Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Cousin Bob

When I first read the Play MacBeth I was struck by the horror of one lesser known line. At the end of Act five, MacBeth is besieged in Dunsinane Castle by the forces of MacDuff. As he calls out orders for the doomed defense of his monarchy, he hears the cry of mourning women. He turns to a seyton and angrily asks what all the noise is about. The seyton tells him that Lady MacBeth, insane since the beginning of Act five, has died. MacBeth muses, "She should have died hereafter. There would have been a time for such a word." It is a horrifying sentiment that demonstrates the depths to which MacBeth had fallen during the course of the drama. At the beginning of the play he was so passionately in love with and devoted to his wife that he would commit any crime to earn her approval. By the end, his fates have fallen so far that all he has to say about her death is that it comes at an inconvenient moment.

Those lines lead into the tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow soliloquy, one of the most famous in the entire Shakespeare canon; perhaps its not surprising that they have been eclipsed. But they have meaning for me. I spent three days last week watching one of my favorite cousins die. Most of my cousins are quite a bit older than I am and were gone from home when I was growing up. But Bob was just ten years older and lived in the same town as I did during my childhood. When I was a little kid, he was a cool high school guy who paid attention to me and gave me his old Mad Magazines. He never married. He stayed around his mother and aunts and kept an eye on them.

When my father retired, he bought a piece of land in the country and split it with his sister Norma, Bob's mother. They built two houses there and moved in next door to each other. Bob could have gone off to live his own life then, but he didn't. He found a job in the nearest town and moved so he could be there for them. Because he lived so close, he was there for all the holidays and family events. Clever Wife got to know him well and love him during our visits.

At first, my parents and Aunt were in good enough health that they didn't place many demands on Bob. But that changed. My Dad died seven years ago. Bob took over plowing the road and doing heavy lifting for Mom. Aunt Norma had a heart attack the same year Dad died. Bob moved in with her to take care of her. Mom was diagnosed with cancer and has maintenance chemotherapy. Bob began driving her to the doctor toward the end of each chemo regime when she felt weakest.

Aunt Norma died last year. By then Bob had also been diagnosed with his own cancer, lymphoma, and given a year to live. His greatest fear was that his mother would outlive him. Aunt Norma had already outlived all of her other sons; Bob didn't want to subject her to any more tragedy. He didn't. He outlived his mother by ten months.

Mom called last Monday to say Bob was fading fast. Clever Wife and I dropped everything and rushed down to where they live. Bob was at home with hospice care and the same nurse who took care of his mother was caring for him. He was conscious and recognized us when we arrived. We sat with him a while that day. When we checked in the evening, he was asleep. The next day we spent several hours sitting with him, but he never woke up. He slipped away on the third day. Clever Wife was at his side, holding his hand. I was fixing Mom a snack after taking her to the clinic for radiation.

There was little to do after that. Bob had arranged everything in advance. He had a surveyor mark the property line between Aunt Norma and Mom's houses. He sent a few mementos to his nieces and nephew. After his Mom died and before his own health failed, he traveled around and visited all his old friends. He made Mom a co-signer on his bank accounts and post office box. He made my sister his executor and gave her power of attorney while he was alive. He even arranged for the biker next door to plow the road up to Mom's next winter. We made a few phone calls and the rest was automatic. He died like he lived, gruffly practical and surprisingly considerate.

Bob did what he could to make things run smoothly after he was gone, but he couldn't do everything. He couldn't find another Bob to take his place in my mother's life. Mom lives in the country, five miles from the nearest, very small, town. She isn't ready to leave the house that Dad and Bob built for her. To quote Shakespeare again, there's the rub. As the child who lives closest to her, and the only one without a real career, it makes sense for me to take the most responsibility for making it possible for her to stay there if that's what she wants. That will probably mean a big disruption in my life. I already drive across the state every third week or so, now I'll need to do even more. She has friends and neighbors who spend time with her and keep an eye on her. She has more of a social life than I do. But she needs someone closer, someone she can call on every day.

As I said at the beginning, when I first read MacBeth, I was horrified at the thought of personal tragedy being contaminated by crass practical concerns. Like Kohelet, the old preacher of Ecclesiastes taught, I believe there should be a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to mourn and a time to plan. I don't want my final memories of Bob to be of how his death inconvenienced me. Unfortunately, life isn't that neat. The times for our purposes come in a jumbled mess. We do what we can to sort them out and make some sort of satisfying sense out of it. That's all we can do.

I'll have a little breathing time before the crazies hit. Mom is going to spend a few weeks with my sisters in Alaska. Who knows what will happen after that. Till then, I'll say my good-byes to Bob, the cool big kid who shared his Mad Magazines.

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