Six weeks ago, my brother died.
For the last 3 years I’ve spent time with him in his steady decline due to ALS (Lou Gherig’s disease) for which there is absolutely, definitively no cure, or treatment. Yes, I’m sad. Yes, I’m in the throes of grief. A continuation of the swells of frustration I’ve fought in the preceding 36 months. But I’m at a strange calm with the magic borne from at least one man getting to choose the terms of his own death.
Why not write about this before? Nothing metaphysical. Protection from all the questions about how I’m doing, how my brother is doing, recitations of data and feelings that ultimately secure no leverage against what would happen and now has. But I have written about this in the only ways I know how. My brother, Chris, inspired my first novel. And the beginning of my third one. Everything comes in threes. Third time’s a charm. On the third day he rose from the dead. Trinity. But Chris is gone from this earth never to return, and I’ve been working out what’s still here of him these days.
I’ve already given the eulogy and I hope my life now gives testament that I am his brother. That’s all I can do. But how will I do it?
I got to be with Chris as they turned off the machines. As we define our own lives, how lucky we all should be to define our own deaths as he did. My response was one of mixed pagan religion and the grand old sentiments that help humans through. I told him I would remember him every time I petted a dog, or drove a truck, or did hard work. Whether he would look down on me or not, I thanked God for Chris’s part in making me. And I sat with him. And I sat with him again in his last breath.
What I know about death is that I’ve seen it. Part of me feels more like a man because I’ve been there. In many ways watching someone die, the whole thing, is horrifying. But mainly the journey beforehand. Chris knew that his life of breathing and eating artificially, with no muscle movement, was not life. And so when it came time to move on to the unknown it wasn’t as difficult for me as I had thought. So in other ways it’s captivating. I can’t say he had no fear. But he had no regrets and the light of having realized peace broke through the windows of my hardened heart and made me see the things I couldn’t see before, or at least the silhouette of them. And now when I talk to him, knowing he’s not here, and handle his belongings, knowing he can’t use them anymore, I see that his own silhouette has joined the others when I force myself to look toward the things I can’t know. As I typed this, the sun has magnified through the glass corners of my office, shining onto these words, shining onto me. It’s just that type of Minnesota winter day when the sun is in its position, but now I move into how I will get through it all.
Those who do not believe in God must have it easier in some ways. They must find that there’s no wild overarching power to blame for death. Death comes to us all in different ways, but inevitably. I’m caught between it is what it is and why is it? I’m old enough now to not expect answers. I might even be wise enough now to not ask the questions. But if there’s a way to live without thinking about how we die, I’d like to know. The double-edged sword of humans’ advanced intellect. Work hard and play hard. Love gloriously and mourn ourselves into the abyss.
I’ve come to see that the hardest part about my brother dying is not getting what I want. And the hardest part about that is seeing that I have built too much of my theology on it. We only get what we want when our wants work in tandem with what life really is. There are many absurd explanations of why bad things happen, but they happen nonetheless. We project all kinds of well-meaning but invented ideas on God’s character. But what is left for me to grasp now is grounded in the words of a good friend, referencing Martin Luther, that there is a dark side to God – the hidden God. Not that the part is there for us to find in some capricious trick, but that we can’t know. So what do I say? What do I do? I think. I feel. I study, looking for what theological answer I can which of course does not come because, as a saying goes that I read in a picture frame in the hallways of Chris’s last facility, “The heart has reasons that reason knows nothing of.” On any given day that has Hallmark card written all over it. But in the campaign of human suffering and clarity of what it means to be alive, words like this stand truest when they need to. And they have to.
What I know about death is-not that it took my brother-but that my brother took it when it was his tragic, unreasonable time. Part of the classic grieving process is bargaining-that if I do this I want to get that. And it doesn’t work. But I now turn the bargaining into commitment: that I will see Chris’s death, and raise it with my own life. That no loved one who’s dead wants the living to be consumed by it to spite life. I can’t know what’s ahead, and what is behind has already happened, but I don’t believe in the shackles of timeline. Each day we wake with a paradox of life and death confronting us and one might just as well happen as the other – but we’re here. And we have choices. And regardless of what they are, we must make them: and that is what remains after we’re all gone from this earth.
Anybody is complex, but what we do is simple. Chris was a caring brother and son, and the most responsible person I’ve ever known. He served in the U.S. Air Force and worked his way up to Staff Sergeant working on classified intelligence projects. He was a race car driver who ran dragsters in several states. He felt the life-death paradox regularly. What we have left of him is memory and the assurance of nothing but mystery, but life is better with some assurances. So take them as you see them and make your move. Such is life.
For friends, family or anyone who wasn’t at Chris’s Celebration of Life, it was truly a day of celebration as he wanted it, with the warm sun shining, the Air Force detachment presenting the flag to my mom and giving military burial with honors, and a large group of loved ones gathered at our family ranch with good conversation and 4-wheeler rides. This is the video I put together to honor him: