My brother was home. After three trips to the hospital for week-plus-long stays and a couple for outpatient procedures dealing with his J-tube (a jejuostomy tube is a soft, plastic tube that is placed through the abdomen and into the small intestine for the purpose of feeding the patient when the patient cannot eat by mouth), and several trips to chemo on Wednesdays (5 hours) and then back again on Friday to remove the pump ... we were home. And, miracle of miracles, he had a couple of days when he felt pretty well.
"I'm feeling so good," he said one morning as I was heading out of the living room, "I may try to strip the floor in the hallway."
I turned quickly. "Van, you need to be careful."
He burst out laughing, a sound that always warmed my heart. "You must think I've lost my mind," he quipped. "I feel so good, I may try to water a plant."
Oh, okay ... So the cancer hadn't eaten away at his unique humor.
And so for about two days all seemed well. For a minute, he stopped vomiting.
And then ... the vomiting began again and it seemed to me that with every hour of every day, he became thinner. Tireder. Sicker. It seems to me, I wrote in my journal, that he has thrown up his entire body.
Friends and family dropped by and he attempted to exchange a few words, but I could see the effort it took. My daughter, Ashley, came for a visit and he perked up and truly enjoyed the visit.
And then came that Friday. He insisted that morning that I "go to town" to have coffee with friends (and angels) Carla and Jo Beth. It felt good, talking and laughing about something other than cancer. But then I returned home in time for another trip to Savannah to remove the pump. In the short time I'd been gone--an hour? Two? he had grown so incredibly weak, my whole heart hurt to watch him shuffle from one room to the next, one chair to the other.
Off to Savannah we went. He wore pajama bottoms and a tee shirt with a flannel long-sleeved shirt over that in spite of temperatures that soared near 100. Then he threw a hat over his head and shuffled to the car. The vomiting continued in the car (still thanking God for red Solo cups). A little over an hour later, I drove into the semi-circular drive in front of the cancer center and let him out, watching briefly as he shuffled to to door. I then drove to the parking lot, parked the car, and walked toward the building. Hearing someone call my name I looked up to see my cousin Carla (a nurse from NY state), Aunt Janice's daughter. We hugged as she told me that they were there for her mother's chemo infusion.
"I just dropped Van off," I said. "Did you see him?"
"We did," Carla said, her voice dropping. "Mama is very upset right now."
I found Aunt Janice standing outside the doors of the cancer center. She looked so pretty with her silver-white hair and she wore a pair of slacks topped with pink and white oxford shirt that felt soft to the touch as I gave her a hug. "Darlin'," she said. "I saw this old man walking toward me and then he said, 'Hey, there' and I realized it was my sweet nephew. I'm just devastated."
I pressed my lips together. "Aunt Janice, I don't think he can make it much longer."
"No," she agreed. "Carla just said she'd be surprised if he makes it through August."
"Me, too," I admitted. "But we just take it one day at a time."
"That's all we can do."
I gave her a hug and said I needed to get inside but that I would call her in a day or two. She hugged me back.
Unbeknownst to either of us, this would be our last hug. The last time I would ever feel her arms around me. Mine around her.
The last time I would see her alive.
After a good night's sleep, I woke in Clare's home to the aroma of
hot tea and buttered toast. I wasn't sure who had made it to the land of the living before me, but--after a hot shower and getting dressed and ready--I entered Diane Campbell's sunshiny kitchen, made myself a cuppa and a slice of toast slathered in butter and jam, and joined Diane and Clare in the living room. For a moment, my jaw dropped--just the view of the Belfast Lough (with Holywood (pronounced Hollywood) beyond it) and the County Down Hills from their picture window was enough to take my breath away. "Gracious, you get to see this every day?"
Our plan for the day was somewhat singular--Northern Ireland's coastline . . . and one of the biggest reasons for my trip: I was going to cross the Carrick-a-rede bridge (and I was going to, if necessary, drag Clare across it with me!)!
The northern shoreline of Ireland must be seen . . . and even from a car shooting down roads not big enough for two cars--stone fences lining one side and the ocean crashing into the shore on the other. A million times I wanted to scream "STOP THE CAR!" but I managed to keep myself semi-quiet in the backseat. Well, except when I saw sheep grazing along the hillsides. Sheep! Clare, Diane, and I would call.
We stopped several times, Clare pointing out places made famous by Game of Thrones. I walked along the sandy coast, snapping shots, wondering how anything could be more beautiful than what I was experiencing right then, at that moment. And yet, with each stop, as the temperature dropped cooler, the world became more brilliant. More stunning. More breathtaking.
Blue skies were more azure.
Grasslands more emerald. White clouds spread their wings
like angels flying high among the heavens. Limestone jutted from the earth to form fortress walls, nature's way of protection. And the sheep--those blessed sheep--grazed as if there were no cares bearing down on their shoulders, much less those of the two-legged.
I felt myself breathing ... breathing ... breathing. My heart pounding in anticipation.
Here I was, a month to the day after my greatest heartbreak, releasing my brother to the arms of Jesus, driving along the Northern Ireland coastline with Clare and Diane, all three heading to the crest of the world.