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Laughing at Death
“There are no online reviews for hospices,” I said to my 79-year-old brother shortly after he announced he was stopping dialysis. Though we knew his decision made this the first day of the rest of his life, we both laughed. Jack had been hospitalized for months with pneumonia, serious heart and kidney problems. In his condition, I would have made the same choice.
Though we came from the same gene pool, we were very different. Jack was proper; I am bold. He was restrained and cautious; I’m impulsive and unguarded. He kept to himself; I have many friends. We’re both New Yorkers, but my brother was an Upper East Sider with a large tie collection; I live in the West Village, where you see more tattoos than ties. He’d never married and I was the closest family member. Dying unloosened Jack’s tie and allowed us to establish a connection that had long eluded us.
When Siri told me that there are 15 hospices outside of Manhattan, I snapped back, “I want one in the city.” She was no more helpful than Yelp or Google had been. Shouldn’t TripAdvisor include hospices in its listings? A palliative care nurse gave me the name of one in the city, letting me know it has only 25 beds. Was dying like everything else? Did you have to know someone?
When I contacted Haven Hospice, the woman on the phone assured me that within days, there would be a bed available for my brother. Hospice conferred normalcy on dying, though I pointed out to them that the exit signs seemed redundant. I’d brought with us spaghetti and Diet Coke, the two things my brother requested. A man who’d dined at fine restaurants everywhere in the world was now savoring minuscule amounts of soft foods. I fed him with a plastic fork. Beaming, he said, “This spaghetti is delicious. What is it?”
“It’s spaghetti to die for.” Instead of the wince I’d expected, he smiled. We’d given up trying to change each other. What he’d perceived as my flaws, he now appreciated, particularly when I dealt with his doctors. He told them, “My sister is my strength.”
Despite our differences, no brother was more devoted or generous. Jack had modeled how to be a loving and protective sibling. It was my turn to give back. We agreed to make his remaining days as much fun as we could. I bent the hospital straw the way I’d seen the nurses do and placed it in his mouth. After taking a sip, he let the soda slosh around on his tongue as if it were a grand cru. “How much Diet Coke did you get?” he asked.
“Six cans. For you, that’s a lifetime supply.” For the first time, he was enjoying my dark humor. “How about I interview you and I’ll read your words at the funeral?” He hesitated, but didn’t refuse. I opened the pad I’d brought, not sure what I would ask until I started. “Do you remember my first word?”
“Stop smoking.” Jack probably imagined I would scold him about not taking care of himself, as had been my habit, but I laughed.
“Are you afraid of dying?” I asked.
“No,” he answered. “Curious. I’d like to last another 10 years. You’re making it too nice for me. I can’t think of anybody going so peacefully.” Two days before Jack would die, as I was leaving his room, I heard him singing, “The sun’ll come up tomorrow.” I returned and we sang together.
I reached for my iPhone and played a song from our childhood home, the tearjerker, “My Yiddishe Mama.” “How are you not crying?” I asked.
“I’m thinking about what I want Mama to cook for me. Maybe gefilte fish.”
“I have bad news for you,” I told him. “I have her grinder.” That got the biggest laugh.
After my speech at the funeral, the rabbi was clearly overcome, telling the gathering, “I’ve never heard anything like that.”
I’d talked about our final experiences and read what my brother wanted to say to each person he loved. Then the video I’d made came up on a large screen showing Jack smiling and saying, “Hi everyone.” He paused and went on to say the words I’d suggested, which is how he ended every phone call: “Okay, ‘bye now.”
Hospice had freed us from the burden of unsupported optimism and given us the gift of accepting the inevitable. I continue to remember my brother saying, “These last few days with you are the best thing I’m taking with me.”
To accompany her witty sense of humor, Sybil Sage, a mosaic artist, uses her spare time to make personalized urns for customers. www.sagemosaicart.com.
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