If you follow, you know that my sister-and-law, Jackie, and my younger brother, Donald, died suddenly this year from heart attacks within five months of each other. Like everyone, I’ve lost other family over the years, including my parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, but they were fairly spaced out, the way death should be.
Too, Sonny, my closest-aged brother, was ambulanced to the hospital weeks after Donald passed. He still can’t fully feel parts of his body, yet they wouldn’t call it a stroke. And then, two months ago, my oldest brother, Joe, suffered a ruptured aneurysm days before his sixtieth birthday.
Thankfully, he is still here and remarkably okay, except for the pin inside his head.
Sonny’s exasperated prayer says it best: “Dear God, please leave our family alone.”
I mean, seriously. We’ve been through it and I’ve barely to come to terms with this crummy streak, so I’ve avoided writing about it. Maybe I didn’t want to rehash news that out of five siblings, I was almost the sole survivor. Maybe I didn’t want to jinx Joe’s miracle either. Maybe it was a silly effort to recover by continuing to create and believe.
Still, I remember the way the news about Joe that day almost ruptured my heart. It rushed into me, cryptic and cruel. It rushed in after the fact, from my niece, because I couldn’t be reached when it was happening. Uncle Joe’s in the hospital. Ruptured aneurysm. Brain surgery tomorrow. Oh my God. She said some other things I will never remember as I was trying to recover from the first things.
Plus, I wanted to hear it from the source and I couldn’t. Most of the time I am trying to break up with my phone—turning it down, turning it off, losing it—but it dents you to miss a call from your sibling or their spouse because one is fighting for his life and the other one is waiting.
I couldn’t raise my sister-in-law, Anita and, of course, I couldn’t raise Joe, although I stupidly left a message on his cell phone anyway, I’m praying for you. Call me. Several times, I phoned Anita, the warrior queen who has been married to my brother for three decades, knowing she was in a hospital cell phone dead zone or waiting until she had something conclusive to tell me. I’ve loved her no-nonsense communication style until this time.
I couldn’t sleep, so in the wee hours of the night, Google taught me what I never wanted to know about ruptured brain aneurysms and the prognosis sucked. Cognitive failure, loss of motor control, impaired vision and memory. Death. But it hit me in a flash that Joe is stubborn and I am stubborn, and we have spent our whole lives defying odds. That ended my research, made me get offline. My heart wanted a happy ending, so I decided to disregard the doom-and-gloom piled into my head and focus on full recovery.
It wasn’t easy.
I’d already called my prayer warriors. They pray loud and big. They are not afraid of aneurysms and they got to praying.
Often, I’ve believed in my Touched-By-An-Angel way that when you cook up this kind of energy, especially as a group; what you ask for is given. Jackie and Donald left so quickly, but we boldly assumed we still had a chance with Joe. Because I am human and practical, I also packed my smallest travel suitcase and hid it in the back of my closet.
Three thousand miles away from him, the next morning, I woke feeling meditative calm. I put on raggedy overalls and went straight to my garden. The garden he’d been coaching me by phone to create since I bought this home five months ago. A self-taught master gardener, Joe loves gardening and I love him, so I thought it best to connect there.
In grassy, fresh earth, I knelt in my front garden bed, a bed not there when I moved in. I heard his instructions clearly in my ear and thought about how proud he was going to be when he saw it.
Fight, King, fight. I chanted, because his middle name really is King. He was a football star in high school, boxed in the Airforce, and in general, has warrior blood, so I sensed he would appreciate this over tears and worry.
Feeling him flanking me in spirit, I went to Home Depot later for more mulch and found some Japanese grass too, which complimented the wine and chartreuse colors in my garden. I expected an update on his condition every time I took a break, but, the surgery was epic. It still boggles my mind that a neurosurgeon was inside his brain for eleven hours.
I carefully finished weeding, pruning and installing the new plants. No word. I made lunch and then cut the grass. It is a half-acre lawn, so I do it in two-parts. While I was pushing my little mower, I pictured Joe riding around in his tractor lawn mower, farmer-like, and laughed.
Fight, King, Fight.
Lots of phone calls, but none from my sister-in-law Anita. I prayed for her too, ashamed it was so belated. He was my brother but her life partner and she had to be feeling like a Picasso painting.
When she called that evening, the first thing she said was, “Your brother’s okay. He’s still in ICU, but I went in there and woke him up just to make sure he recognized me and he did.”
The next morning, she called from his phone. His baritone was scratchy and a few octaves deeper. Some words slurred, but he seemed solid. Other than my name, my favorite words are ‘Mom’ and ‘Sis’. I could distinguish them in a storm. He called me ‘Sis’ over and over, describing what he’d been through as if it had happened to someone else. Tears of joy rolled down my cheeks. He was okay.
I told him about my prayer vigil in the garden, and he murmured, “Thank you. Did you put the Preen down?”
“Yep,” I said and couldn’t stop smiling. He was still there, according to my brief cognitive test.
“Bet it’s beautiful.” His mouth suddenly sounded full of rocks, but I ignored this.
“Yep, I’ll send you pics.”
“I want to see for myself. I’m still coming.”
Wait, what? I froze. He’d been due for a July visit, but someone had just been digging around in his brain.
“No, I’ll come there, Brother. You can’t travel.”
I heard that stubbornness starting to flare, so I dropped it and he dropped it and we limited ourselves to miracle-celebrating chat. I told him I already sent his birthday gift, but he was getting an extra one this year for staying alive.
He chuckled and said his head hurt. No kidding, I think and heard an extra person ask if he needed more morphine. “No, that stuffs addictive,” he grumbled. “No more.”
I exhaled again.
I wanted to go to him. He wanted to come to me.
Over the past few months, he has been fighting his way back to health like a champion. Uncharacteristically, letting others take care of him, doing PT and puzzles, resting, going for follow-ups with the surgeon, getting back to work, but even when he told me he’d been clear to travel and was coming, I could not write this until I had put my eyes on him.
I could not write this until I saw the king who is my brother in person, beside me plucking ripe blackberries from my backyard for the cobbler Anita would bake and we would later eat warm from the oven, looking out at my garden. We were always this. Enjoying simple things with great joy. Together.
My finished front garden bed
We only had one bump during his visit. At a museum Marvel exhibit, he stepped away to take a call. His voice was low and serious, which only made the professional eavesdropper-me kick in. My hearing became supernaturally clear as I suspended all other sounds to focus on his steady baritone. When I heard “seventy percent” my questioning mind went on a skittish ride over a waterfall. When he finished, I didn’t ask the question for a whole two minutes and then it was just an echo. Seventy percent? He raised an eyebrow in that Spock way, sensing I expected an essay answer, but he takes his coffee strong and his self-pity mild and can say so much with a few simple words.
“I sleep more, my energy wobbles, but I’m okay, Sis. I’m here.”
When I first saw him, he looked like he had been through something, but it also looked like jet lag. He sports tasteful, lightweight hats in summer, so I didn’t see The Scar around his hairline until he showed me.
There is no permanent damage. He is lucky and we are all grateful, but I want 100% for him although 70% makes sense right now.
Still, I stare at him protectively like I am the eldest.
“I am okay, Sis. I just worry more about people I could leave behind.” A little tear forms in my heart. Through his consistent, unceremonious thoughtfulness, he has already given us more than enough.
I tell him to stop and add I mean it. Okay, he lies. Then, we sit in appreciable silence, shoulder to shoulder. I sneak a look at him. All of our faces are different composites of our parents so none of us really looks like each other, but Joe looks most like mom. When I see her in his eyes this time, like a ghost-angel, I ask her to take the worry from him. And from me too.