My brother’s guest house is Spanish-style, like the main house. It sits back behind the pool area next to beautiful, green grass. The inside of it looks like a cabin you would find in the mountains; blonde wood covering the walls, Indian rugs on the floor, a small bedroom with a single bed, a lovely bathroom and a small kitchen with a retro-looking, turquoise fridge.
There are pictures on the walls; one of my dad’s Junior High class. He’s in the upper left corner with a wry grin on his face. Next to that is the framed menu from the deli my grandfather owned in the late 50’s. There are photos of my brother and sister-in-law at past jobs, pictures of dogs who aren’t around anymore, framed mirrors, and many books. The bedroom holds a lamp with a lovely shade and fresh linens in a wicker chest.
This is the house where my cousin came to die.
In his early 20’s my cousin battled and beat Hodgkins Lymphoma, and changed his life. At the time he was a stoner, a surfer, and a punk. When he was well again, he became a vegetarian, a staunch supporter of vitamins, and a very hard worker. After years of building houses and work as a general contractor, he went to school to become a chiropractor because he wanted to help people who were in pain. He practiced in that field until last November, when he was diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer. He had just turned 59.
My cousin is only 11 years younger than my mom, by virtue of her sister being 13 years older than she. My mom fell in love with him the second he was born, and always looked at him more as a younger brother, than a nephew.
He fought this cancer valiantly, doing all he was told to do and believing with all his heart that he’d be back to work by now. He charted his calories, making sure to take in at least 2000 a day, so as not to become weak. He walked, he checked his Vitamin K intake, he dealt with the nausea and the frustration of chemo.
Two weeks ago it became clear that his fight was over, and my brother and sister-in-law immediately offered their guest house, it’s bright skylight and cheery decor a welcome change from the hospital he has been in and out of, and the village apartment the hospital provided so he could be close to chemo. A welcome change also from the apartment he still rented over an hour away from where we all live. My brother and sister-in-law invited my cousin to their home to die close to his family in the San Fernando Valley where he grew up.
Today I was there a lot. I went back tonight and sat on the couch next to the hospital bed that hospice set up. A caretaker and hospice nurse were there, checking vitals and monitoring his breathing, which is slowing. I pulled a book from the shelf and started reading, “My Name is Asher Lev”. The first 20 pages were depressing as hell, which actually seemed appropriate.
Watching my cousin die is different from watching my dad die a year ago. I don’t know if I can describe all the ways it’s different right now, but maybe someday I will. I feel like a bit of a veteran now. It’s all less scary, but not any less surreal. My cousin is not letting go as easily as my father did, and I know he has his reasons for that. I can’t imagine what my mom feels, watching her nephew, her brother, leave. Their relationship is special. He even told me so on Tuesday.
I am amazed by the generosity of my brother and sister-in-law. It’s a big thing they’ve done. Their kids, who are 10 and 13, are finding it difficult and sad, but they knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was the right thing to do. My nephew moved his drums out of his space and my niece hung a big sign on the wall welcoming him there.
Death is an interesting thing. I’m starting to see it as just one of the many phases of our lives. It is inevitable. It will come. There is great beauty in it. And great sadness.
I listened to an Adele song on the way home tonight, because nothing beats a sad song when you’re blue. I know I’ll always remember this time, this sadness, and this beauty. I will carry it with me like I carry my father, but in a different place. And I promise I will be even more grateful, even more joyous, even more aware of all of the bounties of life.
This is it, folks. Use it well.
I wrote this post Saturday night, three days ago. My cousin lost his battle at 1:30 this morning. Or maybe I should say he won the war. It was the first time in six days that there was no family around him sharing memories, crying, or laughing. I’m positive he waited until it was just him and the nurse. He hated being a bad host, as he told me many times on my visits with him over the last year.
Funny thing: Until he was diagnosed, I only saw my cousin about two or three times a year, on birthdays or holidays. He lived over an hour away and worked crazy hours, six days a week. Since he got sick, I saw him at least once a week, usually more. I think we learned a lot about each other over the last year.
He told me at least three times in the last month to be grateful and thank God every single time you wake up healthy.
I hope your journey is a beautiful one, Bill. I hope you’re surfing and that you have ten big dogs. I hope you get to see your dad and Grandma and my daddy. I promise I’ll remember to be grateful. Every day.
To my readers: There is no need to say you are sorry. I am more happy for my cousin that he is free of his pain, than I am sad. I know this will be hardest on my mom and on my cousin’s sister. For the rest of us, we will miss him dearly but we feel blessed for all the time we spent with him since he was diagnosed, and we are so glad he is out of pain. I mostly wrote this so you could use his advice and be grateful for your health, your family, and your time.