Big Brothers Don't Die

Even at a relatively young age, we realize that our parents will die. They're older than we are. It's the circle of life. When they pass, there's sadness and grief; but it's not unexpected.

Big brothers aren't supposed to die. They're always there when you need them. When I was in second grade, my friends David and Patrick were talking and laughing about BM. I laughed along with them, but I didn't know what BM meant. I hoped they wouldn't ask me because I'd be embarrassed if they found out that I didn't know what I was laughing about.

Later that afternoon, when my big brother Jack got home from his school, I asked him what BM meant. He replied, "I dunno; bottom mush?"

Yeah, that was it. That made sense. My big brother bailed me out and now I knew what David and Patrick were laughing about. Of course, eventually I found out that it really meant "bowel movement."  But that didn't matter. My big brother was there for me when I needed him.

Fast forward 35 years. Our son Jacob had died and Jack called to ask about the funeral arrangements. We were talking about the Mass time and burial location when he asked, "How are you doing?" It hit me like a ton of bricks that he was the first person to ask me that question. Everyone else said, "How's Kate?" or "Give our best to Kate." And that's understandable; there can't be anything worse than a woman losing her child. But my big brother was the only one who asked how I was doing.

I replied, "Not so good." Jack said, "Tell me about it," and I did. I unloaded all the hurt and sorrow and pain and helplessness and anger that I felt about Jacob's death but couldn't dump on anyone else but my big brother. Big brothers are always there.

Fast forward 20 years. Jack called and told me that he had been diagnosed with angiosarcoma, a virulent strain of cancer that forms in the lining of blood vessels and lymph vessels. Due to its high aggressiveness and multifocality, the prognosis of angiosarcoma is very poor, with a reported five-year survival rate of only about 35% in non-metastatic angiosarcoma cases. (Jack's cancer metastasized within a matter of months.)

I asked him about the treatment plan and he said he'd be starting with several rounds of chemotherapy, followed by several rounds of radiation, followed by surgery. It was my introduction to my big brother's incredible calm in the face of such terrifying circumstances. It was as if he was saying, "On the way home I have to stop at the cleaners, pick up a loaf of bread, and get some gas."

I started to pray for my big brother. Night and day I prayed to the Sacred Heart of Jesus that he would be healed. Daily rosaries were raised for the successful treatment and eradication of Jack's cancer. And I prayed with great confidence because God performs miracles all the time and big brothers don't die. Big brothers are always there.

Over the years, there were occasional glimpses of hope in the wake of successful surgeries. But the cancer kept popping up in other parts of Jack's body. One Fourth of July weekend, after dinner and fireworks, it was just Jack and me sitting by the open fire in his back yard. I told him he had to get on the stick because I was getting a little tired of praying that he would get better. He said, "Don't pray that I get better. Just pray that it doesn't get any worse." And he filled me in on the latest batch of bad news he'd gotten in the wake of his most recent MRI at Dana Farber.

Once more, I was overwhelmed at the strength and calm of my big brother.

In late 2019, after more than four years of battle, Jack decided that he was done. None of the medications or treatments were working. In fact, some of them caused him more pain and discomfort. He decided to head home and have a good quality of life for as long as he could with his family until the inevitable end. My children and I traveled up to see him and again I witnessed his great calm as he talked and listened and laughed with his nieces and nephew. It was sad to realize that it was the last time they would see their uncle in this life.

On December 6, 2019, Jack's son John called and told me that his father had passed that morning. I got pretty angry at God. Big brothers aren't supposed to die. For years I had prayed with such confidence; but God didn't answer all those prayers.

Then again, I guess He did answer my prayers; He just didn't grant them. Maybe God knew that I needed more from my big brother than just another visit. Maybe God knew that I needed a lesson in how to face death with courage, calm, faith, humor, strength, and perseverance. Perhaps He knew wanted me to realize that because of Jack's indomitable spirit and courageous example, my brother would always be with me.

After our group visit with Jack, my daughter Cailin growled, "This is why people talk about hash-tag-cancer-sucks." I told her that maybe cancer could take my big brother from me in this life. But cancer cannot take my memories, it could not destroy or even weaken Jack's spirit, it cannot take the love I had and will always have for my big brother and his memory, and cancer could not keep him from eternal life in heaven. To paraphrase St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, "Oh cancer, where is thy victory? Oh cancer, where is thy sting?"

And Jack will always be with me. Because big brothers don't die.

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