My brother died much like he lived, and it was not peacefully. Watching his final days of denial and dying, I wanted to help him get through it, which is much like I felt watching him living. Everyone’s life matters. Their death, then, matters too, which is why I write this on the one-year anniversary of his passing.
Growing up, my brother teased me in the typical ways an older brother annoys a sister. I mean, doesn’t everyone’s brother hang their Barbie dolls from trees? His feisty, funny teasing made me laugh some days and cry others. He seemed to thrive on making me anxious. He would say in an offhand way that my side profile was ugly or that I was dumb. Those remarks left a scar on my psyche. He was downright mean at times when we were young but I always held a tenderness towards him. I could sense vulnerability about him, especially when he was in one of his crabby moods. I absolutely looked up to him.
As a child in the 1960’s, every night I would fall asleep to the sound of laughter as my parents watched Johnny Carson. Their chuckles and talking brought a secure feeling to my little self. My sister and I would giggle in bed together feeling all was right in our world, while our brother was alone in his own room. Looking back, I wonder how that little boy felt. Did he feel relieved that he did not have to share a room with his younger sisters? Did he feel left out? We talked about this as adults, and he never let on that he held any resentment about how close my sister and I were, or that he felt left out. However I think at a young age, he coped with life by being independent. And perhaps the teasing was his way of acting out his feeling left out.
I watched him, and learned a few things from him along the way. I learned to appreciate his stubborn, sardonic wit. I suppose I picked up a bit of those traits too. It was his stubbornness mixed with his strength and sheer willpower that got him through a devastating diagnosis of stage 3 renal cell cancer. He was given a prognosis of six months. I remember hearing the panic in his voice on the phone when he told me the staggering news. I remember hearing his fear, but underlying that worried tone was also skepticism. His cynical personality made him doubt. And with that doubt he sought out other doctors. That six month death sentence extended to three years. Three years of Hell, but he was alive.
My brother came into himself in high school when he discovered the guitar. Self-taught, it came to him naturally. He was at ease and confident with a guitar in his hands. We loved hearing him perform, either casually around the table or playing a gig with the many bands he played in. He performed next to some of St. Louis’s finest – Tony Campanella and Marcel Strong. He even had an encounter with Nelly’s dad one night, who asked him to do an album with Nelly. It never came to fruition, but my brother’s talents did not go unnoticed. At his wake, a man I had not seen in 30 years, nor had my brother, told me that Todd Rungren was impressed with my brother when he heard him at Mississippi Nights. Bob was always proud to say he was a working musician, he took his art seriously. His musical growth never stopped, he constantly learned new cords, styles, and wrote songs. Music was his greatest love. After his diagnosis, and after his spinal surgery due to mets, he was depressed at the thought of never playing out again. He had a long painful recovery, and I am sure one of the things that got him through it was the need to be strong enough to hold his beloved Taylor in his arms. While he never performed publicaly again, he poured all his creativity into setting up a studio in his home where, he wrote and recorded his music. I miss watching him stroke his Fender, experiencing his total abandon while he manipulated those cords with so much expression on his face. I miss hearing his beautiful essence perform.
He had lived his life his own way. He had a star-crossed love at a young age, which he had to give up, followed by two doomed marriages. He gave them his best, and they selfishly took it. But he took from those experiences the inflamed emotions, which added to the gift of his musicality in playing the Blues. He told me his biggest regret was in not having a child. I weep now, thinking of that night. It was his ten years before his diagnosis, on his 50th birthday celebration. Everyone had left, it was very late and Bob was having “one more night cap”. It all came pouring out. His feelings of inadequacy, his bad habits, his exhaustion with work, his loneliness, his fears of getting older, his tears.
Nearing the end, hospice gave him a choice to go to a nursing facility or go home. He remained resolute in his fight and would not talk about his fate. Later that afternoon, he asked me what he should do. How does a person express to a loved one that they should accept their passing when they do not want to discuss death? So I remained vague. I told him that the outcome would be the same either way: That he would either rally or get worse. I told him he should be home, that Diana and I could care for him and he would be more comfortable. He arrived via ambulance. When he was being rolled to his bedroom he passed his hallway mirror and comically said “who is that ugly, old man?” He had become unrecognizable even to himself, but he found the humor in it. He was a skeleton, too weak to walk, oxygen deprived, but he was not ready to die.
My sister and I sat vigil day and night with our dear brother. He did not want us in the room with him “staring at him”. He did not want to talk. He did not need us telling him how much he was loved or seeing our tears. His oxygen levels were dangerously compromised and we knew it was only a matter of days, and yet he was still in warrior mode and could not accept dying. He was an atheist. I wonder if not believing in God makes the act, the thought of death, more incomprehensible.
We would look in at him lying there, so frail, alone and defenseless. We gave him a bell to ring when he needed anything. He did want much beyond cold milk, chocolate donuts and Xanax. Dad came over each day bringing milk shakes and meals and to see how we were all holding up. The final few days were very hard on dad but he would not show it. He and my brother had butted heads often. Dad had wanted him to go to Nashville and become of studio musician, Bob would hear none of it. Nashville was 90% country back in the 1980’s and my brother was born with the Blues and Funk in his veins. I wonder today how different my brothers’ life would have been had he taken his advice. After the death of our mother in 2009, they became very close. My brother was there for my dad, man to man, sharing his grief. Dad was there for Bob, soldiering through an unrelenting battle, watching every aspect of his son’s life wither away. I cannot even imagine how excruciating that was for my dad. Out of earshot of Bob, we discussed funeral arrangements and logistics of the house, even had a few laughs, which kept us all from becoming too emotional.
Bob became obsessed with his oxygen level and kept the monitor on his finger to see his level. It was pitiful. When his O2 dropped he would pass out. This happened often, and it had been for months, when he developed aspiration pneumonia. Now it was critical. The blaring noise of the television would tell us that his O2 had plunged as his index finger, always on the remote, remained pressed on the volume. My sister and I took turns in the middle of the night going into his room to turn it down. He would revive, and it would repeat all night long. Lying awake on the sofa, I felt guilty that I did not try harder to have a dialogue about the deeper meaning of death; however I was so apprehensive about his discomfort and his anger. He wanted his sisters with him but he could not share his exit thoughts with us. I prayed for his release. I prayed for his death to come soon.
On the morning of his death he growled at me when he noticed his milk and chocolate donut were missing. He had developed a sweet tooth to replace the scotch he had lived his life with. He had drifted off while eating, so I had removed it. I had taken his only enjoyment away. In his oxygen deprived mind he felt that if he could still eat he could still live. My poor brother, so afraid to give in. I told him I loved him. He said he loved me too. I made myself busy tidying things around his bed, hoping he would open up, however he was too exhausted to talk, raised his weak arm and waved me out of the room.
That afternoon, my sister and I were beginning to feel overwhelmed. We knew he did not want us to take care of his intimate needs, nor were we comfortable doing so. We called in hospice to offer advice. While we were meeting with the nurse in the dining room my brother was soundlessly taking his last breaths, with the music of Joe Bonamassa playing. I should have turned up that music! I hope he could hear it well. Music had always given my brother comfort; music was a place where his suffering would disappear. ‘Music is the moonlight in the gloomy night of life.’ – Jean Paul Friedrich Richter.
Bob was leaving us. I felt an immediate relief for him, as well as anguish. My sister cried out, “No!” She and I surrounded him with love. I stroked his head and told him it was okay. I told him that the song was over, that he had played it well, so well. I told him it was time to let go. I told him that I loved him. I told him that we would all miss hearing his music. I told him all the things I had wanted to tell him these past few days. I know he heard us as he drifted away. The nurse was at the foot of the bed observing his final moments. He was gone. I turned my back to walk out of the room to control my emotions. I heard a scream, and then laughter. The nurse had approached Bob with her stethoscope. He had raised his shoulders up quickly as if to lunge for her, then he laid back down. As I came back in the door I saw my brother give a lopsided grin, which then faded. He teased his sisters even at the end. Or was it a mere reflex of a dead man? I don’t think so. I believe my brother was ecstatic at seeing our dear mom again.
Six months later: I wake up sobbing from a dream. It is an exquisitely good dream, and yet sad beyond words, at the same time. In this dream, I am walking up to my brothers’ house. It is a summer night and the windows are open. I hear my brother playing his guitar – the song is a blues melody which had always touched a chord deep inside me each time he played it. He is in the battle of his life, worn out, yet freshly showered, and with a desire to create. Seeing him in this dream playing his guitar he never looked so good. I am happy and heartbroken at the same time. He sees my tears, gets up from his chair, walks over to me, puts his arms around me and tells me that everything is going to okay. He is reassuring me instead of me comforting him. Perhaps that is all I ever really wanted from him.
Donna J. Heatherly
April 13, 2018