My brother died the other day. On December 12, 2009, 11:35am Montana time, he drew his last breath after heroic efforts to save his life.
I thought that I too would die, because of the pain of grief in my heart. “Treasure the happy memories,” some would say in their condolences.
But they had no idea. Because my grief is two-fold. One for his death, but the other for his life. Let me explain.
Dan, or Danny Pops as my parents affectionately called him when he was little, lived a hard life. Diagnosed with “Hyperkinesias” as a youngster, (that’s Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity [ADHD] in the modern parlance,) he was institutionalized when he was about six. Today, we understand a lot more about these busy little people but then it was considered a mental/medical condition. Treatment with Ritalin was started.
This was not a good combination for a boy with an alcoholic, non involved dad. Daddy, God rest his dear soul, had his own demons to contend with.
Over time, Danny’s naturally happy inquisitive disposition began to change. I honestly can’t remember how long he was in that group home. As a young teenager, he began using alcohol and marijuana. His school attendance was non existence after eighth grade. (Something that boggles our minds as we look back on it.) I suspect he probably had some learning challenges such as dyslexia.
But Dan was also brilliant in his own way. He loved electronics and creating inventions. And his happy disposition was reflected in his love for Christmas lights, which he would adorn his bedroom walls with year round.
He loved classic rock and cartoons…especially Woody Woodpecker. And he was always in motion. Always jiggling a leg when he sat. And always, no doubt, bearing pain in his soul that one could never understand unless they too experienced it.
But when he was drinking or smoking pot, things were another story. At first, I wonder if he was simply self-medicating the busyness in his head. Or the pain of his early years and the pain of an absent dad for a boy who desperately needed one.
As an adult, Dan lived most of his days on the streets. Once, he happily told me about the car he was able to purchase once because it was comfortable to sleep in.
By then, his mental health issues were becoming more apparent. We worried if he was too hot. Worried if he too cold. Worried if he had enough to eat. And we hurt thinking about him.
We loved him…..and were angered by him. Such promise…wasted! And such brokenness…what a shame!
Relationship with him over the recent past few years had been minimal. I was nervous and scared about seeing him again. Fear has a way of building up walls.
But yet through it all, Dan’s love and happy personality would still shine through. He never wavered on his love for family, even in his darkest days.
We knew an early death was a strong possibility. With a lousy family medical history and his harsh lifestyle, we knew in a sequestered part of our minds that this did not bode well for his future.
But it still did not prepare us for December 10 when he called my sister. He was very afraid. He thought he was having a heart attack.
Oh God. Please no. An ambulance was dispatched.
I talked to him later while he was still in the Emergency Room. Between our sobs, we expressed our love for one another. And he asked about the family. How’s Jay’s job going? How old are the kids now? Mundane stuff. The stuff of life.
Certainly, they’ll treat him and send him on his way. Perhaps this will be his wake up call.
He was admitted to the ICU shortly afterward; and the phone calls back and forth to family began. My God. This is serious. I spoke with him again; it was hard for him to talk because of all the tubes, he said. I miss you so much, he said, crying.
Where was God when it hurts? Right there in the midst of the hurt. He who showed up in that ICU; he did not abandon Dan in his deepest hour of need. And I can tell you how I know: Because I witnessed, from afar, His appearing.
I saw God when I realized that those brief phone calls brought deep healing and reconciliation between us. I was comforted in knowing Dan had seen our recent family picture. And I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the expertise and skill of the medical staff.
I saw God show up when my mother in law was able to visit him that evening. Though very weak, he smiled more than once when she talked and prayed with him.
And I sensed His supporting strength with the nurse called me early the next morning to say that “Dan had a very bad night.”
Things are very bad indeed when an ICU nurse mentions “a bad night.” He was placed on life support.
I talk to the doctor; they either life flight him, or he dies, he says.
I don’t want my Danny Pops to be alone. Oh God, please. I don’t want him to die alone. I don’t want him to go to Great Falls where he’ll be alone. But he will die if doesn’t go, the doctor said.
I saw God show up…in the flesh…through the kindness of my friend, Chrissy. She got there before they transferred him and stroked his arm and told him that his sisters loved him very much. “I don’t know if he liked me stroking his head. Did you know he was bald?” she said with a chuckle. She watched his racing pulse rate slow down while she comforted him.
She told me she kissed him on the cheek and whispered in his ear he was loved.
And I lost it.
Colleen booked a flight and was on her way. Would she make it in time?
Dan survived the life flight. Further testing determined his liver was shutting down. And I talked to more angels…nurses and doctors and unit secretaries. Their names are a blur. We’re doing all we can, they say. But he’s a very sick man.
I tell them he lived a hard life, but that he is treasured and loved. Please comfort him; tell him he is loved.
And my angel returned. Chrissy arrived late afternoon. She was working in the area earlier in the day and knew I didn’t want Dan alone so she held off on the 90-mile drive home. She stayed and gave me a nursing update. She assured me of the quality of the staff there and their kind care.
Chrissy said, “I kept telling him, ‘Colleen’s on the way. Hang in there. It’s Friday, December 10, 2009 and it’s 6:30. Colleen will be here in five hours.’”
Sometimes one does not recognize the angels in their life because they grew up with you. I’m talking about the angels in the family.
Colleen sprouted her wings, with assistance from Delta Airlines and she landed in Dan’s room by midnight.
And that Angel sat by Dan’s bed until 4:30 am. Dan knew she was there. I know he was waiting for her.
By morning, the awful decision was made. His organs were shut down.
My prayer changed to, “God, I don’t want Colleen to be alone when the end comes.”
And God wasn’t through making his presence known.
We had called our good friend Fred; he lives north of the hospital 90 miles or so and is a pastor. If you’re able to, Fred, no pressure. We know it’s a drive. Fred’s the sort of guy you like to hang out with if you’re hurting. He reminds us of Jesus in a lot of ways.
And I saw God show up again. This time because he had dispatched Fred. Fred arrived just 10 minutes before The Moment.
“He wanted to go home,” Fred said. “It was very peaceful.” And he gave Colleen plenty of hugs.
Today, I signed the form consenting to cremation. I told the lady at the funeral home, “I know he’s not there but would you tell him again that I love him?”
She told me that she would. And her kindness brought another wave of tears. And yes, it may sound corny, but I saw God once again in her kindness.
So, while I grieve his life and his death, I am also deeply touch at how Dan, in his deepest most vulnerable moments, brought out the absolute best in people in his final hours.
And when I see the needy or the alcoholic or the homeless, I will always remember a happy boy nicknamed Danny Pops and how life doesn’t turn out the way we want them to sometimes.
I will remember the Scripture that says, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted.” And know that he is also close to the broken. And I will remember how God raced into the middle of tremendous pain and sorrow, sending angels, both seen and unseen, to comfort Dan.
But today, I am very, very sad. He was greatly loved, you know.
Dan joins Mom, Dad and sister Mary. He is survived by his loving sisters and big brother.