My brother’s cell phone sings its song. He slowly picks it up from the tray table and leans back into white pillows with closed eyes. He seemed close to death a few days ago, although he’s stable now within a network of IV lines and medication. He’s tired after years of cancer therapy, but isn’t ready to quit.
Blue masks and Purell dispensers hang inside and outside his hospital door. Two squirts when going in and two when leaving. A sharpness stings my nose as the sanitizer dries, followed by a faint chemical afterglow.
Because he’s had aspiration pneumonia, Jim can’t swallow anything, not even an ice chip. While he dozes, I open my thermos of green tea and inhale the astringent steam.
His eyes pop open. “I wish I could have a cup of tea,” he says.
“I wish you could, too,” I say as I close the thermos. It feels unfair to sip tea. It’s unfair to walk outside and feel the warmth of the sun. There is nothing fair about suffering, but I’m grateful for time together with unguarded hearts.
I fill his paper cup with ice cubes to keep the sponge swab cold. He wipes the inside of his mouth with moisture. The paper cup teases with images of steaming coffee.
Nothing fair about it.
I had a dream,” Jim says. He never mentions dreams, so this feels like a nod toward my world.
“Tell me,” I say.
“An Indian family was buying food and preparing for a wedding,” he says.
“Were you a character in the dream?” I ask.
“No. I watched. It was like a long documentary.”
“This month, I’ve had three dreams of Indian families or Indian women watching over me,” I tell him as I note the mysterious ways my psyche is related to his.
His eyes flutter shut. Facing him, I silently repeat my favorite crisis mantra, the one I used when my husband was dying. Om Mani Padme Hum. Om Mani Padme Hum. His eyes flutter open in five minutes.
“What’s happens when you close your eyes?” I ask. “Are you sleeping?”
“No, not sleeping.”
“Is it like meditation?”
“Yes,” he says. We learned to mediate in the late 1960s. I kept the practice for life, although he didn’t. “It’s quiet with images floating through. I just imagined you coming on a boat to get here and having to cross a border.” His shoulders lift in an “I-don’t-get-it” shrug.
“There can be psychological or imaginal truth that isn’t rational, physical truth,” I say.
He nods yes, maybe to be agreeable or maybe because he’s experiencing the permeability of the psyche in his weakened state.
He’s never been to India, but I’ve been three times. My dreams reminded me of a protective aspect of the Divine Feminine revered in South India. I also feel I’m crossing a deep inner border over the watery unconscious to join him in his threshold world.
I’m glad you’re here,” he says.
“I need to be here for my sake,” I say.
“What do you mean by that?” he asks.
“When I’m at home seven hours away and you’re struggling for your life, I long to be with you. I want to see you and kiss you. I want to hold your hand and say hello and goodbye. You’re my brother.” He smiles and closes his eyes again.
I’m happy to wrap him in warm blankets when he’s cold. I want to know what’s going through his mind. I want to save him, although I can’t. While he’s trying to get stronger, I want to support him. When he decides he’s had enough, I want to support that, too.
His eyes pop open. His pale green eyes look deeply into my brown ones.
Have you been at the bedside of someone who is very ill? What helped them most? How did you deal with our culture’s insistence on distracting people from the obvious, telling them how well they look, and giving them false hope. I admit it’s hard to resist. I try to let my brother lead the conversation, let him be quiet when he’s quiet, and help with small comforts. I try to find a place of inner quiet for his sake and my own. For other articles about my relationship with my brother since he was diagnosed with cancer, see Waiting for Another Dance and Soul Care in Hard Times.