Saturday, September 20, 2014

Thoughts on a life well-lived

I've been simultaneously craving and dreading writing this.  I know it is going to be hard and as so much of my life feels hard right now, I've been avoiding it.

But today, I feel ready.  I am not sure why but I do. I hate to be the cloud that casts the shadow over your bright weekend is what it is.  Read it and weep.

I meant that as a joke.  It's a bad one, I know, just add it to my tab.

Last weekend we buried my brother John.  He passed away on Tuesday, September 9th from complications of a blood infection, which was really just a complication of his leukemia.

John fought hard to live, hard to beat his disease, even until the very end--no one could fault him for how hard he tried--even though the ending is not the one we typically associate with people who fight hard.  Truth be told, I always thought of John as a little lazy and I was never more happy to be wrong.

We dressed John in his favorite shirt, this shirt that I bought for his birthday last year:


We played John's favorite song, this song:

Which was so strangely fitting, it's almost as if he planned it.

My best friend Gwendolyn said the funeral smelt like bacon.  Maybe John planned that too.  Or maybe the church ladies were just cooking ham.  Either way, I am sure he loved it.

My family has always been so close.  I loved John so much, but more than that, I liked him.  He was one of my best friends. He was one of my brother Scott and sister Genny's best friend.  And to my brother Isaiah and Jeremiah, he was their best friend.

On that day, my family stood as a strange new body, with limbs missing, and new limbs added. But we were together and each appendage supported the other.  Even though the shape was different, the frame remained. It may take us a long time to become accustomed to this new anatomy--our new family--and maybe we never quite will, but at least we know now that as long as we are together, as unraveled as we may be individually, together we are still cohesive and strong.

In the days since, if I am not careful, my mind will wander to dark places, fixating on everything that John will never experience, on how my family will never be the same, on how I will never be the same.  Because really, it's all about me.  It always is.

But then I remember how we were on that day. How my brothers Scott and Jeremiah gave such beautiful eulogies for John. How Moses was a pallbearer and rarely left my side. How my brother Scott's girlfriend Katie comforted him and stood among us as a sister. How my older sister Genny was so graceful in chatting with guests for those of us who could not (me) and in helping my parents and siblings, quick to soothe with a touch or embrace.  How my parents, in the midst of catastrophe, could still only be gracious and kind to everyone, consoling their children and each other despite their own heartache.  Readers, the full church that days stands not only in testament to my brother, but to what a difference my parents make in so many lives.

When I remember this, I cease lamenting what will never be and begin celebrating all that is and was. Because John led a good life. He was a good person, so loved by his family, friends, classmates, and teachers.  It hurts my heart that he will never get to experience what it's like to fall in love, have a career, have a beer, have a family of his own, travel the world...but he loved being home, he loved playing videogames, drawing and watching the food network.  He got to live the life that he wanted, however briefly. And he will experience all of those other things through us.  Anytime, I try something new or go somewhere new, I will think of John.  I will do it for him.

I don't ask why this happened.  It just did and I'm not so arrogant as to assume that me or my family are immune from such a tragedy.  And I'm not angry.  Of all the emotions I've felt over the past couple of weeks, anger is not one of them.

How can I be angry, when I was privileged to have John in my life in the first place. How can I be angry when the family I still have is so incredible. How can I be angry with the constant, love, support, and affection I receive in daily texts, cards, phone calls, emails, and gifts from my amazing friends.  How can I be angry when this has happened to so many other people, many of whose's losses were more traumatic and their safety nets more thin.

For the past eleven years, when people have asked me how many younger siblings I have, I've always answered, at times haltingly, at times boldly: I have four younger brothers.

I am still going to say that.

Because even though we've lost John, I have his picture on my nightstand and some of the funny t-shirts I bought him in my closet. Every night, before bed, I look at that picture. Every morning when I get dressed, I look at those t-shirts.  Every time I hear a funny joke, I think of John.  He is still and always will be with me.

So I leave you now with two things.  The first is my (in many ways) unphraseable gratitude for all of you who prayed for John or who sent me or my family their well-wishes in whatever form that took. One of the things I've learned from this is that when someone loses a loved one, worse than saying the wrong thing is saying nothing at all.  I didn't always understand that, I would think: words fail here, what I can I say that will bring comfort?  I was wrong to think that.  Acknowledging it, letting the person know that you love them or are thinking of them, is enough.  So for all of you who have done that, I thank you from the very bottom of my humbled heart.  And for all of you reading this who have experienced a loss, I am so very very sorry.

The second, is the eulogy I wrote and gave for John.  In some ways, this best expresses what I feel about this and him.  Everyday, I do my best to take the advice I give here.

A Eulogy

My brother John would want me to keep this as short and as funny as possible.

Well, Johnny, I am not sure I can manage brevity or humor today but I will do my best. 

When I first started writing this, my thoughts were so scattered.  There was so much I want to tell you about John.   So many memories I wanted to share.  How could I possibly do him justice?

Then I realized that a complete portrait of a person is really just a compilation of small, even seemly insignificant details.

Like how when John was a child, he had forgotten how to smile, so there was a brief period where every picture of John looked like this:

I did an impression of this at the funeral.  It was pretty epic.

Like how sweet and affectionate he was when he was little; how generous he was in tolerating endless hugs and kisses from a certain older sister.  Who shall remain nameless.  Spoiler alert, it was me.

John would also probably interject here: you were so sweet when you were little, what happened!

Like how he would often sit down next to us, while we were reading or doing our homework, sigh audibly and say: “I’m SO bored.  I WISH someone would play with me.”  And we would all roll our eyes and, usually, oblige.

Like how we would play hours upon hours of Nintendo 64 Mario Party over the summer with my brother Scott and our neighbor Mason.

Like how when he met my fiancĂ© Moses, he was seven, and called him “Mo” and proceeded schooled him halo.

Like how he could do the best impression of Christian Bale’s Batman.

Like how when I first moved to California and was often homesick, I would come home for winter break and one of my favorite things would be to fall asleep to the sound of John playing Arkham Asylum.  (One of his favorite video games because “it captured Batman’s sweet fighting skills better than any other game.”)  There was something strangely comforting about just knowing my little brother—who I missed terribly when I was away—was there in the room with me.

Like how when he was little, he called me bloopy and I called him snoopy and we would randomly sing “Do you know the muffin” together ad nauseam.  When he was sad once—I can’t remember why—I once played it for him on the piano in a minor key to make him laugh.

Like how excited I was to learn of our shared love of the food network and shows like “Chopped.”  We would often stay up late together watching it, debating who would get kicked off next, scoffing at the comments of some of the harsher judges (ahem, like Scott Conant), guessing what the criticism of the contestants dishes would be, discussing what we would do differently if we had to cook with those ingredients.

Like that one time, when he and Scott told me of their ideas for the story line of the new Star Wars movies that didn’t totally disregard episodes 1-3 but presupposed they consisted of false memories Anikan had been given by the emperor. Anyways, Scott would be more than happy to explain it to you.

Like that one birthday of his that he got sick from eating too many ribs or that other birthday of his when he accidentally ate something with peanuts in it and fell asleep early from having to take Benadryl.

Like how whenever all of his siblings were home, John would say: “so what are we doing?” And usually talk us into playing a board game or watching a movie.  Yeah, things hadn’t really changed all that much from the days of I wish someone would play with me…

Like that one time, when my siblings were playing Settlers of Catan and John had a surplus of sheep and named them all: Dorothy, George Sheepingtons…

Like that other time, when I was visiting for the first Easter since I had moved to California and we stayed up all night, laughing, and playing Taboo together. I didn’t want to end; I didn’t want to leave.

Like how at different points in his life he wanted to be an artist, chef, and a stand-up comedian.

Like how one summer, my brothers and I hiked the trails of upper Treman in the rain and John complained the whole time.

Like how proud I was of him whenever I watched him interact with our younger brother Isaiah: he was so kind and patient with him, even though Isaiah annoyed him, as younger brothers often do.

Like how proud it would make me to hear stories of John befriending kids with special needs and would sit with them at lunchtime, even when that wasn’t the coolest or most popular thing to do.

Like how when he was on chemo, he would stay up all night watching food network, and one night a couple of weeks ago, I stayed up with him and told him so many of those, you know, those things that you always think about the ones you love but don’t always verbalize: like how much I loved him and how strong I thought he was. I am really glad I did that.  It ended up being one of the last conversations we had.

This whole thing is just so terrible and shocking.  I can hardly believe that I am standing before you here now and telling you stories of my brother.  Every morning, I wake up and have to remember: this wasn’t just some dream, it happened.  It’s happening.

You see, and trust me, I realize how ridiculous this is going to sound, but one of the things I love about meerkats is the fact that their families had alloparents: older siblings who would help fill the role of parents when caring for the young.  John was 12 years younger than me and I felt so protective and maternal towards him and all of my younger brothers.

In situations like this, it’s hard not think about all the things that you wish were different:

I wish I could have shielded him from this.

I wish this hadn’t happened.

I wish that John hadn’t always had such a hard time with his health.

I wish that I could talk to him again and make him laugh.

I wish I hadn’t missed so many moments of his life.  I wish I had chosen to stay home more instead of going out with friends.

I wish that John could be at my wedding.

I wish that my children and nephews and nieces could know their funny uncle John.

I wish that I had gone to that stupid hobbit movie with John last year on what turned out to be his last birthday with us.

I wish that I could have seen John grow into the man that he was going to become.  Especially because the man that he was was already so awesome.

So here we are. In this strange new, unexpected placed. 

Even when John was diagnosed with Leukemia, I never thought it would come to this.  It wasn’t even a question in my mind: he was going to live.  Even when he was in the ICU this past week, I was so sure he was going to make it through.  I had so much hope.

So much of what we really know about death is what choose to believe about it:

I choose to believe in a heaven.

I choose to believe that John is there with my grandfathers and my grandmother.

I choose to believe that I will see him again one day.

I choose to believe that death is just the next great adventure.

I have no proof, no reason to believe any of this.  But, for me, it makes the narrative of life so much richer and satisfying.

The important thing, I think, in moving forward and learning to heal is to remember that love is a preservative.  Our love for John ensures that we will never truly be without him.

It is also important to remember that John was happiest when his family was together and laughing, especially if it was at one of his jokes.  So even though it may be difficult, even if our heart feel too heavy or our fuses too short, even though we don’t have his jokes anymore,  I think we should all try to be together and to laugh as much as possible.  For my sweet brother John.

Monday, September 8, 2014

An Update

Thank you to all of you who have kept John and my family in your prayers and who have sent me messages of love and support.  I cannot adequately express how much they mean to me.  This whole terrible situation has been humbling in the best and worst ways.  I say worst because I am human and it's hard to be humbled.  Especially like this.

I write today not only to thank you but also to ask that you please continue to keep John in your thoughts and prayers.  As many of you know, John (who was recently diagnosed with Leukemia), is currently in the ICU with a blood infection.  The situation is very serious but at least now there is the slightest flicker of hope and evasive as it is, I can not help but to latch onto it.

On Thursday, my siblings and parents all left our respective jobs and homes to be by John's side. His organs were starting to fail and they told us he might die.  But he lived through the night. They told us the same thing on Friday but more curtly and more directly.  This time there was no qualifier--it seemed a certainty. We all said our goodbyes.  But he lived through another night.

It's clear he's fighting like hell to stay with us.

On Friday, the doctors were speaking about everything in terms of minutes and hours.  On Saturday, they started speaking about everything in terms of days.  Now, they have started speaking about everything in terms of weeks.  I never thought I would be so happy to hear that my brother might have to spend weeks in the ICU.  But I am.

It's really all about time now and the longer he can hold on, the stronger chance he has at recovery.

So I must humbly ask you to please continue to pray and send positive thoughts to John.

It's clear they are making a difference.