steve korch

pursuing the art of creative communication.

Last Breath

My brother passed away last night. His name was Charlie. There were three of us at his bedside—Ruthie and I, along with a neighbor who had been a good friend to him for a number of years. We talked to him and about him and watched as he labored for breath through the last few hours of his life.

There won’t be a funeral or a memorial service—no time for digging into the archives of our memories to piece together some random clips from his life. Actually, there’s not a whole lot to say. But I couldn’t let his life pass without comment or any acknowledgement of his existence in this world and his presence in my life.

Over this past week, I’ve rifled through memories in an attempt to replay any scenes from earlier days with my brother. Although I spent much of my childhood and early adolescence sharing a bedroom with Charlie, I don’t have any memories of those days that include him—no pranks or spats or interesting stories. He was always there, but never connected to whatever was going on in my life. Truth is, I have no idea what he did during those years.

It seems that Charlie’s best years were lived while I was away at college and in the Army. He developed into a good-looking guy with long golden hair and a killer smile. Charlie was someone who was easy to like. He had a sense of humor and an easy way about him. One of the few photos I have of him during those years is one with him all spiffed up in a tux at my wedding. He was my best man.

Charlie’s story is a sad one. It seems he had a close friend and some romantic flames in high school. But the close friend died and the girls moved on. There were a few years in his adult life when he had a good-paying job and lived with a woman who truly loved him. But he lost both and never seemed to recover. My brother lived his last 30 years in a tiny travel trailer—numbed by alcohol and nicotine—self-absorbed and angry at the world.

Most of my memories of Charlie are of visiting him in that little hovel, trying to keep from gagging on the thick cloud of smoke that destroyed his lungs and blacked the walls. When I (we) would return from visiting Charlie, we would have to take a shower and wash our clothes. Conversation was always surface and brief. Gifts were dismissed and our presence seemed to be more intrusive than welcomed. We always left feeling a mixture of sadness and frustration.

My brother lived in a very small world, seldom venturing more than a few miles from his trailer. One exception was an annual fishing trip to Mono Lake. Over the years, we continually invited him into our home for holiday events but he always declined. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about family—he did. In fact, he made a special effort to attend the weddings of our daughters. It was a big deal for him to get cleaned up and step into a large gathering of strangers.

It’s sad to think about how much of life Charlie missed out on. Today, I was wondering when the last time was that he went to a movie or a ball game; or the last time he was at a party and laughed out loud; or how long it had been since someone (other than a nurse or doctor) actually touched him. I don’t know what demons chased him through life or what nightmares kept him awake at night. I do know that he was a very lonely man.

I can only imagine how my brother’s life might have turned out if he had made different choices. I wonder how the young man he was at 25 might have looked at 63—confident, affable, kind-hearted and surrounded by a host of family and friends who adored him.

These last few weeks, Charlie has been hospitalized. It began with a broken hip and surgery which led to severe complications aggravated by the life he had lived. In each of our daily visits, Ruthie would gently remind him of God’s love and His gift in Jesus. As his situation worsened, he was heavily drugged and had tubes down his throat. There were times when his eyes opened and there seemed to be some awareness of our presence. We had a couple of last opportunities to remind him of the salvation offered in Jesus and to pray a simple sinner’s prayer. His blank stare gave no indication of what (if anything) was going on within his soul.

When it was determined that nothing more could be done for Charlie, the decision was made to discontinue the elaborate life-support systems. Ruthie and I were there when tubes were removed and machines were unplugged. We followed the nurses down the hall as they moved him to a small private room. We listened to the rattle in his chest as he labored to survive. We watched silently as Charlie took his last breath. It was a solemn moment.

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