This evening and tomorrow the family will mark the seventh anniversary of the dying of my firstborn brother Dennis. We’ll light candles and congregations will join us in remembering him.
Two weeks before he died Dennis underwent elective surgery. I wondered if the surgery was wise. Dennis, whose life’s creed was hope, assured me: ”Doff, this operation can eventually cure diabetes. It will transform my life.”
We spoke daily on the phone – he from his hospital bed, I from a hellhole town in the deep Kimberley. Day by day Dennis seemed to be doing well. But on day four he told me: ”I’m OK but my belly hurts”. A belly ache bad enough for stoical Dennis to mention was bad enough to alarm me.
Day five, no phone call. That day the pain was worse. Dennis collapsed, his circulation failing as his abdomen filled with blood and stomach acid leaking from his wounds.
At his bedside in Intensive Care the following day we counted the tubes entering and departing Dennis’ comatose form. One into his windpipe to make him breathe; a second into a great vessel to deliver information; a third to bypass his kidneys which had failed; a fourth to drain his bladder; a fifth and sixth into peripheral vessels to deliver fluids and the hero molecules that just might save him.
The greater the number of tubes in a patient’s body, they told us, the lower the chance he would leave ICU alive.
I sat at his bedside and I watched my brother. Behind the clicks and gusts of his life machines swelled the sounds of classical music. Annette, his loving sister-in-law, thought to play that music, those patterned sounds that ever soothed his troubled breast.
I sat there and watched as nurses, tender or tough, kept my brother alive. The tough ones, resentful of something – were we too many, was this medical brother too medical, that sister too exacting, that aged mother too accepting? – made me feel small, in need again of a big brother.
Dennis turned the corner: blood pressure held firm, sleeping kidneys awoke, fewer molecules were needed. The doctors conferred and announced: “We’ll let him wake up now and breathe on his own.”
Dennis breathed and slept on. We all breathed, went home and slept.
At four in the morning my phone rang. A crepitous, rustling sound, a broken voice in windy gusts: it was Dennis: “Doff, they want to njjhrnnujicxvclbkvn”
“Den, I can’t hear you. Say it again.”
Gales and crackles and Dennis’ voice in fragments: “Doff… inaudible… they…unintelligible…the tube back in.”
“Den, are you saying they advise you to go on the respirator again?”
More gasping, a desparate heaving of voice: “Yes!” More gasping. “Is it a good idea?”
“Den, it’s your best hope. Say yes.”
That was the final phone call. Dennis and I never spoke again. By the time I reached the hospital Dennis’ coma was renewed, the respirator breathing for him. Soon his circulation collapsed again, the doctors tried heart-lung bypass (“It’s only ever been shown to work in children. It’s your brother’s last hope..”) and on the eve of Shabbat Dennis died.
I can speak or write of Dennis dying with a composure that surprises me. Even my fatal advice does not trouble me. Perhaps it was not the dying of my big brother, but his living, that calls to me and troubles my dreams.