The panic attacks usually came at about three in the morning. Mine; not his. My brother's stress over dying came in short spurts during daylight hours. I had taught him how to breathe so as not to hyperventilate and often had to remind myself when they came in the middle of the night, when sleep had finally come as an old friend to rock me in hours with nothing to do. Nothing to clean up. No death to watch eat away my baby brother. No trips to Savannah to make. No calls to return. No visiting medical staff to welcome inside his home, the home we had grown up in.
When panic woke me from my slumber, it came in nightly whispers: What are you going to do with all this when he is gone? How are you going to get through it all? There are over sixty years worth of "stuff" that has been saved and put away to deal with. The attic is full. The garage is full. Every closet and every drawer ... full. And it is up to you to do it all.
My breath came in gasps, my eyes wide, staring up at the bedroom ceiling. Oh, God ... Oh, God ... Oh, God ...
Then, one night my spirit heard the words I needed to sustain me: No one is saying you have to do this in a weekend. Or even a week. Or a month. Take a year if you want. Right now, you only need to focus on the moment. The day. No more than that.
And, with that, I returned to my sleep.
Until the early morning of July 27--a Saturday. The day after we'd gone to Savannah and seen our aunt and cousin at the cancer center. The panic attack woke me at 3:00, as it had decided was our best time together. And, as the devil's words taunted me, I returned with what God had whispered to my heart: No. I don't have to do this in a weekend. I'll be fine. I returned to sleep and, unknowingly, rolled dangerously close to the edge of the bed. Then, at 4:15, Van knocked on the closed door and called my name, which sent me tumbling to the hard wood of the floor. I popped up just as quickly. "What? What?" I asked, terrified as I swung the door open to see him standing there, calmly holding the tube of the J-tube to his abdomen.
"The balloon of my J-tube burst," he said. "I'm literally holding it in."
I blinked, trying to focus. "Okay," I said, breathless. "Let's see what we can do." Then, over the next several minutes, I used gauze and medical tape to secure the tube to his body. At one point I looked up at him and teased, "I hope you know it's 4:30 on a Saturday morning."
"I know," he quipped back.
"And I guess you know that Dr. Odom's office won't be open today."
"I suppose," I said, now righting myself to collect the tools of our operation, "you couldn't have done this on a Tuesday at 2."
We both laughed. I told him I would call the doctor's office at 7 and that, until then, we should try to get some sleep, which is exactly what we did.
Later, shortly after my early-morning call to the answering service, a return call came from Dr. Odom's associate, Dr. Barnes, who said we needed to get Van back to the hospital in Savannah, but first he needed to secure a bed for him. That he would call me back. I called my friend Carla who said she wanted to go with us to Candler so I wouldn't be alone on the drive back if they admitted him, which we both thought they would. Meanwhile, as I waited for the call back from Dr. Barnes, I cleaned out the kitchen pantry, my brother sitting a few feet away in the living room, commenting on "how much stuff had accumulated over the years" and "just throw that out ... and that ..." I couldn't help but notice as we chatted that he actually looked healthier.
Afterward, I cleaned myself up, told Van I was going to Carla's to pick her up and that we would stop and get gas before returning home. "Go get yourself something to eat," he said. He was always worried that I was not eating enough ... mainly because I wasn't, so I told him I would. I had put a load of clothes in the wash earlier, so before leaving, I transferred it to the dryer, then left to pick up Carla. We gassed up the car, stopped for lunch, then went back to the house to find Van ready to go. "Dr. Barnes called," he said. "They have a room for me." His suitcase rested near the door.
"Then, let's go," I said. It was, by now, mid-afternoon and I had completed a full day's work. But now, we needed to do this one more thing. Folding the laundry, I decided would wait until I returned.
As we stepped out of the door, my brother called out to his cat, Vanessa. "See you later, girl!" he said, as though he would be back that evening ... or within a few days ... or, maybe, like these last few trips to the hospital, within a week.
But he would not.
He would never set foot in his home again.
From the moment Clare and I began planning my trip to her country, I had one goal: to walk across the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, originally erected in 1755 by salmon fisherman as a
means to get from the mainland to Carrick-a-Rede (Scot-Gaelic for The Rock in the Road) Island. Eventually, the site became a national park and a draw for tourists who wished to cross over the Atlantic by means of a rope bridge to see what vista might lay on the other side. And, of course, being the daredevil I've always been, this became the #1 goal of my trip.
"I've lived an hour from the bridge my whole life," Clare told me, "and I've never had a desire to go there and cross over it."
"But you'll do it for me, right?" I said, as though she actually had a choice.
And so we arrived--Clare, her mother Diane, and I. What we didn't know was that to get from the parking area to the bridge was quite the hike. Not just from here to there, but UP and DOWN limestone stairs, around a bend here, around a bend there, all the while the Atlantic Ocean whipping and roaring below and beside us as wispy clouds sailed overhead in an exceptionally blue sky. At some point, we lost Diane who--spying a bench--said, "I'll wait for you here."
Clare and I continued on the path, dotted with wildflowers and, occasionally cattle (what?) grazing on the hillside. We kept time with the crowd headed toward the bridge, saying hello to those returning, their hair wind-swept, their cheeks ruddy, their smiles broad.
At one point, Clare (clearly nervous) reminded me that she may or may not actually cross the bridge. She would go as far as the bridge, yes, but she may not cross it.
"Oh," I said, "but you walked along the dangerous coastline of the Cliffs of Moher, remember? And they had warnings along the way of how many people had fallen off and died. Do you see that here?"
"No," she said, pointing to our right. "But I do see defibrillators!"
Well, by golly ... she was right.
Finally, after descending a long staircase, we arrived at the bridge. Only 8 were allowed across at a time, so as we waited our turn, Clare mumbled behind me while I reminded myself--now faced with the sheer drop from land to ocean---that this had been my idea.
As it turned out, I was the first of our group. With Clare behind me (I dared her to back out!) I pulled my phone from my the back pocket of my jeans so that when I reached the other side, I could easily take a photo of her. What I didn't realize was how much I needed the hand that held the phone to cross over.
One must hold on to the ropes and pull oneself along ... but I now had only one free hand. And, with every person who stepped onto the bridge, I was rocked much harder than I had anticipated. I now had two goals: NOT to drop my phone into the Atlantic (it was brand new!) and to cross the bridge with my sanity intact. Finally, with my foot on stable ground, I was able to turn and snap a photo of Clare, who smiled broadly, clearly having the time of her life. I'm not sure who was more proud--her or me!
If we thought the crossing was the hard part, we were sadly mistaken. Now we had to climb UP additional stairs, followed by rocky natural steps to get to the verdant plateau of land
sitting atop wide-mouthed caves that look out over the water to where Rathlin Island juts out to sea and, on a clear day, one can see the border islands of Scotland.
And then, when we had made it, I stopped to stare out in wonder. I had reached, I believe, the pinnacle of the world. In my heart, I was Maria running along the hillside of the Alps, twirling and singing, awestruck. Clare and I walked as far as the border ropes allowed, then removed our jackets and sat in the greenest grass I'd ever seen. We could hardly speak, not because we were breathless
from our adventure, but because God's brushstrokes had stolen any possible words we could have adequately spoken.
In spite of the fact that others were calling out around us, my focus was solely on the crashing of the waves below us, the call of the birds above us ... and the greatest sense that my brother had somehow hitched a ride to take in a view the closest to heaven I was yet to see and he had already witnessed. And that, while Clare sat on one side of me, he sat on the other, waiting for me to understand the full glory of that knowledge.
"Oh, Buddy," I whispered into the wind. "Look at this . . ."
"Just you wait," he whispered back. "Just you wait . . ."
Looking out to the expanse of the shoreline and the Atlantic.
If you note the very dark areas at the water, these are the mouths to the caves.
I could have stood here forever!
This was taken near the parking area. I found the little island across the way quite fascinating. You'll see it in several of my photos.
Clare took this shot of me enjoying the moment!
Note the beautiful wildflowers.
Clare takes a moment to enjoy the beauty.
A view down and out into the mighty Atlantic.
My turn! On the way back across, Clare and I were the only two on the bridge, so we were able to get a shot of me on the now non-frightening bridge!