Sometimes I think about my brother Randy, who died 19 years ago. His last days were made immeasurably easier by the caring staff at Hospice of North Iowa. He worked at a local artificial ice company for many years. He died when he was 43 of cancer, before either of our parents died.
He will always be remembered for his generosity, kindness, and infectious sense of humor. A sense of humor ran in the family, despite hardships. He had a raw, honest, and often boisterous passion. We treasure everything he gave us.
Even the courageous way he let go of his life was a gift. He died as he lived, in the arms and in the hearts of the people who loved him.
I learned a valuable lesson about that. On his last day in the hospice, I was determined to be with him up to the moment he died, staring down death in his face. I’m still not sure why I wanted to do that.
Then a couple of his long-time friends stopped by to see him. Death watch was interrupted as we visited in his room. I faced them, reluctantly taking my eyes off him. They talked to me, sharing their memories of him while he was alive. I soon became painfully aware that there were many who knew Randy in ways that I did not know. He was a dear friend and even a surrogate father to many.
They talked; I listened and learned. I lost track of the time. When there was a break in their discourse, I quickly turned back to Randy. He was already gone. He had slipped away while his friends, his other family, were sharing something with me far more important than my death watch. I learned more about humility that day than I can recall learning ever since. There is a brick in the driveway of Hospice of North Iowa on which is etched the message, “He ran his race.”
Randy was a track man in school. He could outrun just about anyone. He was also pretty fast on his gold flake Schwinn Stingray bicycle. I notice there are vintage Stingrays going for thousands of dollars these days. He could fishtail and wheelie like nobody’s business.
My father used to say that the only difference between me and Randy was that he could cook and I couldn’t. There were a few other differences.
Through an unfortunate circumstance that I still don’t understand, Randy was my patient on our Medical-Psychiatry Unit in the late 1990s, shortly after he was diagnosed with cancer. I would never have done this by choice, but it seemed there was no one else to cover the unit at the time.
He was delirious, probably from an accidental overdose on opioid pain medicines during a difficult stage in his cancer treatment. It’s really not possible to describe the conflict I had about being both his brother and his doctor. It should not have happened—but it did. He didn’t recognize me. He mumbled. He twitched. He drifted in and out of awareness. I knew all the signs; I saw delirium every day in the hospital.
But this was different because this patient was my brother. I will never forget. After that, I had a much better understanding of what families goes through when they witness delirium in a loved one. I will not miss this part of my job when I retire.
Randy was my best man at my wedding in 1977. I bought him a nice pocket watch, which was buried with him. I do not visit his grave not because I don’t love him, but because I would rather remember him as he was.