one brother, and he is very precious to me. He was my childhood playmate and was the first person to both follow me and challenge me. He helped me become the person I am today.

    I am grateful for his life and the fact that I will see him soon. You help me to realize that no one can take life and time for granted.

    • Shirley, as you may have seen in a previous comment, I told Jim the dog food story sometime in his last six months and he didn’t remember it. It stuck with me like glue. He remembered other stories from that winter in Arizona that I didn’t remember. And such is the permeable and personal lens of memory.

      I’m glad you have your brother on this side and that you’ll see him soon. I’m planted at home this summer because I love summer here and because there are big changes in my family life. My son and his partner have been here for three weeks. They’re now in the process of moving to a sweet cabin they rented three miles away. I’m imaging a long winter trip to be with a close friend in Arizona because Jenna, my son’s partner, loves Willow and is willing to care for her while I’m gone.

  13. Those were beautiful stories, Elaine. I’m sorry for your loss.

    • Thanks so much, Lydia. This living and dying thing is full of challenges, isn’t it? All in all, I’m grateful my brother and I stayed connected. I miss his Sunday calls.

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