Three weeks ago, when the situation was very serious but even the doctors remained cautiously optimistic for keeping the disease at bay, my mom and I visited my sister and her husband. My brother in law had successfully undergone Round #3 of his dragon-slayer-level chemo without landing in the hospital and had even managed to put on a few pounds.
One day during the visit my sister and mom went out on an errand and I stayed with Michael. It did not take long for the conversation to go deep.
– It is not that I’m afraid of death, because I don’t think I am. It’s just that I’m not ready to let go. I love living. I love living my life. Life is so, so, so very good right now. I have your sister, and she is the greatest thing that has happened to me. I want to live for her. But I also want to live so that I can be with her. We still have so many things to do together. So many wonderful places to go….
I will never forget the look of absolute joy on his face while he spoke of my sister and his hopes for their future.
During the days that followed I was blown away by the sheer amount of people that made some sort of contact or came to visit him. There was a friend that got on a plane from New York in the morning, rented a car, spent the afternoon and flew back to New York at midnight. On the same day we had another couple drive 3 hours one-way come for a few hours, and then a few more friends that found themselves in the area for a family engagement and detoured to visit. Later in the evening two more showed up sort of unannounced. Yup, that was 9 friends visiting on a single day. This went on every single weekend.
And Michael loved it. He lit up, talked shop, reminisced, laughed, caught up on industry news (well…. gossip really), and could go for hours without the extra medication for breakaway pain.
There were so many stories! Every single person had at least one anecdote about how Michael had helped them in one way or another. Some ranged from funny to hilarious, while others were just plain heartwarming. Each person had come to express their gratitude for the gift of his friendship. Because it was a gift indeed.
As an outsider, I can only add that it was a privilege to witness this Procession of Love.
I had known that my sister had married a great guy. A kind, soft spoken gentleman that treated her like a queen. But to see all these people go out of their way in order to spend a few hours with him and hear their stories about how he had helped them, encouraged them, looked out for them… wow. I was floored.
Then came the unexpected and rapid decline. Within a week they went from doctor’s office, to ER, to ICU and then a final transfer to hospice. Family was called in when it became obvious that it was time for final goodbyes. In hospice care he could finally hold his newborn grandson and the dogs were brought in for snuggles.
I was still in transit when they had what will be forever known as ‘The Party’. Friends and family came in full force. I’m told that it was standing room only in the huge hospice room. He drank a frapuccino, ate some Taco Bell chalupas, and everyone toasted with Krispy Kreme glazed donuts. He spent about 5 hours basking in the warmth of all the love that surrounded him. After that he fell asleep and only briefly regained consciousness at times over the next two days.
Several members of the family had already overextended the time they could spent away from home and jobs. They absolutely had to leave the following day.
The first to arrive to say their final goodbye were his son and first wife. I will just come out and say that this man had an awesome knack for selecting amazing women as wives. My sister had told me many times how much she had relied on Michael’s ex wife for guidance, unconditional support and plain common sense throughout his sickness. Just watching all of them together was a testimony for healed broken relationships and the fact that no one should lose hope of having functional and loving blended families; even if it takes a while to get there.
The heartbreak of the following hours, as elderly parents said goodbye to their child, is just indescribable. They pleaded for him to let go, not to linger, to allow himself to be free. But he was not ready. When you are a fighter in life, it takes a little bit longer to let go.
One more day and people still came in to visit. Michael could not speak anymore but still responded weakly. There was a big smile and even a few laughs for friends that had jumped in the car that morning and drove through horrible weather and detours for 7-hours one-way from California, visit and drive back. Calls from all over the world with loving words spoken over the speakerphone were acknowledged with faint smiles.
In the evening it was obvious that his breathing was very shallow and irregular, the end was near. Everyone had left except my sister, their housemates and me. Again, we all encouraged him to let go, to free himself from the pain, to follow the light, we reassured him that we would all make certain that my sister was taken care of.
Suddenly he opened his eyes, fully conscious, and started fidgeting with his oxygen mask. We all gathered close. My sister asked him:
– Do you want to take the mask off? No response.
– Are you thirsty? He nodded. We used the sponges to wet his mouth.
– Are you in pain? He shook his head.
– Do you want to take the mask off? No response but he still fidgeted with it.
– Are you in peace? He nodded.
– Have you seen anyone from the other side? He nodded again.
– Do you need pain meds? He shook his head.
– Do you need anxiety meds? He nodded.
We could see that something was still going on so we gave him some more water and loosened the mask a bit. Then the miracle happened. He gathered all his strength and willpower, looked at each of us and said in a clear, loud voice:
– I love you all.
After that he went back to sleep and never regained consciousness. He was in peace; now we knew for sure. He was pain-free; that we also knew without doubt. We will never know who it was that came from the other side to help him find the way, but that is not important. He accepted that the struggle was over and he had said the words that had been the most important to him throughout his life: he loved us all.
I believe that those words were intended not only for us in the room at the time, but also for all his loved ones scattered throughout the globe at that very moment. For his son and grandbaby. For his mom and dad. For his brother. For the women that had loved him. For his friends. Because at the end, as in his life, he truly loved us all.