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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 3)

“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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.