Leading with My Heart
– Non-Fiction by Virginia Foley – Leading With My Heart
“Well he seemed so low that I couldn’t say no; then he says with a sort of moan
“It’s the cursed cold, and it’s got right hold till I’m chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet ‘tain’t being dead, it’s my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you’ll cremate my last remains.”
“Jesus,” Jenny whispers, her eyes dark and wild, catching mine as I stand on the other side of the bed. “Should I keep reading this?”
I smile and nod at my niece. “It’s what he wanted, Jen.”
I’m holding onto Brian’s hand, gently making small circles with my fingertips. Brian loves poetry but more specifically, anything, anyone or anywhere that represents Canada and Canadian culture. And Robert Service’s, The Cremation of Sam McGee is right up there. He’d told his three daughters that when he could no longer speak, to read poems to him, the ones he’d read to them when they were young.
He isn’t speaking or moving at all now. Blankets are tucked neatly under each armpit, all monitors and tubes removed. The lights are dimmed in this hospital room where Brian has spent the past three months, chemotherapy drugs pumping through his veins while infections ran rampant, weakening his only-recently healthy sixty-five-year-old body.
Brian is my brother-in-law by title, but friend, brother, father, mentor, and so much more.
I caught my first glimpse of him under the haze of a street lamp when I was fourteen. My seventeen-year-old sister, Mary Anne was out on a date and I’d been anxiously waiting for her to return. I was babysitting at a house across the street from ours and the kids had been asleep for hours. The huge slice of marble cake their parents had left in the fridge for me was now just a plate of crumbs and the Pyrex bowls of potato chips and Cheetos on the coffee table, were empty. I had the lights turned off in their living room and was perched on the arm of the Chesterfield, constantly parting the velvet brocade curtains, just a bit, just enough for me to see my sister and her date when they got home. Chewing on a red licorice Twizzler, that I’d pulled from the back pocket of my striped clam digger pants, I spotted them. Mary Anne and this boy from her high school were walking slowly down the street, under moonlight. At the end of our driveway, they stopped. Immediately, he kissed her, right on her lips. I opened my mouth and the licorice fell, landing on a black cushion. My sister had just kissed a boy! My Broadway-obsessed, romantic heart melted. All the love songs I knew blended together at once, notes colliding and bouncing off each other, creating the most luscious soundscape that I’d ever heard.
My sister and I were the middle kids of the family, flanked by brothers on either side. We shared a bedroom, and at times a bed, up until the moment she left me one night to marry Brian when they were both just nineteen years old. Mary Anne and I were each other’s best friends, Little Women’s, Jo and Beth. And like Beth, Mary Anne left us early, when she was only forty-six. A catastrophic stroke ended her life, only nights after she and I had a sister date at a local restaurant, sharing one last glass of wine between us and talking about the three kids we each had, recounting their birth stories as we often did after a few glasses of wine.
“I’m going home to give that man a piece of my mind!” Mary Anne announced as we left the restaurant.
“What’s he done?” I asked incredulously. In my mind, their marriage was the best.
“Oh nuthin’,” she said jokingly. “Just want to see how he’ll react!”
I’d always wanted what Mary Anne and Brian had, their playfulness, their ease with one another, the way they loved.
“We’re not them, you know,” my husband would say, irritated by my comparison of our relationship with theirs. “We’ll never be them. We’ll never have what they have.”
I wanted to be like them. I wanted that so badly that it hurt, like a tight band around my chest, gradually growing tighter and tighter as the years went by. We just didn’t have the tenderness and friskiness that Brian and Mary Anne did. I likened them to the playful relationships on TV, Paul and Jamie Buchman in Mad About You, Steven and Elyse Keaton in Family Ties and even to the spirited sparring between Seinfeld and Elaine.
Brian and I had always had a deep connection and it grew even closer after Mary Anne’s death, which happened at the same time my twenty plus year marriage ended. Brian and I would walk together every night after work, both of us trying to make sense of tragedy. But, there was no understanding. It was sadness and loss. It was relentless pain.
Jenny continues to read more poems to her dad; staff told us that hearing is the last sense a person has, while suspended between living and dead. After a while, Jenny leaves to go back to the visitor’s lounge where our circle of family sits together. I’m alone with Brian. I lean in close to his ear.
“Brian,” I whisper. “We’re all here with you. We all love you so much.” My lips touch his stubbled face.
Brian’s breaths are shallow. I listen for the death rattle that we’ve been told may signal the end. I don’t hear it. His skin is yellow. There’s a faint smell of acetone, another sign of the body beginning to shut down. I run the backs of my fingers down his face, under his chin. He’s tried so hard to be strong for everyone, as always. On the nights I’ve come to sit with him, he’s recounted the fun things we all did together when we were young and our children were young: the camping trips, the couples’ weekends, the plays we saw, the books we read, the poetry he’d read to Mary Anne. The way he loved her.
After Mary Anne died, summer ended hard-heartedly and Fall began. Brian and I would hike in the woods on the weekends. When snow fell, we cross-country skied. We went to author readings together. He took me to his and Mary Anne’s favourite restaurants. He helped me adjust to single-parenthood; I held his hand while he maneuvered through a life without Mary Anne. But it seemed we were both flailing.
“Be careful,” a friend warned me. “You’re both alone and vulnerable.”
Brian and I drank wine together. We shared meals. We listened to music.
We clung to Mary Anne, neither of us wanting to let go. She was the rope we pulled from either end, reaching towards the middle, hand over hand, raw, bleeding yet both of us falling to the ground before we reached the center point. I dreamt of her at night and in my dreams she was always smiling. She never said a word but appeared to me, a light around her fresh face, freckles highlighted, as they were when she was a child.
I tried to console my nieces, who’d instantly become mother-less. I should have known how to comfort them. I knew the loss of a parent. My dad had died suddenly when I was seventeen. It blew apart everything that seemed good and honest and gentle in the world. I knew the emptiness, that part of you scraped and hollowed-out. Grief slaps hard, it punches, it kicks. It pushes you into a corner. It plunges you into a deep, dark hole, black and terrifying. I tried to help my children who were dealing with divorce, their lives in upheaval, their mother dangling from the edge. We were all battered, broken. The two family units who had loved and played and laughed and shared so much together, were now buried under a mound of tears.
Moments of profound sadness came in waves, cold torrents, knocking me flat. A song on the radio in the car. Meatloaf’s, Paradise by the Dashboard Lights. Memories of my sister singing it to Brian, while they danced at a wedding, her eyes closed, passion with every lyric, “Ain’t no doubt about it we were doubly blessed, ‘cause we were barely seventeen and we were barely dressed…”
I laughed aloud but then shook with sobs. She was so much fun. I loved her like no one else. And I’d never see her freckled face again.
Two days ago a music therapist came to Brian’s hospital room. She had with her a glockenspiel and a Tibetan singing bowl. She played softly in a hushed room while Brian, too weak to stay awake, slept. The music created a kind of alternate reality. And yet death was genuine. Death was Brian’s reality. His daughters asked if she could play, Somewhere, Over the Rainbow, Mary Anne’s favourite song, bars of which are etched on her gravestone. Softly, the chimes filled the room. It felt as if we were all suspended under a veil of sadness, yet this shroud also billowed with pure love.
When Christmas arrived the year my sister died, we tried to carry on our traditions, without Mary Anne. Although our families were together, sadness weighed heavily. We followed a peculiar pattern of laugh and crash, smiles and tears, hope and despair. Where Christmas was once a highlight of our year, there was visible relief when the season ended.
By Spring, I was communicating more frequently with a man I’d met at a conference before Mary Anne’s death. Steve was a musician, a writer, a lover of life. One night when he was visiting, I introduced him to Brian. Brian was uncharacteristically aloof. I wanted Brian to like him. I needed Brian to like him but he ignored Steve, avoided eye contact.
“It’ll never work,” Brian said to me on one of our nightly walks. “You’re leading with your heart and not your head.” I couldn’t understand the rationale. Of course I was leading with my heart. But I listened to Brian, like I’d always done and weighed the possibilities against the impossibilities.
“Do you think you and Brian will get together?” my mom asked me over a cup of tea.
“What?” I sat my mug down onto her kitchen table, fast. “Oh, of course not!” I was shocked at such a question.
“Well, you’re together a lot,” she continued. “And you’ve always got along so well.”
“He’s Mary Anne’s husband,” I said, still surprised at such a question. “I could never do that to her!”
“People do, you know,” she continued. “And some people have mentioned it.”
I shook my head back and forth, jolting the idea from my mind. “She’s my sister.”
“I know,” Mom said. “I just thought it might be good for their girls.”
I lay in bed at night and tried to imagine Brian and me together; our families combined. We lived just a fifteen-minute walk away; our children had grown up together. It made sense. One night, I almost tested it.
Wayne and I were selling the family home that the kids and I were still living in. He arrived one night when I was there alone. He was angry. It was me who’d wanted out of the marriage. Not him. I knew he was hurting. And that night, he was confrontational, spewing all kinds of vulgarities my way. I feared he’d get violent. He blocked the wall phone. I had to get out. When he was in the washroom, I made my break. In the wee hours of the morning, on streets thick with snow, I tramped over to Brian’s house, let myself in. I crept to his bedroom, told him what had happened and then went to a guest room, climbed into bed. Brian was just doors away. I lay there, my broken, confused heart pounding. But, he was my sister’s husband. My sister’s. Not mine. I couldn’t. I knew I loved him, but, I couldn’t. Maybe when we were both old and grey and alone. Maybe then. Yes, only then.
I began to talk more to Steve, who lived several hundred miles away. The distance created a kind of buffer between worlds. It felt safe. Yet Steve’s joie de vivre and empathy would transport me from the darkness for awhile. He sang to me. He was light. He was adventure. He was hope. I was falling in love.
Brian started to date; a new experience for him. He and Mary Anne were young when they met, pregnant when they married. He confided in me.
More than a year passed by. Steve moved in with me. After the initial awkwardness with Brian, he and Steve found common ground and began to get along very well. Brian brought a girlfriend to our place for dinner. We double-dated.
Another year rolled by. My two oldest flew the coup. Steve and I decided to get married. On the morning of our wedding, Brian appeared at the door of our house. He had a large bunch of just picked Black-Eyed Susan’s in his hands.
“I know they’re your favourite,” he said. “I was going to pick some from my garden but they didn’t look good enough. I went out into the country and found these.” He thrust them into my hands.
“I have a nice wide ribbon to wrap around them,” I told him.
I walked down a short aisle at City Hall, clutching the bouquet of yellow flowers. After the ceremony about thirty of us had dinner at an inn, a live band played music and we danced in the hallways and living room. Brian was quiet. He came alone.
Six months after Steve and I got married, life changed again when Steve was offered a job in the States.
Steve went first. I would join him when ends were tied up. My youngest, who was entering college in the Fall, stayed the summer with Brian. I was leaving everything and everyone I’d known. I was excited. I was terrified. The day I arrived at our new home in Wisconsin, I burst into tears. It felt as if the ground had fallen out below me again. Mary Anne had been gone for three and a half years and I still needed to talk to her. I’d stare at a phone, willing it to ring, imagining her voice on the other end.
Brian suddenly eloped. His new wife was gregarious, bubbly, fawning over her adult stepdaughters and the rest of Brian’s family. Yet her fervour felt more bogus than contagious. But Brian’s smile was back and we were all happy that it was. They visited us in our new home. I travelled back and forth often and many times I’d stay with Brian and his wife in their newly-built house. She would go to bed and Brian and I would sit up into the wee hours, drinking wine and chatting about everything from his old life to his new. He had grandchildren now, he was travelling the world, he had so much to share. We’d fall back into each other’s worlds easily, holding onto history yet looking towards the rich experiences life would bring.
Years passed quickly, as they do, and ten years later, Steve and I were back living in Canada, back amongst family again. Just before Christmas in 2015 Brian backed out of a dinner invitation at our place. He was ill. Likely a bad flu. We rescheduled. A few weeks into the new year, the news. Leukemia.
Brian was positive he’d beat it. He’d be in hospital for a few months, with chemo and a potential bone marrow transplant. He wanted it kept low key. No visitors except his daughters, his wife and me. He began to sign his emails, aka Superman.
I scanned websites, one after another, searching for better news, higher survivor statistics. If the patient was under sixty-five-years old, the odds were so much better. Brian had only turned that golden age a few months earlier; surely a few months couldn’t make things so dire. If survival rates were five percent that meant there were people in that tiny window. They didn’t all die.
Some nineteen years earlier, Brian’s voice in the critical care unit of a Minnesota hospital, asking a doctor if Mary Anne would survive.
“Can you give me a fifty-percentage chance that she’ll make it,” he pleaded. The doctor smiled, shook his head. Brian persisted. “Thirty-percent?” Doctor lowered his eyes and quietly and gently, said, “No.” Brian continued his query. When he got down to five-percent the doctor lifted his head and nodded. “I’ll take it!” Brian said loudly, wildly. And now, I was clinging to that same hope.
“We sure had some great times together,” I whisper now to Brian in the darkened room. “How about the dance party at Oak Street?” I laugh a little. “And charades when we all stayed at the ‘Bali Hai’ cottage?”
It’s hard to believe that it was only five days ago that a doctor had given Brian the grim news. None of the treatments, the blood transfusions, or even the possibility of a bone marrow could make any difference now. The leukemia had won. It had stolen his body. It would take away his life.
Brian’s organs are shutting down. Yet somehow I still can’t believe it. It feels like we are all actors in this melodrama and that any moment Brian will bound out of bed, throw off his hospital garb, strut down the hallway and leave. Surely, someone will soon call out, “That’s a wrap!”
Two nights ago as I was leaving the hospital I said to him, “I’ll be back in the morning, Brian.”
He reached his arms out to me, one of them so swollen and red and heavy with infection, the other with an intravenous tube coming out from the back of his hand. I sat perilously on the edge of his bed and leaned my head against him, feeling his heart beat and the warmth and waning strength of his chest. His needled hand ran through my hair, in slow motion, sliding his fingers through the strands, separating them, holding on at the ends. It felt so good, so right. I moved up to kiss his cheek, the light stubble of his missing beard against my lips. His familiar voice, just a whisper, close to my ear, “I love you,” he said. “I love you too, Brian, so much.” I exhaled. “I’ve always loved you.”
As I walked down the hall to the elevator that night, it was as if my legs weren’t connected to my body. I knew they were moving but I couldn’t feel them. Out through the doors, the cold, callous air stung and swirls of snow spun like little whirling dervishes. Scraping the windshield of my car, I paused, let my hood fall down and the icy wind blow through my hair.
I’d always thought there’d be more Brian. I still couldn’t imagine a world without him in it.
A haunting song I’d heard dozens of years earlier suddenly pounded in my head.
“Be my love, for no one else could end this yearning, this need that you and you alone create. So fill my arms, the way you’ve filled my dreams, a dream that you inspire with every sweet desire…”
I did love Brian and it was true that I’d always loved him. I loved our youth and I loved the promises that were tomorrow. (That had once been tomorrow.) He and I had shared a tenderness, a friendship, a bond, a love, that I’d never shared with anyone. He and Mary Anne had been my idols, my ideal, my dream of something better. They were every love story I’d subscribed to, every chord in the musicals. And soon there would be a life without either of them in it.
Steve came to see Brian knowing it would be the last time.
“It’s been an honour to know you, Brian,” Steve said shakily, tears welling.
Brian’s eyes widened, he smiled and shook Steve’s hand. “I feel the same way, Steve,” he whispered.
I had to turn away.
I am pleading now, watching Brian, listening to his shallow breaths. “Just let go, Brian,” I say in silence. “Please, just let go.”
A nurse appears. Presses a stethoscope against his chest, places two fingers on his wrist.
“We should get the family in here,” she says.
In the next few minutes we are all around his bed: his daughters, his mother, sisters and brother, grandchildren, his wife and me. I stand at the end of his bed, my hands touching the blanket that covers his legs. It’s quiet. It’s calm. Within minutes the stethoscope again. The nurse nods this time. She steps away from the bed.
“I’m so sorry,” she says, tears in her eyes.
It is over. Brian is gone. I walk the few steps to the top of his bed, lean in and kiss his forehead.
“Love you, buddy,” I breathe.
I walk slowly down the hallway, each square of linoleum moving under my feet, a conveyor belt carrying me back to that world of grief, of pain and longing. Soon the patient’s lounge fills with family, the children Mary Anne bore, the women who are mothers now themselves. One daughter has Brian’s eyes, another Mary Anne’s hair, and one, her smile.
Eventually we all ride the elevator down from the cancer wing and begin preparations for the final farewell, a Celebration of Life, not a funeral, at Brian’s request. Steve and I book the venue, a golf course with a reception barn; I write the obituary. Brian had wanted a poem included, a song played, and words he’d dictated to his daughters to read aloud. We collect photos of Brian, create a slideshow.
Hundreds of people file in. Brian would have been amazed. There is food, flowers, music, wine. His daughters each talk about their dad, struggle to get through, but make it. Brian would have been so proud. Photos of his life flip by on two screens. Brian would have been amused. Steve serves as master of ceremonies. I can see the smile Brian would wear.
The song he requested is played: Fred Eaglesmith, an indie Canadian folk singer’s, A Pretty Good Guy. It’s quirky, it’s funny, it’s sweet. It’s Brian.
“Hey I’m registered in CPR and if you asked to, I could fix your car. It’s just the way I am. I got a pretty good life. I’m a pretty good guy.”
Our nieces all sit at a table together. One announces quietly, smiling, with tears falling.
“I’m not sure if this is the place to tell all of you,” Her eyes glisten. “But, I’m expecting,” she says. “The baby is due on November 29th.” Brian’s birthday. He would have loved that.
A few weeks later we are at Mary Anne’s grave, a box of ashes ready to be buried with her. Brian’s six grandchildren hold onto balloons. His ten-year-old granddaughter has written a poem she’d like to read. It is beautiful. Steve stands close to me. I can feel his breath. Brian’s daughters queue up a portable CD player, and Israel Kamakawiwo’ole sings, Somewhere, Over the Rainbow. The kids surrender their balloons to a clear, blue sky.
I crouch down to trace Mary Anne’s name engraved on the stone, making small circles with my fingertips. I feel the warmth of Steve’s hand on my shoulder.
Standing, I look into his blue eyes. “I wish you’d known them, Steve,” I tell him. “You’d have loved her too.”
We walk back to the car, into another new world. Steve holds my hand, lightly squeezes it. I squeeze back, then hold on tightly.
About the Author of “Leading With My Heart” – Virginia Foley
Virginia Foley is a Canadian freelance writer who has been published in Canada’s History Magazine, Talking Writing, The Globe and Mail and several other publications. www.virginiafoley.com
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