A Beam of Light

My brother died recently. Not a gentle death coming at the end of a life well lived but a tough death at the end of a multi-year struggle with strokes and seizures brought on by chronic drinking. The week before he died he had a major seizure followed by heart failure at his home in a rural area of our state. He was pronounced brain dead after he was airlifted to a regional trauma center but was kept on a respirator until we were ready to release him. A dramatic and sad ending to a difficult life.

My brother suffered from the untreated disease of alcoholism, a legacy from my father. Almost every family has a member with either alcoholism or mental illness that, if untreated, wreaks havoc in the family. And since there is usually shame and judgment associated with both of these maladies, we are not very open about our experiences. In my brother’s case, he did not choose treatment or other recovery options so his disease went unchecked until it killed him.

While my brother was playing out his chaotic role in the family I was almost the complete opposite. It fell to me to be the achiever, the performer, being good and doing well. While I was not conscious of this at the time, I now know that part of my motivation for success was to camouflage the family chaos. I was not much healthier than my brother because I was caught in my achievement script, which took its toll on me as well. But my life of achievement was more rewarded by the culture. Most people would say I “made good.” My brother would have called me the “goody two-shoes” of the family. Does this sound familiar to anyone?

In my brother’s final hours, I went to the hospital to be with my sister-in-law and we were exceptionally present to my brother. We rubbed his face, arms and legs with lotion, told him we loved him (things he’d never let us do when he was conscious), told each other our favorite stories about him, recited the twenty-third Psalm, and told him he could leave and we’d be fine. We did our best to soothe him and send him on his way to the other side where he would be lovingly received and would be without pain or disease.

I was able to be present to my brother at his death because seven years earlier we had a powerful reconciliation. For much of my adult life my brother’s disease caused a major rift in our relationship. Sad stories and harsh treatment were my primary memories, and for several years we had no contact because it was too stressful. But about ten years ago I felt drawn, in prayer, to make a scrapbook for him depicting the first twenty-five years of his life, before his downward spiral. It was good for my soul to do this and it softened his heart towards me as well.

Just a few years later, when he suffered his first stroke and was semi-conscious in the hospital, I visited him and whispered in his ear all the things I wanted to say by way of forgiveness and compassion for him. Miraculously he came to and for one hour he opened the door of his heart to me. We talked about our childhood, his resolve to get help and stop drinking, and about our relationship as brother and sister. It was one of the most amazing hours of my life. What a gift he gave me, that hour of reconciliation. Then his inner door closed and we never spoke of these things again. We were in contact but did not grow closer.

Thankfully, during his last hours, I was able to be present to him compassionately because of that hour we spent together seven years ago. I had a sense of peace at the time of his actual death. We had both done what we could and it was good. I can honestly say I loved my brother and will miss him and the long family history that we shared. And because I knew that he suffered from an untreated disease I could better understand his pain, even though I still had to process my lingering anger and deep sorrow about the loss of him as a brother and how his life affected mine in negative ways.

This all leaves me with deeper questions though. I understand that he chose not to get treatment for some reason and that this decision caused him and others a lot of pain. I can also see in my life the consequences of choosing not to face my pain, so I cannot judge him too harshly. But another question arises for me. How do we find meaning in a life that seems, on the surface, to be wasted? I think of the homeless, chronic addicts, alcoholics, people with untreated mental illness, and those who are incarcerated. Ironically, I’ve worked with “marginalized” people for a long time and I’ve learned some of my best life lessons from them. I’ve learned about generosity, survival, and simplicity. They’ve taught me what is more important than security or even sanity and that is love and community. They have taught me compassion for my own brokenness. So I know you do not have to be well or sane or dry to make a difference.

But these “teachers” of mine were someone else’s brother, daughter or son, not my own brother. I didn’t see the make-a-difference things in my own brother.

In my grieving process, though, I began to open myself to a wider vision of my brother’s life and I asked God to help me see the meaning of his life. I listed my positive memories of him. I asked his best friend from childhood to tell me some good stories of his early years. At his funeral, I saw his colleagues in the military and the police force honor his thirty-four years of public service in which he continually put his life on the line. And from comments people made to the on-line obituary I saw a side of my brother I had not experienced–a humorous and generous people person.

Now I think of each life as incredibly complex, wounded and in various stages of healing, some healing accomplished here but total healing only completed on the other side. I also affirm that God gives each life worth, even if we don’t see it, and that there are beams of light that shine from each life, no matter how these lives may appear on the surface. And I know that love and community come in unexpected and unusual ways.

I may never know the full effect my brother’s life had on others. I do know our reconciliation had a profound effect on me. But I did find another beam of light in his life, a beam that helped me to be grateful that he lived. Despite not being able to save himself, my brother saved the lives of three other people; my father, who had collapsed in the water at our lake cabin, a man who had a heart attack at a party, and a man my brother dragged out of the Mississippi River after he had jumped from a bridge in a suicide attempt.

I consider that a beam of light.

Janet O. Hagberg, 2011. All rights reserved. This essay is appearing in the online journal Conversations in Spring, 2012.

Reflections on this essay

Which of your siblings or parents are you most estranged from or at odds with?

How does this effect you?

Who have you known who is like them in some way that you respect?

What one thing is redeeming about your sibling or parent?

What is one beam of light that you see shining out from your life?

How are you healing with your relationship or how do you cope with the estrangement?