Messages from beyond
The first brother to die was Bobby, pictured here, who froze to death. He had awaken in his bed at home sometime in the night, very disoriented in a diabetic sugar fugue, and he then drove to a rural bait shop closed for the winter season. He was desperate to buy a Coke in the vending machine. He wasn’t supposed to have soda, and after he guzzled it down (he often had irresistible sugar cravings like that), he fainted. Je was found, hours later, covered in frost.
Our brother Kurt, who lived nearby, made the tough decision to have Bobby resuscitated at the hospital, despite doctors’ concern and warnings that he’d technically “been dead” for too long, and that likely, if “brought back” (they gave that 50/50 odds), he’d have organ failures, strokes, etc.
When Kurt called me in a panic to report the situation, I immediately drove to Missouri from Wisconsin. The entire situation smacked of Pet Semetary, and we both worried aloud that death wouldn’t be cheated so easily by cutdowns and hospital interventions, but Bobby did survive. For awhile.
Bobby again died (and stayed dead) months later, after going through prolonged weeks of dialysis for kidney failure and after suffering through numerous hospitalizations for strokes and opportunistic infections like gangrene. By the time he died, he wanted to die, despite the fact he was still a relatively young man of 50.
But Bobby’s story isn’t so quickly concluded.
About a week before he died, Bobby informed Kurt and me that he had been visited during the night by an unexpected trio — our mother, his father, and our grandmother. The visitation was especially hard to believe because (1) Mom had divorced his dad years ago; (2) they were all dead; and (3) Nana wouldn’t even have crossed the street with Bob’s dad when they both were alive. Now she was traveling with him?
Bob reported that during the visitation, they were even more “real” than Kurt and I seemed to be to him afterwards. They huddled at the foot of his hospital bed, whispering and conferring with one another, and then approached, one by one, to smile down at him. “I had to pay attention real hard,” he said, “because they talked funny in my head. It sounded like them – I mean, I recognized them, but it was real fast-like. It was work for them to slow it down, and work for me to speed up my listening, but then what each one of them kept repeating to me made sense to me.”
Nana told him not to be afraid. His father suggested, “Be careful, son, be careful.” And Mom said several times that she loved him. In fact, Bob said, he felt incredible love from all of them, and so he no longer feared death because he understood that they would be waiting to help him “cross the river.”
Bob was the wanderer of the family; the nomad who finally settled on a piece of country road in a trailer, living a minimalistic, almost hermit existence with his cat. I so well remember his corny hillbilly jokes and raucous laughter. I miss him terribly.
A Brother/Sister pledge
Kurt, yin to Bobby’s yang, was the most social of we three. He turned his back on an 8-to-5 life and quit his job to become Bobby’s caregiver. Kurt was a Wiccan priest – a writer, a poet, and a generally mellow dude (thanks only in part to magic mushrooms and opiod prescriptions) — a lover of women despite the fact that he had just painfully concluded a difficult marriage with two wives. He was going through “a bit of a rough spell”, and after Bobby died, he came to live with my family in Wisconsin for a short time to get back on his emotional and financial feet. After he returned to Missouri and rented an apartment in Columbia, our phone call frequency increased dramatically.
During one of those calls, we pledged that whoever died first would use any psychic powers possible to muster from “over there” to let the other one know we were still with them here – it was our little plot, inspired by Bobby.
We weren’t all weird in the family – I’d been a chaplain for a few years before becoming a police crisis interventionist, and Kurt’s lifestyle wasn’t mine — but no one in our family has ever been judgmental. Mom read Rune stones and my uncle claimed to see dead people, and we’ve all had really strong psychic encounters, so what the heck. We pledged to give it our spirited best.
A pre-death pledge is great in theory but painful in practice. I was called early one morning to be told Kurt had suffered a massive brain bleed, and Columbia's University Hospital staff had learned I had medical durable power of attorney. The doctor wanted permission to terminate life support measures. The world shifted under my feet as I absorbed the shock of the news and then packed for the long drive back to the hospital where I’d last seen Bobby, where I would now sign off for Kurt’s kidney donation. There, I held his hand while he was disconnected from his earthly tubes, and I remained with him as he rode a strong morphine pony out of this world and into the next.
A promise kept. The night before I attend a scientific conference on the Near Death Experience, I could not sleep at all. Restless and more than a little depressed, I went to Kurt’s Facebook Page, to reread his last witty posts. I noticed, then, a tab which said “notes” that I’d never seen before. I opened that area, and found an incredibly moving message introducing his sister to his audience, saying how much he loved and admired me, and saying that he'd always love me, forever -- written just months before he died.
I printed the message and framed it and it sits on a bookshelf next to the locket with a lock of his hair. That’s all I need to know to move forward here with all of my happiest memories of Bobby and Kurt. I imagine my brothers both across the river now, waiting for their turn to whisper in my ear (“Don’t be afraid, we love you, be careful, sis. Be careful,”) when it’s my time to cross the river.