My brother was dying.
Not in the abstract everybody is going to die someday way, but in the lying on a nursing home bed, every breath may be his last way.
Still, he had a good life. Living to be seventy six, married forty two years before his wife passed, three children, no druggies or miserable human beings in the bunch.
His oldest daughter was killed in an auto accident when he she was fifty one, his son was a middle manager living out West, his youngest daughter was in Alaska.
The only family he had left locally was me, his youngest brother, twelve years his junior.
I was an "oops" baby, surprising everyone. My dad passed when I was eight, and Don stepped in, becoming a surrogate father. Despite our ages we were as close as brothers could be.
I followed him around like a puppy. One of my finest memories is going out after church Sundays and helping clean his car, one of those hot rods from the sixties, and afterwards getting a pint of chocolate milk and a cake from the store.
I was five eight, slender, when I reached my adult size, he was six three and weighted about two fifty. I took after mom, he took after dad. He had his jet black hair, I had fine blond locks that I wore long, after the fashion of the time. He was 'big dude' and I was 'little hippie'. We argued over politics constantly, but in good fun.
It was lung cancer, a side effect of smoking two or more packs of unfiltered Lucky Strikes a day for over forty years. He blamed air pollution.
He lay there, rasping, as I went to check on him before going home for the night.
I was director of nursing at the rest home he was in. Usually I worked the day shift, but it was Christmas Eve, and I always worked the afternoon shift to give our younger nurses time with their families. I also worked Christmas, coming in at ten for the same reason. We had an empty nest, my wife and I, and she understood, God bless her.
I looked at the small, eighteen inch tree I had found at a discount store and put on his night stand. The small strand of lights gave off a feeble glow. Checking his chart, I glanced at the night nurse, she shook her head and patted my hand. I stepped out and called my wife.
Our daughter and her family had come in the day before, she and the three grandchildren were putting finishing touches on the holiday decorations.
"Hi honey, it's me. I may be a little late tonight."
The line was silent for a minute, before she said in a sad voice, "how long?"
I knew she didn't mean how long before I came home, but how much longer did I think he was going to last.
"Call if you need me. Tell him I love him."
She had always liked my brother. I heard a small sob as she hung up.
I went back in the room and just sat quietly, watching him and remembering good times.
He woke slowly, looking around.
"Damn, I thought you were a vulture there for a minute. What the hell are you doing here this late? Go home. Be with your family."
"They're all asleep. I was running late."
I looked at my watch. Twenty minutes until Christmas.
"It's almost Christmas, thought I'd hang around with you, make sure I get my present. I saw you making eyes at your nurse, you'll probably give it to her if I'm not here."
He tried to laugh but it came out as a rasping cough. I gave him some ice water. When the coughing subsided he grinned.
"Why would I do that? It would make me look like a cheapskate."
There were two small packages under the miniature tree. We both knew what they were without looking.
It was a tradition going back to our youth. Money was often tight for a single mom. She made sure we got something, but there was often no money for the siblings to buy presents with. After a few years, Don and our oldest sister would slip us a few dollars to buy something for our mom and each other.
He used to go on and on about how much he loved chocolate covered cherries, but they had to be Queen Anne, nothing else would do. They happened to also be the cheapest. I think back then they were like fifty nine cents. My sister and I would always get him a box each, and he would make a production out of eating them, and pretending he didn't want to share. I loved Junior Mints, so every year he gave me a box.
As we got older and could afford things, the presents would be more expensive, but every year without fail we could each look forward to a box of our favorite candy. We had given each other a box for the last fifty five years.
So underneath that pitiful excuse of a tree were two brightly wrapped boxes, Queen Anne cherries and Junior Mints.
We opened them up, pretending to be surprised. He put them on his stand, sighing.
"Looks like I'm gonna check out on you, hippie."
I put my hand on his, probably the most intimate touch I had ever given him.
"Hold on a little longer, dude. Your kids will be here tomorrow."
"Tell them I love 'em, and I'm sorry I couldn't wait. I feel like the Silver Angel will be here soon. Reckon that nonsense is true?"
I laughed softly.
"If you can keep a secret, I'll tell you a story. I know the Silver Angel personally. So do you. It's somebody you already love."
I was hoping if I told the tale it would keep his interest, and maybe he would hold on for a bit longer.
I could see his interest.
I fluffed up his pillow, had him sit up a little straighter.
"You remember when I got back from the service?"
It was 1970.
I had just got back from a two year Southeast Asian vacation courtesy of my uncle. It sucked.
Two tours. I never got shot, never shot anybody. I was a medic. I spent my time holding scared and dying kids my age, and trying to keep them alive.
I got a unit citation, a Good Conduct Medal, and an honorable discharge.
I took the GI benefits and went back to nursing school. I had dropped out when I ran out of money, making me eligible for the draft. My lottery number was nineteen out of thirty. I was screwed. So I joined up, actually getting a recruiter with some sense. Seeing my year of nurse training, he actually got me assigned to the medical corp. I breezed through medic training, I had already covered most of it in nursing school.
As my schooling progressed, I qualified as a certified nursing assistant, then a practical nurse, before getting my degree and becoming a registered nurse.
I spent many years as an emergency room nurse. The pay was good, and no what matter came through those doors, I had already seen worse.
My mom was working at the rest home, she and the owner had been best friends in school.
"Remember the Queen family estate fight?"
My brother grunted.
"Yeah, one wife against the ex wife, right?"
"Exactly. Nobody could find his will, and then the ex came up with the old will, before he got remarried. It was turning into an ugly court battle. What you, and nobody else except me until now, knew was how it got resolved."
"Eric Queen was successful farmer, owning over four hundred acres that had been in his family for generations."
"He had two families, the first with his ex wife, two boys. He had three with his second wife, two boys and a girl. Remember?"
"His first wife was very attractive. So attractive in fact, that she felt entitled. Secretly she felt like she was doing Eric a fa"
"But, he was a very successful farmer, and was richer than she knew. Even then, he was worth several million. Of course, it was tied up in maintaining the land and equipment, so very little of it was liquid.""They lived in the ancestral home, a huge, two story farmhouse. She hated it, telling him they needed a newer, modern home. He was stubborn, saying if it was good enough for his great grandfather, it was good enough for him. It was a constant bone of contention."
"In their second year, she had their first son, twenty months later she had their second. He wanted a large family, but she thought two was enough, and secretly had her tubes tied, telling him the last child had messed up her uterus and there would be no more. He knew nothing about female anatomy, and didn't think she would lie to him, so he accepted it."
"When the oldest was around ten, she embarked on an affair with her doctor. He was also married, with four children."
"They got careless, and his wife had him watched. Eric didn't know a thing about it until the divorce action, when she was named as the reason for the breakup."
"Edwina, Eric's wife, denied it right up until the photos came to light. Then it was all over but the name calling and custody fight. And there was a lot of name calling."
"Forty years ago infidelity was a much weightier factor in divorces, and she got very little. Child support, a small cash settlement, and alimony for a year. Many thought she got much more than she deserved."
"She begged him for another chance, but he was adamant. He no longer trusted her, so how could he love her. They may have had a chance at reconciliation until he found out she had her tubes tied."
""The doctor let the information slip out of spite.He didn't lose his medical license, but it was a close thing. The medical board let him keep his it, mostly so he could support his children. He got raped in the divorce."
"When Eric found out she had 'gotten fixed' without his knowledge, it killed what little chance she had of getting him back."
.... There is more of this story ...