About a month before my brother Mitch died, he had a minor heart procedure (if there is such a thing). Though he was weaker than any of us had ever seen him, the procedure went well and we thought it was possible that he would go back to living his difficult, yet “normal” life, with ALS, for quite some time.
During this phase of things, my nieces Brenna and Ashlee and I had started to talk about bringing one of Mitch’s favorite experiences to him. Mitch loved going to The Roadhouse, a Mexican restaurant in Benzonia, Michigan, to listen to his friend Jake play guitar, which he did (and still does!) every Wednesday night. We had come up with this brilliant plan to have Jake come over to the house and play for us, privately. And we’d make up some Mexican food and some Margaritas of our own right there in Mitch’s kitchen. Mitch LOVED a party. We thought it would be a great way to help heal him and make him happy.
But, things didn’t go quite like we expected. Mitch experienced some complications after that heart procedure that lead to another hospitalization. It was during this second hospitalization that we were told there was nothing the doctors could really do. Eventually Mitch was given the choice to stay at the hospital or go home – but either way, the end was inevitable and in sight.
I wish, Dear Reader, there was some way to make you understand the crushing weight of a day like this, a moment like this, for a man, his family, his children, his sisters, his brothers, his people (and Mitch had many many people). I wish I could somehow pull the essence, the heart of that day out with my bare hands and show it to you. How unlike reality it is but how close to everything important. How thin the world gets. How close everything seems. How separations between people and places and air and water and breath all seem to disappear and the whole world becomes THAT moment, THAT thing that’s happening that everyone present knows they are incapable of stopping.
But I can’t. Instead, I’m going to tell you this little story.
Earlier, when the hospice nurse first arrived, she spent the first five minutes just looking directly into Mitch’s eyes and holding his hands. I remember thinking how beautiful and important it was, this moment where she let him know that he was seen, that this moment was being seen, that his pain was being seen, that his fear was being seen, that he was not alone. And then she looked around the room at all of the people who were there to be with Mitch, to love him through this last phase of his life and she looked beyond the room, out Mitch’s windows to the large field, the sunset, the trees, the flowers. She felt the fine and full Michigan summer breeze through the window and she said, in an almost overwhelmed voice, “of course you’d rather be here than in the hospital!”
Because the truth is, it was a beautiful night. And everyone there, despite fear and sadness, was full of love.
And it was quiet and the light was low. It feels, in my memory, like there were candles lit all around the room. And this enormous, former-football-playing guitar player with a beautiful smile and laugh and funny stories sat playing for us. And the room was filled with love and with many many tears.
Understand something, please, Dear Reader. My people are not a soft people. Mitch’s people are not a soft people. We love hard. We fight hard. We play hard. We talk hard. We give hard. We take hard. We are not to be messed with. Not even me – and I’m probably one of the softest of the bunch. Mitch fought his disease harder than I’ve ever seen anyone fight anything. The rest of us stood back and watched him hard as he fought. Those closest to him held him hard when he needed holding. But… that night (though the days ahead would be a bit different) all the hardness melted away. The room was soft. Our laughter was soft. Our tears were soft. Our touching was soft. Our faces were soft. There was complete surrender. I guess you could say we surrendered hard. Into complete softness.
One of the songs that Jake plays that Mitch loved best was Wagon Wheel. That night, in the softness of Mitch’s house, he played it at least three times. Ten days later, he played it at Mitch’s funeral. Mitch’s beloved wife, Beth, died four years before him. I’m not positive but I think maybe this is what Jake was thinking about when he started crying, singing the words, “I hear my baby calling my name and I know that she’s the only one and if I die in Raleigh at least I will die free.”
I can’t imagine any of us don’t stumble inside when we hear that song. For me, it is a reminder of our loss but it is also, always, a reminder of Mitch’s hard fight and of this beautiful night – the most beautiful night I have ever had the privilege to witness – where a “family” of people (whether we were all related by blood or not) came together to usher this man into the most difficult moment in his life with complete love.
This year, one of the floats in the Fourth of July Parade was playing Wagon Wheel as it slowly made its way down the street. The live act on the pier before the Fireworks played Wagon Wheel. When the DJ took over the entertainment, he played Wagon Wheel. Three times. Again. Thanks Mitch.
Dear Reader, I have done it again. I have written a far-less-than-acceptable description of this night. I have wanted so badly to tell you about this for two years! I have wanted to capture everything so that you could feel it too. But I can’t. And you can’t. If you have gone through something like this, a loss of some kind, you can vaguely understand. But I have not done it justice. I fear I never will. But I will very likely keep trying.
Soon, again, like we have done many times since that night, my family will gather at The Roadhouse to listen to Jake play. I fear I have not made it clear to you how very necessary this is for us. Not at all just because it reminds us of Mitch. But because life, Dear Reader, is short and precious, down to every last pain-in-the-ass minute of it. One of the lessons – among SO many – that Mitch taught us, is that you MUST live it, and love the people you have in it, while you can. It is, perhaps, not a new or very complicated lesson, but one many of us seem to need to be taught again and again.
Positive Mental Attitude
(See what I did there, Mom? I Vaya’d)