By BRANDAN WONCH
They say no parent wants to outlive his child, that watching your child die is one of the hardest things anyone could ever go through in life. Well I don’t know myself. I have absolutely no clue how such a thing could feel, but recently I had to see something close to it. I saw two young men, 20 and 16, lose a father. My two step-brothers lost their father in the wee hours of Sunday morning.
Their father had a massive stroke about a month earlier that paralyzed the entire right side of his body. After taking care of their father for a little over a month, their mother asked for them to take a break and to go to her place, which was a four-hour drive away from the hospital where their father was staying. I was there with them and we managed to get them laughing, playing pool, playing video games, and watching movies. But as you can predict things didn’t stay that way; around 8:30 p.m. Saturday night they received a call that their dad had made a turn for the worse. When they were told he wouldn’t make it through the night, we began a four-hour drive to the hospital, from Weidman to Jackson.
I rode with my two step-brothers, with the oldest driving and following the path that his mom and my dad were driving in front of us. Hands down, one of the longest drives I have ever been on. The oldest was laser-focused on his mom’s car ignoring nearly everything else, while the youngest was fidgeting around changing the radio stations or just turning it on and off. It was clear they were both a mess, and now I was stuck with them wondering what the hell do I do?
Before moving on, I feel I should add some things. First of all, though these are my step-brothers and I cared for them, there has always been a wall between us. Second, I had no idea their father was in such bad shape. Third, I have never once even seen their dad, let alone talk to him or had any sort of relationship with him. Lastly, I have been quoted saying on more than one occasion (and probably my favorite saying of all time though I don’t remember what it’s from), “even in the darkest of times there is always something to laugh at.”
So I decided to put that to the test, and it worked. I’m not saying that I made everything alright with a few jokes, but I truly believe it helped. As I said, it was a long drive and you could feel the tension bearing down on everyone. Then I noticed my youngest step-brother try to talk and he even made a joke at my expense, so with that fueling my thought process I decided to go with it.
Thinking back on it now, I don’t honestly know the first joke I said, but it got a few chuckles out of the two brothers. I do know that the last third of the ride was filled with jokes, mostly inappropriate “if you know what I mean” jokes. We all laughed and they even let out a few tears, releasing their pent-up emotions. For a brief minute I think they forgot where they were going and just what they were going to have to deal with.
Shortly after that, we pulled into the hospital. My step-brothers, along with their mother and their aunt, went up to see their father, while I followed after them. If you have never seen someone on their deathbed, it’s disturbing to say the least. Seeing the once large man lying in a bed unresponsive to those around him, hooked up to a bunch of different wires, in a cramped room, and with his legs and arms about half the size they should be, with everything smelling of sick …. It was an unsettling sight to be sure.
What made it worse to me, at the risk of sounding cynical, was that the scene was filled with every cliché you ever saw in a movie or on TV — people flip-flopping back and forth between crying, laughing at old stories, and constantly uttering phrases like “it’s all alright,” “we’re all here for you” and “just let go.” After a while I couldn’t help but notice how hollow and empty the words sounded. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me mad at first, but as it was happening I slowly realized “why” it was happening.
The answer is a simple one too. The people in that room were just going through the motions, saying all the things they had heard on TV, because they didn’t know what else to do. They were in pain and disbelief. Saying their hollow words was all they could do. Watching this I couldn’t help but think that though I honestly didn’t feel much for the dying man in bed whom I knew nothing about, my heart went out to the two men who sat beside him. Two men whom I am now proud to call my brothers because they handled the situation better than anyone else could.
They cried, they laughed, they said their hollow words, and they never once backed down. They didn’t let fear control them and when emotions were at their highest and they wanted to just lash out at everyone near them, they managed to stop and calm themselves. They even managed to ask others how they were doing, tried to keep everyone calm and as happy as the situation allowed. They thanked the doctors and nurses who had helped us throughout the night.
When it was all over and their father had his last breath, the only people left were the two young men, their mother and myself. I stepped out into the hallway and let them say their final words to their father.
When they came out, I hugged both of them, told them how sorry I was they had to go through this, and told them how proud I was of them. Then we got in the car at 4 a.m. on Sunday morning and drove all the way back to Weidman. Once we got home everyone quickly went to bed. But when we woke up, there was no denying the heavy atmosphere, but it was another day. We managed to eat some breakfast, say a few words and then we watched “Wreck it Ralph.”