My brother died.
Like an autumn leaf, Rod released his grip on our family tree.
Many of us love the fall, but I never did. Yes, the air is cool and dry, the leaves a cornucopia of color, and the nights brisk. But autumn is the time of dying off, dying plants, dying daylight, a season of regression—not renewal.
Rod died well over a month ago but I’ve been unable to get back to these writings.
But finally, here I am, again.
Rod had severe health problems, but his mental health demons were worse. The latter sabotaged his life and ultimately estranged him from his family.
We all have mental health “issues.” The difference is only type and degree. But beneath Rod’s frailties was a good man.
Among his mental health histories were bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and bouts of paranoia. But depression was his biggest burden.
Rod was a patriot in our early years—and in retirement. A man of energy who joined the Army and the National Guard.
After the Army, Rod volunteered with the U.S.O. He was also an able man with hammer and saw in renovations; he donated his skills to Habitat for Humanity.
Rod started at the N.Y.C. Dept. of Sanitation as a collector, (New Yorkers called them garbage men, a term Rod loathed.) But he moved up to Sanitation Officer, enforcing sanitation codes and issuing summonses.
He was open about his mental health issues. So perhaps seeking empathy or at least understanding, he disclosed to the Sanitation Dept his therapy sessions for psych issues. I don’t know what initiated this disclosure but the department pulled Rod from his Sanitation Officer status. This consequence of his transparency stunned Rod. His thoughts, “You seek help and they hurt you for it.”
Rod moved to Sanitation’s heavy equipment operations:bulldozers, front-end loaders and other heavy equipment. His proficiency was so evident he became the instructor in those skills.
Promoted to Foreman in Collections he was so diligent his colleagues would rib him, “Do you have your men polishing the leaves today?” Rod often recalled those words over coffee with me with a smile; he was proud of his work ethic.
Psych counseling helped Rod somewhat, as did meds, but they only mitigated.
After he retired from Sanitation, Rod moved south with his family. But about eight years ago, his demons overwhelmed him and his family. He separated, moved back to N.Y., and got divorced.
Our extended New York family helped Rod settle and find an apartment. Rod’s nephews spared no effort in moving his furnishings and belongings several times.
But Rod had tremendous regrets about the wreck he made of his family life. I supported him in every way I could, but sometimes I’d sag under his emotional weight. One day in my living room, he threatened to kill himself.
I’d heard he had threatened this in the past. I was exasperated. Rod’s threat didn’t elicit compassion from me, just anger. I felt he had inflicted himself on my personal life. We had dropped everything to help him. I was so pissed off I felt like fulfilling his death wish by throwing him off my sixth-floor terrace—as if I could.
But I was looking for rational responses from a depressed man. We had separate viewpoints; his, from inside his skin—mine from the outside.
I asked him, if he did himself in, didn’t he think he’d be burdening his family even more, his children, his grandkids? Rod never threatened that again.
Rod would salve his depression with food and, sometimes, alcohol or both. I saw a pattern: to overcome his depression he pursued immediate gratification, an acute hedonism.
He eventually moved into assisted living, where he had an in-house psychiatrist, psyche therapist, and M.D.
But he had so many health issues: diabetes, C O P D, artificial heart valve, multiple stents, pacemaker/defibrillator,
The various doctor’s appointments Cheryl and I took him to were challenging to keep up with: cardiologist, dermatologist, audiologist, pulmonologist, dentist, V.A. General practitioner.
The most serious of his conditions was an inoperable aortic aneurysm. Cardiologists said we’d have to watch for an increase in its growth. It could rupture but an operation was a greater risk. Rod considered himself terminal by that news and said, “If I’m terminal, shouldn’t I be enjoying myself, eating what I want?”
The upper and lower chambers of Rod’s heart weakened and its pumping capacity dwindled.
Rod struggled with weight gain, which increased his depression, which led to more eating. He wasn’t morbidly obese, but his failing heart couldn’t deal with his size effectively.
He’d see the way to a healthier life and lose significant weight, then he’d get around more easily. He’d be happy like this. I said, “You move like a teenager.”
But Rod would regain the weight, and more.
Like many of us, Rod had emotional attachments to food. He liked the foods we grew up with, many of which most of our family had moved on from: canned, cream corn, chow mein, fatty, heavily-salted foods.
I recall dining with Rod at a Chinese restaurant when he asked the waiter for salt. (Yes, he asked for salt in a Chinese restaurant.) I remember the waiter walking back to our table and smacking the salt shaker to jar its caked contents loose.
Outback restaurant, a favorite celebration destination, doesn’t serve creamed or any corn, but Rod wanted it with his potatoes. And we wanted him to know moments of joy. So, Cheryl would smuggle in a small thermos of creamed corn.
After the many doctor’s appointments, we’d often stop at a Dunkin Donuts. He loved Dunkin. He liked a bagel and cream cheese, “Extra cream cheese,” he’d order. I was never a fan, but it was good, and we shared that pleasure.
There used to be an unusually quiet Dunkin on Rte 110 with two comfy armchairs where we’d eat and chat. We recalled his many inventions, Rod was extremely creative. He never made any money on his ideas though. My favorite was the light ray in a mailbox. When the mail was delivered it broke the ray causing a buzzer or light in the home to signal the mail’s arrival.
We’d chat about the cosmos, he loved astronomy. We spoke of how one day the Earth would spiral into the sun, and the sun explode into stardust. We’d all return to stardust. We’d be brothers, once again, in the cosmos from which we came.
I was five years older than Rod. He enjoyed pointing that out to doctors on his visits, “And he’s taking care of me,” he’d laugh. I’d say, “True, but I was dealt the better hand.” I told him if our situations were reversed you’d there for me as well. It’s a brother thing. .
The differences in our ages meant different friends growing up. Later, I joined the Marines, Rod went Army—twice. After our marriages we’d basically see each other at family gatherings or for brief talks. We never had extended one-on-one chats like we had now. I’ll miss them.
They closed that Dunkin we loved; as I said, it was quiet. So we needed a good spot to linger with coffee, and Rod hated Starbucks.
Long Island is suburban terrain, but there are also large tracts of rustic woods.
I found an idyllic site. The best part: our parking spot was less than 50′ from a thick canopy of limbs and leaves. Rod thought it was bliss. I asked Rod if he smelled the scent of the woods. He inhaled, thought about it, and said he did. That brought him closer to the moment. I believe the scent of the sea, or woods or a woman brings a presence more powerful than any of our other senses.
Rod never was a music lover, but when Cheryl gave him a free Apple music app, he flew with it. He found a way to regain purpose, as he put it. I wrote about it here in “The Launch of Music Man”:https://leebythesea.me/2022/03/31/the-launch-of-music-man/
In the woods we’d sometimes set up a Bose Mini speaker on a tree stump; at low volume we’d listen to old songs.
As Rod’s heart grew even weaker it could barely feed oxygen throughout his body. His kidneys began to fail too.
His back ached from spinal stenosis. He had more difficulty walking; his breath was short, and he suffered dizziness attacks. Sometimes I could barely get him into a doctor’s office.
Rod would retain fluid, and his legs would swell. Doctors told him not to drink too much water, yet he’d get lightheaded from dehydration. Other doctors told him to drink more fluids.
Very late one night, in his assisted living, Rod slipped off the end of a couch. His butt hit the floor, causing no injury, but he couldn’t get up. So he butt-walked to his bathroom and pulled the cord for help.
Two lady aides came but couldn’t get him up. Overnight staffing was limited, so they had to call 911 for the police, who got Rod up. (Yes, 911 to get a resident up off the floor.)
Rod started hospice care the end of September. He wasn’t eating, and he said he didn’t feel hungry. The hospice nurse told me this was a sign of “transition.” He expected Rod to last only a month or so.
Just three days later, a bit after 10:00 pm on October first, the phone woke me. The hospice nurse told me Rod had died. He said Rod passed peacefully watching T.V. from his recliner.
I felt immediate shock and sadness at the loss of my brother. But upon reflection, I realize that, at that moment, I felt relief. I was first embarrassed by that feeling. But I was honest with myself; Rod was relieved of his suffering, I was glad for that, but I was also relieved of helping to manage it.
Rod told me he wanted direct cremation. He also didn’t want a wake, funeral, or memorial. He asked me to scatter his ashes in the idyllic spot we shared so often.
We never cremated the dead in our Winters family. We were old-school burial-in-the-cemetery. But when my brothers, or sisters, contemplate death, I do what they ask of me.
My only other brother, Arthur, a Vietnam vet, died at 54. He asked me to burn his military records when he died without looking at them. So in a metal can in my tomato garden I set Arthur’s files aflame. I never took a peek.
I told Rod’s hospice nurse I wanted to see my brother before the mortuary took him away.
So that next morning Cheryl and I went to the assisted living facility to see his body.
Rod was still in his recliner; head bowed as if he had fallen asleep. He wore a robe with a sheet over it pulled up to his chest. He seemed peaceful. The attending hospice nurse apologized for Rod not being transferred to his bed, saying, “He was very heavy.” I was okay with that; I’d rather see him as he died, I said.
Assisted living facilities charge the daily rate until the unit is empty of all furniture and belongings, (at least this one did) in Rod’s case $125 per day just for bed and board. So with an empty car downstairs, Cheryl and I decided to start to remove some of his personal property before I called the funeral home for his remains.
We gathered his Computer and other valuable electronic devices for his family. The rest we donated. But It was grim work with Rod’s body still present. Before we left, I called for his removal. And later, a hauler for the removal of his furniture. It did take Cheryl and I four days to clear out the unit.
Removing a deceased loved one’s property while they were still nearby wasn’t easy. I had never been in such a position and in retrospect, I’d have managed the moment differently. But I was looking out for his family’s finances. After expenses, the small funds in our joint account were to go to them. Rod wanted to leave them what he could.
We scattered Rod’s ashes as he requested. Leaves gently floated from the trees then came to rest upon his ashes. It was a beautifully striking moment. Perhaps because I was so present, one cannot help to be so at such a time.
We hung the hat Rod loved nearby and my sister Mary, Cheryl and I silently said our goodbyes and prayers.
So, now I’m back out in the fall air to rid my lungs and mind of death. I’m out with the people who fill the boardwalk to jog, bike, walk or just sit. People who fill their lungs with salt air, and hopefully notice each blessed moment and unique person before them.
Off our New York Ave beach I spotted a whale, my brother-mammal, sucking the air we share—and blasting it skyward.
I saw bunker bursting from the sea’s surface.
I saw the whale’s jaw gulp the fleeing protein.
…then do it again and again,..
…until the feeding frenzy ended…
…and the whale left me with a wave.
Yes, it’s October into November at our City by the Sea. The bunker are running, and so too the stripers, the fishermen, the diving birds and the magnificent whales. And so too am I.
Sure, there’s something to be said about fall.
But for me, it’s about twenty weeks till spring.
Update, Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2022: We placed a memorial angel, sent from Rod’s family down south, at Rod’s ashes site. Cheryl made the copper plate.
Categories: care givers