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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“It’s spaghetti to die for.” Instead of the wince I’d expected, he smiled. We’d given up trying to change each other. What he’d perceived as my flaws were now valued assets. Jack appreciated that I was direct with his doctors. He told them, “My sister is my strength.”

Despite our differences, no brother was more devoted or generous. In Jack’s apartment was a picture of me as a toddler, about to take a tentative, early step. At eight, his hand was extended, prepared to catch me if I should stumble. That arm was there my entire life, making sure I didn’t fall, giving me whatever I needed. That hand corrected essays and papers I’d written, teaching me about structure and style. Jack had modeled how to be a loving sibling. It was my turn to reach out my hand to him and demonstrate what I’d learned.

He was responding to my playfulness, and we agreed to make his remaining days as much fun as we could. I bent the hospital straw the way I’d seen the nurses do and placed it in his mouth. After taking a sip, he let the soda slosh around on his tongue as if it were a grand cru. “How much Diet Coke did you get?” he asked.

“Six cans. For you, that’s a lifetime supply.” Again, he found me amusing. “How about I interview you and I’ll read your words at the funeral?” He hesitated, but didn’t refuse. I opened the pad I’d brought, not sure what I would ask until I started. “Do you remember my first word?”

“Stop smoking.” Jack probably imagined I would scold him about not taking care of himself, as had been my habit, but I laughed.

“Are you afraid of dying?” I asked.

“No,” he answered. “Curious. I’d like to last another 10 years. You’re making it too nice for me. I can’t think of anybody going so peacefully.” (He actually said, “peaceful,” but he’d taught me about adverbs and it was my turn to do the editing.)

Two days before Jack would die, as I was leaving his room, I heard something. He was singing, “The sun’ll come up tomorrow.” I dropped my bag and we sang together. It was spontaneous and intimate, unlike the perfunctory rounds of “Dayenu” we’d done at seders. Our new relationship would be short. Every moment mattered. I was reluctant to go home.

“I’m taking up so much of your time,” he said. Jack was more comfortable giving than receiving.


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