J died in the month of September, almost a full moon after his 42nd birthday. He wasn’t ready to go, but he also knew that that was no longer up to him. He understood that his time was approaching quickly, and it was important to him to have his family around, even if he was in too much pain to enjoy them. The plan was for me to fly up from Madrid to Haslemere on Wednesday night. I got a text message from him on Monday asking when I was coming, and I responded that I would be there in two days. Based on the fact that J had been slowly deteriorating for the last several months and the deterioration had been exponential in the last few weeks, I knew that I was going into a very delicate situation, but it wasn’t until J answered me back that I realized just how precarious things were. J’s message said “wish it were sooner”. My parents had already been there for a couple of days, and I wondered if maybe I needed to be there, too. I called him immediately and asked him if he needed me to come up before, and he laughed, filling his voice with typical J bravery, “No, come Wednesday, it will be great!”
J and I had been especially close in adulthood. Gone were the days of screaming at one another in the backseat of the car, driving our mom crazy while J poked and prodded me as I scratched and spit at him. Six years my elder, J had plenty of physical and intellectual advantages over me, so in the heat of battle, his game was led by strategic taunting, while mine simply used whatever was leftover. Growing up, we were often the classic image of the big brother standing next to his baby sister, hand resting on top of her head to steady her at an arm’s length away, while she swung her flailing fists in front of her, aiming for his belly, her arms not long enough to actually make contact. Truth was that we adored one another even then, but he was the oldest and I was the youngest, and we played our roles out to perfection. His favorite game was the one that went like this: “bet you can’t get me a coke in 30 seconds”. Not to be told what I couldn’t do, my response to him would naturally be “oh yes, I can!” and I would, of course, prove it to him by getting him that coke in only 23 seconds… Things began to change when J went to college. He was stunned to come back after only a semester away to find that I, in sixth grade, had started wearing a training bra. I remember secretly taking in the look on his face when, after greeting me with a warm hug, he turned to my mom and whispered to her, “is she wearing what I think she is wearing?”
When I was sixteen, J was home again for the holidays. Conversations naturally began to change, and teasing was replaced with dialogue. J and I didn’t always agree on everything, and I swelled with pride the day he retorted after a long debate, “when did you become so opinionated?!” He grew to appreciate the fact that I had an opinion, and our discourse was often lively and animated. Even in the most heated of discussions, though, J always won: he approached everything in life with humor and he had the ability to turn even the most serious of topics into the absurd. In the end, no matter what we talked about, we would always end up laughing. In my early twenties, it was clear: I adored my big brother, and he was the light that guided me in what sometimes seemed like long periods of post-adolescent darkness.
With the option of doing graduate work at Columbia University’s Teachers College on the table, I elected to attend the far less well-known University of Hertfordshire in Watford, England, so that I would be closer to J. That year was one of the most miserable of my academic life – the program was not what I wanted, the weather was horrible, I endured a long distance relationship with a very insecure young man, and my anorexia started to come back. But my time with J was priceless. Once a month, I would meet J in London and he would take me out for a pizza. And toward the end of the year, I spent nearly every other weekend at his house in Wimbledon. I had been so often, I could almost take the three trains blindfolded.
Leaving England was the best thing for me, but having been there for a year elevated my relationship with J to a place that only the luckiest of siblings find. J and I began to talk about one another as though we were soul mates. We joked with family and friends about how we would marry one another in our next life (because clearly in this one, it wasn’t allowed). Several years later, after marriage and babies, I got divorced. J had always been my protector, but as he watched his baby sister go through the pain of separation, taking care of me took on a whole new meaning. J knew that he couldn’t make it go away, but he did everything in his power to make me happy and feel good about myself.
Unsurprisingly, when J announced that he had cancer, we were all devastated. J had always been the cornerstone in our dysfunctional little family; he was the one who made it all okay when things got out of hand. He had the franchise on managing our temperamental father, he could always get a giggle out of our mom, and he was the link that made it so that our estranged brother was never too far away. He was the king of his own roost, with his own wife and two daughters. And for my kids, there simply was no better uncle.
During J’s last summer with us, we all watched as the cancer took over. He could no longer hide the pain, and his smiles were fewer and further between. His most peaceful moments were either on the hammock or in the pool, where he could lie almost weightless so that the pain was less excruciating. Though his body weakened, his spirit stayed strong, only occasionally giving way to a curt word or complaint founded in physical distress. He was a star. There was no other way to describe him, in fact, there really hadn’t ever been any other way. He could light up the darkest corners of anyone’s universe, and he could disperse the grayest of clouds with his laughter. He had always been a star, and so it seemed the least I could do for him was to name a star after him. For J’s 42nd birthday, I went to the star registry online and named one of the stars in the constellation of Canis Major for him (after all, he was kind of the “big dog”). I later found out that within Canis Major is Sirius, which allegedly is the brightest star in the sky: it couldn’t have been more perfect.
A couple of weeks before heading up to Haslemere, J and I had a long talk on the phone. He had just been fast-tracked for a mobility scooter through the national health care service in the UK and he was telling me about how he had been able to test drive the different scooters. We laughed at the image and he promised me a ride on his scooter when I arrived. We planned my trip, deciding on the ultimate “date”: a ride on his new scooter, and a swing on his brand new double hammock as we looked for the star that carried his name. To top it off, I would stay with him in the playroom, where they had set up a medical bed for him, complete with the back that went up and down at the touch of a button. We referred to it as “the slumber party”.
When I arrived on the Wednesday night, I found a man who looked a lot like my brother, but who was frail and weak, and with dark, dull eyes that had only a faint hint of the bright green of before. Amazingly, his voice sounded the same and his laughter still rang. He was very brave, and very firm, and he resisted a nurse for two nights because he wanted to have that slumber party with his little sister that he had promised. So I slept in the same room with him, and was up with him all night both Wednesday and Thursday, when the pain would kick in and the coughing would start. After a lifetime of being my guardian, J let himself be taken care of, and though I know he hated for me to see him like that, he allowed it because he knew I needed to take care of him for a change.
For weeks J had teased me. Knowing the end was near, I would wake up in the morning and send him a text asking about his night. He would respond “still hereJ”. This is what I expected when I heard my cell phone sound off on Thursday morning. J, ever the joker, would be trying to make me laugh, no doubt. On this particular morning, however, the message was different. Despite our superficial role reversal, J remained, until the last moment, my protector. His message said “Not too long now. Hang in there.”
On Friday night, the night that he died, I didn’t stay with him. Thursday night was so bad that the medication was increased dramatically throughout the day on Friday and that night, a nurse stayed with him. I spent some time with him, doing what I could to assist the nurse, and holding his hand as much as I could. Eventually, 48 sleepless hours demanded that I get some rest so I said goodnight to him and then went outside to smoke a cigarette. True to our promise, and despite the fact we never got to ride the scooter or lie in the hammock together, we did look for the star during my visit. But we had yet to see it. That Friday night, as I inhaled the smoke, my mind almost completely blank from exhaustion, I looked up into the sky and then, there it was: his star. It was indeed the brightest star I had ever seen and it hovered, almost as though it was waiting for something. J died just a while later.
The next night, my parents and I headed back to Madrid, knowing that we would need rest before the funeral. As the plane took off, we found ourselves taking in the most incredible sunset we had ever seen. And as the spectacular colors were replaced by darkness, J’s star emerged as brightly as I have ever seen it, and accompanied us all the way home.