You can't live every day like it is your last, but you can live every day with kindness
There's a tension between urging people to be better and accepting them, flaws and all. With my brother, I still don't know where the balance lies.
“Live everyday like it’s your last.”
If another person repeats that trite aphorism to me, in an attempt to soften my brother’s death with a philosophical spin, I think my head will explode. If I lived every day like it was my last, I would not go to work or brush my teeth. I’d spend every day eating raw cookie dough and chicken wings.
Living every day like it’s your last is not a lesson to be learned from the death of a loved one. But, for me, there is a lesson.
My younger brother, Lee, and I grew up in Michigan. Lee may have been the brightest in the family, but, even at a young age, it was clear something was wrong. Lee’s early good grades gave way to sliding marks in school and a disorganized inability to get homework and chores done on time, if at all.
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My brother’s race against the illness that was unfurling in his mind was held in check long enough for him to graduate from college. When he moved to Los Angeles in 1987, he was in his early 20s. Lee’s writing was so impressive, he was offered an opportunity to write and direct a short movie.
He outlined a script, cast some struggling actors, and hired a cameraman. Then, nothing. He could not get himself to finish what he so wanted to do. While the opportunity slipped away, I saw a fork in the road that became the trajectory of my brother’s life.
Warning signs glow white hot
As time passed, other signs began to make themselves known. It started with the paper grocery bags that Lee neatly folded and stacked in piles on his kitchen floor. Then, the waist-high piles of newspapers and magazines. Soon, Lee’s flee market hobby evolved into full-blown hoarding. But what came next was the most dangerous of my brother’s obsessive compulsive disorders and what ultimately cost him his life.
For years, Lee exercised regularly and watched what he ate. His dark features and handsome mug made him a great looking guy, though it was his kind spirit and joy of life that drew people to him everywhere he went.
Slowly, Lee began to gain weight. My parents and I did not care about the aesthetics of his changing shape; the life in his eyes remained constant. But the heavier Lee got, the less his heart was able to pull fluid from his legs and feet, which ballooned to a size that required him to get special slippers that he wore as shoes.
We offered to pay for a psychologist, a residential treatment program and bariatric surgery. Lee acknowledged the problem, but it was his and he was determined to solve it himself.
I knew we were in trouble when Lee called me six years ago. He was standing outside his apartment waiting for an ambulance. Only 48 years old, the edema in his legs left his skin wafer-thin and a vein burst. Blood was squirting everywhere.
By then, I had moved to Los Angeles. But instead of meeting Lee at the hospital, he made me promise to go to his apartment and clean up the blood in the common hallway. He could not afford to lose his rent-controlled apartment if the landlord went inside to check on him and saw his hoarding.
As I wiped my brother’s blood off the hallway walls, in my mind’s eye I knew how this would end.
Regret in the aftermath
For the next six years, Lee was in and out of the hospital. Through it all, he continued to smile, find pleasure in the simplest things, and make people feel special about themselves because they were special to him.
After his first hospital stay, I asked Lee to move into the studio apartment in my yard. With my brother came his belongings. Boxes were stacked to the ceiling. I pushed him to get rid of things and he resisted. During one fight, I called him a “crazy hoarder” and he called me a “maniacal control freak.” I conceded the control freak accusation but objected to “maniacal.”
My brother worked the night shift at his job as an office manager, and I would often wake at 4 a.m. and look outside. If his car was there, he was OK. If not, I would call his office.
On Jan. 6, I drove Lee to the hospital after seeing the infections on his swollen legs. For the first time, he told me he felt out of control. He could not stop his eating, though he struggled with it every day.
The doctors told us Lee would get IV antibiotics, like so many other times, and be out in a few days. What went wrong, went wrong quickly. The doctor who called me on Jan. 7, to tell me my brother had died, said he had no idea Lee was in danger of dying. The massive heart attack that stopped my brother’s heart knew differently.
I have many regrets. I wish I had not bugged him so much about things that now seem small. I wish I had spent more time with him. I wish I hadn’t snapped at him for always being late when we met for dinner.
But my biggest regret — the regret I will never forgive myself — is that I was not kinder to my brother. I worried about him all the time, and that worry made me brittle in the way I talked to him. No matter how I controlled my words, my restrained anger gave them a sharp edge. They will forever be splinters beneath my skin.
At the moment, I see only night ahead of me.
It’s not the memories of the screaming matches with my brother that has made me keep the apartment below me vacant. People who care about each other will scream at one another from time to time. The apartment sits empty because I want to spare the tenants the sounds that come with my 4 a.m. sobbing.
When you love someone, there is a struggle between pushing him to make his life better and accepting him for who he is, with his flaws and limitations. I’m not sure where the right balance lies.
What I am sure of is that every day, life presents us with situations in which we can pick one of two options. Pick the option that is kind. But don’t make the mistake I did and select the right option with gritted teeth. Find the pleasure in being kind without restraint.
Regrets are tricky things. Our biggest regrets come with no second chances.
Michael J. Stern was a federal prosecutor for 25 years in Detroit and Los Angeles.