On March 13, 2022, I lost my brother to complications from diabetes. It was a long road for him, but in the last couple of years diabetes was only one of several factors combined that brought him to this death way too soon. His combined health crises were accelerated by Covid, contracted by him in October, 2020.
Up until this point I’ve felt relatively fortunate that nobody very close to me had been lost to the virus. I can’t say that anymore … and I’m still gripped by the wrenching feeling that we, his surviving siblings, should have seen this coming. That we should have asked more questions, nagged him to get to the doctor more, saw the warning signs in all the symptoms that just seemed to get worse and worse.
He was single and private with us, his family. He was the kind of guy who always downplayed important things in his life: the many awards he racked up during his journalism career … his dogged lap swimming at the Y, which he kept up for years … the loyalty he showed his alma mater’s football team. “He was their biggest fan,” said one of his friends.
And he downplayed what we now know was Covid’s progressive grip on him. I deeply regret that we believed him when he minimized his health issues. “I only missed a week of work. I’m fine now,” he said back in 2020. Several months later, he had a diabetic blackout, which he attributed to not being careful with his meds. A short hospital stay, a new insulin protocol, and he was back on his feet. At one point he mentioned his fuzzy vision. But that was because, he admitted, “It HAS been a few years since I got my eyes checked. Yeah, I’ll have them take a look.” Long standing weight and sleep issues that he didn’t like to discuss were just that—of long standing. Just more of the same. He was dealing with them. And finally, his coughing and shortness of breath that made their way into phone calls in the last months before he died: “Stop worrying. I’m working on it. Besides, I only cough when I’m talking to family. Ha ha.” His promise that he had a doctor’s appointment was just that … only a promise. In our last conversation, he went beyond his stock “I have an appointment in a couple of weeks”; instead, “Why are you asking me this? I have an appointment next Wednesday.” It was Friday when he promised me. He died on Sunday.
When I see it in perspective, the clues were all there. But in the midst, I took him at his word. Living more than 1,000 miles away, I trusted, I downplayed. Locally, he turned to a couple of good friends for help in the last months with his progressively serious health issues … boots on the ground. They alerted us to his problems, but they, I, we, he were all too late to intervene.
This will resonate for me for the rest of my life. It’s true that you can’t help someone who doesn’t want help—who doesn’t want intrusion or intervention. But I will forever think back on the clues carefully doled out, the breadcrumbs offered. My antennae were not attuned to his messages. There is little peace in all this. The word “regret” barely covers it. We were too, too late … by months, weeks, only days.
Right now, I can find little resolution in all this—the wound is still so raw. But there has to be some kind of lesson. Can there be? I struggle for an answer and I guess there is this: the realization that listening means far more than hearing the words. It’s working to detect, and not to detach. To take a deep breath and ask the first, second AND third questions. The adjunct lesson is that it can be so much harder to do this with those we love, because we’re so tangled together … intimate familial details make it hard to separate you and your issues from them and theirs. And somebody’s anger and irritation, as you probe, can stop you from getting beyond question one.
This graphic means a lot to me. The sorrow I feel will never leave me. I hope it never will. Because it will help me with future sorrows, and other, present ones. It will remind me to value the unsaid, to speak to it and ask about it.
In memory of my beloved brother.