Death visited my family again.
And it is the way it always is.
From broken hearts rose a common commitment to tend to the primary.
In this case, my little brother, Sonny, who lost his wife, Jackie, to a heart attack at fifty-three.
We are a strange lot, my family, but at the core resourceful, big-hearted warriors who carry on; our high honor paid to those lost.
I am 3,000 miles away and yet when I spoke to Sonny, since he sounded about four—vulnerable, emotional, unsteady—I teleported for the first time. The goal being to wrap myself around him, shield him from the aftershocks of the explosion that rides sudden death.
I did not mean to be unkind, but I asked him to tell me what happened several times, in several different ways; the way a short-circuited mind requires. He was trying not to cry, and then his voice cracked. I soberly stopped my own bawling to tend to him. It was his time to fall apart without worrying about taking care of me.
Early Sunday morning, she was having trouble breathing, he gravely told me in time. He called 9-1-1 and my oldest brother met him at the emergency room. During the fifteen minute ambulance ride Jackie was in good spirits and joked with the EMT that her husband was going to give her a good talking to when she got home about slowing her grind and taking better care of herself. At the hospital, they worked on her for mere minutes, and then a nameless hospital social worker trailed a nameless doctor to the waiting room and delivered the worst news possible.
Even 3,000 miles away, I felt him fall into my open arms. Despite never having any idea what to say about death, sudden or not, I am a great hugger, even through the phone. I threw out a prayer, paused and trusted that whatever words came next would dart straight from my heart to his.
Unexpectedly, after a deep round of sorries, stories about her poured out of me. Not then but now that makes sense, because he needed to cry, then he would need to sleep and what better lullaby than priceless memories of someone he loved for over two decades. The mother of his sons. His best friend.
I talked about her huge heart and easy laugh and how seamlessly she fit into our family. Insta-sister. Insta-aunt. Insta-daughter. I remembered how my mother, in her last years, would call Jackie AT WORK and demand fried chicken, greens and sweet potato pie and Jackie would say, “Mom, I’ll go home and make that for you after I get off work and bring it by. No problem.” Then I had to listen to my mother go on about how that woman could cook. She never asked me to bring her food. No ham hocks, no sugar, no fried anything, no way, she said shrugging off my heart-healthy dishes also designed to lower her raging blood sugar and cholesterol.
I remembered their wedding; the tears of joy misting Jackie’s face as she came down the aisle even though she said she wasn’t going to cry and ruin her makeup. I remembered how freely she placed each of my newborn nephews in my arms and walked away, without a helicopter mom bone in her body. I remembered holiday dinners and how she put up with my homemade pampering gifts which were always on display when I came to visit. I remembered how hard she loved my brother after invading his hard shell; how she made him a better man.
We have lost a mother, a father, a brother, aunts and uncles, cousins and I am not any better at consoling. In the days that pass I apologize for this. Tell him I love him, remind him to eat the meals the church folk packed into his freezer, and to resist his instinct to crawl back into a shell. To let the love hold him up. Grumbling, he agrees to the eating part, but at one point I suspect he is lying and get on my computer. In the midst of ordering Mexican for him, I hear rustling, his voice going in and out.
-What are you doing?
-Cleaning out her closet.
I say it gently but firmly. For a while, he will want to see his clothes still hanging beside her clothes. He will want her scent close.
-The pastor is calling he says, although he doesn’t click over.
-Oh. Do you want to talk to him?
-No, he’s calling about the service.
Already? I think, but do not say it. I want my brother to have a few more quiet moments to digest what has happened and get used to referring to his wife in past tense. I want his thoughts off thinking about which dark suit he is going to wear to the last place he will see her.
The rule in my head says the ones who lost the most get to call all the shots. That he gets to say when.
I want the pastors’ number, but what do I know? Jackie, or Miss Jackie, as Sonny often called her, was well-loved and people want to say goodbye and everyone does that differently.
If I believed in labels, I’d fall closer to Buddhist, so my idea of a funeral service is unrushed and personal without a whole lot of fluff, convention and expense. At best, it reflects the essence of the one gone.
Jackie was fearless, fun, loving, and genuine; someone most liked instantly and rarely forgot. If you ever heard her laugh, you’d swear it sounded like a crowd because she lived out loud. After the tears settled and in Sonny’s time, I thought we should see her out that way.
Beyond my little brother and nephews, my big brother and I talk lately about updating our wills, including instructions for disposal, and those dreaded DNRs which neither of us can seem to ink.
-We’re a cremation family, he says at some point, and I agreed as we shared a quiet, inappropriate chuckle.
-When it’s my time, I want to go fast too, not hang out in some vegetative state, I tell him and he chimes in with ‘Bet that’. More quiet, inappropriate chuckles.
If we had our way, we’d cremate without the embalming and viewing her people are asking for. We’d fly her ashes to her mom in California, lift glasses of whatever to her memory and take everyone to Disneyland and ride everything twice. Once for ourselves. Once for her.
But we don’t get to say. We support, comfort, pray and fill the needs and wishes that arise.
There is a fine line, still, between comforting and invading space of survivors. I am mindful of this when I call to ask Sonny about things. Not the remains or service, but his state of mind. Every time he seems a little more solid. Recovery will be a relentless wave and one day a long while from now, he will stand on the other side of their story and remember her without the burden of shock and grief.
Until then, we tend to the primary and remember Miss Jackie with love.