Don’t all Penthouse letters start “I can’t believe this really happened to me” or, “I’m not the kind of person who believes in this stuff” (not that I ever read a Penthouse letter, mind you..)
I’m thinking back, 15 years ago, when I sat at my brother Kysa’s bedside, as he was dying, and had my life changed forever. My own experience mirrors that of many others, I’m sure, but it was something I never thought would happen in my life. I don’t know that I even knew about such things, though I’m sure somewhere in my reading, I had seen the term near-death experience.
This was the first time, in being with my brother Kysa, I had ever been around anyone so ill, and possibly and probably, dying. So I went in with a clean slate and no pre-conceived notions. It was one of those suspended times. You just kind of go with the flow-or at least that’s what I was doing. What dying actually consisted of, all the implications of it…who knew? There wasn’t even fear going on with me-it was more uncertainty than anything, about how to care for him when I was alone with him, and concern that I wouldn’t do it right, or hurt him unknowingly.
There were so many moments in that last week of Kysa’s life-maybe someday I’ll make it into a book. And I’m looking back on it now from 15 years (my god, that number is inconceivable to me!). Now, with all I’ve learned since then, I have much more of a frame of reference…
Kysa was surprisingly alert in that week. The cancer had taken so much from him, and he was in a hospital bed, and we had hospice in (my first exposure to that wonderful way of life support!) At times, he would drift in and out, yes, but he was there.
The day prior to Kysa’s death, I was busy out in the kitchen. His house was so very small, and it was just a couple steps around the corner to go into his room, where he had a hospital bed. I went in to check on him, but stopped short at the door of the bedroom. Kysa was sitting up in bed, his eyes open and trained intently on the far right corner of his room, not too far from a window. His gaze was so strong and focused that I had to stop, as I felt like I was intruding-though, why I don’t know, as there was nobody there that I could see. I said nothing to him, only watched. For a moment there was a quiet silence, and then Kysa nodded and said quietly “yes.” Another silence, as if he was listening to someone, and his eyes were still trained on that right corner. Again, he said “yes”, another moment of nothing, and then he said “thank you”, and that was it. He lay back and closed his eyes. I could speculate in so many ways about that, but I chose to let it just be what it was, and so I let it rest now, and you may draw your own conclusions. Who knows? Until I put it with what happened the following day…
On the afternoon of the day he died, my sister Catharine came over to sit with Kysa. His wife, Sarah, was at school (yes, surprisingly, life does continue on). Catharine was out in the living room, speaking to our brother David, who was in South Africa, updating him as to Kysa’s condition. I decided to leave her to her phone call, and go sit with Kysa. Two steps to his bedroom door, and no more than two steps in, and I was stopped short in my tracks. Kysa was asleep, peacefully, it seemed, with the back of his bed elevated, so he was half-sitting up. (He wouldn’t ever let me lower the bed so that he was lying down). I wasn’t frightened, just curious, but more than that-is there a word? Because what I heard was music, as in singing, and it was coming from the same corner of the room that he had been looking at the previous afternoon. Quiet music. I stepped further into the room to look for a source. No radio playing, no music from anywhere in the room. Look outside the windows. Nobody walking by with music playing. Nothing was playing anywhere in the house. There was no source to be found. So, I just quietly, so as not to wake him, went and sat next to his bed. Not seconds later, Catharine came in, and stopped in the exact place I had, and she was clearly listening to something, and looking in the same corner as I had, and that Kysa had been looking towards the day before. I asked her “Catharine, do you hear anything?” And she answered “music”. I told her that I had heard something too, but could find no source for it. “Its the angels gathering for Kysa”, she finally said, and we let it rest.
Kysa started dying that night. It didn’t start out well-he let out a scream, clutched his head, and stopped breathing. I was horrified-his eyes were still open. And, in one of those moments that you just have to laugh (at least afterwards, with time),the one thought going through my head was “I have to get his eyes closed. How do I keep his eyes closed?”, and I put my hand over his eyes, and remembered that (thank goodness that I was an avid history reader!), when Abraham Lincoln died, they had placed gold coins over his eyes to weight them. And actually cast about in my mind for where I might have some gold coins-
He did start breathing again, and we went on through the night. He would open his eyes frequently, make a comment to us, or to nobody. One time he said so clearly “there are so many choices, so many doors.” My heart was breaking as I watched him, so I kept busy, giving him ice chips, a cold cloth, whatever I could. It took forever, it took minutes. He had, up to this point, stubbornly refused to lie down on the bed, but he finally looked at us and said “I’m ready. Help me lie down”. And so started his dying. And, at some point I became aware that my “job” now, with him, was to be his cheerleader, to be a witness to what was going on…and I would say to him, “come on, Kysa, just one step further. You’re almost there. One more step.” I said everything, I said nothing, and became aware that something was going on, something that was beyond us, something that truly was only Kysa. This was his-and I was only permitted to go so far with him. He seemed to be straining towards a place, towards something unseen by others in the room.
In hindsight, it felt like I was going through a near-death experience, but not my own. It was as if I went all the way to the edge of the cliff with Kysa, and saw the veil between this world and the next lifted, saw him step through, but had to step back-this was his, not mine. The most astounding part for me was, when I finally realized he had died, when Sarah and I woke at 3 AM on that morning of the 26, I felt, not sadness, not pain, but joy such as I had never felt before, triumph for him-he had run a race and he had come in first. Such joy, such total and complete love as I had never, ever experienced.
My sister Catharine and I washed and dressed him ourselves, our final gift to him. We laid him on an oak body board that her husband Robert had made for him. We wrapped him in colorful cloth-paisley pattern, solids, brights-friends and family had donated in the months ahead of his death. On his chest we placed a dream catcher made by our sister, we tucked a self-portrait done by our youngest brother under his arm. We rested his head upon a crochet quilt, made by our mom. And we went with him to be cremated. I was in the first car behind the hearse that would take him to the cemetery, along with my younger brother in the seat beside me. As we were winding our way up the steep hill leading to the cemetery, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a bird coming right at my car, a bird with a HUGE wing-span. Except that it was no regular bird. Holy shit! is all I could think or say-it was an EAGLE, wings spread wide, and it swooped down and passed right in front of my windshield! What makes this all the more stupefying is that, in the previous week, as I sat with Kysa, I would gaze out his window, to a stand of rocks not too far away, and watch as an eagle would drift high above on the wind currents. I saw this eagle numerous times, drifting, swaying on the winds, as Kysa drifted, swaying with the currents of his body…was this the same eagle?
We all went into the huge building that housed the crematoria. Each person there was invited to step up to him and say whatever they wanted to say, and kiss him goodbye if they so wished. We piled him with colorful flowers, representing each of his family/friends who weren’t able to be there. We rang chimes, we read aloud. It was just impossible for me to walk away from him, but I finally did. His widow Sarah, wanted to be alone with him as the gurney delivered his body to the flames. I was walking out with Catharine, and, as I lifted my foot to breach the door sill, I heard a great “whoosh!” sound, and I turned around and looked, and, from the chimney atop the building, saw a puff of white smoke. Yes, I knew what it was, but, once again, I was taken aback at the feelings that arose in me when I saw it-feelings of joy so strong, so triumphant, that I wanted to leap in the air, and scream “YES!!” as Kysa’s spirit was finally released to the skies above, a clear, bright blue sky on a very cold January day in southwest Colorado. He had been freed from the body that so constrained him during his illness, and, in that, I could only feel beauty, and, as if life had finally done something right. It was merely the completion of what had gone on in his room as he was dying. And it took me many years, and much exploration, before I was able to give words to what that entire experience had been for me, from the time I stepped in his room to see him staring at the far right corner, to the sight of white smoke raising up to the skies, carrying my beloved brother to the next place….
It was the day my spirit opened up, and expanded, and saw life, and beauty, as I’d never seen it before. My eyes opened, and I felt, and I saw, and knew, and my life opened and was never the same…