We’re sitting on the couch in my living room; my brother and I. He’s been coming over from time to time to check on me. Although he won’t admit it, I know he is coming over to make sure I’m okay, that I’m still holding it all together. This particular night, we’re each nursing a beer, shooting the breeze. We’re talking about nothing particular. The TV is on – hockey – it’s our favourite distraction.
“Nice goal,” I say. He nods in agreement, takes a swig of his beer, draining it, and puts the empty bottle down on the coffee table in front of him. “You want another one?” I ask.
“Yeah, alright,” he says, “I can’t stay much longer, though, got to get back home to help put the kids to bed”.
I rise slowly from the couch to go get us a couple more brews. As I stand, I groan slightly. My energy is waning a little in recent days. I feel more tired than I have in the past and it hurts when I do anything more than just lay completely still. It’s not too bad, just a new normal. I catch my brother watching me from the corner of my eye.
“You alright?” he asks me, concern clearly in his voice.
“Yeah man, nothing to worry about,” I say. I reach across the couch, slap his knee, and finish the ascent to my feet. As I walk out of the room, I can feel his eyes following me. A few steps away from the doorway, I turn to look at him, grin, and ask, “You looking at my ass?”
He rolls his eyes and shakes his head, retorting, “Yeah, I am, but only because I want to kick it.”
I laugh and make my way to the kitchen to get the beer. I can’t help but think about the absurdity of our conversation. That’s us, though. It’s always been us. I know, as does he, that every insult and cheap shot comes from a place of love. Every living room wrestling match we’ve ever been in, every ‘noogie’ ever given, every downright mean and nasty thing we’ve ever done to each other is because we are brothers who care about each other.
The way that brothers show affection defies all logic and makes no sense. We pick at each other and break each other down. We practically push each other to the point of annihilation and barely stop at the cry of mercy, but to boys, men, and especially brothers, this means we care. In a strange way, these assaults on each other are practice for a time where we may have to throw down our lives for each other. There is no doubt that each of us would die for the other if it came to it. There is also no doubt that nobody has my back more than my brothers.
I have been lucky. I grew up in a big family. I am one of seven sons. I am nestled snugly in the middle as the fourth child. Our family is no strangers to loss. Two of my brothers have already traveled to the great beyond, one from a car accident more than 20 years ago and the other from cancer only 3 years ago. These tragedies where their young lives were cut short make us all acutely aware of the finality of death and the impact it has on families. We’ve lived it, we keep living it. For me, what I have come to understand so well is that when the reaper comes, he can’t be cheated. It doesn’t matter how old you are, what you’ve done with your life, or how many reasons you have for staying on this earth; when it’s your time, it’s your time.
Having lived this experience with death and having come so perilously close to it myself on so many occasions throughout my 36 years, I have learned that the only thing controllable in life is how one chooses to live it. While there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do to bring my brothers back, their own deaths’ have taught me a lot about living.
I come back to the living room, a beer in each hand. I pass one of the bottles to my brother; he reaches up and takes it from me. I sit back down on my side of the couch. We each twist the caps off of our respective bottles, springing the liquid inside to life with a soft hiss and a pop. My brother, holding his bottle in his right hand, extends it towards my side of the couch and shakes it gently. “Cheers,” he says and waits for me. In response, I raise my own bottle and meet his in the middle. We lightly clank the drinks together with an audible ‘tink’ of the glass, “Cheers,” I echo. We move the bottles to our lips, each taking a long deep gulp. We fall into silence, a brief moment of tenderness between brothers hanging on into the quiet.
After a while, my brother speaks. “Are you scared?” he asks.
I take a deep breath in, contemplating my answer before speaking, “Sometimes,” I reply honestly, “I don’t know how much it’s going to hurt. I don’t know what it’s going to be like at the end. But mostly I’m scared for you guys. I don’t want to cause anyone any more pain.”
“I understand that,” he says, as I knew he would. Like I said before, we’ve been down this road already. I know what is to come for them. In a way, this time around, I feel like I have the easy job. I’m not the one who will be left behind this time to pick up the pieces.
He continues, “I’m scared too.” He pauses and moves his eyes to connect with mine. “Why does this keep happening to our family?” he questions. He knows I don’t have the answer to this. I’ve asked it to myself at least a million times.
I shrug and shake my head. “I don’t know,” I reply. He looks away.
“Have you thought about what you’re going to do?” he asks while he adjusts himself on the couch so that we are no longer able to directly face each other. I am thankful to escape the look of pain in his eyes.
I think to myself, “there’s that question again”, but I am happy to shift the conversation back to a topic that I feel more comfortable with. “Yeah,” I reply, “I’ve been tossing around a few ideas of things I want to do. You know bucket list type stuff.”
“Yeah?” he asks surprised. He knows this type of planning is out of character for me.
“Yeah, well, I mean, kind of,” I reply, “you know me, though, I’m not much for anything too extravagant or out of control, but I’ve been writing a few things down.”
“Can I see?” he asks.
“Yeah, sure,” I reach under the couch and pull out the notebook from my secret hiding spot where I’d stashed it right before my brother came over. I open the cover and turn it towards him. He takes the book from my hand and scans the list of things that I have scribbled down.
He flips the page and reads the complete list, nodding along as his eyes travel down the page. “Okay,” he says, “Nothing too crazy on there.”
“Nah,” I reply, “As I said before, you know I’m not much for crazy.”
“I like your list,” he says, “seems doable.”
“Yeah,” I agree with him, “I think so.”
“So, what’s first?” he asks, handing the notebook back to me.
“I don’t know,” I reply, shrugging my shoulders, “I haven’t thought that far ahead yet.” The truth is I haven’t thought much about anything on the list. It’s become a graveyard of parked ideas, just somewhere for me to write down an arbitrary list of fleeting wishes based on desires deep seeded within me. Part of me has been afraid to think about this list. If I think about it, then I have to do something about it. “What happens if I start and can’t finish?” “What happens if I finish and then have nothing left to strive for?” So many silly thoughts swirl through my mind.
“We will come up with something,” my brother says, “Don’t worry about it. I’ve got to get going now, though.” He stands to go and starts walking towards the entryway. As he reaches the threshold between the living room and kitchen he pauses and says, “Seriously, don’t worry about it. We WILL come up with something.”
For a brief moment, I don’t know whether he is offering to help me with my list or if he is grasping at straws, promising to find an imaginary cure out there that we both clearly know doesn’t exist. I know that I’ll never know either way what he truly meant. I say nothing, smile, walk past him to the kitchen and open the door to let him pass. He leaves, and I watch him walk down the front path. He turns back towards the house when he reaches his car and waves before opening the door and getting in. I wave back. I stand in the open doorway, feeling the cold outside air streaming inside. I stand there watching him as he starts his car, puts it in reverse and exits slowly out of the driveway. It’s not until I see the red tail lights disappear down the road that I step back into the house and shut the door.
I’m alone again with my thoughts. Walking back to the living room, I pick up the notebook; it’s still open to the first page. I read the list over again. I grab a pen that is sitting on the end table beside me. I pull off the cap. I move it to the top of the list, lowering it to the paper. I drag the pen under the words, highlighting their importance. This serves as a reminder to me that if I accomplish nothing more than this item I will be fulfilled.
The words jump out from the page now. I am happy with my addition. I am happy with my list in general. Whether I finish all of the items on the list or none of them, I don’t care anymore because I realize that it’s not about how many items I stroke off the list, it’s about how many of these items give my life meaning and purpose. This item, simple, pure, but perfect, is how I want to be defined. I want to be a good father, a good brother, a good friend and partner. I want to be there for my family and friends. In the time I have left, I want to remind the people I love that I will always be here for them. I may not have long to live, but I want to create moments in time now, while I still can, that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. My item – it’s straightforward and uncomplicated, but so full of possibilities and wide open to be ripe with new experiences.
I smile and close the cover of the notebook. I lay the pen back on the end table beside me and I quickly stash the notebook back into its secret hiding place under the couch.
“Tomorrow,” I think to myself, “I’ll begin tomorrow”.
And I know that when I wake the world will be full of promise. Life will begin anew. I will be given one more day and one more chance to live, love, learn and grow. And though I am still dying, each morning when I wake, I know I will have been given the gift of being alive for one more day. This gift allows me to be able to make something more of my life. It allows me to be and do whatever I want with the time I have left. It allows me the precious opportunity to find meaningful ways to be present for my friends and family. And while I don’t know how many tomorrows I have left, the reality is that nobody ever does. I know that living life and accomplishing the items on my list are simply about making the most out of each day. The meaning of life, at least the meaning of my life, is to be present in the moment, to love fully, and to be giving of the time that I have left.
I know that the world will keep spinning and my family and friends will pick up the pieces left behind by my death. Time will move on and their lives will go forward without me in it, but, in each of their hearts, through every day of their lives, a part of me will still live on. I will exist through love. I will live on in the memories of the good times we’ve spent and how we filled all of our tomorrows together, in love, laughter, comfort, and peace. I will find meaningful ways to be present in their lives now, while I still can, so that someday when their tomorrows go on without me physically there, a part of me will always go with them.
I stand up, gather the empty beer bottles from the table, and take them to the kitchen. I deposit them in the sink and pause to reflect on the conversation of earlier in the evening. I think of my brother and how I appreciate him coming to check on me. I think of my other brothers, the ones still here and the two who`ve already passed. I think of my children and the friends and family that I love so much. I think about how I am going to miss them. I think about how I know that they will miss me too. I think about my life so far and the life I have left to live. I think about my notebook and the items within and the plans begin to form in my mind. I stand there, looking out the window, thinking for a very long time. The clock on the wall chimes midnight. It`s time for bed. As I shut out the lights and head toward my bedroom, I can`t help but think about tomorrow. Tomorrow … there is so much promise for tomorrow.