This past week, in the front bedroom of a small white 2 story unassuming peaceful country dwelling just past White Knoll High in Lexington, lay a small man barely 6 decades old, his shaved bald head pressed awkwardly into a white pillow as he slept. The peppered grey unruly beard upon his chin was the only vestige left of his earlier normal appearance.
In a mere 3 months time, his entire innocent body had fast succumbed to the most vicious mutant cancerous cells; his breath (even in sleep) now came in painful shallow, uneven gasps as his skeleton-thin chest heaved from life’s most basic instinct. Pillows were strategically positioned to elevate his spine and relieve pressure from the bone crushing tumors. A window air unit a few feet away was turned to low, spreading the sweet smell of cut gardenia blossom that sat in a vase nearby. It’s steady hum along with the soothing baby blue and white linen color scheme offered a sort of mind cooling atmospheric peace.He had no children, and no wife to comfort or grieve him. Instead, round the clock vigil was being kept by 3 of his 8 siblings. Other extended family members had been in and out for weeks, bringing food, cutting grass, and providing solace. But these 3 were a permanent fixture at their youngest sibling’s side. There would be no more graver a sin than to leave him alone now! He needed their presence, and their unmentioned sacrifice came as no surprise.
This proud family exuded love and dedication in their very bones – a heritage given to them by their parents who had bravely endured life (and death) together during some of the most heinous moments of the early and mid 20th century.
In a rocker at the foot of the man’s queen size bed, sat a tough, strait back, solemn purple-heart decorated Marine who had himself looked upon Death intimately during his years in the tropical jungles with the Vietcong. His civilian life the past few decades however had been dedicated to the housing, love and care of this youngest brother, who due to severe mental challenges and failing eyesight had been unable to provide a solo life for himself.
Just beyond the bedroom door, in a quaint old fashioned kitchen with black & white checked tile, RX medicine bottles sat organized and labeled in a plastic tub on the round oak table. Picking up the morphine and mouth syringe, his older sister adjusted her glasses, caught a ragged breath, and steadily measured out the appropriate dosage, which was being administered every two hours to edge the pain. What better a caretaker than she, who had provided the same tender end-of-life nursing to her own beloved soulmate of over 40 years as he suffered through the wretched stage 4 prostate cancer that finally claimed him in 2009?
Setting down a small bowl of finely puréed food they had attempted to feed the dying man earlier, the younger sister approached. “Sit down and rest, please, sissy. I will take it in this time.” she offered, absentmindedly smoothing down the front edge of the emerald blue kerchief she kept tied around her own fuzzy bald head, as her stomach rumbled in remembrance of too many skipped meals. A perpetual tiredness shown in her beautiful aging eyes, belying her own struggles with chemotherapy the past 6 months. No time for self pity. She paused only long enough to pop a lone gummy bear in her mouth. A moment later, medicine in hand, she eased into the quiet bedroom…and shut the door.
This morning, June 27, 2013, at 6:35 am, the morphine dosage was no longer needed. Instead, the pain ceased forever for the dying man – my poor uncle, my mother’s youngest brother. He was part of a very proud, close knit family of 9 children from Winnsboro, SC, born during the two decades spanning the late 1930s and late 1950s.
Uncle Floyd was an Artist, quiet, a loner, and laid back. He was not one for ridiculous small talk….but catch him at the right moment and his insight into life and sudden wit would overtake you, leaving you breathless. In life, he never had the opportunity to be a leader. But now, as the first of the 9 siblings to cross that great divide between here and eternity, he has earned his place as a leader amongst them….a General in combat, who fought his way bravely forward, alone, despite the frailness of his humanity. And like all good leaders, he will be there, waiting, hand outstretched, laughing his unique trippy laugh, encouraging us, as the rest of our family someday embarks, one by one, across that dark and lonely chasm between life and death.
But until then, the pain of his sudden and permanent absence is raw. He will be sorely missed here on earth.