Passages: A Tribute to my Brother

During the gap between finishing by first memoir and beginning my sequel, my brother died. He was one of four favorite brothers (I have no non-favorites), not quite nearest to me in age, but perhaps nearest in temperament and shared history. I loved – I love – him deeply. He’d been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, Stage 4 by the time they finally figured out what was wrong. His cancer was a slow-growing demon that wreaked havoc with his hormones and resisted both chemo and radiation. Thinking he had weeks, maybe months, to live, he’d scrambled to get his affairs in order, and we’d all rushed in to lavish him with love he might have missed.

I was blessed, after more than thirty years apart, to live only five minutes away from him when he was diagnosed, and we drank in the time that remained, which turned out to be six years, not months, of increasing hormone surges, excruciating pain, and rapid deterioration. At the three-year mark, I was compelled to move over five hours away, and we limped by with weekly phone calls, struggling to find new things to talk about as his life shrank to the size of his tiny apartment, his pointless doctor’s appointments, and the few hours he could rise above his pain. His voice weakened, and I was growing deaf, and some weeks I wouldn’t call because I couldn’t bear to keep guessing at what he was trying to say, or keep asking him to repeat himself, knowing I still wouldn’t catch his drift. In winter, it was nearly impossible to make the five-hour trip to visit him, over a treacherous mountain pass known as “The Highway from Hell”, and he always implored me to err on the side of caution and not take the journey’s risk. I felt myself letting go of him, month by month, knowing that any week I might call and it would be too late. I didn’t want to be hit by a mountain of grief when that last call inevitably came; it would be easier, I thought, to let him go in stages, and get used to the hole he’d rip through my heart, in advance.

Most of all, I feared getting a call that he’d died all alone, while his wife was at work, unable to reach the phone to get help. His legs were starting to give out, and he cracked and bruised himself often.

But when the time came, it wasn’t like that. His kidneys gave out, and he went to his last hospital, while there was still time to call everyone back for his final goodbyes. He lingered – or held on – for almost three weeks, amazing everyone and giving us to time to gather as family, joking, crying, reminiscing, and holding hands around his bed. He slept through much of it, but then he’d awaken again, opening his eyes – or not — and chuckling at another bad pun or wisecrack pinging across his hearing. He let me read the first four chapters of my memoir to him, smiling and tearing up as he remembered the family scenes I described, before falling back into death-welcoming dreams. We took turns sitting in groups around his bed, talking to and about and around him, letting him know we were there.

He held on till the day I dreaded: my birthday, March 5th, which was also the day of his first wedding anniversary. He’d married the love of his life a year before, after thirty-plus years of being her boyfriend and living in separate homes. I knew he hadn’t held on for my birthday, but for her. Still, I was a little miffed at the prospect of associating every future birthday with his death. Perhaps he was getting back at me for pushing him off a pier when I was four and he was two, though even then he’d opened his eyes under water and looked for fish, unafraid and even a bit resentful when my father scooped him up to safety.

In the end, it was a good death. Of course, he was much too young to die, preceding both parents and being robbed of his own golden years. The cancer was an ironic tragedy. He’d been active and health-conscious, a vegan for most of his life. His final six years had been physically dreadful. His new wife/old girlfriend is devastated, even with years of foreshadowing. My heart breaks most for her. But as far as deaths go, it was a good one. He wasn’t alone when he died; he wasn’t taken without having the opportunity to say goodbye to nearly everyone he loved, and he slipped into death’s embrace peacefully, free of pain at last.

It just shouldn’t have happened so soon. He should’ve had another twenty years, like the rest of us expect to have, before the last curtain. That’s how we think. But God’s thoughts and ways are beyond our deepest thoughts, and I trust His timing and His love. I’m holding onto my memories of Doug, and thanking God for the sixty years I knew him.

Six weeks after Doug’s death, we met for a memorial service in Vancouver. This is the tribute I wrote for him and shared with the congregation:

 

Doug grew up with three wonderful brothers, Philip, Howard, and Brian, but I’m his only sister, 23 months older than Doug, and a huge lifetime fan. I always thought  Doug, born right in the middle of our sibling chain, was blessed with a special charm that made him cooler than the rest of us put together. Instead of getting lost in the middle, like a normal kid might, Doug knew how to make the most of it. He was always super cool, and it always seemed effortless.

Doug’s earliest memory happens to be my earliest memory of him. He was two years old, I was four, and we were visiting relatives in Ladysmith, on the island. One sunny afternoon we were standing on a pier while the adults talked over our heads about boats or gardening… something like that. I don’t know if I was bored, curious, crabby, or a combination of all three, but suddenly I decided it would be fun to push Doug off the pier. Down he went into the briny deep, floating like a starfish till my terrified father pulled him out. Doug’s memory of the event is golden: he says kept his eyes open, dazzled by the marine world sparkling all around him, and hoping to see some fish up close. He felt perfectly calm. In fact, the way he remembered it, he was angry at Dad for yanking him out of his best life experience so far!

 

Doug always knew what he wanted. We used to tease him about sitting in the bathroom for hours and studying the Acme Catalogue as a kid, and we referred to the catalogue as Doug’s Bible. He’d scrutinize and compare the interesting items before zeroing in on his top pick. (We see traces of this in his later passion for finding obscure items on e-Bay.) Usually he managed to get his top picks for Christmas or birthday gifts. But one summer, he stunned his siblings by persuading Dad to get him a coveted air rifle in the middle of the summer. This never happened at the Mixes; we got presents twice a year, period. But somehow Doug’s charm worked its magic and overrode the family rules. I never forgot it.

Doug loved playing in the ravine where we grew up, and he slipped in and out of the house like an invisible fox, bypassing trouble and parental questions in ways I couldn’t figure out. I was always a bit envious of him for this, and also because he turned brown in the sun by March, and didn’t burn like the rest of us in July. He always had an abundance of friends and a surplus of female attention. He took all this in stride, without an ounce of conceit or pride, so I couldn’t really hold any of it against him.

In winter, he played hockey, and one particularly stellar season, he ended up being the best goalie in his league in Edmonton. I remember going to watch him play – in fact, Doug’s hockey games are the only hockey games I’ve ever watched in my life. My former first grade teacher was at one of the games, and she pulled me aside to compliment Doug’s playing.

Your brother is a great, great goalie, she told me. I knew this was true.

Thank you, I answered, not knowing how to accept a compliment for someone else. For months afterwards, I anguished over my answer. Did it seem prideful to say “thank you” to her, as if I could take any credit for my brother’s talent? Should I have said, “I know” instead? It was my first major social gaffe – at least, the first I was aware of.

Whatever the right answer, Doug was a gifted, intuitive goalie, and that, too, seemed effortless.

Doug and I drifted apart during high school, as my life went in a different direction, but at 16 he was back in my life again. We had hippie aspirations and my drummer boyfriend in common, and that summer Doug volunteered to drive the sag wagon as a group of friends cycled from Jasper to Banff. I don’t know what he did all day, waiting for us to show up after a full day’s ride, but whatever it was, he was in his element, driving my boyfriend’s Volvo and soaking up the mountains while we pushed ourselves over the Parkway and got sunburnt. Doug always knew how to have excellent days, alone or with friends. Later, he’d turn this passion into long motorcycle rides in the mountains of BC.

At 18, Doug moved in with Blair and me for a while, and we got even closer. He was a cool younger brother and a hassle-free housemate. By then he was totally into guitar, song writing and playing in bands, and a couple of years later, when I broke up with my drummer boyfriend, Doug salvaged Blair’s broken dreams by inviting him to move to Vancouver together. They rented a house in White Rock and started a new band. Doug’s real life started then.

Vancouver snagged Doug’s heart from the moment he arrived, and he never looked back. We used to speculate on how it would feel to spend another winter in Edmonton, and it made Doug shudder. His hockey days were a fond memory, but his sub-zero days were behind him for good.

Over the next many years, while I was living abroad and away, I didn’t get to see Doug very much, maybe once every two or three years. But on visits home I got to see Doug at the Vancouver Long and McQuade store, where he made his permanent mark in the guitar department, and to meet his beautiful girlfriend Val, (who always reminded me a bit of Stevie Nicks, Doug’s celebrity crush), and to see Doug at the cabin whenever he joined us there. He loved canoeing at the lake, and drinking fine whiskey with his father and brothers, and waxing eloquent about the real world economy. He wasn’t a huge Scrabble fanatic, like some of us, but he’d sit and play if we asked nicely.

In one of our most memorable games, we were playing with oldest brother Phil, known for his slow, deliberate, unhurried style. While we were waiting for Phil to take his turn, Doug quietly got up, went to the guest cabin, and washed his long, shoulder-length hair. Washing hair at the cabin involves little plastic basins and cups, rainwater heated in a slow-cooker and tempered with a separate bucket of cold water, tiny packets of sample=size shampoos and conditioners, and standing outside, over the deck, to rinse out. In other words, it takes TIME and a hefty commitment. Half an hour later, his wet hair combed and gleaming, Doug rejoined us at the Scrabble board. Phil still hadn’t taken his turn. I don’t think he even noticed that Doug had left.

In 2003, my family and I moved back to Canada from England, and spent five weeks checking out the entire Lower Mainland before deciding where to live. One of the best decisions we ever made was to move to Coquitlam, just five minutes from Doug’s place. I finally got to see much more of Doug, and to spend quality time with him, often alone. He came over weekly to teach Tassja, his niece, to play guitar. The fee for each lesson was a bottle of our dad’s blackberry wine: berries picked by me, in return for a treasured case of wine every few years. Doug’s teaching style was called jamming out: he’d teach Tassja to play a simple riff while he rocked out on his guitar. The results were phenomenal: the very first lesson sounded like a concert in our living room. Doug had a magic touch with the guitar, and with Tassja, who sings, writes songs, and plays today, thanks to her gifted uncle.

I have many great memories of Doug from those years but here are some favourites. The first happened on an abnormally cold winter day, Doug and I standing on our front porch in Coquitlam as he was leaving, arguing about the weather.

It’s too damn cold! Doug said. It should never get this cold in Vancouver!

It’s not THAT cold, I countered. It’s nothing like Edmonton cold. It could be a lot worse.

We went back and forth like that for a few minutes. Then, suddenly, with a piercing crack, a tall, ice-coated tree in the front yard snapped at the base of its branches, and the whole top half crashed onto the lawn, leaving only the bottom trunk standing.

Ha! said Doug. I TOLD you it was too damn cold!

He never let me forget that argument.

The second memory happened on another winter night a few years later. Tassja was going out with friends for the evening, and she asked Henry and me what we’d be doing.

Nothing much, we said. Just the usual, staying home.

Right after she left, Doug phoned. I just bought something, he said, and I want to show you. Can I come over?

Anticipating a cozy chat with Doug, I turned down the living room lights and lit a few candles. Five minutes later, Doug arrived with a set of Tibetan singing bowls he’d just gotten through e-Bay. To celebrate his new purchase, I pulled out a bottle of cinnamon whiskey, and within minutes the three of us were gathered around the coffee table on our knees, candles burning, making the bowls sing and humming to match their pitch. It looked like we were conducting an ancient pagan ritual. Just then Tassja came back to retrieve something. She’d been gone for 20 minutes.

This is the usual? she said. What the heck are you guys doing? And what else have you been hiding from me??

This could only have happened with Doug.

My later memories of Doug are bittersweet. We were with him the morning he got his diagnosis, and throughout the first three years of his subsequent battles, until our move to Kelowna. It was very, very hard to move away while he was so sick.

There were a few topics that Doug and I couldn’t discuss in depth without getting uncomfortable. He was as wary of “organized religion” as I was of his conspiracy theories. We could listen and respect each other, but only to a point. But as Doug’s illness progressed, he became more receptive to the message of Christ. One weekend, I visited him from Kelowna, and we talked for hours about the gospel. As long as the words were coming out of my mouth, and not being read directly from the Bible, he was eager to listen. I was essentially quoting passage after passage of Scripture as we talked about the Jesus, the cross, faith, heaven, and the resurrection. Every so often, I’d say, Let me just read this passage from the Bible, and he’d say, No, tell me in your own words. They were the same words. At the end of a long evening, he asked me to baptize him into Christ, and I did. It was the answer to many years of prayers on his behalf, by many people who loved Doug. I’m sure that includes many of you here today.

As Doug’s health diminished, I watched him divest himself, one by one, of the things that defined him, as he was no longer able to use them. Each new loss was a blow. But after every divestment, he’d bring in something new to replace it. A bicycle. A lightweight guitar. A smaller soundboard. A hover board. Another singing bowl. His steady hope, in spite of dreadful circumstances, was an upward call. He fought to stay positive, to enjoy what was left in his life, and to emotionally be there for the rest of his family.  I think a lot of us called on him for advice, comfort and consolation while Doug was stuck at home, including our father, Quentin. Doug was never afraid to speak his mind and give honest advice if he thought it would help. He was a great listener, and he listened without judgement. He was perceptive and gentle.  He had a wry, inextinguishable sense of humour, and even as he lost his health, he never lost that Doug-ish charm that set him apart from birth.

Doug was one of my closest friends. He was a wonderful brother and uncle and son.

I still can’t believe he’s not here among us, taking it all in and shining his light.

I’ll always miss him.

 

 

 

3 replies »

  1. Thank you Marilyn for sharing with us a glimpse of your brother. His conversion was spectacular and I am so very inspired by you, him, God’s Word on you heart and God’s love.Love to you Marilyn,Mary 

    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPad

    Like

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