I’m at an age when funerals beckon way more frequently than weddings, so you’d think I’d have figured out the whole grieving thing by now. That’s the first thought that came to mind last week when I heard that my 73-year-old brother, affectionately known as The Tin Man (he once ran a siding company), had tumbled into the cancer vortex.
A PET scan revealed tumors invading his scalp and shoulder, his liver and lymph nodes, his tibia and back. “We have called the Mayo,” his daughter wrote in a text replete with heart emojis and a call for prayers. I lamely texted back: “So sad.”
Sad indeed. But what do you say at a time like this? Of course, I feel bad for him and his family, the medical meatgrinder that awaits, the sudden stark glimpse of mortality. I can’t feel his pain, I can’t imagine what’s going through his mind, I can’t share his burden. I can’t even give him a hug. Maybe, though, I could feel something other than vague foreboding.
Perhaps it’s my British-Nordic heritage (stiff upper lip and all that) or a quarter century of Buddhist practice (impermanence, nonattachment, life is suffering, etc.), but I can’t recall shedding many tears when Dad and Mom passed or when my nephew died last winter at the tender age of 52. There’s sadness, of course, and a sense of loss, but I seem to instinctively distance myself — preparing for the worst — when perhaps I could be useful in some way before the worst occurs.
We canceled our regular Wednesday tee time, as he had scheduled a meeting with an oncologist, but he pushed back when our older brother mentioned cutting short our golfing adventures for the year. “Don’t cancel the season,” he texted. “There are a lot of low scores out there!”
Maybe we could get together for a beer after his appointment, he ventured. That sounded good to me: We could gauge his mood and mindset, quaff a couple of cold ones, and perhaps lighten everyone’s load for an hour or two.
It made me recall a post-funeral gathering after we buried my Uncle Arnie several years ago. At the graveside, one of my cousins suggested that we head back to Arnie’s garage and hang out for a while around his renowned tool bench. I don’t know who brought the case of Grain Belt, but there’s something about putting a bottle of beer in your hand that brings out the stories. A dozen or more of us stood there in my uncle’s hallowed ground for I don’t know how long, but by the time we’d emptied that case, we’d managed to exorcise whatever demons we carried — and head back out into the cold, cruel world with something resembling a smile.
By midday Wednesday, though, I began to feel some nagging ambivalence setting in. Did I really want to drive all the way from the far southern suburb where my laptop was undergoing maintenance to the far northern suburb where we’d likely be meeting? During rush hour? Our two younger siblings had vowed to attend, as well, which made me wonder just how large a gathering this was going to be (TTM’s kids all live in the area and might show up, too) and how much family sorrow — or mirth — I was prepared to absorb.
And then there’s the guilt: What sort of person would even be thinking about himself at this moment?
Driving back into the city with my repaired computer, I figured I’d probably go after all, but I was never forced to make that decision. Nobody texted, nobody called, and I never reached out to see what was up. The update came via The Tin Man’s Caringbridge site: “Hole #1 Dad shot a birdie!” his daughter wrote. “Dad’s doctor feels confident that we have the time to get it right, as the existing tumors are primarily in his muscles, not organs.”
I texted him the next day — he can’t talk on the phone due to a paralyzed vocal cord — to acknowledge the optimistic news and see how he was doing. “Thanks, dude!” he replied, which I took to be upbeat, but who knows? I wanted to tell him that at least he knows now what’s been causing him so much pain these last few months, but that might sound too flippant. There’s no way to know what he’s feeling now.
And my own emotions are hardly static. So, I was heartened by advice in a recent New York Times essay on the grieving process. Asked how to support family and friends during a time of crisis, psychotherapist Martha Crawford explains that each of us has to gauge how much we’re able to give at any moment. “We move through periods of time when we can function and periods when we can’t,” she says. “Try to honestly recognize where you are — when you have support to lend and when you have support to give — and then let people know where you’re at, and ask where they’re at.”
Tomorrow, The Tin Man will be back at the hospital, where doctors will insert a port for chemo and run a number of tests to identify the particular cancer that has suddenly changed his life. I’ll be holed up in my home office cranking away on some deadline and assuming that he’ll be surrounded by family. I’ll send him a text at some point just to let him know I’m thinking about him.
That’s probably the best I can do right now. As doctors clarify his treatment plan and we all know more about the procedures and protocol, it’ll be easier to calculate when to reach out and when to withdraw. There will be no more golf this season; that much we know. And the pandemic will certainly limit the family’s holiday gatherings. So, we’ll need to figure out other ways to connect — before another funeral comes calling.
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