IN THE SPRING OF 2017 anxious to have more white space on the pages of my life, I decided to retire. Working in community relations, as I have for the past decade, is a labor of love but leaves very little time for the growing responsibilities of assisting my aging parents or to indulge in my passion for writing. Coincidentally this April, my friend, of almost 30 years received a Stage 4 cancer diagnosis that in four months would take his life.
My biological brother and I were separated in childhood leaving a deep longing for the unconditional affection of a brother. While living in West Africa, my family connected with Tony, his wife Roberta and their children. When our collective dream of living in Africa imploded we returned to the United States. I bought a house two doors away from them. Roberta and I would become dear friends and Tony was destined to fill the vacancy in my soul for a brother. We spent years in my yard, transforming it from a plot of barren, rocky soil and weeds into a space alive with flowers, organic vegetables, and a patio. Everything done simply, through sweat and persistence.
When Tony and Roberta separated, we all remained close friends. During the initial stages of their separation balancing the friendships was hard, but we managed.
Whenever the challenges of single motherhood overwhelmed me, I’d seek refuge on a stool in Tony’s kitchen while he poured me a beer or a stiff drink. While I sobbed and sipped he listened, shared his considerable wisdom, and sent me home a little wiser and certainly more relaxed to my children.
Tony chose to die in his house, two doors away. I watched the creeping onslaught of death with his family and friends as he transitioned through feelings of denial, hopefulness, combativeness, powerlessness, and ultimately surrender. A generous soul, and a natural teacher, he taught the master lesson of death.
People I love have always died at a distance. My stepfather died of a sudden stroke, my brother was murdered in another state, my grandmother, father, and uncle were apart from me in the final stages of their illness but I was a witness to the stages of my spiritual brother’s death. He died simply and for the most part, by his own rules.
He left several special lessons etched in my psyche. One morning I found him breathing erratically, fear consumed his huge brown eyes. I climbed into his bed and held him until his breathing calmed. I repeated “You are not alone.” he said weakly, “Sometimes I feel like it.” He was right, when you are dying, loving company can support your transition, but you are alone.
Continuing to do “normal” things gave him a reason to hold on in the final days of his life. One Saturday afternoon he demanded to be taken to run an errand. Cancer had ravaged his normally thin body and Tony was barely able to walk. A male neighbor, who served as one of his caregivers came to help me. In the car Tony kept moaning, concerned I asked,
“Are you in pain?”
He rasped, “No.”
I asked, “Then why are you moaning?”
He snapped, “Dammit, because I still can.” I understood.
Several days before his transition, he lay limply in his tweed recliner, I entered and sat in his sightline. He nodded recognition and spoke quietly,
“One of my favorite people.”
“You, are one of my favorite people,” I replied,
Those were the last words we spoke. They remain the treasured affirmation of our longtime friendship.
Over the years, my adopted brother had auditioned all male suitors, the way big brothers do. His guidance had offered me the male perspective in raising my children, particularly my sons, and he and Roberta had given me the first adult birthday party I ever had. In April, when I had begun seriously contemplating retirement, I’d looked forward to spending time at the house two doors away drinking coffee, having philosophical conversations. After all, I’d finally not have to dodge getting the slobber of his two beloved pit bulls on my dress slacks. But that was not to be. On Wednesday, July 19, on a sunny afternoon, my big brother Tony quietly slipped away.
He’d always met my complaints about not having enough time with “We all have the same amount of time in a day, you have to decide what to do with yours.”
Now, those words, mean more to me than ever.
– Susan D. Peters
Susan D. Peters, aka, Ahnydah (ah-NIE-dah) Rahm, brings a wealth of experience gained as an expatriate living in West Africa. Her memoir Sweet Liberia, Lessons from the Coal Pot, received the Black Excellence Award for Non-Fiction from the African American Alliance of Chicago and the Mate E. Palmer award for Non-Fiction from the Illinois Press Women’s Association. Broken Dolls, Susan’s second book, represents her foray into the mystery market and is the first of a series featuring Detective Joi Sommers as its heroine. Her most recent publication is Stolen Rainbow, a short story focused on the post combat recovery of a beautiful marine captain after a devastating combat injury. Her work is featured in three anthologies, Baring It All, the Ins and Outs of Publishing, Signed, Sealed, Delivered … I’m Yours, a contemporary romance anthology, and The Anthology of the Illinois Woman’s Press Association. Buy her books online and at www.SusanDPeters.com.