Laughing at Death

A Writer and Her Dying Brother Forge a Bond Through Humor

Siblings: The author and her brother, Jack, in 2003.
Courtesy of the Author
Siblings: The author and her brother, Jack, in 2003.

By Sybil Sage

Published December 10, 2013, issue of December 13, 2013.
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‘There are no online reviews for hospices,” I said to my 79-year-old brother shortly after he announced he was stopping dialysis. His decision meant this was the first day of the rest of his life, yet we both laughed. Jack had been admitted to the hospital with pneumonia, complicated by serious heart and kidney problems. Lying in bed for several months, he counted my visits — and the raising and lowering of the head of his bed — as the highlights of each day. In his condition, I would have made the same choice.

Though we came from the same gene pool, the distribution of genes created two very different people, not designed to be friends. Jack was proper; I am bold. He was restrained and cautious; I’m impulsive and unguarded. He kept to himself; I have many friends. He was perceived as refined and tasteful; nobody would define me as either. We’re both New Yorkers, but my brother was an Upper East Sider with a large tie collection; I live in the West Village, where you see more tattoos than ties. I’m sure we were equally surprised to find that dying unloosened Jack’s tie and allowed us to establish a connection that had long eluded us.

When Siri told me that there are 15 hospices outside of Manhattan, I snapped back, “I want one in the city.” She was no more helpful than Yelp or Google had been. Shouldn’t TripAdvisor include hospices in its listings? A palliative care nurse gave me the name of the one hospice in the city, letting me know it has only 25 beds. Was dying like everything else? Did you have to know someone?

“Our turnover is high,” the woman at Haven Hospice told me on the phone, assuring me that within days, there would be a bed. And there was. Jack and I, who had been in many taxis together, were having our first (and last) ride in an ambulance. It was the only time he didn’t give a driver a generous tip.

Hospice conferred normalcy on dying, though the exit signs seemed redundant. Each room had a view of the East River that contributed to the facility’s serenity. I’d brought with us spaghetti and Diet Coke, the two things Jack was craving. A man who’d dined at fine restaurants everywhere in the world was now eating minuscule amounts of soft foods. I fed him with a plastic fork. Beaming, he said, “This spaghetti is so good. What is it?”


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