My Brother’s Final Joke: Laughter Eases The Dying Process
Easter weekend, 2012, I rushed to my little brother’s home. We had received a panicked call from his wife. He was dying. It looked as though his last breath would come within a few hours or days.
On Good Friday, my wife Jeanne and I had Holy Communion with him, as he was still somewhat lucid. The bread, the wine; the meaning was not lost on any of us in that ceremony. It was somber, to say the least.
By Saturday evening, my daughter and son had arrived from homes as far away from Gastonia, NC, as Greenville, SC. And Perry, my brother, was remarkably alert and animated.
They engaged in a session of UNC versus Duke jabs and jokes. Perry was a die-hard Duke fan. And he laughed along with us as my kids, both UNC fans, told their anti-Duke jokes. And he bounced back with some of his own at their team’s expense. We were all astounded at how he had come back from the edge of death to such a degree of alertness and energy and life.
I stayed in the same room with him that night, stretching out on a too short sofa and uncomfortable sofa pillows, jolting fully awake with every groan or movement he made in his hospital bed. The startlingly loud cycles of the oxygen generator keeping an irregular hissing of resignation rhythm to the night.
I awakened yet again and realized he was fully awake and getting a drink from his nightstand. The dim light of his lamp was on. I asked if he was okay and he said he was just thirsty. We began to talk. At some point I said, “Here’s a joke I heard today,” and shared it with him.
“A koala is sitting up in a gum tree, smoking a joint, when a little lizard walks past, looks up and says: “Hey Koala, what are you doing?”
The koala says: “Smoking a joint. Come up and have some.”
So the little lizard climbs up, sits next to the koala and they enjoy a large doobie.
After a while the little lizard says his mouth is dry and he is going to get a drink from the river.
But the little lizard is so stoned that he leans too far over and falls into the river.
A crocodile sees this, swims over to the little lizard and helps him to the side then asks the little lizard, “What’s the matter with you?”
The little lizard explains to the crocodile that he was sitting and smoking a joint with the koala in the tree, got too stoned and then fell into the river while taking a drink.
The crocodile says, “I have to see this,” and walks into the rain forest, finds the tree where the koala is sitting, with yet another joint.
He looks up and says “Hey you!”
The koala looks down at him and says…
“Doood! HOW much water did you DRINK??”
After telling the joke, he laughed as I had not heard him laugh in years. I thought he might break a rib from his laughter. It was a moment of shared laughter that I will never forget.
I visited at least every other weekend with him after that. And we laughed and talked and remembered so much that we thought we had forgotten. It was the best spring and summer of my life, now that I think back on those weekends.
On his next to last Saturday on Earth, my wife Jeanne and I were there with him. He was visibly weaker. He slept a lot. But during his waking hours, he was, though somewhat groggy, aware of all around him and talked quite a bit.
His words were of the afterlife and our time together and with our parents. But mostly he spoke of his love of his wife and daughter and son, and of the love they gave to him.
My wife, Jeanne, and I opted to get a motel room for the night, as sleeping on the sofas at his house was not the most comfortable of sleeping arrangements for our aging bodies. I gave him a kiss and said I’d see him in the morning.
We were jolted awake at about 2:00 a.m. His son called us to say that Perry had somehow stashed a cigarette and lighter. He had fallen asleep with the lit cigarette in hand. The cigarette’s embers had come to rest on his oxygen tube. There was a horrific flash fire.
Perry screamed out, and his brother in law, Chuck, in the next room, rushed to him. His hand and lower part of his face was horribly burned. The only thing that saved the house from exploding was a hard plastic connector between the two part oxygen tube and the oxygen generator.
The firemen and EMTs were there in an amazingly short time. His bedding had not caught fire. But, the remains of his oxygen tube were visible as a gray ash on the bed. He was quickly rushed to the hospital. The fire had caused burns to his nostrils, mouth and the back of his throat. But it had not reached his lungs. Hospice doctors arrived shortly thereafter, and seeing that he was stabilized, moved him to the hospice facility.
Perry hung in there for another week, unable to eat, nor to take a feeding tube. The oxygen he was supplied with came from a small, clear, plastic hose that was placed in his mouth. The only water he could take was from soaked sponge swabs placed in his mouth. He spoke mostly in grunts or an occasional nod.
On my last visit with him, Sunday, July 22, 2012, I told him I had to go, as I had two grandkids with me. My daughter Jennifer had brought them up to Gastonia from her home in Spartanburg, SC, and the grandkids and Jeanne and I were going to spend a week together at our house in Apex, NC. I asked if he needed anything. He said something, a mumble that I could not understand. I asked him to repeat it.
He said, in a weak, hoarse voice, “Dude…how much water did you drink?” And he gave a crooked smile.
I laughed. It seemed so right and so wrong at the same time. I kissed him on the forehead, gave a gentle hug and said, “I love you, little brother.” He groaned “I…love…you.” I left the room.
Less than a half an hour later, he was gone. And I was at the door looking in.
Yes, it truly is “The Greatest Joke Ever.”