It was a year ago today that I last saw my brother alive. After his announcement a few weeks earlier of having Stage IV Melanoma, I decided I’d best go pay him a visit. My father encouraged me to “do it soon.” So I drove myself 5 ½ hours from the Raleigh, NC area to near Charleston, WV to stop by my dad’s. He then drove me and my step-mother three hours more up the road near Akron, Ohio. It was a long trip with a lot of time to think.
I hadn’t known how sick my brother Jeff was. After all, it was less than a month earlier that he made the announcement, with the proclamation that he “felt fine.” The only symptoms he had at the time were some memory loss and eye problems. His humor and attitude over the phone was always upbeat. But then again, my family has never been one to share bad news with me. Maybe because I’m the baby…maybe we’re all just that way. Whatever reason, I came to realize that Jeff’s condition was pretty bad.
On the way up, Dad asked me to call Jeff’s wife, Debbie to let them know when we’d arrive. It was then I found out that Jeff had just arrived home from the hospital. He had been having complications from his medicine due to his diabetes and had spent two nights under observation. (His balancing of diabetes and cancer was eventually to be his biggest challenge in coming weeks.) Dad also made an eleventh-hour statement that I might not recognize Jeff when we arrived.
We arrived around dinner time. Neighbors were just leaving after having brought over some food to eat. I actually talked to the neighbors and Debbie before I saw Jeff. I recognized him. He was bloated from the steroids, his head was completely shaven, and he had a dazed expression, but he still had the same smiling eyes and mischievous smile. He was still my brother.
We stayed for two nights. Our “purpose” was to help winterize their yard…gather the lawn ornaments, sweep the deck, clean the flower pots, store the deck furniture…that kind of stuff. But the truth is we just needed to visit. We all knew what this trip was. We (mostly Jeff and I) were hopeful that there would be a recovery…that he would fight and win. It was just skin cancer, right? Boy…did I learn otherwise.
Jeff’s attitude was nothing short of amazing. We still shared quirky little inside jokes. When we’d play cards and he lost the hand, he would joke that it didn’t take much to beat a man with cancer in his brain. When he'd cough (the cancer had spread to his lungs as well) he'd say, "I hope I didn;t cough up any cnacer on you." When there are moments that he obviously didn’t recognize me (which happened often that weekend), he would laugh and say “oops…my brain just farted.” I don’t think my dad appreciated the humor, but I did. It was something Jeff and I always shared and it was refreshing to witness.
At some point during the visit was when Jeff made a comment about wishing the black awareness ribbon could be as popular as the pink breast cancer awareness ribbon. “I don’t have breast cancer, but all I can find is ‘pink stuff.’ I have melanoma…and people need to know.” It was that moment, that VERY moment that I became aware of this disease. I had no idea what I’d do (and I still don’t), but I promised him I’d do what I could to let people know about melanoma…what it can do…and how to prevent it.
On the morning before I left, Jeff and I went geocaching together. I’ve mentioned geocaching here before, and I’m sure I’ll mention it again in the future. It was one activity that probably drew us together more than anything else in years. He had hidden one cache not far from his house, and I wanted to find it. I wanted to make it my 300th find…it deserved a “milestone” status. He took me to several others that day…trying to remember the tricks to some, and laughing at me when I struggled to find a few. I did indeed find his, as my 300th. We had a good time and shared a lot of geocaching stories while driving around. Sadly, a week later, he had no recollection of our time together. This awful disease was eating him alive that quickly. Thank God I was smart enough to take a photo of us together that day…my favorite picture of us ever.
After returning to his house, we had a quick bite to eat and then loaded up dad’s car for our return trip to West Virginia. We’re not a hugging family, but Jeff and I shared an awkward hug. I told him I’d see him again and he made some joke about my dad’s driving and that I should be more concerned for my own life than his. We smiled...never really shed a tear…but we knew. We both knew.
Obviously I miss my brother, but I very much want to continue his words, “People Need to Know.” People need to know…that they can prevent the occurrence of melanoma by making sun-smart choices. People need to know the dangers of tanning and tanning beds. People need to know that it’s important to get your skin checked by a dermatologist. People need to know to learn your own body and know when something’s not right. And people need to know that melanoma kills. You, dear reader, most likely know all these things. But you have to spread that knowledge to those who don’t…and let people know.