The funny thing is, he was a huge hypochondriac. I used to tease him all the time about his dozens of imaginary ailments, and his many phobias.
“I am no longer afraid of flying,” he announced to me once. “I have to fly next week, and it is not bothering me one bit.”
“Then why,” I asked, my skepticism clear on my face, “is your right eyebrow twitching?”
His knee, his stomach, his teeth — even his brain —all had their day in the sun as the suspected locus of his latest mysterious physical malfunction.
So when he told me one day in 1994 that he was having trouble swallowing, it didn’t make much of an impression on me. If I took any notice, it was only to give him a hard time about his latest health crisis.
We lived 1,500 miles apart, but we talked every day, at least once, and often two or three times.
We were as close as two people could be. When he was a little boy, I taught him to read. It wasn’t easy. He had dyslexia. Later, when he was eight years old, he had big ears and carried a briefcase to school. When the other kids called him “dummy” I beat them senseless.
When he was a teenager he ran away from home and came to live in my apartment. He had a talent for creating fine leather goods that were sought after in chic boutiques in Boston and Rockport, Massachusetts.
He had a dynamic entrepreneurial streak, and when he was 25 founded a company called Cyntron that recruited high tech employees for the technology belt around Route 128 in Boston. I gave him $10,000 in 1980 to help start the company. It went great for about five years and then went bust in one of the region’s periodic recessions.
He worked by himself from home for a few years, then in the late 80s, started another company. This one was called Wedgemere Traveler, and it placed medical professionals in temporary assignments throughout the United States. By 1994, when he told me he had trouble swallowing, his company was within sight of $3 million in annual revenues. He had a lovely wife, wonderful home, and a four-year-old daughter. He was 39 years old.
If you are the kind of person who suspects that something in this story is about to go horribly wrong, you are correct.
I called his office one day and was told he was out “for personal reasons.” His secretary told me, “You’d better call him.”
I dialed his home number and he answered.
“It’s me,” I said.
“I have cancer,” he said.
He had been to a number of doctors about his trouble swallowing. Mostly they suspected a stomach ailment or acid reflux disease or throat polyps…but tests showed nothing. Finally, someone thought to take an x-ray, and there, high in the chest cavity, pressing on the esophagus, was a large tumor.
Some days later came the diagnosis from Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Non-Hodgkins T-Cell Lymphoma. He would be undergoing chemotherapy and radiation.
Without telling him, I located an expert in Utah, and managed to get through on the telephone.
“The prognosis on this is very bad,” the expert told me. “I’m sorry.”
For the next two years, he fought the good fight. Treatment. Remission. Celebration. The return of the cancer. A bone marrow transplant.
(When they put a needle into your bones, there is no anesthetic in the world that can stop the pain. I heard him screaming all the way down the hall.)
The white cell count is up. The white cell count is down. Then something called veno-occlusive disease. Here’s what the medical literature says:
Hepatic veno-occlusive disease (VOD) is a common complication occurring within 20 days of bone marrow transplantation (BMT). The pathogenesis involves endothelial damage due to radiation or chemotherapy with deposition of coagulation factors, red cells, and hemosiderin-laden macrophages within terminal hepatic venules. VOD occurs in over half of BMT patients, and although approximately half of all cases resolve, the mortality rate can be over 90 percent in severe cases.
He had a severe case. The family gathered. There were probably a dozen people in his hospital room at 5 p.m. on June 26, 1996. He was in a coma. I was holding his hand. I leaned up close to his ear and said “I love you.” He had not been conscious for several days, but suddenly he said to me, “I love you.” Each breath came slower and slower, and finally a last one. (Today I can never hear the phrase “took his last breath” without being upset.) I looked up and saw the doctor look at his watch, to note the time of death.
My baby brother, Guy, dead at 41.
The next few days were filled with loathsome tasks. Picking out a coffin for someone you love is a lamentable duty, one among many, as I tried to comfort my mother and siblings, politely acknowledge the condolences of others, and make the necessary plans.
You could say, so what? Every family is touched by grief, some worse than others. Some had their entire families go up the chimneys in the death camps. And I agree. There is nothing special about my story, which ended ten years ago today.
So Diedre, this is for you and Myriah. And Jenni, for you and your dad. And for all the grief in all the world.
My brother was a sweet, gentle person who seemed to bear out that old cliché about the good dying young.
"The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure that it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry."
And so we went to the cemetery, and standing there beside his coffin and that terrible hole in the ground, I read this poem from Catullus:
By ways remote and distant waters sped,
Brother, to thy sad graveside am I come,
That I may give the last gifts to the dead,
And vainly parley with thine ashes dumb;
Since He who now bestows and now denies
Hath ta’en thee, hopeless brother, from mine eyes.
But lo! these gifts, the heirlooms of past years,
Are made sad things to grace thy coffin-shell;
Take them, all drenchéd with a brother’s tears,
And, brother, for all time, hail and farewell.