Coming to Carry Him Home

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Jim on the Westport River

Jim on the Westport River

After nearly three years of cancer therapy, my brother’s body was exhausted. There were no more options. Jim was dying.

The previous week, I spent four days with him in his hospital room. We were often alone then. When he closed his eyes, I meditated. When he opened his eyes, we shared memories and hopes. Jim said he was an atheist, but no matter what he called himself, he was a practitioner of kindness. No matter how busy his life was or how important his career, he took time to offer help or to listen.

Elaine & Jim Ware 1945

Elaine and Jim Ware, 1945

During his last day, a stream of friends, colleagues, and family came to say goodbye. His small hospital room was busy and sometimes noisy. When there was an empty space near his bed, I slid my hand under his hand or foot and silently repeated the mantra the Dalai Lama suggested for the dying. Om Mani Padme Hum. Om Mani Padme Hum. As the day went on, Jim’s breath slowed. By evening, only family and close friends were with him.

After dark, Amy arrived. She’d known Jim and his family most of her life. Amy smiled a gentle sad smile and hugged everyone. She sat near Jim’s bed and softly sang a song I didn’t know. Her body swayed gently to the lullaby. I swayed with her.

Westport River

Westport River

River, take me along in your sunshine, sing me a song
Ever moving and winding and free
You rolling old river, you changing old river
Let’s you and me, river, run down to the sea. (
River Song)

Amy, Thanksgiving 2008

Amy, 2008

Amy knew how Jim loved the Westport River. I remembered the watery vision he’d shared with me the week before. In what he called a hallucination, he saw me on a boat, traveling across a body of water, crossing a border to be with him. He was nearing another border now, one he had to cross alone.

I picked up the chorus and sang with Amy. Let’s you and me, river, run down to the sea. Amy’s mother sang, too, and maybe others. My eyes were glued on Amy as I lip read her words.

Then I remembered the song my dad sang when Jim and I were kids: Swing Low Sweet Chariot. I started and Amy joined me.

With Jim in 2014

With Jim in 2014

Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin’ for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin’ for to carry me home

If you get there before I do
Comin’ for to carry me home
Tell all my friends that I’m a-comin’ too
Comin’ for to carry me home

Jim’s breath was only a subtle movement in his throat. His face was relaxed. He was surrounded by people he loved. Sitting beside him with my hand touching his, I sang Woyaya (Sol Amarfio & Osibisa, 1973). Amy knew that song, too.

Jim's handWe are going
Heaven knows where we are going,
but we know within
And we’ll get there
Heaven knows how we will get there,
but we know we will.
It can be hard we know
And the road can be muddy and rough
But we’ll get there
Heaven knows how we will get there
but we know we will

Woyaya Woyaya…

Jim left this life on the waves of a song running down to the Sea.

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I’m grateful to my sister-in-law, my niece, and nephew for the love they shared and the support they gave my brother. I’m grateful to my brother for standing close when our father died in 1959 and again during my husband’s illness and death. Jim never once told me to get over it. In the midst of sorrow and sickness, Jim and I shared deep intimacy. For that, I will always be most grateful. For other articles about my relationship with my only sibling, see Holding Hands on the Threshold between Life and Death or Waiting for Another Dance.

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43 Comments
  1. Tears of gratitude sting my eyes as I read about the passing of Jim. Your photos of him reveal deep beauty, from his hand in repose and even as he looks delightedly at the camera a new big brother of tiny baby Elaine. What a blessed way to leave this life, consciously and surrounded by loving souls and song. Much love, Myra

    • Thank you, Myra. I’m grateful for the years of close connection with my big brother. I can’t stop singing the lines, “Let’s you and me, river, run down to the sea.”

  2. so glad to see you today Elaine and share our grief and hugs!!
    so much love to you!

    • Lori, we’ve shared some deep conversations in the Wegmans parking lot. Thank you for your big loving heart and open armed hugs. I send love back to you.

  3. Beatific, tender expression of those last moments.

  4. Your photos are priceless, particularly the one of you in the bassinet with Jim alongside standing tall and proud. And the tunes lovely. I could hear the melody of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot as I read the words printed here and thought of another piece that dovetails with it though with a different metaphor:
    I Don’t Have to Cross Jordan Alone:

    Verse 1.
    When I come to the river at ending of day,
    When the last winds of sorrow have blown;
    There’ll be somebody waiting to show me the way,
    I won’t have to cross Jordan alone.

    Verse 2.
    Tho’ the billows of sorrow and trouble may sweep,
    Christ the Savior will care for his own.
    Till the end of the journey, my soul he will keep,
    I won’t have to cross Jordan alone.

    My condolences to you at this moment and in the days ahead. You graciously show us how to face bereavement by sharing fond memories, paying tribute.

    • Marian, you’ve suggested another perfect song for crossing over. I want to learn more songs for dying–simple ones so anyone can join in. I remembered many possibilities in the days after Jim’s death and will begin gathering the words and melodies. Even if I can’t hear well, I can still sing. Every spiritual tradition knows that song connects us to the sacred.

      I’m grateful for the many years of love I’ve shared with my brother. I think of him throughout the day and he’s already showed up in a dream.

      • These words felt magical to me: “I can still sing,” a sweet auditory release no matter what our range of hearing.

  5. Thank you so very much for sharing again, such an intimate part of your life. You are so gracious and eloquent in your writing of moments that are so difficult. Death is a sad part of all of our lives, but your writing about it makes it easier to endure.

    • I appreciate your kind words, Beverly. You understand the challenges of cancer therapy all to well. I’ve written about my brother’s illness the last few years. He never minded. There is an article about his cancer recurrence in last year’s The Healing Muse. The month before his death, I wrote about his struggles again. Because he was such a private person, I was surprised he liked my articles and encouraged me to submit them. Brotherly love…

  6. Much love, Many blessings.

  7. It is a lovely and loving piece. Certainly, from what you describe, Jim would have appreciated it deeply. And thank you, Amy, for helping to make the transition a time of peace and healing. A good and gentle death…since it had to be at all…unwanted but accepted with grace.

    • I learned again that the sacred enters the dying process, sometimes in surprising and unintentional ways. My brother was an uncomplaining cancer warrior. The suffering he endured made the gentleness of those last songs all the more welcome. Thank you, Rea, for your gentle support.

  8. Jim could not have had a more beautiful death Elaine, thank you for sharing it with us. How special was his precognitive dream with you on a boat over the water coming to meet him, yet knowing the last border was his alone. It was especially wondrous given his love of water. And Amy singing those songs – it is the more powerful as I think of from the sea we came, to the sea we will return. All loving thoughts are with you and family as Jim sails across to peace.

    • Thank you, Susan. Jim wasn’t interested in the inner life, yet he shared a dream and a vision when we were alone. He knew I was interested and something in him must have been curious, too. I spoke with my sister-in-law last night as she begins to think about the Memorial Service. We both want Amy’s River Song to be part of it. I hope to read one of the pieces I’ve written about him, probably one from a journal called The Healing Muse. I showed him what I wrote about him. He always approved and encouraged me to submit. I’m sure he doesn’t mind that I’m still sharing our brother-sister stories and love.

  9. Dear Elaine, while reading, the Sufi poet, Rumi takes root in my soul. In death, he seems to say, it’s only the ego, the persona that is lost. The soul continues its glorious journey. Wise souls and poets of every age speak as one, in that …

    On the day I die
    Don’t say she’s gone/he’s gone.
    Death has nothing to do with going away.
    The sun sets and the moon sets,
    but they’re not gone.
    Death is a coming together.
    The human seed goes down into the ground
    like a bucket and comes up
    with some unimagined beauty!
    Your mouth closes here,
    and immediately opens
    with a shout of joy there!

    When Rumi’s death was near, he was fearless and accepting. ‘Have patience old Earth,’ he said. ‘You’ll get your sweet morsel soon.’ I love, love, love that! It gives me hope, fills me up with joy. May you have a peaceful day, my beautiful friend. Love and blessings, Deborah.

    • Deborah, I had never heard this Rumi poem. Thank you. We read lots of Rumi and Rilke in my husband’s dying room, but my brother was not patient with death. Sooner or later the body says “I give up,” even if the mind cannot imagine saying that.

      I know the spiritual perspective so well, but as my friend Lori and I discussed in the grocery store parking lot yesterday, even knowing this perspective, we still miss the embodied presence of our husbands (and brothers and sisters and children…)–the particular sound of that voice, the gesture, the smell of their shampoo, mostly the holding and hugs and warm loving eyes. So, dualist that I am, I know only persona is lost, but oh how I loved and miss that persona. Thank you for your gentle loving heart.

  10. Carrying him home with song is so very tender and present. Your witnessing and sharing tugs at my heart, Elaine. Sending love to you.

    • Thank you, Monica. We sing to babies even when they’re in the womb, and my hospice offers many kinds of music to dying patients. This was unplanned, but it felt like a gift to those of us in the room.

  11. What a wonderful brother he must have been. What a wonderful human being.
    What a precious and sacred time for you and everyone who was with Jim.
    I hope his soul is light, and full of love, floating with the energy of the universe.

    And how lucky you are to be with yet another dear person in your life, as they leave this life, and go into the unknown.

    Blessings and love to you. I’m sure you will miss your brother, as you do your husband, for the rest of your life.

    • He was a loving big brother. Thank you for your hopes for him. I hope the same. Last night on the phone, his wife thanked me for being there. I drove the eight hours to their city many times in the last few years because I wanted to support him at every step. In facing mortality and grief, there is opportunity for intimacy and heart connection if we can be quiet together and listen. Yes, we miss all of them, don’t we? Thank you for your kind words, Deb.

  12. I kept my brothers pajamas after he died and put the shirt on my pillow like a pillow case with the buttons buttoned.The top of those pajamas held up maybe 12 or 13 years.I had had 2 children to keep up with by that time and put the
    Pajamas in the closet so I could still smell them once in a while. EVENTUALLY THE SCENT FADED,but I got many happy memory flashbacks before they were just old flannel pajamas again.That kind of grief never really fades,tho..I just got used to it.His music and books were mine too,buy nothing was as comforting as that pair of psjamas.

    • Smells hold memories as I learned when Vic died, but I don’t have any material thing that belonged to my brother. That will change when I’m with his family next time. His wife is beginning the process of giving things away and she has me in mind. Of course, I want some thing of his, but his most precious parting gift was sharing a dream he had and after that telling me a vision he had of me. Those images gave me a stronger inner connection than anything and a sense of guidance about my own life. Thanks for keeping track of me during this last few months, Alicia. I appreciate it.

  13. This is beautiful and very touching, Elaine. Thank you for your model of heartfelt strength as you witness and support the death phase of the soul’s journey. It’s a very important and meaningful contribution to our culture of denial to know our fear and pain can be faced with honesty, courage and grace. Jeanie

    • Thank you, Jeanie. Everything settled into a gentle flow toward the Inevitable. I was once a singer, but my poor hearing made me shy. This week, I’ve been singing to myself. Being on key doesn’t matter as I sing the River Song over and over. The chorus is a lullaby for birth, death, and everything between.

  14. Once again Elaine, my condolences for a great loss in your life. Although you grieve for the loss of Jim, your heart is so full of the love and memories you have of him. You’ve certainly learned the process of grief, and your words, songs and rituals are inspiration to those who have and will have to face these ‘crossings’ at sometime in their lives. Sending you healing thoughts and wishing for peace in your heart. xo Deb

    • Thank you, Debby. I’m grateful for the time we had together, and I’m sorry he had to endure so much–uncomplaining as he was.

  15. Elaine,
    The melody of the River Song came to me as I read it and was so wonderfully appropriate for Amy to lead in singing for Jim as he wended his way, the current guiding him down to the sea. Beside him his family, his beloved you in concert near/around/with him, silent and deep inside, hand stroking foot or hand, speaking memories long remembered or perhaps long forgotten that only he and you know, the utterance of ancient words that confirm the mystery of dying and death. Your courage, steadfastness, and love spread throughout not only in this blog, but far beyond.

    • Thank you, dear Ellen, for the beauty of your words and your heart. It’s a gift to be seen by you. I’m glad Jim and I spent more time together the last few years than we had since we were in our 20s. Amy brought a sacred gift to all of us. I sing the song to myself many times a day. With love and gratitude.

  16. I am grateful, dear Elaine, for your words about traveling this path with your brother until he reached the gate. There has been grace in many places. Thank you for you compassion, for being open, and for sharing with us. You are always good at responding to replies, but there is no need here, my friend. You have already shared.

    • As you know, dying can be fast and startling or slow and arduous. My brother took the slow path and that allowed our relationship to ripen as it was ending.
      I haven’t yet listened to your radio interview (or many things), but I will.

  17. Thank you for sharing Elaine. I’m sorry your brother has passed. The bond you had with him was so special. I am grateful for your stories – it helps me as I walk beside my brother on his journey.
    Much love, Wendy

    • Thank you, Wendy. Until my brother got sick a few years ago, I didn’t see him for months at a time. What I miss right now are his early morning phone calls. It makes me want to call everyone while I can. I’m sad you have a sick brother, too, but I’m glad you can walk beside him with wisdom and love.

  18. You have provided the meditation I needed this morning, Elaine. Thank you so much. I want to come back to this blog post and fully absorb it again and again. This is the way I hope to die. And I hope that I can be this kind of presence to others I love when I am called into that service.

    Many rivers of joy to you along with the rivers of tears.

    • Isn’t that one gorgeous song, Shirley? I didn’t know it, but I know it now. I listened to many versions and also loved this simple, heartfelt one sung by an Irish woman named Denise Murphy without accompaniment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-0GWVYjUqCA
      I am grateful I could be there with my brother and family. I’m grateful I’ve learned how to sit with Death. It’s sacred to be with someone entering this life or going out again.
      Have a wonderful trip to the land of Celtic lore and song. May it be green.

  19. Elaine, I’m sorry about your brother dying but so glad he got to die in such a beautiful way, surrounded by loved ones and song. Thank you for including the links to the songs. I loved hearing them. Swing Low is a favorite of mine. When I die, I want to be listening to that one. Cheers!

    • This dying is hard, as you know all too well, Robin. I didn’t write about his suffering much. There was plenty of it. I’m grateful his last hours were filled with surrender, love, and song.

  20. (((Elaine)))….reading this brought me back to those last days and hours at my mom’s bedside. I hope I did everything “right”… I hope she knew I was there and how much I loved her. Jim must have been an amazing person and what a special relationship you shared as siblings. It was a blessing – you being there with him – he was surrounded by such love. Just as it should be; what more can we ask? Thank you for sharing your heart with all of us. You have my deepest sympathy in this time of sadness. ~Ann

    • I’m grateful I could be with my brother at his death. He had many medical crises the last 2 1/2 years, so it was a constant “should I come now or now or now?” I made many 8 hour trips to Boston the last few years and each was an opportunity to talk about things that mattered and deepen our connection. We thought about life and spirit differently, but I was grateful he trusted me with dreams and images that didn’t make sense to him. He also gave me the gift of allowing me to write about him and my reaction to his illness. He could have said no, but he said yes. He was generous to me and many people. Thank you for your loving heart.

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