Blues In The Sunset Of Life

 

Bobs grave

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

 

Advertisements

A Brothers’ Birthday

Birthday Thoughts  

(I wrote this to my brother to celebrate his birthday on 02/20/2015.  He is gone now, almost a year.  I miss my big brother.)

A firstborn son to loving parents.

Cuddly, cute with crabby cries.

Their only winter of discontent!

Brief it was, as they found their way

Together.

Doted upon and adored, the baby

Grew strong and happy.

Until his sisters came along.

But soon enough the toddler discovered

Sibling love.

A dynamic combination of emotions that evoke

Jealousy, joy, unbounded happiness and fears

The complexity of which sweetens the years

With loyalty, pride, laughter and tears.

*****************************************************

Dear brother,

Your teasing makes me stronger.

Your intellect makes me strive to be smarter.

Your dark moods make me want cheer you.

Your watchful eyes make me feel protected.

Your humor makes me smile.

Your critical tongue makes me try harder.

Your musicality makes me proud.

Your laughter makes my heart light.

Your relentlessness in this battle makes me admire you even more.

On this day, your birthday, I wish so much for you.

I won’t put them down to paper for fear they may vanish.

But you know what they are.

They are the same wishes that you want for me.

02/20/2015 – D. J. Heatherly

Remembering Without Knowing Irvin Pharris

 

Tears well up while polishing dry crackled wood on a magazine rack built by a grandfather I never knew.  How can this inanimate object built over 70 years ago effect my emotions this way?

Though I never witnessed his wrinkled brow in concentration while whittling, sawing or hammering, I do know he was a serious and solitary man who had creative talents in carpentry. I know that he was a man who loved his daughter, my mother.

This wonderful piece of wood was constructed with patience and caring. Was it his hope to please my grandmother Evelyn, who was never happy? Or did he need to escape from her to his workshop, to keep his sanity while she was on the verge of loosing hers? Evelyn married a man 20 years older, a railroad man. He was away a lot. She berated him often. She complained and was unkind to him. My mother shared stories about her childhood, raised under her mothers ridicule, a frightened little girl in an unhappy home hearing her parents fighting, and the loss of a daddy who was dear to her. He died in his 50s from complications of a stomach ulcer. Evelyn had an affair with his coworker who drove her to the Railroad Hospital in Chicago where he was dying. I only found this out recently, but I am not surprised. Evelyn was cold. She was never grandmotherly. I suspect she had a personality disorder but the family never discussed that, and that is another story.

Wiping wood cleanser on it’s ancient varnish to bring back its luster also brings back my own childhood. My earliest memories are of playing on the floor near this magazine rack, hiding my stuffed animals inside or using its wooden platform for my Barbie dolls to stand against, it was the perfect size for Barbie feet. However, as I approached my teens, I rebelled against it, mad that my mom insisted my sister and I dust all its crevices, along with all the other furniture, every Saturday.

Thinking about my mothers’ deep sadness makes me cry. She is gone now too. All I want to do today is call her, talk to her. I want to tell her again how blessed I am to have been nourished by her love. I want to hear her kindness flow over me and hear our laughing together while we share every little thing about our lives. I want to ask more questions about her daddy, which she referred to him as with a faraway look of longing in her eyes. I wish I had realized the significance of her sharing those stories when I was younger. I failed to grasp the hurt she endured since my own childhood and our family life was very happy.

This magazine rack is a root to our connection that I keep in a safe place in my home.  I keep my mom and her memories of my grandfather alive in my heart. This piece, as well as two chairs he built, are the only things that I have from a grandfather I never met. That, and the knowledge that my mother loved him so he must have been a good man. These pieces of wood created under times of hardship, furniture unknowingly left by him, are somehow a legacy of love to a granddaughter he never knew.

Irvin Magazine

Dead Wood

Under stagnant murky water
Lies an entire unidentifiable tree
Fallen at water’s granite edge.
Absence of motion
Bone-gray and dead.
Ugliness amid teeming algae
Deepens the cruelty.
I ponder this tomb.
My skin crawls.
An organic phenomenon leeches life
From the lifeless
Life is gone while life carries on.

>Jack

>White as the snowfall of that joyous Christmas

He entered our young family

Petted, kissed and cuddled

He dozed in our arms

As we all took a stab at naming him.

He was carefully passed around

The kitchen island

Along with the bottle

That he was named after – Jack!

Jack – a strong name for a solid fellow

Would grow to be a faithful friend.

The happiest member of the clan.

Always at the ready to offer a greeting

From his earliest years of generously

Jumping on top of guests with

A full body hug –

To his more mature years

Showing huge affection

Too well-trained to jump up,

Instead, showed a more refined joy

With his entire body wagging,

Always with that happy face

Smiling sincerely at you.

Constant companion, always nearby.

Underfoot in the kitchen,

Discretely in wait for a morsel to fall.

Resting attentively in the foyer

Guardian of his family

Our gentle giant

Had a secret desire to be a lapdog!

Jack’s favorite place was with his family

A poolside party or bonfire where

He could garner affection, food and preferably

A lap to sit on!

That young family who giggled at his puppy pranks

Who grew up together

Strong, solid and so very loved.

Has entered a new phase.

And is now a sweet memory, savored often by all.

As is our dear friend, Jack.

In memory of Jack – Great White Boxer. Losing an aging pet is very hard on many levels. First is the sadness of loosing a dear friend, a member of your immediate family. Also, we are reminded of now fleeting the years go by, and of how fast the chapters of our book is turning. Growing older. 

D. J. Hall (03/16/2009)