Wednesday, May 31, 2006


I am saddened today by the loss of my brother, Hubert. He died peacefully in his sleep after a long, torturous and miserable illness of more than ten years. Some have said his death, coming as it did, is a blessing, a release from pain and suffering. But a loss is a loss nonetheless, and the empty shell of a living person sometimes seems better than death.

Like most people, I have tried imagining what death will be like. I am not talking about the religious part of it, but the actual moment of death, what it will feel like, how will I greet that moment when my turn comes along. Will I accept it with grace and dignity or screech in terror? Perhaps I'll be unconscious and unaware that the Grim Reaper has arrived!

Perhaps the best way of all is the way it happened to Hubert, creeping up while one is sound asleep. On the other hand, perhaps that really isn't possible. Perhaps there is a moment of awakening, a moment of panic, of fright, of realization that one's time has finally run out. With Hubert, this realization may have been unlikely, since his mind has been gripped by the icy fists of Alzheimer's these past years, slowly taking him away from us. In a way, he has been dying inch by inch all that time.

Illnesses like this are crippling thieves, robbing previously healthy, robust people of their mental ability. First comes the forgetfulness, getting lost in familiar places, turning the wrong corners, looking into the shadows, frightened and confused. Then comes the bizarre behavior, the anger, the wandering, the attempts to do things that should be easy but aren't. These suffering souls wander alone in a dark woods at night, with no glimpse of the sky or a star to guide them.

Ronald Reagan suffered from this ailment. It robbed this amiable, likable old gent of his golden years. He was looked after by his wife, Nancy, and she loyally protected him. When he was president, I used to laugh at the pictures of Nancy, those huge, round, dark eyes fixed adoringly on her husband. But, no more! There is no reason to laugh at Nancy Reagan, and I remember so well watching her during the military ceremonies following her husband's death. There she stood, in the hot sun, in her eighties, as his body was carried ceremoniously forward to its bier. Hour after hour! Her knees must have threatened to crumple. Her body must have felt like falling to the ground. Yet she stood, courageously, valiantly, determined to stay at attention until the end. And so she did!

Hubert's family gave him this kind of devotion. They once put him in a nursing home, but were shocked by the total lack of care given him and removed him from the place, preparing him a room in the home of one of his son's. From that moment on, his wife, his sons and daughter were at his bedside. They cleansed him and cared for him, day and night. His daughter-in-law, Jane, joined in and gave him a good part of her life, something many daughters-in-law might have complained about and refused to do. This was, to me, the finest example of a life well have children who care that much, who hold your hand on that final journey we all must take!

It is said that Americans fear death, and perhaps so, but it does hold a certain fascination. Like many people, I never fail to browse through the obituaries, in case I know someone who has passed on. Even if I don't know the people listed, I usually check their ages. "Aha, look there! This gal was 92. I may have a few years left!" Sometimes I read the information and try to imagine their lives. "Brenda was preceded in death by her husband, Carl. She leaves behind her faithful companion, Mark, and two children, etc." Now that sort of obit always leads one to wonder. Was Mark a dog? Or was Mark a lover? If so, how did that go over with the two children? So, you see, I learn a lot about life from obituaries. They are the encyclopedia of the morbid.

I should not grieve Hubert's death, because I have mourned his loss for ten years. When his mind began to wander and illness took hold of his life with its vise-like grip, I cried bitter tears, because I loved this man, my childhood idol, my laughing, handsome brother! It was like watching a lightning strike take down a mighty oak, leaving it crumpled and useless on the ground. And, in my heart, there will always be an empty space, numbed and still, a place reserved for Hubert, our Hugo, gone from our lives but never gone from our memories.