At 11:32 on Wednesday night, Brian’s cell phone rang. By the time he unhooked and removed his C-PAP mask, found his pants, and dislodged the phone from one of his pockets, he had missed the call. He saw that the call had come from his parents’ house and he knew the news wouldn’t be good.
Last week, Michael and Tammy (Brian’s parents) visited Michael’s doctor, who told them that Michael had weeks, maybe months, to live. His health has been declining steadily for four years; two years ago, congestive heart failure made it impossible for Michael to visit us in Albuquerque because of the high altitude. Recently, a lung infection weakened him so much that a ten minute phone conversation exhausted him to the point that he needed an hour’s rest afterward.
When Tammy told Brian that his dad probably wouldn’t survive until summer, Brian bought a plane ticket for next Thursday, and then he went to an emotional place I have never seen him go to before. He was sad, and a little scared, and struggling to make some sense of the impending death of a man who he loves, but with whom he’s had a profoundly difficult relationship.
On Wednesday night, his phone finally in his hand, Brian dialed his parents’ number and Tammy answered immediately. “Brian, Dad is gone.” Michael couldn’t breathe; Tammy called 911, but there was nothing they could do.
At 11:46, Brian shook me awake. “My dad died,” he said, and I pulled him close and wrapped my arms around him and he cried.
We lay there for a long time. For better or worse, loving a person during grief is something with which I have a great deal of experience. I didn’t try to fix it, or reassure him, or make it better. He was hurting, and I was there with him.
Grief is like ocean waves, or like labor. The pain draws in and up, demanding attention, rising in intensity, rising, rising, until the pain is nearly unbearable and then, gradually, it recedes, leaving the grief’s owner panting and exhausted, but grateful for a few minutes or hours to rest.
After Brian’s grief crested and receded, he climbed off the bed and what followed were several hours of anxious activity that anyone who has ever gotten one of those awful middle-of-the-night phone calls would recognize as Brian prepared for a sudden cross-country trip.
At 5 am, Carter and I dropped him off at the airport. I couldn’t relax until Brian called to tell me that he was with his mom and his brother, Mike.
That’s what we need when we’re grieving — to share it with others. There’s no helping grief; it will have its way with us no matter what, but it’s better together than alone.
Michael’s eldest son is the best part of my life, and for all the ways he helped Brian become the man his is, I am deeply grateful.
Vaya con dios, Mike.