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My brother is dying. He has a very aggressive cancer in the cartilage surrounding his hip. When he was diagnosed, doctors gave him a choice between two options. Option number one, they said, was to amputate the right leg up to the spine, including part of his intestines. This, plus chemotherapy and some radiation, would not guarantee a cure, but at least it would buy him/us some time. Or he could do none of this and and die in six months. Justin doesn't want to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair pooping into a bag. He is 22, and so he chose door number two.

That was 6 months ago. Well, five and three quarters to be exact. During this time I've watched the cancer grow and grow - it looks like someone shoved a melon under the skin where his butt used to be. While at the same time his body has shriveled to skeleton thin. He hardly eats, and when he does he has a tough time eliminating, since the tumor is pressing against his organs. And he is so pale! The other day the nurse placed a foley catheter in his urethra. This helped some. She is from hospice and real nice. She bathes him and talks to him in a soothing voice.

On Friday before going home for the weekend she gave my brother some medicine for his pain. Up til then he hadn't taken anything. His routine had been to spend each night kneeling at the foot of my parents' bed, kept awake by the pain. And he can't put any pressure on his hip, so no sitting or lying down. And who can sleep with death on the brain. My dad didn't want my brother to take the morphine until he was ready to go, because doctors said once he did his body would shut down and it'd only be a matter of days at most before he was gone. Or hours. He began taking morphine on Friday. Today is Sunday.

I sit by his bed. He shows me the morphine vial. It's in liquid form since he can't keep any pills down. The nurse said that 20 mg/1 ml is the highest potency you can get, which made Justin smile. He was a malt liquor over beer guy, and hash over weed. When he used to do that stuff. Since he's been sick he lost the taste for most everything.

"Drink it all and it will kill a horse," he tells me the nurse told him. "I bet if we share it, it'd take us both."

I look at him. He's a taunter, is my kid brother.

"Wanna go with me to the other side?"

I have just gotten used to the idea of my brother dying. That's what these six months have been about. Enabling me to cope. The thought of my own demise is a whole other world away. Hell, I'm not even 24. But the prospect of living without my brother also sucks. We've always been close, closer than the 16 months separating our birthdays. My brother is my best friend.

And to think that only two days ago I had persuaded him to vacate his post at the foot of my parents' bed and let them carry him in a hospital bed to what had been my bedroom, before I moved out of the house last year and into an apartment with some buddies. The only way Justin would agree to go in my bedroom (after he asked my permission, silly rabbit) was if I promised to spend the night there with him. Every night. Until he died. But what if you stick around? I asked. I'll be crashing on the floor for months. Justin looked at me. You and I both know it won't be months, Adam. So I promised. We hadn't talked about the arrangement since. A shot of liquid morphine had eased the pain enough for Justin to crawl into bed and actually get some sleep, and my mom found me a sleeping bag and together we made a rather comfortable bed beside Justin on the floor. Months wouldn't be such a bad thing. But we both know.

These nights I lie awake in jeans and my high school baseball jacket, listening to my brother breathe. Snore. If you can call it that. Stertorous rattlings of his lungs. Which my father calls the death rattle. And Justin flits in and out of consciousness. Looks around the room just long enough to see I'm there before closing his eyes again. He doesn't ask for food. Wants no water. Doesn't even ask after my parents, who are either in the room or within earshot, their bedroom just down the hall. And each time he opens those blue eyes of his I wonder if it's the last time. How many more visits will he make to the land of the living from the other side? This time he looks at me.

"Come into bed with me." As I rise: "Bring the morphine." I take it from the bookshelf and hold it out to him.

"I want to empty the bottle," he tells me. "I want you to help me. You drink half. The other half I'll take. It's been crap for both of us. This way we'll both be able to sleep."

His eyes roll back into his head, jaw goes slack. I wonder if he's dead or just sleeping. His chest rises. He's sleeping. Maybe he'll forget we had this conversation. Maybe I'm off the hook.

"You drink first," he says, shaking himself awake.

I want to make my brother happy. This could be his dying wish, that I get stoned with him one last time. But I don't want to knock myself out. Who will be here to worry about him? Nevertheless I place the bottle to my lips and pretend to drink. I hand it back to him. But there's no fooling my brother. "Drink!" he urges. So I place the bottle to my mouth a second time and spill some down my gullet, swallow. It tastes like water, only slightly bitter. Like a vodka with soda. How much did I just drink? I hold the vial up to the moonlight. It looks half full. Did I just drink the other half? But these past two days Justin has taken several sips. But how many, how much?

Justin seems satisfied. "Don't worry it will take the edge off. Now give me mine." I put the bottle to his lips. He drinks the remainder. "Now crawl into bed with me," he says. As I lie by his side: "Let's hold hands," he says, "the way we used to as kids." And so I take his hand in mine. I watch his eyes close as my own lids grow heavy.

I don't know what time it was when I awoke, or what time it is now. But it is still dark outside. Justin isn't in bed with me. Where have they taken him? Surely he hasn't gotten up and moved himself. The bathroom light is on. Through the closed door light bleeds into the room. I hear the toilet flush. The light goes off, the door opens, and a shadow appears in the door frame. Just a vague silhouette. It has Justin's height (which is also my father's, and mine). Can it be Justin? But he hasn't walked in weeks. It (the shadow) stands before me, surveying. And though I can't see anything distinctly, I know that it is smiling. I try to speak but cannot. I try to get up but cannot. Then, ever so slowly, gliding like, the form vanishes through the room.

I lie silent and still and stunned, in the place my brother used to be. I look on the floor where I had been just a few moments before and there is my brother's body lying next to me. He is on his side, his back to me. He has his arm tucked under his ear, the way I like to sleep. He's not so thin any more. Gone is his melon butt. His hair is longer than I remember it. And he's wearing my jeans and jacket.

If he's me, who am I? I look down on the bed at where my own body should be but can make out nothing in the darkness. I remember nothing about anything. Even the moon seems more dim. It's as if I am fading away. And I wonder if I am asleep and dreaming or awake and dying. Or are we already dead?


  1. So sorry for your loss, Adam. That's got to be tough.

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