After a While Even an Echo is Enough
My brother died 7 years ago of a sudden aggressive cancer. A Vietnam War Vet we always wondered if the cancer was related to that time but such things are mysteries beyond ourselves. This story appeared in the 2020 Anthology: Writer's Shed Stories - Love and Sacrifice compiled and edited by Award-Winning Author David W. Berner.
Lessons on Loss.
Five years ago on this date, he left me without saying goodbye.
I had just been out to visit him. My brother Roger Allen had moved in with our elderly Dad some months ago. The doctors told my brother he was in remission from his cancer last fall, he said, for how long, we did not know. He had lost his job and with money being tight he rented his home to one of his children and moved in with our father. It was a good move though, for Dad, relieving us of the expense of a part-time home health provider, as Dad couldn't live on his own at age 94, even as he still refused to live with a family that would welcome him. He's outlived two children and two wives and said he would only leave his home when he ceased to breathe.
I visited their home out in Washington State as often as I could, flying out from Chicago, using both vacation and sick time, there to provide for their care. There was always a lot to do, meals to prepare and freeze, cleaning, flowerbeds and gutters, and the stocking of supplies. We made no trips but for short drives, his planning such overnight outings with the grandkids for when I was away, but it was OK, those dinners with just he and my brother and I. Roger and I could do things he needed to be done, and he seemed to like just having the time with just the two of us, sharing the memories of that home when Mom was still there. Between us we got Dad's bills paid, the budget drawn up, taxes completed, even if we ended up finishing it over the phone.
And we talked, late into the nights, sipping a finger of whiskey, the sound of the wind chimes he crafted as a hobby tinkling from outside. We did not talk of his days under the ocean as a Submariner or my days aloft as an airline pilot. He talked about how much he missed our Mom and how he hoped Dad would live to be 100. He talked until his eyes closed, only his labored breath letting me know he was still with me, watching the rise and fall of his chest as if he were trying to push up from the waters of the sea, unfathomed flesh still so buoyant if only in spirit as the cold water of fate lapped against him. But in his silence, there were things he failed to tell me.
My brother had concealed a secret. His cancer had returned and was at stage 4. It was a death sentence he didn't wish to burden us with as there was no cure, just perhaps, a delay of the inevitable for a few weeks with a second round of chemo. He chose to let the disease run its course, staying silent in his suffering, living his last days on his own terms in the family home, not in a hospital bed.
I understand now, in retrospect, knowing him as I do, yet, I do wish he'd been able to share his burden with me.
But had I been able to talk to him one last time, I wouldn't have asked him about doctors or insurance care, where Dad's banking info was, what Dad did with the phone and cable bills, or even where the spare keys were. I would have simply told him I loved him, and how much he meant to me, one more time. But we never knew our last words would be just that. Our last words are often not said, our lives always coming up short for those measured statements which through all of our brief utterances were our lone and enduring hope. There is never enough time for those last words, of love, of faith, of fear or regret.
The words not said hung in the air the days after he suddenly collapsed, dying before I could get a flight out from Chicago, no time to say goodbye. They were days that seemed like a lifetime, and yet seemed like only moments, perhaps because I don't know if I ever really slept in that time, or if, for a moment, time itself shifted, holding me down at the moment, as G-forces did long ago in my days as a jet pilot in an aircraft in a steeply banked turn. Time held still for me, but for my brother, it had overtaken him and moved ahead. All of his things, placed into Dad's house, now to be moved again, to charity, to our homes, to our hearts, Navy medals and coins, and books and I probably don't want to know why he had a loaded flare gun hidden in a drawer in a nightstand. There were laughter and tears, there were so many pictures, of early days, and the freckled face of fatigue, memories of a strong, reliable man, and the simple kind of man that is the cornerstone of great reputation, even if the world at large would not observe his passing with tears or trumpets.
There was such much to do, to organize, to communicate, so many people stopping at the house to pay their respects. There were school friends, my brother’s best friend, who came to the service even though he lost his mother the day prior, high school friends, Submariner friends, and several of the men he had worked with after retiring from the Navy. Then, before I knew it, a service, a eulogy I remember writing, but could not utter, the minister reading it instead of his own message, there as the flowers on the alter drooped towards him, as if listening. There were words, of remembrance, words that will give us a sense of what meaning can be gained from pain and suffering, death and eternal life. Things some of us ignored for years, then, in a moment of self-awareness, truly hit home.
It hit home for me when I looked out the window of the little memorial structure where he would receive his military honors before internment and saw the military uniforms outside, just before raising their guns to the skies. I heard the guns before they were ever fired, not as sound, but as a tremor that passed over my body the way you will see a flag unfurl, before even the wind that moves it is felt.
We often go through life with our eyes half shut, brain functioning well at idle, senses dormant, getting through our days on autopilot. For many, this sort of life is comforting, welcoming. Then for some, not the incalculable majority, but many of us, there is a moment, a flash, when in a moment we truly know all that we've had, held there in the moment of its loss.
All that week it had rained, never really ceasing only diminishing to a gentle mist now and again. Yet as we arrived at that place, where guns would be raised, and taps would be played, the clouds moved aside as if paying their own respects. The rain stopped as we pulled into the gates, and when we gathered, the sun came out. As the officers stood at salute, all was silent, no rain, no wind, only stillness, the sunlight on the pooled water, now sleeping.
The guns fired their salute; taps were played, as the Chaplain said one final prayer. Then one by one, hands were placed on a stone urn, one final goodbye that we could not bear to end, a moment of immobility that accentuated the utter isolation of this hilltop in which valor is laid to rest.
The moment I drew away, warm hand from cold stone, walking outside and the skies opened up again with heavy rain. It was as if the heavens themselves wept, the rain enfolding us all the way home, mingling with our own tears. My hands clutched the three empty rounds that had been placed there, holding them so tight my nails dug into my flesh, not wanting to ever let them go.
Since that day, I have returned many a time to that hill, to the comfort of his ground, where the final stone is placed, to remember, the memorial being but the echo to his sound.
All around, I see the dead; in the small memorial at the spot in my hometown where two trains once collided, in a sign erected in the memory of a local killed in a long-ago war. There's the little cross by the side of the road on my way home from work where another young soul left us. How important these undistinguished little memorials. Every death is a memory that ends here, yet continues on, life flowing on, sustained by love and hope. Such is our lesson on loss.
How thankful we are for these memorials, for the spirit smoke of memory that stays with us after the candle has been extinguished. As I heard the taps, I realized that they signified distance, heard there in that first echo. The dead were far away but they would not become silent in our minds. When the final taps were played, I no longer heard the echo, but I will always remember it, for the memory helps us hold on. After a while, even that echo is enough.