My brother would've been forty-two years old yesterday. Instead, he died from Acute Myeloid Leukemia the day after his 34th birthday.
This was written by my mom.
I held my son’s hand when he died that morning in May. His left hand. When I wrapped my own hands around it, his bruised fingers fluttered faintly and I felt his response. “It’s alright to let go now, Ric,” I whispered to him. “Don’t worry. We’ll be alright.” A ghost of a smile flitted across his face. I watched the muscles in his body, tautly held so long against the pain of the leukemia, release their tension. His labored breathing stopped, and I knew he was gone. I wept then, wept and held my son’s hand.
He turned thirty-four years old the day before he died. He had resolved he would not die on his birthday. It was his gift to me, as our birthdays were only days apart. The Gemini sign linked us, and together this day we shared a gift. From our home on the hill, we watched a rainbow dance over a green pasture. Then I saw my son’s face soften as he slowly scanned the room, turning his head to capture every corner. He looked at me, our eyes met, and I knew on a primal, gut level that somehow we would be alright. He grinned his familiar, lopsided grin and said, with a twinkle in his eyes, “There sure are a lot of people in the room, Mom.” Physically, he and I were the only ones there, but I felt what he saw. He would not be going alone when he left us.
* * * * *
I chose my son. He came into my life when he was ten years old. He’d been in protective custody and foster care for six years, and had scars to show from those places. We had three girls who wanted a brother, and since my husband had been adopted, it felt like a natural choice for us.
We fell in love with Ricky the first time we saw him. We knew he would be our son. This boy, with the horror stories to match the scars on his body, now reveled in his adoptive status. He knew he had been chosen. At last he had a real home. His joy was contagious. I felt my heart grow with him.
Two dozen years later, at his funeral, someone – gratefully, I cannot remember who – said to me, “At least he wasn’t your real son.” I was too numb to respond. I knew it was meant to be comforting, but “not my real son?” If he wasn’t real, what was he? Ricky was the son of my heart, as real to me as any child of my flesh. I knew for certain: he was real, and he was my son.
* * * * *
Three weeks earlier, in April, the doctors told us they had exhausted all treatment options. We were still numb from that news when Ric turned to me and asked, “Mom, will you ever be happy again?” I looked him squarely in the face and told him – for we had agreed months before we would be brutally honest with each other during this journey – that I could not see any possibility of being happy again. My son, this wise old soul, turned his distinctive hazel eyes with the golden flecks in them at me and calmly said, “My life won’t count for anything if you aren’t happy.” I had no words, for I could not lie to this boy, this man facing his own mortality far too soon. Happy? I wanted to rant and rave and break something, anything, to release my terror at the idea of life without him.
* * * * *
Life was never dull with Ricky. This lanky young boy with the bowl-cut brown hair delighted in telling me how he tricked his sisters by catching his farts in a metal Band-Aid can and getting the girls to open the lid. I remember when he broke his arm playing football, when he wrecked his bicycle and needed stitches, when his skin turned blue from playing in the cold Oregon surf, all the while insisting he was fine. I remember those times as a teenager when he grew so fast he couldn’t walk without tripping until his coordination skills caught up. The daunting amounts of food he could eat. The fear from learning he might be epileptic, and the relief when the doctor said it had been a mistake. How do you wrap your mind around your child’s terminal diagnosis?
* * * * *
We brought him home to care for him those last weeks. We set up a hospital bed in the living room, and Ric laughed that the bed was standard sized while he was not, and his feet hung over the edge. He laughed when I cried at the unfairness of it, the bureaucratic bungling. He laughed and reminded me of how I had spent hours massaging his feet in the hospital with what I thought was lotion, and one day a nurse asked why I was using liquid soap. He had the cleanest, slipperiest feet of anyone on the oncology ward, and now they were hanging over the end of the too-short bed.
Those weeks surprised me. I thought we would spend long hours talking about weighty matters, but what Ric wanted most was to watch one more NBA season finale. The Portland Trailblazer basketball franchise was only a few years younger than him, and he avidly supported his team. But the games were on satellite, and we only had a network antenna. I asked him, “You want to watch basketball???” “OK, Mom, here’s the deal,” he said, “The games give me something to hope for, and I’ve gotta have hope.” I called the satellite company. A man came and aimed a device at the sky and said there were too many trees and it couldn’t be done. Couldn’t be done? Couldn’t be done? I would cut down every tree on our property so my son would have hope. I had already heard “couldn’t be done” in the worst possible context, and this wasn’t it.
I would make it happen. I called my neighbor, a seventy year old retired logger. He quickly mobilized his heavy equipment: truck, loader, crane, crawler, winches, and chain saws. One sixty-foot tall Douglas fir tree fell, and the ground shook. No signal. He cut down another, then another, tears streaming down his face, until the satellite guy captured a signal and gave a thumbs-up. Ric had his basketball games. He’d felt the ground shake when the mighty trees fell. In his battle for hope, he knew there were other soldiers actively engaged with him.
One afternoon while Ric was resting the telephone rang. I answered it and a man’s voice said, “This is Bill Walton. Could I please speak with Ric?” Speechlessly I handed the phone to Ric. Bill Walton was the tall, red-headed center forward who had led the Trailblazers to their single World Championship against the Philadelphia 76’ers back in the glory days of 1977, when my little boy was nine years old. Bill Walton on my telephone? How had that miracle happened? I watched Ric’s face transform from tension into a loose, ear-splitting grin as he realized he was talking to his idol. Then he was asking me for a paper and pen, and wrote down Bill Walton’s cell phone number. When he hung up, he was still beaming. “Mom, Bill Walton said I could call him anytime, day or night. Bill Walton, Mom!” And my heart sang.
In the early stages of the adoption process, we took Ricky to visit friends. A local television celebrity lived next door, and casually dropped in to say hello. Ricky’s eyes got huge and his mouth dropped wide open. “You’re Ramblin’ Rod!” he shouted. Rod Anders, aka Rambling Rod, sat down with Ricky and told him all about his cartoon show, and invited him to be on it. Ricky told us the next day he would be the best son we could ever, ever have, if we would please, please adopt him. His joy, when we assured him he would be our son, was a tangible thing. It was his trademark. Like the time he laughed so hard on the Zipper ride at the County Fair that he swallowed his gum. When he stumbled across a skunk and got sprayed. The time he was home on a break from college, and my 6’4” son stood facing his 5’10” father, who looked up at him and said, “You’ve grown.” Without missing a beat, Ric poked his Dad in the belly and said, “So have you.” This boy – this man – lived joyfully. He wanted it to be his legacy. He had run his lap of life’s relay race, and was handing his baton to me. “My life won’t count for anything if you are not happy.”
* * * * *
In the hospital, Ric’s visitors had been limited because he could not risk catching an infection or cold. I knew my son had friends, but now I was learning how constant they were in staying connected. In these last weeks exposure no longer mattered, and on good days he held court. We carefully planned those brief hours when he would rally his energy to cheer his friends who came to cheer him. His room was filled with cards and photos, balloon bouquets, and banners scrawled with words and sketches. High school and college friends traveled hundreds of miles for a brief visit with Ric. They told stories, laughed and cried, and laughed.
Someone asked me during those weeks if it wouldn’t be easier to lose a child suddenly, in a car accident, rather than slowly to a devastating illness like leukemia. How do you answer an impossible question? Twenty years earlier I had sat with a friend whose son had died in a car accident the day before he was to leave for college. It was horrible. Are those my only choices? How about (c) never lose a child at all?
Time turned a precious commodity when its boundaries came into sharp focus. Once I had time to kill. Time on my hands. When it was Monday I yearned for Friday. When I was fifteen I longed to be twenty-one. Time had been like an artesian well, always there in abundance, a never-ending source. Now I scrambled to find the controls. Slow it down! Form a reservoir to store it up! Give me back the wasted bits and pieces!
We talked. As the days slipped past there was a point when Ric realized hope would not be enough, and we talked. As he fearlessly faced his own mortality, we talked freely about living, and dying, and what we thought came afterward. “Live your life joyfully, otherwise my life will have counted for nothing,” he said. I promised, even though I had no idea what that meant. I promised, because I still hoped to stop time and keep him with me.
* * * * *
At his funeral we were surprised at how many people attended. We hadn’t known Ric had so many friends. We invited them to share stories, and they showed me another side of my adult son: his loyalty to his friends. The time he walked a girl home after they got off work past midnight, to ensure her safety. She lived four miles away, in a remote area. He delivered her to her family, turned around and walked home. One man said Ric was the only friend he would ever let dance with his wife. Ric never forgot his foster care years, and counseled friends enduring their own tough times. He saved the lives of two people who had talked about suicide. The palpable elements of authenticity and joy, lived out in his own life, spoke to theirs and forever changed them. He had built a solid legacy. It wasn’t just words for him.
* * * * *
One afternoon during that last week, Ric’s girlfriend came to visit, and I slipped away to a mortuary to make plans. It was a surreal experience. He wanted a service that would celebrate his life. I wanted him to live. There was a lag time between his acceptance and mine, but I knew I could not let him down in his dying any more than I could in his living. The mortuary experience somehow brought his heart and mine into alignment.
I sat beside him that last night, holding his hand and talking to him. He was heavily sedated but never alone. My husband and I took turns, grabbing naps and keeping vigil. We were both with him when our well of time ran out. In the process of releasing his remains and preparing for his service, I thought the season of receiving any more gifts from Ric had passed, but I was wrong. His body went through the cremation process four days later, on my birthday. On Memorial Day.
* * * * *
When he was young his sisters called him “Ricky Ticky” and “Ricky Ricardo.” In middle school he shortened his name from “Ricky” to “Rick.” After college he shortened it again to “Ric.” I told him I liked it, but if he made any more changes, his options would be initials only, or lengthening it back to his given name, Richard. “OK, Mom, here’s the deal,” he said, “It’s just a name. I know who I am.”
* * * * *
Ric had been specific about where he wanted his ashes spread: the Oregon coast. Victoria, British Columbia. The San Juan Islands. A year after his death we met with some of his friends in Lincoln City, on the Oregon coast, to begin honoring his wishes. It was late May, cold and windy. There was a dark, heavy, low bank of clouds stretched across the horizon. Each friend had a vial of ashes, and we stood huddled together, quietly talking and waiting. There was speculation that Ric probably had something to do with the fact that the basketball season for the LA Lakers, Portland’s nemesis, was going badly. I checked my watch - 11:22 am. We had come exactly one year from his death. At that instant, a hole opened in the sky and a column of warm, sparkling sunlight descended, only on us, like a spotlight. “Ric’s here,” one of his friends said in a hushed voice. I could see my own awe reflected on the faces of the others. And echoing the cries of the gulls soaring overhead, I heard my son, laughing.