Lessons I Learned about Life from Someone Approaching Death

“You were so polite,” I said to my brother Jerry as he hung up the phone from yet another solicitor.

Technically one of the three calls that weekend had been a survey, but regardless Jerry was very pleasant with the anonymous person on the other end.

“And why not?” He replied rhetorically. “They’re just doing their job.”

Of course they were.

I dropped my head and turned away as I fought back the cascade of tears welling up in my eyes, again! My husband, mother and I had traveled to Atlanta from Michigan to visit him.

[RELATED: Karla Sullivan, “What Caregiving Taught Me About Marriage”]

Jerry had scheduled some appointments for us earlier in the day to introduce me to “key people”: the bank liaison for his estate and his insurance agent. We also popped in the grocery store for a few things and consistent with his gregarious nature he chatted with the cashier, bank officer and waved at the mail lady.

Despite everything he had already and was still going through, he was the pillar of kindness and an amazing role model for everyone.

Our family had experienced devastating personal losses and crushing news since 2001. Married for more than twenty-five years, Jerry’s wife Wendie was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer, glioblastoma, on New Year’s Day, 2001. She lived only a month from diagnosis to death. Jerry’s world imploded with the passing of his beloved wife and despite my brother’s professions to the contrary, I’m convinced he never really recovered.

As the months passed, even under crushing emotional loss, my brother always projected an upbeat demeanor, camouflaging his inner hell. He never retreated into a cave of self-pity or wallow in depression, not that he wasn’t entitled. In time he even expressed hope that he would find another special lady. I wished that for him too.

But it was not to be.

Our lives–and consequently schedules–were fairly different, so we corresponded mostly by email. In late winter 2003, Jerry started alluding to “some news” but kept me dangling with innuendos and vague comments. Finally in early April, I was convinced he was up to something and pressed for more information. This time he wrote back, “I’ll call you tonight with the news.”

Then like a truck it hit me; he was getting married!

“That stinker,” I thought. I couldn’t wait for his call that night. I was so happy for him and simultaneously a little miffed he had been keeping “her” a secret.

“So what’s up?” I asked quickly when I saw his name on the caller ID. Jerry could ramble on forever so I hoped he would fast-forward to the punch line. He did.

“I saw my doctor today,” he said. “I have stage four esophageal cancer with perhaps a year …” I never heard the rest. I had gone from being so ecstatic for him to complete devastation in the three seconds it had taken him to tell me. Stunned. Shocked. Horrified. Words could not describe what I was feeling. And my poor brother! To have suffered Wendie’s loss and now his own impending demise was simply not fathomable!

[READ: Ashley Bornancin, “How My Mother Taught Me to Love”]

When the initial shock subsided, Jerry discussed his treatment regimen including chemo and powerful medications designed to wage war on his cancer’s destructive demons. As an Occupational Therapist with a strong medical background, I validated his positive efforts, but was very guarded about any likelihood of remission.

A year later in April 2004, our dad died from stroke complications. Our mother had been his selfless caregiver for nine years post stroke. Free to travel, she accompanied us on our trip to Atlanta.

Jerry’s ability to project an outward appearance of composure was remarkable. But beneath his façade of strength, lurked the insidious, proliferating cancer that had been stealthily cloaked by his grief. Jerry either ignored or couldn’t distinguish the symptomatology of his disease from the real physical pain caused by Wendie’s tragic death.

“How do you do it?” I asked him one time. To his blank look I added, “How do you project such a positive attitude with what you’re going through?”

He smiled and shared his wisdom.

Jerry died December 30, 2004. My husband and I were at his side when he took his last breath.

A few hours later, still very numb and fragile, we left Jerry’s hospice facility for the last time and stopped in a local restaurant for some dinner. Some details are still sketchy but I distinctly remember the how patient the waitress was as I struggled to talk or decide what to order.

[RELATED: Julie Brittain, “Only In Death, Did I Learn to Live”]

In the schema of life and death, food was so trivial. We place such inordinate value on insignificant “things” sometimes. And then I smiled at her the way Jerry had smiled at me months before and remembered his reply.

Although truthfully, near the end, no one could look at Jerry’s completely pale, ashen face, distended abdomen and bald head, and not suspect that something was terribly wrong.

“Always treat others with kindness,” he had said. “You never know what they are going through. People can’t look at me and know that my wife died or I have terminal cancer. Always treat others with kindness.”

Regardless, his words ring true! I try hard to remember that when the receptionist is abrupt or the teller curt as I don’t know what they might be going through either.

(Photo Credit: blushface on Etsy)

About the Author

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Elaine Pereira retired in June 2010 as a school Occupational Therapist where she worked with special needs children. She lives in southeastern Michigan with her husband, Joe. Between them, they have five children -- Joe has three sons and Elaine has twin daughters-and soon-to-be five grandchildren. Elaine has a Bachelor’s Degree and Master's Degree in Occupational Therapy from Wayne State University. Elaine is the author of I Will Never Forget and she was inspired to tell her mother’s incredible story in part to help other caregivers coping with memory loss issues in their loved ones.

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