My Brother, Greg: Rest in Peace

James Tonkowich | Columnist | Thursday, May 8, 2014

My Brother, Greg: Rest in Peace

On Thursday, April 24 at about 12:30 PM, after years of keeping his heart problems at bay, my brother, Greg, breathed his last. He was surrounded by family, had received absolution, the Eucharist, and last prayers in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and seemed very much at peace with God, the world, and himself.

While I have hardly begun to process Greg’s life and death and while much of my reflections will be private, I’ve been thinking about five broad issues that, it seems to me, can be helpful to others and fit the broad topic of religion and public life.

First, writing about medical ethics, end-of-life decisions, futile care, and the doctrine of double effect is relatively easy. Holding a medical power of attorney and making actual life or death decisions is very, very difficult. As Greg’s heart failed, so did his other organs. At what point is hope of recovery really gone? When is it time to stop treatment and call hospice? Greg signed his own Do Not Resuscitate order, asked his pastor for end-of-life prayers, and agreed that it was time to go to hospice. Signing the hospice order withdrawing the medications that kept him alive is the hardest writing I’ve ever done.

Second, contrary to much popular literature, death is not natural. In this world, death like sin is inevitable, but it’s not natural. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be. As C. S. Lewis noted, death “is the result of sin and the triumph of Satan.” And death comes with labored, rattley breathing, with yellowed skin, with swollen limbs, with disorientation, discomfort, and often with pain. Yes, yes, Jesus triumphed over death. I understand. But death as it comes is unnatural, nasty, and ugly. We should let that sink in.

Third, brothers are different. My dad died in 1993 and my mom in 2012. In both cases I still have feelings of sadness and loss. But I know already that my brother’s death is different. While we weren’t always close, there is now a great gaping hole in my life that wasn’t there two weeks ago. My earliest memories are not of my mom or dad. My earliest memories are all of my brother. Now in the earliest he was bleeding because I hit him with a rock, but hey, we were brothers. And brothers (and sisters I assume) are connected in ways I don’t yet understand, which makes me aware that I don’t understand what it means when Jesus calls me brother and call other Christians brother and sister. There is a mystery here.

Fourth, Greg was a great success. He never became the affluent businessman he hoped to be, struggling with his career from the day he graduated college. Yet Greg, who never married, was always willing to spend himself for others—looking after them when they were sick, spending hours encouraging them when they felt helpless, giving rides, sharing what he knew and had, giving gifts, making phone calls, house and dog sitting. If friends or family had needs he could meet, he was more than willing to step up. Some of the stories I’ve experienced, some came out after his funeral, and others in notes I’ve received. There are many more I’ll never hear about. While some amass fortunes, Greg amassed friends. That’s real success.

Fifth, Greg’s life like the life of every Christian was a comedy. It wasn’t a comedy in the way we use the word today, that is, something funny. It was a comedy in the ancient sense: a story that, despite hardships and problems, has a happy ending. Greg died and had a funeral during Easter Week or, as it’s called in Eastern Orthodoxy, Bright Week. Bright Week funerals are entirely about the resurrection. They eliminate all hymns and psalms of morning, the priest wears white, the church is full of Easter flowers, and the Easter hymn is sung over and over again: “Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by death and to those in the tomb granting life.”

Greg’s extraordinarily joyful send-off seemed an extraordinarily fitting way to mark the end the wonderful comedy that is a Christian life. Death may be “the result of sin and the triumph of Satan,” but with the death of Jesus, death has been destroyed. My brother, mom, and dad only sleep in death as Jesus did, awaiting the trumpet call of the ultimate happy ending, the resurrection when, as Juliana of Norwich said long ago, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Requiescat in pace.