Living life with a “sentence” is something I have been familiar with for a long time.
My brother Donald was 26 when he was diagnosed with glioblastoma. In the hallway outside of the operating room we spoke with the neurosurgeon and I asked him “how long.” He replied with great sadness, eight or nine months. I will never forget the affect that moment had on my parents and their lives ever after. He lived for two and a half years in their care.
Donald never acknowledged the mortality of his situation and insisted once he was “over this” and “got better,” he was going to join the Air Force and become a fighter pilot. Twice I asked him if he remembered what the doctor told him and twice he insisted I was wrong about what I heard. I dropped the subject because it didn’t matter.
My sister Phyllis was diagnosed with a highly aggressive, late-stage rheumatoid arthritis that eventually crippled and shut down her system. She passed away in 2020. In her last years, the woman who couldn’t sit still for more than five minutes at a time and loved life to its fullest was confined to immobility as disease ravaged her body. She also did not want to talk about her “sentence.” I gave her the opportunity each time we spoke and only once did she give me a shred of what she lived with saying, “It’s alright, Sis. We all know how this is gonna end.”
Willard was my oldest brother – he passed away in 2007. He had been diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at nine years of age and nearly died. Although I was three, a “flash card” memory lives with me – him on the couch with the wooden arms, wrapped in an old green blanket my mother used for “sickness” occasions. I remember looking at the back of his head and thinking about how still he was.
Willard was given his “sentence” – he would not live past twenty-five. At thirty it was forty. In his forties he had a heart attack and just as he turned fifty-one, diagnostics deemed his dying heart had eight months – he left after four.
Willard and I spoke about his time a lot. We were always close. He was put in charge of me and my other two brothers – twins – four years older than me. I always believed I survived the twins because of Willard.
I visited for the last time. We always talked late into the night when we were together though this time I am not sure either one of us slept. When I asked him what he was hoping people would take from his life he had a lot to say though the one thing that sticks in my mind still is he said he hoped he wouldn’t be forgotten.
It rocked me. I couldn’t ever imagine this man being forgotten. I assured him he would never leave anyone’s thoughts he had touched in his lifetime. That got a good laugh out of him as I tried to convince him it was true.
I can’t speak for anyone else – for myself – I think about him every day. He refused to allow diabetes to completely dictate his days. I never heard him complain, not once, despite the constant pain and monitoring it took for him to survive. He is one of my top five heroes.
How could I ever forget this man who took care of me from the beginning of my life? He taught me the woods, to be an individual – to think for myself and to not judge others for their beliefs, regardless of how different they may be from mine. It’s how we learn, he always said, to have diverse friends. He taught me to listen – to really listen. He taught me to be as patient as possible – that time has a way of correcting things. He taught me to always check the exits wherever I was and to be ready to lead the charge if necessary and he taught me the basics of the gas-combustion engine. He taught me to help others who needed help, to be kind to others during my day even if my day was sucking. The author of “The Hippopotamus Who Ate A Snowflake,” he taught me to read and comprehend and to write, to dissect words and to imagine and to believe – I have always known how to do all of these things.
He had three memorials. One a viewing for close family at the funeral home, one for friends and family at his son’s home, and another, which we attended, at “The Land” – or – what I called his “Church” – where he spent most of the last ten years of his life “getting it right,” as he said.
The memorial at The Land was loosely based on a Celtic Druidic ritual. I looked around the circle we formed about the bonfire pit, the diversity of those in attendance was striking. The words that his friends – most of whom I never met though knew through our conversations – were deep, real and raw with emotion – spoken as the trees cried frigid tears of mourning on us after the night’s ice storm. As I listened I thought, “Wilbro, listen to these people. You will never, ever be forgotten.”
For myself I hope that it’s much the same. The five-year “sentence” I was given – I intend to live it as my brother did, to fight and not allow cancer to run my life – to push back for every damn moment I have coming. Some days that is easier than others for sure, though the intent is always there.
I will never forget any of you and the impact you have had on my life. I have memories of all of you – conversations, fun times and knowing you and loving you for exactly who you are. So don’t you – forget about me.
“Don’t You Forget About Me” lyrics – Simple Minds