As I get older unfortunately death rears its ugly head more than I would like to see.
Over the last few years the deaths of many of my friends and associates and family has almost become common place.
Some of those deaths have been handled with grace, others not.
During my tenure working with hospice, I saw, heard and watched many of the wonderful and sometimes miraculous happenings that occur at end of life. I have had the special privilege of spending time with patients when their families weren’t with them and it allowed me to observe and visit with dying patients in a very different way.
Sometimes, I noticed that family members or friends were very comfortable while their loved ones decline into the sunset of life. These same family members were also very comfortable with what their loved one was experiencing. Others are very troubled with the experiences of their family member. I realize there are many reasons for this discomfort – sometimes it relates to traditions, or family culture or childhood experiences with death.
There is one behavior that always affected me and still does when I observe it, and when I see that behavior I just want to grab the family member, hug them and say, “Hey, it’s alright. You still have a chance.” You don’t have to feel guilty anymore, there still is time. There was a special look that families who were experiencing this pain had. I’m talking about that look associated with guilt. That look that a family member or friend expresses at the end of a loved one’s life that says I feel guilty, because I never took the time, or I was too busy or I was too angry, to visit or to say you’ve always been an inspiration to me and I love you.
I know this feeling because I have experienced it myself.
I did not grow up in a family that was very demonstrative. I have one brother and two sisters and, of course, parents. But I can’t remember us ever hugging or saying, “I love you” to one another. We did and still do love each other. We just never have really showed it. To this day, I have a difficult time sending special occasion cards to my parents that are gushing with verses of love.
Interestingly enough, over the years I have become a very demonstrative person to my immediate family, to friends and even to perfect strangers. I’ve pondered what brought about this change. I’m sure that that main reason is that I am fast approaching an age where it is important that I start reviewing my life.
I mentioned above that I had a brother. My younger brother by five years died a few years ago of a heart attack, and while I truly loved him in my heart, I’m not sure I ever told him. He died instantly, and I never had an opportunity to tell him how I felt. I owned a newspaper in California and was living there at that time; he lived in Pennsylvania. Since I was the newsperson, the circulation person, the advertising person and the janitor, I was not even able to go to his funeral. That was as good an excuse as any, I thought, as I buried the fact that he was gone in my mind.
I kept that thought buried for some time, you see, because I was mad at my brother because he did not live up to the expectations that I had for him. I showed him my anger by not talking to him. But as time passed, I came to realize that the only person I was hurting was me and – quite possibly – my brother.
In spite of my efforts to keep it buried, I was tormented with the thought that I was a rotten older brother. I berated myself. I blamed everybody in my family. I looked for absolution. Then one day, I decided to write a letter to my brother.
The release I felt after doing this was tremendous. I felt a peace that I had not felt in years. Because of my experience, I try to always make time to tell someone that I care for him or her or that I love him or her. That’s why I wanted to hug the family members that came into to the hospice house with trepidation…, those family members who felt as I felt. I have met families that are struggling with the same issue since; one of them might be you. I want to explain that it’s OK because you still have time. Take the time now to make amends, to love your loved one or your friend. I want to encourage you to enjoy your remaining time together, even if it is spent in quiet just enjoying one another’s presence. I want you to reminisce, to laugh together. You can’t relive the past, so let it go and just “enjoy the moment” with your loved one and your heart will explode with happiness. You will forget past transgressions including the times that you didn’t take the time to give a hug or to say I love you.
In conclusion, I offer to you this letter that I wrote to my brother after his death. Use it as a reminder to tell your friend or your loved one how much they mean to you and how much you really care for them. Pick up that phone now! Write that letter now! You never know when it might be too late to do so.
I’ve meant to write this letter for years.
I’m sorry I didn’t; I guess I thought I was always too busy.
I remember when you were born. I was the king bee at age 5, and I was not happy about the loss of attention you caused me.
Soon after you were born, we moved from the big city to the country. I never quite appreciated our country living like you did.
It’s funny; I would give anything now to have that same life. I know you would have, too.
You thrived in that environment. I always wanted to be somewhere else.
I remember when I was in the Boy Scouts and we camped back in the woods behind our house, if I had to use the bathroom, I always came home. You dug that hole. I can still smell the fires and woods today. It’s a haunting smell. I’m sure you had remembered that smell, too.
When we were young I always thought that you were a pain and a bother. You always wanted to tag along and our mother always made me take you everywhere. Remember the time we were playing “Cowboys and Indians” and you were the Indian, and my friend Eddie and I tried to lose you? You were scared and began running wildly down the big hill in the woods. You fell and split your head open and carried a scar from that the rest of your life. Mother really let me have it for that one.
I’m sure you would remember. I was 10 and you were 5 and we were horsing around in the river. I noticed you were gone. Then I saw the sun glistening off that white-as-snow hair of yours as you were sinking below the water. I rescued you and I was so grateful that I promised the Lord that I would always protect you. Some promises are hard to keep, I’ve found out.
You probably didn’t know this, but I was jealous that you could always catch more crabs and swim faster and enjoy so much of what you had. I was never happy with what I had. I always wanted more. You were always content. You and I had different personalities. I learned to be a charmer to overcome my shortcomings. You didn’t. Two plus two was always four, no matter how you looked at it.
I always found a way, even if the answer was five or three or whatever.
I went through school ahead of you, and some of the mischievous things I got away with, you never did. I guess in comparison to a charmer and a straight shooter, the charmer always wins and I always did.
When we were older, someone told me once that you told them that I was your idol. I never thought that you might feel that way. The truth of the matter, Shawn, is that I admired you. I am sure you would find that amusing.
I loved sports. You were always the natural. You could use your hands to build almost anything. I still can’t hammer a nail straight. You could grow a mean garden. You had such natural abilities. You took life as it came. You had plenty of talents. You just never recognized them.
When we were teens, I was jealous again because the girls all loved you. On the other hand, I was always like their big brother.
As we grew older, I let you down as a big brother, but Shawn, I was just so disgusted with you because you didn’t take the skills you had and turn them into something that would have made you happy.
You chose other ways to make you happy. I’m sorry you did that. Because if you were really happy and content, you would still be here, then and I wouldn’t have had to write this letter.
I’m really sorry now that I didn’t see through my disgust and be a big brother to you.
I always thought I would have plenty of time to come to grips with our relationship.
You know, I really feel good that you are in a great place now and I know that you are fishing and crabbing and building and planting a beautiful garden and thinking good thoughts for all of us.
Now you have a chance to be the big brother and the opportunity to prepare the way, and I know you will do a great job.
I love you, and you will always have a place in my heart.
T. Pat Cavanaugh is the publisher of The News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org