“Darrin! Crystal!” Our Dad, who was standing in his grey blue coveralls, hollers over to us as we played outside. “I’m going to the dump. Do both of you want to come?” We looked at one another and we smiled! That sounded like fun on a Sunday afternoon to a couple of youngsters. We jumped into “Dynamite,” Dad’s brown and beige Chevy pick up. Off we went, treasure hunting at the dump while Dad got rid of the garbage from our home and from his business. I loved to ride in the middle seat, being the smallest out of the three of us. I was nestled in with Dad on my left and Darrin to my right. Mum probably was gardening, enjoying the bit of peace.
Darrin and I found amusement just about anywhere when we were together. We hung out on the massive willow tree, swinging like Tarzan from the long weeping branches. We made forts out of the lilac bushes that grew together into such a heap that you couldn’t tell where one began and another ended. We played for hours in the forest on the ten acres we grew up on, building our respective houses high up in the trees after scrounging up nails and wood from Dad’s workshop. Hammers were not required. Quite often we just made good use of the biggest rock we could find and honestly my 8 year old self wondered why people bothered spending money on tools. Mind you, those were probably the people that threw away gorgeous necklaces for us to find at the dump and give to Mum as a special gift. Gorgeous to a couple of small kids anyhow. Dirt mounds became worlds for us to explore with our little plastic Muppet and Star Wars figurines. We built roads, houses with swimming pools, and businesses as we created life stories together. Some days, we would pretend we were playing in the forest and we would sneak off to the candy store instead. Mum and Dad never knew. Darrin did it more often than I did. Sneaky brother.
We excitedly became a big brother and big sister when our two much younger siblings were born. Lisa, 6 years younger than I was and Mark, nearly 10 year younger. Our youngest siblings became what we affectionately referred to as, “the kids.” For our family, even once we were all adults, it was Darrin and Crystal and “the kids.” There came a time when we all lived in different cities and it was greatly anticipated when the four of us could get together. We always tried to ensure we took photos to capture the moments. If there were just three of us, we would send photos of the trio to the missing link. Once we got married, our spouses added to the bond that my siblings and I shared. We were all the best of friends.
Just as we could make anything fun as kids, Darrin and I could quickly arrange a pretty good fight too. I remember begging to watch anything but Darrin’s beloved Star Wars. It seemed we watched it every darn day! We laughed about the day we broke my bedroom door. Okay, I broke it because I slammed it too hard when he was chasing me. But those were the times as adults we ended up doubling over with the giggles as we retold the stories of our childhoods. Darrin was a story teller. Even when he was in hospice house, he told that story of the wild chase and we all had one last laugh about it together with my three kids.
Darrin and I were not just siblings, we were great friends. Even when we were teenagers, we sat on the steps in high school to chat and visit with each other. We genuinely liked each other; I adored him. We walked though life together. We got engaged and married within a year of each other and our daughters birth dates are only 3 months apart. Darrin and his wife were with us in Calgary the weekend our daughter was born. My husband and I were in Vancouver with them the day their daughter was born. Major life events were parallel.
Writing, “Darrin and Crystal,” the first two words of this article is both a comfort and it brings anguish. I love seeing our names together, yet it is coupled with the knowledge that I will not ever hear those words spoken together again. 14 months ago, I heard a phrase that would shatter me entirely, leaving me to try to find my way back to the pieces while being thrust into a situation that required a high degree of mental alertness and emotional stability. The words were spoken by a nurse, “I’m sorry, we cannot give him anything else for the pain. The pain is from the brain tumour.” That is how we found out. Darrin included.
There is no similar assault that carries the force of the words terminal brain cancer, especially when we are referring to my 40 year old big brother. Instantaneously, my physical body was shocked and flooded with adrenaline, thoughts, and emotions. I calmly steadied my voice and my panic with slow, deep breaths. But with each drawn out breath I took to level myself, I wondered how many my brother had left. What did all of this mean? How long did he have? What would this mean for his family? How could his wife, Tammy survive this trauma with a 7 year old boy and a beautiful, but severely disabled 11 year old daughter? What would his time left look like? I didn’t want to be the oldest! It’s the four of us! We had plans to do things together in the future! We all had plans together. One day, all of us siblings and spouses would go to Vegas together. We were all going to spend a Christmas with one another in Hawaii. Why did we wait!? Life has just been busy. We thought we’d have time. We all thought we would have time.
I tried to hope against hope in that hospital room that first day, but in those moments I knew only that I wanted to take his pain away, his anguish. He was crushed, not out of fear for himself, but for his young family. Nothing mattered more to him than his precious wife and kids. His own fears would eventually creep in, but nothing was stronger than his devastation for what his family would face. I wished I could switch places with him, take this all away. I felt not only my own emotions, my grief, but the emotions of all my loved ones around me. In those moments, the burden of being human was too much.
The only consolations that day was that we were all together and Darrin’s neurosurgeon was an incredibly gifted professional, one who had beautifully and naturally connected both the science and the art of being a physician. He had a unique way of quickly learning who his patient was as a human being, and then providing calm assurances, yet honest information. Darrin was never just ‘a case’ to him. Professionals can learn the science, study best practices, but how you nurture your patients and their families is specific to who you are. It comes from within and each professional can tap into this, but not all of them do. Nature will always take its course; death will always come, but how people are made to feel in the process is equally, if not more important, than the medicine and the science. This is especially important when we are referring to terminal patients. The experience of having terminal cancer in a health care system that clearly needs support and restructuring was one I do not wish on anyone, but that is a story for another time. There are so many layers of grief in terminal cancer; unfortunately, health care is one of them.
The problem with anticipatory grief is that every day hurts like you’ve already lost them, and in each of the days there are losses within them. Experiences become a mixture of gratitude and of pain. Losing a brother meant losing my past, my present & my future. He was part of me and he helped shape who I am.
There would be no more walking through life together; instead, I was walking alongside him in his journey toward death while facing this irreplaceable loss. I will never get another older brother. I wished for future joys, and even hardships together sounded like a blessing. I wanted him to have a future. We started losing parents 10 years ago, when I was just 28. We lost our Dad, my step mother in law, and my father in law. Those were painful losses-they were all so young. But this felt different. This felt wrong. It felt insurmountable.
My mind would often wander to plead with the universe, “I don’t want to be the oldest!” I remember looking at the photo of the four of us and it hurt my heart to know what was coming. It was always Darrin and I and “the kids.” Crystal and “the kids” is incomplete. It just isn’t the same. I wanted my family for a while longer. I wanted to go back to when our favourite time was being together as a family. Anticipatory grief altered everything. My best time, the only time I felt I could function in any way was to be near Darrin in the hospital bed. I suffered every moment with the all too real fear that no time was guaranteed; I wanted every second I could possibly get with him, to help him, to just love him and to be loved by hm.
As time drew on, I continued oscillating back and forth between my spiritual side that knows the soul has a higher plan and my human brain that pleaded to find a way to make this pain stop-to reverse the entire situation. My human heartache was ever present. My soul saw him needing peace.
My dear brother survived six months and one day from his date of diagnosis. Now nine months later, I still cannot make my heart accept what my mind knows: he’s gone. On his 41st birthday, 3 months after he died, we lay his ashes to rest. There are some days I manage okay, and there are some that I want to cry and scream and fall to pieces all in the same moment. His birthday was one of those days. And that’s perfectly okay to do, but what I did instead was write a letter to him:
Darrin, I miss you so, so much. I want to see you, I want to hear you tell me, “Drive safe sister. Make sure you send a text when you get home!” I want to hear those things from you. I want to hold your hand, I want to hug you, I want to laugh with you and celebrate life with you. I wanted to give you a birthday hug on April 18th, not secure your ashes and say our final goodbye. I wanted to have a beer WITH you, not a toast FOR you. We still have your beers in our fridge, I’ll always keep one there for you, an anchor to the last father’s day you had, one that I was lucky enough to share with you and your family. My heart literally and physically hurts. I have a lump in my throat, I feel like I cant talk. This is so hard. I checked in with Tammy today, I promised you I would do my best to help her and your wonderful kids. I feel like I am helpless to truly help though. Her pain is so raw, she loves you so much. I wish I could do more. I am going to see her on Tuesday, I hope my visits with her help a little bit. I love you Darrin. We all miss you. You were loved so well by so many, your absence leaves a hole that is difficult to live around. I promise you we will find joy again, somehow, some way-I know how our pain would hurt you. It’s just that nothing feels the same anymore, nothing feels right anymore. You know, it’s strange, our last FAM JAM chat was on Dad’s birthday, 2017. Never did we ever imagine that this year, April 6th, 2018 we not only would be missing our Dad, but missing you too, so much in fact, that Tammy was getting her memorial tattoo for you. At least we were all together. We all sat together at your fav tattoo shop in Kelowna. I know you would have been proud, lamp shade proud, my brother. I love you so much, and I guess when I ask and I wonder how we go on, it’s with a bit of courage and a bit of hope. And eventually the light will find us all.
When I finished, I noticed that the pain in my chest dissipated, the tightness across my throat eased and I knew that, for me, writing is releasing the burden of being that is life with loss. It was somehow more manageable. I made it through the night.
Darrin’s illness was devastating and the effects reverberated throughout my entire family, the devastation is like no other. Many days I wonder how any of us will feel whole again, but while I recognize that I lost pieces of myself, I also found pieces that were lost.
Today, I read through our text messages. I am thankful I saved them all. It felt like he was still here. I can still feel the energy of his funny messages and it seems like if I just texted him, maybe he would respond. But then I feel the weight of my heavy keepsake necklace and I know that Darrin’s ashes and his fingerprint lay nestled against my heart on a chain around my neck. That’s the closest that Im going to get to him now. I have experienced many losses in my life, there is a part of me that knows I can and I will shift out of this pain and emptiness. I will move out of the illusion. Separation is illusionary. But right now, it just hurts too much to get to that place. And that is okay.
Crystal Maloney has a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work and she is a Reiki Master. Crystal is the owner of Willow Tree Wellness. Her passion and life purpose is loving and nurturing individuals through life’s challenges while helping them find their sense of peace. Crystal is currently working to complete her first novel related to living though loss and grief. WillowTreeWellness.co email@example.com