Watching a loved one die a slow death is one of the most painful things a human being can experience. My brother-in-law, Bill, succumbed to lung cancer in February of 2008.
Five years earlier he and my sister, Barbara, rescued a 5 month old infant from a homeless prostitute. The child's biological father was in jail. They loved and cared for this child as no one else could have. Haley is now six years old and quite a handful with ADHD, OCD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder, all of which can be part of the ADHD symptomology.
In December of 2007 my sister and her husband finally had the money to legally adopt Haley. I will never forget the look of love and satisfaction that crossed Bill's face when he arrived home from his final hospital stay. He had come home to die.
He and I were alone in the living room that had become his bedroom. I held his hand and told him that he was such a good man and how much I appreciated him as a father for Haley and a husband to my sister. Bill began to cry and shake his head back and forth. In a voice filled with pain he denied my words. I asked him why he felt that he was not a good man. I'll never forget what he said, "I can't even take care of my own family."
I reminded him of the recent change in Haley's last name to his and how much he and my sister had given to this child over the years, how much they loved and sacrificed for her. This little family wasn't among the middle class, not even the lower middle class. They struggled for everything they needed. Bill worked two jobs so Barbara could be a full time mother to Haley.
The next moment after the shedding of tears is also one I will never forget. When I reminded him of the final formalizing of Haley's adoption, Bill stopped crying. His eyes moved to look upward at the ceiling and a smile of such peace, serenity and satisfaction transformed his face. He said two unforgettable words, "My daughter."
During the time that Bill battled this cancer, I wrote the following poems. I never shared them with him nor with my sister. I was afraid they might read into them something negative, something hopeless and that wasn't my intention. After Bill passed away I gave them to my sister. They speak for themselves. I need write little more.
MALEVOLENT CANCER dropped into their lives like a
METEORITE; but it did not bring with it Radiant Light.
Instead it brought an Atmosphere of DARKNESS, an uncalled for,
Unwelcome Roiling Entanglement with DEATH.
And the man found himself to be A WARRIOR as he took
Umbrage with this Immoral EVIL which Threatened
To transmute him from Life Into a Mortuary of Death.
He Advanced His Weapons of Fortitude and Strength.
THE WARRIOR who raised himself up from the Somnambulate
Numbness that comes from Death’s First Encounter.
CANCER, that foul fiend, that is Ingloriously Dishonorable,
Impersonally Murderous, and Brutally PILLAGES the
Body of THE WARRIOR who will Never Admit Defeat. CANCER
Contends with THE WARRIOR in a War of Attrition
That momentarily strips away from THE WARRIOR everything
Inconsequential to LIFE and THE WARRIOR becomes
A Toughened MAN who lives a LIFE made Lighter by
The Monumental Realization of the truer REALITY
Of Greater Priority to Those Grand Gifts not of Man’s Creation;
THE WARRIOR, with Guts of Iron and the HEART OF A HERO.
A Warrior in Death
He withstood the burden of his life in the face of death,
An Island of godless predation and wounded
Dignity. The author of Death wrote a requiem which would
Not be denied and life was not to be negotiated.
Those who loved him had to accept that all who live
Must eventually admit that the sense of human
Consciousness will inevitably be one of tragedy and the
Pain will pillage us of our desired misconceptions
Of Immortality. The horrifying truth will be so much more
Than we think we can endure. Mortality becomes
A distinguished Ancient dressed in Rags whose greater
Wisdom teaches us that we live in a delusional world,
With always a Future, when all we ever really have is Now.
Death will always unsheathe his sword and remind
Us of the truth - that our lives shall inevitably be the sum
Of the Monumentality of Human Disaster.
But, as long as we have Now one must see beyond the
Terrible, hideous affliction of our nature toward
Death, to the person we can be. Grief and Sorrow for those
Loved ones dead will be fresh each awakening.
Benevolent sleep will have been kind and offered us a
Brief respite from our sadness, it will have born our
Pains, causing them to recede like the outgoing tide of Sea.
Yet Now will intrude. We too must be A Warrior in Death.
The following poem was written for my sister. It was a horrible time. My husband, Bruce, and I had returned to our home so we could take care of some personal affairs. Had we known that Bill would pass away while we were gone, we never would have left. I still struggle with feelings of guilt. I should have remained with my sister, Bill and Haley. Barbara spent the final moments of Bill's life next to his bed, holding his hand.
She called me moments later. That particular memory is a blur; the images in my mind snowy like a black and white screen television with poor reception. Even the drive back to her home resides within the realm of the same obscurity. But, the time is captured in the following poem written for my sister. The first several lines were composed during that hellish journey.
Rubber eats up the road,
like time ate up a life,
and we travel
toward the pain that
will descend upon our shoulders,
as teardrops well and drip from
a quivering chin. Death is chimerical,
a fire breathing dragon
biding its time, greedy and
implacable, refusing to be
forestalled or attenuated by love. We
will witness the indescribable
grief that we cannot imagine.
It will swell up from
her heart and spill from her eyes,
blue as the lake that contains
all the tears ever shed for the loss
of one who has been
loved so intimately.
She will have wept with the
regressive changes in his body
as Death mercilessly consumed
all that he was in substance.
The tires carry us closer and closer
to this place of affliction;
I hold my breath and
pray for intrepidity
where she may be vulnerable.
As we draw ever nearer
to where I will find
her in anguish, my skin crawls
until it shrinks, drawing me
closer to my inner core from
where my endurance must come.
We find her brave and stoic,
yet tender and frail.
Her mourning is
private, but I know her
sorrow must have grown to
become the whole of her existence.
The house is weary
and lonely, something is
missing. We know
it is a life, a man
whose voice we wish to hear,
just once more, a hand
opening a door, feet walking
across the carpet, a television
for background noise.
There is the aroma of
brewed coffee, but the
table is missing a cup and
in place of his chair there is
one with wheels. Even the
living room has been
stripped of him; perhaps
this is a blessing and
a gift for fortitude.
She cries; I know;
she is my sister.
Heartbreak has not
changed her, my
Sister of Strength.
Even in heartache she laughs.
In the days that come and
on the loneliest of nights,
she keeps her composure.
But, I know she cries;
we share a Sisterhood.
She cries and the salt
is on the palate of my tongue.
I know; she cries, and
I absorb the tears.
Wounding sorrow makes
us marvel that life goes on in its
perpetual echo, seemingly
unaware of our wretchedness.
She cries; I know.
This final poem was written for my niece. Last Christmas, as she and I stood by the Christmas tree, Haley said the words that are written in this poem. My sister - who was sitting on the floor with her laptop - and I locked eyes and the moment became a long pause as though someone hit the right button to freeze the moment in memory. The poetry speaks for itself.
And, My Daddy Died
Her eyes, the color
of a summer’s sky,
gazed so innocently
into mine and her
thick blond hair fell
to her waist in a
cascade of curls,
as she stood before me
and told me something
of her world. “I
have three dogs, two cats,
a bird, Mommy, Cousin
Putz, Aunt Caryn, Uncle Bruce
and my daddy died.”
I felt her little hands grip my
heart when she said to me,
“Aunt Caryn, you say that,
what I just said.” A pause,
pregnant with pain, closed
my lips; my sister’s eyes met
mine until I, too, could say:
“Haley has three dogs,
two cats, a bird, Mommy,
Cousin Putz, Aunt Caryn,
Uncle Bruce and her daddy died.”
Her daddy saw her last Christmas,
and he struggled through mid
February; a child watched
her Daddy die. While Mommy
held his hand, she danced
at the foot of his bed,
not understanding that
he spoke his final words,
and someday she would say:
“And, my daddy died.”