Hearing the phone ring at 1:00 am is like an explosion to your ears, especially when your brother is lying in a hospice facility waiting to die. No matter how much I prepared for that moment, it was not easy when it finally arrived like a sledgehammer hitting a rose. The last words I planned to say and the last thought I wanted to share evaporated like droplets of water on a hot sidewalk.
The last few months I dreaded, yet relished Saturday afternoons. Saturday afternoons were the only days I could visit my older brother, Raymond, at the hospice house. Conditions changed quickly at the house and visitors had to be sensitive of that. It was different from visiting a sick friend in the hospital. These residents were indeed sick, but they were also dying. Raymond did not have the luxury of going home.
During the drive to Long Beach, I ruminated on the same questions; should I walk in the house smiling and happy, or should I be somber and depressed? Do I greet the other men with a hug and words of encouragement, or is that crossing a boundary? The freeway exit was approaching quickly and I would soon be in the company of fifteen men in the last stages of the AIDS disease. Most of the residents were frail and sickly as the disease had already consumed their bodies and spirits. As if the disease was taunting them, some looked like they were merely fighting the common cold; barely any outwardly indications of the sickness coursing through their veins.
We made the last left turn before parking in front of the stately house known as The Serra Project Home. My heart heavy and stomach in knots as we parked. I exhaled.
Before I step out of the car, I look to my right at my son, Michael, now eight months old. “I’m coming to get you, don’t worry,” I whisper to assure him I was not abandoning him. Unbuckling his seatbelt and scooping up all the tools necessary to keep a toddler fed and busy for the next hour. Carrying a healthy baby boy into a place where death waits patiently for each occupant seems cruel; one has a future with possibilities and dreams and the others have days or weeks with a definite outcome. Yet, both need the same love, tender care and devotion from those around them.
I knew this visit was not going to be the same because Raymond was not sitting in the huge living room waiting for us. Usually, we would find him sitting on the overstuffed brown leather sofa, wearing sweatpants, a sweatshirt and house slippers. It was out of necessity for him to dress this way because he weighed under 100 pounds and not enough body fat to keep him warm. The sofa was a strategic place for him to sit because he would often need to vomit or empty his bowels and extra steps made this painful and embarrassing.
After seeing the empty sofa, we walked down the wood-paneled hallway and made a right turn – his room was second on the left. He had decorated his space with a few comforts from home; family pictures, bedding and decorative trinkets.
Raymond did not look good. He was lying in his bed, napping comfortably underneath his blankets, even though it was a warm day. Our arrival caused him to awaken. Looking over at us, he gave a loving smile and extended his arm to touch Michael. “Hi, Michael,” Raymond said happily. I bent over to give him a kiss on his forehead then carefully placed Michael on his stomach. Raymond was able to harness enough strength to prop up his pillows and lean back. His expression as he looked and stroked Michael’s chubby arms was beautiful and gentle. Although he was in pain and discomfort, his interest was on us and our well-being. “How are you guys? Is Michael being a good boy? Everything ok?” We spent the next thirty minutes with him. It was obvious Raymond was getting tired so we decided to cut our visit short. I picked up Michael and said to Raymond, “Get your rest and we will see you next week.” Giving him another kiss on his forehead, I walked away not knowing the visit would be the last time I would speak with him.
I sat in the car, sadness and emptiness enveloped me. My heart ached and I cried silently. I can’t take away his disease nor relieve him of the torment the sickness is causing. I know his soul felt heavy. Raymond was heartbroken to put his family, especially our mother, through this anguish. The only thing I paid attention to was Sade’s, By Your Side playing on the car radio.
Raymond passed away early Monday morning.
The phone on the nightstand rang loudly and I knew. Tony answered the phone, “hello, what? when? who’s going? ok. ok. we’ll meet you there.” “What happened?” I asked without breathing. “He’s gone,” Tony said heavily. What do I do, I thought to myself. How am I supposed to act?
My brother is dead. It’s so final. Should I cry? I want to call a friend, someone to share this moment of despair with me. I don’t want to be alone, yet I don’t want to be touched. Panic and calm at the same time.
It was 2:00 am by the time we arrived at the hospice house. Everyone was asleep except the night nurse. I walked toward the dimly lit room. Raymond lie peacefully in his bed, the comforter neatly tucked under his arms and one hand placed on top of the other. He was handsome even though the disease had robbed him of his health. I sat in the chair next to his bed and touched him. “It’s over. You are free now. Your body is healed. No more pain. No more shame. Thank you for being my brother. I love you.”