Today is the 21 anniversary of my brother Kysa’s death. January 26, 1996. Two decades plus one year.
I sat with him as he transitioned and was with him when he died. It was the first time I’d ever been with anyone who died and it was a very physical process for him. None of it freaked me out, really, as much as it left me in awe and wonder. What I was privileged to witness gave me a glimpse into what I believed was a world beyond ours; it was enough to leave me shaken for years as I strove to make sense of it and find a place for it in my life.
In the month before Kysa died, family and friends sent lengths of colorful cloth to wrap him in for cremation. My brother-in-law made a sturdy and lovely oak body board for him. We were all very hands on in his last hours, talking to him, moistening his chapped lips with ice cubes, wiping his brow, drumming softly with animal skin drums and fanning him with feathers.
I felt like a cheerleader as he died, quietly encouraging him to relax into what was happening. Near the very end, as he choked and the death rattle took over, I found myself chanting go Kysa you’re almost there keep going as if I was cheering him to a finish line. And indeed, that’s how it felt. It felt like I walked right up to the veil between this world and the next and pulled it back aside and then stepped back, because this was his time, not mine. And as I gazed upon his quiet body, relaxed against the sheets, I felt, of all things, pride. Pride in him, that he’d won some invisible marathon and was now beyond the veil, hands triumphantly raised in the air.
We, all of our nearby family, went with him to be cremated. We held a service over his body on the gurney, tucked flowers into his shroud, murmured blessings, quoted poems, and then stepped outside to give his widow her time with him.
It was the most powerful moment of my life.
Until Chuck died.
What we did with Chuck in hospice, how we tended him and loved him, and the way we cared for him as he lay dying, the way we bathed him ourselves, and dressed him, then shrouded him with soft blankets…supported his body as they lifted him to the gurney to take him away, went with him to be cremated, covered him with flowers, tucked notes into his shroud…the Love that guided my finger to press the switch that opened the doors of the crematorium…the grace that held me up as I heard the loud swoosh of the flames…
I knew to do what I did for Chuck because we’d done it for my brother all those many years ago. Because of Kysa I knew to challenge the narrow parameters of thinking that I might otherwise have had. Our homage to my brother opened my heart to light and Love. What I learned at his bedside in 1996 remained in my soul and as I watched my beloved husband die, as I gazed upon his still body after a death that was unbearable to witness, I knew that what I did and how I did it was only about Love, not about fear. All that determined how I and our daughter and Chuck’s daughter did what we did was the law of Love. Tending the body of my husband after death couldn’t be left to strangers, as careful as they might be.
In those moments after he died, I remembered Chuck’s words to his doctors after the many surgeries resulting from his first cancer a year and a half earlier. His left arm and right thigh from knee to hip looked like hamburger from grafting of skin and blood vessels and muscle tissue. The bandages required twice daily renewal and the dr. wished to set him up with a visiting nurse. Chuck thanked him and refused, telling him that he was sure they’d do a good job but I would do better because you see, Dr. my wife loves me and that makes all the difference in the world. Mind you, I’d never done such a thing before and was most definitely not a nurse. But Chuck was right. I loved him and it was a service I could do for him. Did for him. With Love.
Which is precisely how I felt when he went into hospice in April 2013 and died 3 weeks later. I looked at the man I loved lying on that bed, his breath forever stilled and knew that no stranger could care for him in the same way I could. And in my mind I saw him smile at me as I dipped a clean cloth in the warm, soapy water and began washing him, and then dressed him in street clothes again because I knew he hated the hospital gown and, finally, wrapped him in colorful blankets. A week later I gently pressed the switch to open the doors to admit his body into the flames and turn his beloved body into ash.
My brother Kysa in 1996 and what I learned from being with him as he died empowered me to do the same, and more, with my beloved husband Chuck after his death, many years later.
Love gives me the power to do all that needs doing and it opens my heart to possibilities and deeds never imagined. Love is all that matters.