I grew up as the only girl in the family, the oldest, with two younger brothers rounding out the sibling lineup. Dan was born 18 months after me and Jon two years later. We grew up outside of town on an acre of land, and my brothers had built in playmates while I largely sat in my room and read books.
The boys would wrestle and Dan was the instigator. Jon would cry and run to mom and to this day he remains a mama’s boy. Dan was rough and tumble, always getting into mischief, handsome, blue eyed and blonde, an aberration in the otherwise olive skinned family.
In Greek families the oldest boy is the prize. My dad embraced Dan’s birthright and the two were symbiotically connected. Dad was a prominent lawyer and his skills came in handy as Dan got into minor legal scuffles, including a few stints with jail time. Once, my dad told Dan he had arranged through his connections to have Dan do time on a weekend, which happened to be Dan’s birthday.
“I called the bailiff and the jail is overbooked that day; you will go in and get out right away due to overcrowding,” he’d told my brother. Instead, Dan arrived to find “plenty of room at the inn.” “I figured if you served time on your birthday it might have an impact on you, and keep you from getting in trouble again,” Dad had announced when justifying the bait and switch.
Neither Dan nor Dad took care of their health. They were both heavy smokers, both liked to gamble, both ate lots of junk food and sugar and neither had any workout routine or ever set foot in a gym. Dan had been the country club junior golf champion in high school and it landed him a college scholarship to the University of New Orleans where he drank his way down Bourbon Street, ultimately terminating his college path. He dabbled in assorted drugs and alcohol and identified himself once as the “72 step man” having done 6 separate 12 step programs.
As Dan became the focus of our family, I faded into the background diligently studying, being a “good girl,” graduating at the top of my class and ultimately getting a law degree. I married and had three children and moved to Scottsdale, Arizona drifting apart from both of my brothers largely due to our lack of commonalities and the distance, although I always felt a strong affection especially for Dan.
When my children were small my dad came to visit us in Arizona with a cold that he couldn’t seem to shake. A friend who was an ER doc snuck him past the line at a busy Phoenix hospital and did a chest X-ray. I got a call that day telling me my dad was in dire straits physically and it was likely he had a terminal lung disease that had progressed extensively.
Things became a whirlwind. My mother shut down and was unable to cope and as the family rock I did what I do best. I took charge and mobilized, making a room for dad in our home and I partnered with hospice to care for him. My kids gathered around “Papou” and we made him as comfortable as possible.
Dan was devastated and for a long time stayed in Iowa saying he could not face visiting knowing of dad’s impending death. Soon he came out and spent time with Dad, even mustering up enough energy for the two of them to go to the casino with Dad in a wheelchair and full oxygen mask gear. I shuddered to think that a random casino cigarette smoker might blow up Dad and his sidekick with a booze laden flick of an ash but they lived through the ordeal. Dan left one night and went to a Phoenix tattoo parlor where he had the artist draw a heart that was in the midst of breaking and then brand it on his shoulder.
Dad died and we flew him back to Iowa for the funeral. Dan came to the funeral with a limp and a hand that hung abnormally. The scuttle butt was that he had gotten drunk and fallen asleep on his limb and didn’t wake before the circulation was cut off. He had been living in his car and was getting by with odd jobs. A doctor friend of my parents who observed Dan at the funeral came up to my mom and suggested that Dan be tested for Lou Gherig’s disease. My mother was devastated.
I flew back to Arizona after the funeral to get my kids situated and then flew back to Iowa to help figure out Dan’s situation. He’d been diagnosed with MS and the lawyer in me again took charge getting him the social security disability he needed, helping him get Section 8 housing, buying him a decent mattress and organizing other medical and social service benefits. Once he was situated, again, I spent very little time with him focusing instead on raising three children of my own and trying to deal with my emotionally fragile mother.
Ultimately I divorced, and moved back to Iowa where I would occasionally see Dan at Thanksgiving when I would cook for everyone and he would come. His MS worsened and he limped badly, finally using a walker. Autoimmune diseases lead to other autoimmune diseases and he soon had psoriasis all over his face and body, and had developed Type 2 diabetes. His physical condition worsened each time I saw him.
About a month ago I got a phone call. Dan’s physical therapist had noticed a strange lump in his neck. Further testing revealed the worst: Dan had cancer of the tongue that had spread into his lymph nodes. All the autoimmune complications made his case all the more difficult so he decided be treated at the Iowa City hospital, a teaching institution at the University of Iowa two hours away.
It was like déjà vu of my dad.
My mother went into high anxiety that makes her catatonic and histrionic all at once. Dan is single, having divorced years before from his waitress wife, and his adult son lives out of state and has a new baby of his own. I looked at Dan’s face which is the same face of my dad, and saw in his eyes the same fear I’d dealt with fourteen years earlier with a man that was at the time just ten years older than Dan is now. And I did what I always do. I took charge.
For the past few weeks Dan and I have been on the road back and forth to Iowa City. I cancelled clients and mediations, rearranged and juggled calendars and other obligations. I have become his medical overseer attending meetings with each specialist: internal medicine, otolaryngology, radiation, chemotherapy, neurology, and on and on. Meetings involve Dan describing symptoms and answering questions and his lawyer sister hunkering down with doctors to dissect medical terms and protocol. I take copious notes, ask intelligent questions, and then translate for Dan and field phone calls from my hysterical mother asking in anxiety and anguish “Is Dan going to die?!”
The hospital is a finely tuned machine and they identified the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes so they immediately mobilized for two surgeries: one on the lymph nodes and one on the tongue. Before they would treat the tongue cancer however they examined his teeth to be sure there was no risk of infection or other complications. Dan had not been to a dentist in at least 15 years and 7 teeth had to be extracted, gums had to be drilled down and periodontal disease eradicated. Surgery #1 would be complicated oral surgery.
Dan and I traveled to Iowa City the night before the oral surgery where I took him to the most expensive steakhouse in town. We ordered everything on the menu that required abundant chewing as a dental rite of passage; crunchy calamari appetizers, big juicy steaks, crispy salads, lobster tail and I savored a perfectly chilled gin martini. We talked and talked and laughed about our mutual upbringing and life travels. Dan kept saying, “This bill is going to be really expensive Sis are you sure you want to do this?” I felt ashamed that I often dine at fine restaurants and the bill would not be out of the ordinary for me on any given weekend.
Why hadn’t I been closer to Dan all these years? Despite our stark differences in life choices and paths we share the one gift we both got from our father. We are both loving, kind, compassionate people with big hearts. And God specifically chose us to be siblings in his perfect design for our lives.
The next morning I took him for his oral surgery, dutifully wheeling him in the wheelchair as I had done for prior visits during our intensive time there. The nurse took him inside and I sat waiting in the waiting room, returning client phone calls never letting on that their lawyer was handling their case while she sat in deep grief with strains of post traumatic stress, intermittently praying to the God she is connected to so deeply, while her brother began his cancer medical journey.
Some hours later I was called in to find Dan in his wheelchair with blood soaked gauze in his mouth, moaning softly. I am grateful that somehow I am made of “tough stock” and could calmly focus and mobilize. “In one hour take out the gauze, get him a milkshake and give him another pain pill. If you don’t get these pain pills on board it will be hell,” the nurse advised.
I wheeled him to the car, put him inside and buckled him down, silently praying for an angel escort and began the two hour drive to Des Moines with a moaning bleeding brother riding shotgun.
The drive from Iowa City is uneventful with just a few reasonably populated towns along the way. I passed one decent sized city that I knew would be milkshake laden but glanced at my watch and it was only 40 minutes in. Because I am a “rule follower” I kept going, trusting that in 20 more minutes I would hit another town even though at that time I had lost all sense of direction and couldn’t even tell you where I was.
At the 60 minute mark I saw a mile marker with a miniscule sign that said “FOOD” and I pulled off the interstate to come upon a non-descript mini truck stop convenience store. Dan moaned as I told him I was going in for a milkshake and he was so delirious I’ m sure he didn’t hear me. I locked the car door and hurried inside, shaking mildly.
As I walked in, an overweight woman was uncannily walking right towards me with a big smile and her nametag displaying that she was Angie. Angie asked me, “Can I help you?” and immediately I burst into tears sobbing uncontrollably letting out all the stress and anxiety that I ‘d been holding in for weeks. Angie put her arms around me as I blubbered about my brother and spilled a stream of consciousness that was largely based on the theme “why can one person have so many things go wrong in his life when mine is so blessed?” a sort of survivor’s guilt manifesto.
“And I need a chocolate milkshake!”
Angie turned me around and low and behold there was a homemade milkshake machine like I have NEVER seen in a truckstop convenience store. She took me to the machine and began to mix the milkshake telling me that she had cared for an ill relative, that her kids came out perfect even though she was an inadequate mother and her sister’s kids were all deviants even though her sister was perfect.
“You and your brother are each other’s teachers. You don’t have to know what it’s all about while you are on this side. Just don’t miss it.”
I hugged her again tightly and didn’t want to let go. I wanted Angie to take me home and make me milkshakes and tell me all about the meaning of life instead of getting back in the car and driving to Des Moines for what would be the first leg of a lonely and dark road with my brother.
Angie took me to the counter where I paid and she reminded me to get some water for myself. “What is your name and your brother’s name?” she asked.
“I am Kim and he is Dan,” I said and she walked me to a secluded corner of the store passing a wide array of beef jerky sticks, chips and processed foods.
There, tucked away on a shelf, was a brightly decorated mini Christmas tree with many mini decorations. Angie pulled off a decoration that resembled a rectangle pill box and she wrote the name Dan and Kim on a sheet of paper tucking the names inside the pillbox and shutting it tightly. Then she showed me the front of the box. “Prayers” it said, and she put it back on the tree.
“Now go take care of your brother.”
I went to the car, found a delirious Dan, removed the bloody gauze and slopped the milkshake down his throat with a big fat pain pill hidden inside one of the gulps. I tried to quickly organize my space, clean up spilled blood and then I got in the car and drove home to begin the recovery before his next surgery.
The next surgeries are coming up and there will be many back and forths to the hospital for them, and the radiation and chemo after that. I wonder if I could find the truck stop convenience store if I looked for it. I wonder if it even exists, and if it does, if Angie is there. A part of me imagines if I found the place and asked for Angie they would say “there is no Angie that works here.”
And I promise you her name was Angie. It’s short for Angel. God reminded me that He has this handled, and that I am not alone.