My 69-year-old younger brother died last Sunday.
Joe had fought multiple myeloma for over a decade. This spring he ran out of drug options to thwart his bone cancer.
Ellen called from Joe’s hospital room in Indiana with the news. When her name popped up, I cringed. Sure enough, the expected had happened unexpectedly.
Just that morning Joe had been talking about the Yankees’ playoff chances. Twelve hours later, a routine infection had overwhelmed his hollowed-out immune system.
I’m grieving in so many ways. Joe is the first family member of my generation to fall. There’s no one alive that I’ve loved longer.
I’ve written about Joe before, about the ups and downs of our adult relationship. He would cut me out of his life for years at a time. I chalked it up to sibling rivalry.
His diagnosis in 2007 spurred reconciliation, but not at first.
Joe was stunned at receiving a death sentence while in his 50s with a daughter in elementary school. It didn’t help things that a year after his diagnosis, I acquired a “good” cancer with a 90 percent cure rate.
Joe was a warrior. Two stem cell transplants. All kinds of chemo treatments. He endured setbacks that would have flattened an elephant. Everyone should have a port catheter, he once said sardonically.
Only in recent years did our estrangement thaw. Joe began accepting my calls. Soon the floodgates of talk opened. I had my brother back.
Saturdays at midday were our time. One-hour conversations soon expanded to two hours. We’d probably have talked longer if our bladders could have handled it.
Cheryl always cleared out for these marathon chats. She called them my “Tuesdays with Morrie.”
What did we talk about? Joe set our agenda. His ever-changing medical condition. Our childhoods scattered across six states. Dad’s alcoholism, mom’s outbursts. Dad’s sentimentality, mom’s steadfastness. Kids. Bob Dylan. White male authors from the mid-20th century. Bloomington, Indiana.
Joe moved to Indiana to go to college and stayed to build houses. Hoosiers may be conservative, he would say, but they’re not rabid conservatives, never mind that Mike Pence.
Knowing his time was limited, Joe didn’t waste phone time with shallow. If he thought it, he would say it. The intimacy of his downloads, his trust in me to receive them, warmed my heart.
Joe ran out of approved drug options last spring and his cancer roared back. Still, he didn’t give up.
Using internet research and sympathetic doctors, he devised strategies to stay alive. If he could only qualify for this drug trial or that compassionate use med, then maybe he could buy more time.
Joe called this “threading the needle.” It gave him hope, even as his prospects dwindled.
Joe decided recently to write farewell letters to his children. He wanted them to know how special each of them was.
In our last conversation two weeks ago, Joe was on a roll. He talked nonstop about our formative years, the new restaurants with a “California vibe” that were ruining Bloomington, his plan to boost platelets.
Even with the lousy hand he’d been dealt, he insisted that “life is a gas.”
As our talk wound down, Joe reflected that his world had shrunk to just his beloved wife and children, his doctors and nurses. And me.
I was humbled to tears.
We had been so close as boys. And now, with time running out, that same closeness had returned for the sweetest of farewells.