Welcome all to The Burning Hearth. It is with a bittersweet heart that I write this post. Late in the night, on Thursday, June 9, 2022, quietly and peacefully, my brother Reece left this realm. For days, I’ve been wearing what a friend of mine has described as the saddest smile. A smile that reflects great loss and joy in the same moment. A smile that reflects a dichotomy, which can only happen under specific conditions. One of those conditions is being leveled from losing someone who is dear to your heart and who resonates through your being on so many levels, while at the same time, being so happy that their pain and suffering has come to an end. Such is the case for my brother Reece and me.
Fortunately, along with my other brother, sister, and mother, I spent four days with Reece the end of May. Unfortunately, my mother fell two weeks prior to my visit and broke her wrist, thus landing her in short term care at the same facility as Reece, and in the same room. This strange turn of events allowed us to spend more time with Reece as we weren’t shuttling between our mom’s house and the care facility.
I arrived to find Reece in his bed with a fever. Test were being done but it was believed he had aspirated and pneumonia was settling in his lungs. My brief research, and now experience, has taught me that Parkinson’s patients die from either falling or pneumonia.
While many things occurred during this visit, there are three I want to share in order to celebrate the passing of one of the kindest, open-hearted, loyal people I have ever known.
From the moment I arrived, it was clear Reece knew he was dying. We had conversations about what might come after and whether or not he needed to be afraid, and then he said to me, “Every time I close my eyes, I’m surrounded by a bunch of people.”
“Are they people you know?”
“No, but they’re there every time I close my eyes.”
“I think they’re here to help you,” I said, wondering about the identity of the souls standing as sentinels over Reece.
“You think it will be beautiful?”
“Indeed, I do,” I said, while brushing his cheek with a cool, wet washcloth. “In fact, it feels like a knowing older than I am. I know it as clearly as I know I’m sitting here with you.”
“That’s good,” he said. “Two days ago, they gave me a bath, Con.”
“How did it feel?”
“Beautiful,” he said with complete rapture. “It felt a little hot at first but all that water on my skin…it was beautiful.”
“I think something might happen after you leave,” he said after a long pause.
“I think you might be right,” I agreed, and laid my head on his shoulder.
Reece loved music and he loved to dance (this becomes a crucial part of his death story) and so at some point on Saturday (the final day of my visit), my brother Reggie put “Sing, Sing, Sing” on his phone. (Sadly, my sister wasn’t with us.) I was dancing at the end of the bed drumming the rhythms into Reece’s feet, Reggie was tapping the rhythms into Reece’s leg, and Reece, with his most afflicted arm, cast out his Parkinson’s and was, in perfect timing, beating out the rhythm with an imaginary drumstick. His eyes were open and bright. The moment was pure life and all joy.
But once the song ended, Reece was exhausted and needed to nap. Before sleeping, he asked me if I would get him a Subway sandwich for dinner. “Black Forest ham, please. It’s the best, Con.”
When I returned, I was surprised to find that they had been able to sit him up in his wheelchair. I fed Reece what was his last real meal. He would say, “One sandwich, two chips, one drink.” Followed by a “Thanks, Con,” after I completed the round.
Then, in complete Reece fashion, he said, “Two sandwiches, four chips.” He raised his eyes up to me, smiled (just like our grandfather would when he was bullshitting us), and somewhat giggled.
“Yeah, can’t do four chips,” I said, and laughed.
“Okay, one,” he said.
For a while after eating, he stayed in his wheelchair but his left-leaning slump became so severe his head was nearly on his knee. I was kneeling on the floor looking up at him when he asked, “Why me, Lord? Why me? Why do you think this happened to me, Con?”
His eyes were no longer bright. They were sad and afraid. I said, “I don’t know, but I think you’ll soon have all the answers.”
Later Saturday night, I returned to the nursing home sans siblings to say goodbye to my mom and Reece as I was leaving for home early the next morning. When I went in, Reece was sleeping. He didn’t stir at the sound of his name nor the touch of my hand on his arm, so I sat and talked with my mom. Before leaving, I kissed my brother’s cheek and said, “Godspeed.” I knew I would not be seeing him on this plane again.
On Monday, June 6th, he went into Hospice care, and he died three days later.
I was unable to get back to Iowa, but my brother Reggie was able to go and help my sister. On his first day there, while with my mother, a nurse came in and introduced herself to Reggie. She told Reggie that she was with Reece when he died, and she wanted to let the family know his was a peaceful death. The nurse said he had been sleeping and simply stopped breathing.
She then told my brother a story that has brought me a deep indescribable wonderment and elation. She had gone to high school with Reece, and one year Reece asked her to a dance, and she said yes. Reece was a high functioning special needs person who went through school in special education classes. She told Reggie that all her friends made fun of her for going to the dance with Reece but afterwards they all had complained about what an awful time they had. The nurse said she gleefully told them she had the best time of her life because, “Reece just wanted to dance all night. He was a guy who went to the dance to actually dance and that’s what we did. I had so much fun.”
My brother died with someone next to him who had experienced authentic Reece, appreciated him for being who he was, and had only fond memories of him. No baggage. No judgement. Just the memory of dancing all night long with Reece.
The universe understands and provides and is all compassionate. I need nothing more to prove this to me than this woman being at my brother’s side as he released his last breath and gracefully journeyed on.
Somewhere, Reece is dancing and laughing. I am honored to have been a part of his life and death stories, and I thank you for allowing me to share pieces of those stories with you.
Please join me next month when I will be interviewing Matt Bell. I’m excited and humbled that he has agreed to be a part of The Burning Hearth. Until then, stay safe and Godspeed to you all.