Siblings can be a Light-send, despite the occasional rivalry. Not only do they share blood ties, they can be your backup in times of trouble, a welcome celebrater in times of joy and a tandem member of the same generation with whom you can grow up and share the memories of life with. This makes it all the more tragic when one of these siblings leaves this life before they were rightfully intended. This also brings me to my older brother, Stéphane.
On this day 30 years ago, in the early morning hours, I was awoken by my mother who told me that we had to get dressed and get to the hospital as my brother was comatose and would likely die before sunrise. Being as I was only 13 years old, my concept of death held no comfort for me and in fact, simply told me that I would be losing my only sibling and never see him again after this visit. This was mixed with the unhealthy belief I had developed from years of seeing him “on the brink,” only to come out of it and be released from the hospital a few short days later. The first night of my life that I was wrong would prove to be the last night of his.
We arrived at the hospital shortly after midnight. We were met at the elevator as we exited on my brother’s floor, by our family doctor and long-time friend, Dr. Edward Furlong. Some readers from New Brunswick (if there are any for this post) may recognize that name as he was also the Minister of Health and subsequently, Minister of Education for New Brunswick during the first decades of the 2000’s. He greeted us solemnly and walked us to my brother’s room. We could hear his moans floating down the hallway, which elicited my first and only question of the night: “I thought he was in a coma?” The doctor explained that he was, but that some unresponsive people could still make sound, under certain circumstances.
I walked into a scene that until that point, I had only seen on television. My brother was lying on his back with his head slightly elevated. He had tubes coming out of both arms, his nose and all about his head. There were multiple machines with displays, beeping and moving with a measurable rhythm. And once or twice every minute, a low moan of pain escaped from my brother’s unpainted lips. The scene immediately melted any illusions I had for his survival, as similar scenes I’d scene in movies were usually one that accompanied death, soon after. I broke into tears at the realization that this genuinely was the last night I would see my brother alive.
My parents discussed providing me with a private room so that I could potentially get some sleep as it was expected to be an extremely long night. My parents held fast to the belief that my brother would pull through, so they had unfounded expectations I would be going to school the following day. I was brought to an unoccupied room on the other side of the hospital’s wing, a fact which would become important, later in the story. I took off my shoes and slipped under the starched hospital sheets. Although it was the middle of the night and I was exhausted, I obviously couldn’t fall asleep.
I was pretty much a sobbing mess, thinking about all the times when I’d been frustrated and angry with my brother. Instead of focusing on all the good memories, thoughts of all the times we fought or disagreed came to mind, generously sprinkled with the number of times I said harsh or cruel words to him. I instantly regretted each and every one of them and swore a silent oath to make it up to him if I were ever given the opportunity, painfully unaware the chance would never present itself. I was visited frequently by either of my parents, Dr. Furlong and the score of nurses who were keeping an eye on me. I couldn’t hear my brother from where I was, but the constant visits kept me on edge as I kept expecting every person to be the one who would ultimately bring bad news.
Short minutes after the 3 a.m. hour I finally fell into a peaceful sleep, which would be immediately interrupted by my father who had come to announce that my brother had passed away, almost to the very minute that I had fallen asleep. At the risk of sounding creepy, my mother’s side of the family has been often known for strange coincidences such as this. But even the nurse who had been keeping an eye on me was able to confirm that I had fallen asleep almost to the minute that my brother finally passed. I like to think of it as his way of sharing some much-needed peace as he finally obtained his.
The weeks that followed were a blur and quite surreal. At my young age, I had unfortunately attended funerals before but never for a member of my immediate family. During the funeral viewings over two days, I sat a chair next to his coffin and never left his side, painfully aware that once that lid was closed I would never set eyes on my older brother again. It was the greatest sense of loss I had ever felt in my life to that point, for a much needed life lesson that nobody wants. Once the funeral was over, my parents and I took a trip up the Gaspé coast to get away for a bit. It was a pleasant trip, but there was always something to remind me that our family unit was a member short. And always would be.
So, why would I choose to write about this today? Well, besides the fact that today marks the 30th anniversary of his death (despite not being something one celebrates) it also dawned on me that I usually observe this day privately and I’ve never written my thoughts on how that night impacted me. And I believe it’s important. I’ve written about my brother before, and I can tell you that his personality and willingness to fight to live and survive was passed on to me. He is the biggest inspiration in my life in relation to fighting the odds, no matter what. I attribute my ability to never give up and think positive to him. He was certainly more of a teacher to me than he was ever aware.
At the end of all things, his cause of death was heart failure, despite the multitude of health issues that could have done him in sooner. There is great irony in the fact that despite being a young man with the biggest heart, his heart was what finally gave out. I guess that makes sense as his heart was always what he used most. Even now, 30 years after the fact, I’m still brought to tears while writing these words. Considering I’m not the most emotional dude on the block (some rocks show more emotion than I usually do) this goes a long way towards showing the impact he had on my life, for as short a time as we were together.
Hold your loved ones close, dear readers. I often say that life doesn’t care about one’s plans. And we never know when we may lose someone near and dear, or when this life ends for ourselves. It warms my heart to know that my son Nathan now has a younger brother, Alex. Whether he realizes it or not, it’s comforting to know that he’ll have some backup, should anything ever happen to my wife and I. Even now, I pray you’re resting in peace, brother. Whether in this life or the next, I’m confident we’ll see each other again. ☯