Yesterday was the seven year anniversary of my youngest brother’s death from cancer.
It’s hard to know what to call it – a death day, an anniversary.
I remember the night he died as almost dream-like – some of it crystal clear and some of it cloudy and strange.
Shepard had been hospitalized right after Thanksgiving because he’d stopped eating and drinking and needed to get on an IV. My parents had been spelling each other, one of them with him around the clock. That night, when my dad came to switch with my mom, the doctors told them that Shepard was deteriorating quickly and would probably only live another six weeks. The tumor, which they had scanned that morning had been noticeably bigger when they scanned it again in the evening. Eleven months of chemotherapy (after brain surgery) had shrunk the tumor to almost nothing, but, in the last few weeks, that “almost nothing” had come back with a vengeance and it was clear there would be no stopping it now.
My mom came home and told the three of us girls the news. It was so surreal. How can someone you love, someone you’ve seen every day of their life, someone you were sure was going to beat this, have only six weeks to live?
My mom sat down to write a few emails before returning to the hospital but had the distinct impression that she needed to hurry and get back to the hospital.
When she arrived, everything was quiet. She and my dad stood in the hallway talking quietly. An alarm went off and the nurses came running down the hall. My parents didn’t go in, thinking it was Shepard’s roommate’s malfunction machine again, until Shepard’s doctor came running too and they realized this time it was Shepard.
The alarm was the monitor attached to Shepard’s finger and it was indicating that he’d stopped breathing.
Shepard was taken to the PICU and put on life support, but it was soon obvious that he was brain dead and that only the machines were keeping him alive.
My mom and a family friend who had come over after Shepard stopped breathing came back to the house and woke us up.
It’s a way you never want to be woken up – to your mom shaking you gently and saying that Shepard is dying and we need to go say goodbye to him before we take him off the machines.
We drove the hospital. I don’t remember getting in the car, but I’ll never forget that drive as long as I live. I remember staring out the window, at roads I’d driven on hundreds of times, thinking it all looked the same, but nothing would ever be the same again.
At the hospital, we gathered around Shepard’s body, holding his hands as we said a final prayer as a family. After an hour or two, my dad drove us home where we went back to bed. My dad returned to the hospital and my parents spent a last few minutes with Shepard as they disconnected him from the machines and his body stopped breathing.
It was a long week, as we all stayed home from school and, one by one, each of the family got sick (my dad, by week’s end, had pnemonia). The house seemed so empty and still.
I wish I had something profound to say about all this or really anything at all. I don’t. I just miss my little brother. I miss knowing what he would have been like as a now-ten-year-old boy, rather than the baby he was when he died. I miss him at every family event -at our wedding, at Merrick’s wedding, at reunions, when we went to Disneyland. I don’t feel like my life is empty without him, but I know how much fuller it would be with him.