I am going to share a poem as part of this blog that I wrote shortly before my brother, Jim, died of melanoma. I found it recently as I have begun to gather some poems and essays that I wrote many years ago around my brother’s final journey. Jim had been in the hospital for a number of weeks as doctors struggled to figure out how to control his pain and continue his treatment for cancer.
Chemotherapy can be wicked in its effects on your veins and my brother was no exception. A decision was made to put a “port” in his chest because the veins in his arms were getting worn out.
In case you are lucky enough not to know what this is, a “port” is basically a catheter through the chest wall and into a vein which leads into the heart. Intravenous chemo can be administered, along with any other medication you might need, directly into your circulatory system. It works very well apparently, and can be a good solution to a problem such as my brother was experiencing.
However, it can also be a dangerous and tricky business which is why it’s never a routine treatment and is instead regarded as a last ditch effort. There is a high risk of infection and the port requires quite a bit of care to keep clean and sterile.
Within a few hours of receiving his port, my brother was supposed to finally be released from the hospital so he could go home. I was there with him to help him check out and gather his clothing, his prescriptions, his doctor’s orders and so on, so he could leave. Instead he began to feel unwell.
A short time later he began to flush and run a fever. I summoned a nurse to look at him. The time for him to leave came and went. His fever began to rage and the doctors worked to find an antibiotic that would tame the as yet unidentified pathogen that was making my brother sick.
It turns out that what my brother had was a Staph infection, caused by the insertion of the port. His healing crisis was so serious it was unknown whether he would live through the night. I elected to stay with him overnight that evening so other family members could take a break. At one point about 4 a.m., I seriously debated making the call to gather loved ones as he deteriorated. He lay there unresponsive, laboring to breathe each breath.
Then the third antibiotic they tried began to work, and as the night began to dawn into another day, my brother slowly returned. By the next afternoon you would never have known he had been so ill.
What I remember most about that night was how afraid I was for a while. Then a miracle occurred and I wasn’t afraid any more. I was filled with acceptance and a knowledge that everything would be all right, even if my brother passed that night. I don’t mean that I wouldn’t have been hugely upset, or full of conflict or turmoil or any of those feelings, just that the fear was suddenly gone.
This poem is the story of that journey.
MY FATHER’S LESSON
My father came to me in the night,
Fading in and out of my brother’s face,
As my brother lay burning with fever
On his hospital bed, packed in ice,
Juxtaposed, first one, then the other,
My father’s image matched his son’s,
Even to the sound of labored breath
By reflex heaving the chest up and down.
I remembered my father’s vigil,
Not so dissimilar to what I was seeing.
Lean were the bones in my father’s face,
Beautiful through milk wax skin,
They melded together, two men,
As I watched in the here and now.
I feared for my brother’s life,
I held his delicate hand, so hot, in mine,
Watched the ice melt in latex bags
On his head, under his arms,
My most precious brother, my friend,
Fighting for his life, and my long dead father,
Fading in and out, eerie, full of fear…
Would this be a night of death?
Gently, suddenly, I knew without words
My father showed himself as a gift, a comfort.
Comfort that wherever my brother walked,
Into life, or into death, he was not alone.
My father came in the night, to tell me not to fear.
For I, on one side of the veil, could help
In whatever way I was needed,
And if Jim could not survive all that cancer,
All that fever, all that ice,
If Jim had had enough, neither of us should fear.
For Daddy waited there, just in case,
Daddy waited to take his son home,
Could surely walk those paths
I could not see, and could not follow.
It would simply be handing him off
To a place where he wasn’t sick, or pained,
To a place where love abides
As surely as he is loved here.
Yes, my father came in the night
To tell me not to fear.