I woke up early today, not by a dream, but more like a powerful feeling, and I knew exactly what it was ~ that in his dying hour, I had completely failed my brother John.
For those who don’t know, my brother died in 1992 from complications arising from HIV and hepatitis. He was 39 years old, a single man, childless, and just starting a new career. I was 37, a young father and a busy professional.
That was then. Now I am in my 60’s, and my feelings about John’s death, and my role in it, have changed dramatically. This is an account of what I learned.
For years I proudly believed that my last conversation with John, where it was just the two of us in his dark hospital room, was one of the high points of my life. Then I said, “You know John, this may be your last chance to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. Do you?”
His eyes were closed, his body immobile. He had been silent up till then, weakened by the disease, but to this particular interrogation, his feeble response was, “Whatever you say Brant.”
Those were the last words I ever heard from John. I left the room rejoicing. I got what I came for ~ his salvation. Although his answer was tepid, it was big enough, I believed, for a gracious God to allow my brother into heaven. “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed,” Jesus said, you can move mountains. John’s answer, as small as it was, would do the job. I was satisfied.
That moment was, for many years, my greatest accomplishment as an evangelical Christian. I had saved my brother. Now, looking back, I consider it to be one of my greatest failures as a human being.
Here is a man, for the most part alone in a hospital bed (a cheap one at that), surrounded by people who did not really care (see my post “The Mystery of the Coffee Grinds”) on what was to be his last night on earth. His liver had failed, and he was being poisoned to death by his own body. His legs were swollen like tree trunks. The government, caught off-guard by the HIV epidemic, was using my brother as a human lab rat for an experimental drug that eventually failed. I can only imagine now how shitty and lonely and scared he must have felt.
And where was I?
There like a salesman wanting to put another notch on my evangelical six-gun handle, and having gotten it, getting the hell out of that room.
Oh how I long now to do it over, to not leave, but to stay by his side, telling stories from our childhood down by the Severn River, swimming out to the floating dock in the warm days of summer, racing our sleds down Severnside Drive and onto the ice, making our own Halloween costumes (he was fantastic at it) and bringing home shopping bags full of candy, forgiving him for childhood cruelties after our dad left for California, remembering the sweet taste of white traubenzucker candy we would buy at the store across the street from our tiny house in Germany, of hunting starfish off Cape Cod, of the time I visited him in the Castro in San Francisco when it was still terrifying to come out, but he did.
John loved the B-52s. Why not play him some of his favorite music? Why not stay? What was I thinking?
The fact is, I wasn’t thinking, and worse, I wasn’t feeling either. At that time in my life, I sorely lacked empathy, a personal shortcoming that would contribute to my unhappy marriage and divorce a few years later. Although I understood intellectually that the highest calling of my Christian faith was to love, I didn’t practice it that way. As an evangelical, the highest calling of my Christian faith was to win souls ~ an egregious misunderstanding of Jesus’ teachings. How much more loving I could’ve been if I had gone to that room, that night, prepared to do everything in my power to help his transition from life to death be as comforting and kind as possible. It needed to be all about him that night, not me, and I failed him.
About a year ago I was asked why I put so much of my life energy into the subject of death, and I talked about John, among other things, but I still missed the heart of my motive. My answer then was still too logical ~ too much logos and not enough philadelphia. Today I am getting closer to the truth ~ that I was given a rare, literally once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to love someone to death, and I missed it. I guess I hope to help others avoid that mistake.
Eventually, one way or the other, we will all have our own encounter with death. It does not belong to an exclusive club of industry insiders or an order of so-called “deathies” who possess some secret knowledge unavailable to the rest of us. Unlike birth, the experience of which belongs only to women (babies don’t remember, but women never forget), death knows no gender. It knows no race…no ethnicity…no title or position. Death is purely unbiased. It visits us indiscriminately. Death, perhaps more than anything else, like air, belongs to all of us.
In a sense, we have an obligation, as human beings, not to avoid death, for to do so is to avoid preparedness for the inevitable, which is insanity. Had I been more prepared, more thoughtful about death, I am confident I could have made John’s journey a better one. Then perhaps I would’ve shown up with a cassette tape of “Rock Lobster”, a taste of traubenzucker, a beeswax candle, his treasured dinosaurs and Buddha head, and a different question, not about his eternal destination, which is the sovereign ruling of the gods, but one that might have helped him take the few rocky, uncertain steps ahead.
“I love you John. I’m so happy to be here with you. I’m not leaving. Would you like to hear some stories from our childhood? Would you like to hear some B-52’s, or sounds of the ocean? I have some traubenzucker ~ would you like a taste? Is there anyone I can call for you? Would you like to hear about summer days down by the Severn river?”
That would have been love.