Losing a Brother

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I just returned home from the funeral of my husbands brother who passed away from leukemia complications, and I wanted to write down my thoughts while they are fresh.

Losing a Brother

Steve was more than just a brother-in-law to me. Our friendship began in college, and I truly owe so much to him, as an aid in helping his brother and I get together. If you’ve read My Love Story, you may know of the crazy back-and-forth story of how my husband and I came to be. What a lot of people seem to remember is that I dated my husbands brother, but what I think back most on is that his brother is the reason we eventually got together–in multiple ways.

I just re-read Chapter 21 of My Love Story, where Steve and I had what I’ve always seen as a treasured experience (I call him “Sam” in the story). We sat by the Provo River, drinking Martinelli’s cider from a bottle, and he convinced me to let his brother come visit me in Texas, even though I felt done with his wishy-washy uncertainties. He said he wanted me to be his sister-in-law. I feel so grateful to Steve, to have been a strength to me in that time, as well as many others. As I just re-read that post, I wept, feeling gratitude for our friendship then, and beyond.

Steve and Friends

Over the years, a lot of people have asked me, after learning of Our Love Story and that I dated my husbands brother, how it is to see my “ex” at family get togethers. And my general comment is “no big deal” though I’ll admit that nearly each time we got together, there was a bit of anxious-ness before hand because I worried it would be weird, but then it never was. Steve always made it easy for me, and truly no big deal.  He saw our friendship over the years for what it was: a friendship that was forged in college, that happened to have a stint of dating thrown in there.

My biggest worry was mostly that I enjoy conversation with him, and that I didn’t want others looking on and reading too much into it. You know, just the right amount of enjoyment…not too much for others’ observations. The funny thing is, I really have no idea who in the family knows that we dated. I THINK all the adults know, but it hasn’t been something that was ever openly discussed. In MY family it’s joked about. My brother has brought it up a time or two to try to get my husband or I to squirm, but we both know the truth: that it was because of Steve that we were able to work out. That Steve is an integral part in how we came to be, and we are eternally grateful for his role in all of it.

{The paper mustaches were Steve’s idea when they visited us in Texas}

Even more gratefully, Jen (his wife) and I have talked about it a-plenty over the years. She’s had a good laugh as I have shared my side. She has the full story, and even though Steve told her that I broke up with him, I assured her that at the time that it was a mutual feeling, I just voiced it first. It was the fastest moving and shortest relationship I had ever had. It was a really hard thing for me to do, to break up with him, but I just KNEW he and I weren’t meant to be together. There was something greater for both of us.

Leukemia Diagnosis

3 years ago, Steve was diagnosed with leukemia. After 2 different rounds of chemo that didn’t diminish the cancer, he was a fit for a trial that eventually worked. January 2016, their sister Karen donated her bone marrow. Of the 6 other kids, she was the best match. It was excruciating for her (lots of little holes drilled in her hip bone), and we were all excited and hopeful for the future.

While the transplant “took” he suffered from Graft vs. host disease, which didn’t allow him to be able to progress and strengthen his immune system, and was very susceptible to illness. He was able to go back to work, and exercise mildly, but often wore a face mask to keep germs at bay.  For two years, he lived like this. Several stints in the hospital from a common cold that got bad, but got better again.

In June, I was so happy that Jen was able to come out for my 40th birthday celebration. I always knew it was possible that she’d have to back out last minute if he got sick, but he was well enough for her to leave for 3 days, and I’m so grateful she got to come.  I wanted her to come so badly that I bought her and her 4 year old a ticket. The little guy stayed with my husband and kids and they had a grand time. She thought it would be too much to leave him home.

Then, just on December 16th, Steve didn’t feel well, and it got bad quickly. The siblings were all informed via text, and as the in-law, I heard when my husband told me. I immediately got in touch with Jen, and she asked me to text Steve to help keep his mind off of things. She said that his morale gets low in the hospital and any amount of conversation is helpful for him and lifts his spirits.

So I did…

It’s not often that we texted, but since she requested it, how could I not? It was 12/18/18 and I had just published my podcast about faith and the next day about Mormonism. I knew he listened occasionally, and I thought he might be interested in these episodes specifically, because he loves religious talk. I jokingly asked when I was going to be able to interview him for the podcast, and after deflecting a bit, he noted that I had put a lot of love and effort into the podcast and he hoped it was a rewarding project for me. We went back and forth and he eventually suggested his 7 year old might be more interesting.

That was our last exchange.

A few days later his health was so bad, they put him under sedation with a breathing tube. Blood in his lungs: pneumonia and RSV. We already had family plans to travel to Utah and Idaho, hoping and praying the sedation and medical attention would help clear his lungs. What we didn’t learn until after he passed away is that the leukemia came back.

There wasn’t much of a chance.

Faith in a Miracle

On instagram, I talked about my lack of faith, that I didn’t know how to pray for a miracle, because I didn’t want to be let down. I always pray for God’s will, that we will feel peace either way. I felt it was a lack of faith, but others responded that they felt it was MORE faithful, because I trusted Gods plan. That brought me some peace.

I heard from Jen a bit individually and we spoke once while she was in the hospital with him. I made arrangements for her to stay at a local hotel for a few nights, and just felt helpless from afar.

He was in a partial sedation at one point and she was able to communicate with him as he pointed to letters on a board, she spelled out what he wanted her to hear. His main request: that they still move forward with their sons baptism that was set for Sunday the 30th. All this while, she thought he’d still be in the hospital.

kids on the beach

After his parents flew across the country, we kept getting family texts from Jen that said his condition was not improving.

On December 27th, she sent a message that I just knew…he wouldn’t survive. Basically that he had a tender moment with his parents. That, in my heart, was a goodbye.

Our family was in Idaho, and we just finished a tour of my Alma Mater BYU-I (that I documented on Instagram) and were about to go snow-shoeing in the mountains as we got that text from her.  I grabbed my husbands hand in the car and cried. He looked at me like, “did you get a message I didn’t?” From the same message that I knew…he didn’t want to believe and still held out hope.

They planned to take him off of the ventilator, it was too risky for infection to keep him on.

We went to bed that night, and I wondered not IF they would call to let us know what happened but WHEN.

7:45 the next morning (Fri. the 28th), we got a call from his dad, there was no question, even before answering. He passed away the night before. I found out later that Jen was alone and it was later at night. She chose to stay the night near the hospital instead of risking the long drive solo, and wanted to tell her kids first, which was Friday morning.

Ready to Take Action

I was ready to fly straight from Idaho to Virginia, but what would I do? We still had 3 days left of our family trip, and though I wanted to scoop Jen up in my arms and take care of her right then. Instead, I booked a flight for January 1st at 7am. I would take my oldest daughter to help me with what I’d do and play with Jen’s kids.

I spoke to Jen that Saturday night, the next day. She told me a lot more details, very matter-of-fact. She’s always been a pillar of strength, no exception in this moment.

I told Jen then that I’d take care of anything to do with pictures: Prints for display, slideshow, program. I’d done it before, I could do it again.

I wanted to make sure the displays were special, so that others could see the full life that Steve led.

laughing father and son

I got to Virginia with my daughter at noon on Tuesday, the services were Saturday. My main plan was to help with whatever needed done, especially what I mentioned above.

What’ I’d HOPED for was some alone time with Jen, but I didn’t know if I’d get it.

I’m grateful that she took me up on morning walks, and for those 3 days, we had some tender conversations that I will truly treasure. On one of those walks she said, “Tell me again about when you and Steve dated” to which I replied, “JEN! Is it really the time for that??” We both laughed, and I reminded her once again that my husband and I needed an intervention from Steve on several occasions, and my dating Steve is what allowed us to have a closer friendship without any weirdness. I think she knows that I love and care for her husband on a deep level, and that brings her comfort.

She was always the one to tell me over the years that Steve would read my blog, followed and loved reading my love story, and that he listened to my podcast this last year as well. Early on, I wasn’t sure what to think about him following along, but I love that it wasn’t a big deal to them. As we walked this week, she told me that he loved tuning in to what I shared because it was a bit of a dream of his to have a blog or a podcast himself. She said he was impressed by my entrepreneural spirit, and had those same desires, just didn’t ever bring them to fruition. I think his working for the government kept him back from any type of public life. Not on social media at all. But he’s always been the political-opinionated-riling-up-emotions type, so I think a blog or podcast would have suited him well. It seems he probably just wasn’t sure how to do that and keep private at the same time. It made me a bit sad hearing that it was an aspiration of his that he didn’t get to do, but at the same time comforted that he enjoyed following me doing that instead.

Take Care of Jen

Throughout the week, besides all of the picture duties, my main goal was to TAKE CARE OF JEN.

But how??

I decided on a few things ahead of time:

  • Daily shoulder/neck massage
  • Make sure she felt confident in her appearance for the services
  • Make sure the kids had something nice to wear
  • Food: wants/needs (chick-fil-a runs each day)
  • Regular water and tissue replenishment at the services
  • Conversations with her kids, one-on-one

She and I have shared clothes over the years, so I knew that we were similar size and like the same styles. After asking a few favorite colors, I ordered about 12 dresses on Amazon and had them delivered to her home, and they arrived the day after I got there.  I knew we wouldn’t have time to go looking, AND I know that she’s had to make so many decisions, I didn’t want to have her checking out links, so I picked some that I knew she’d like at least one. Then, when they all arrived, we had a “fashion show” as I helped her decide what felt the best, and she felt good about herself in. True to ordering online, some were not as expected, but we found a few gems, and she ended up keeping a few for future wearing.

I also sent her daughter a link of a dress I liked and asked if she also liked it and if so which colors did she like best.

And the boys…found them some great suits. AMAZON is SO AMAZING! Great prices, and free returns on all I bought, so getting a few sizes just in case was really helpful.

It took 3 solid days to work with the pictures.

Day 1: Sort through the computer files and pick out the best pictures for display/slideshow

Day 2: Work on the program, arrangement, what pictures to go on there

Day 3: Print images for the displays (varying sizes) and go around the house finding momentous items to also display (I’ll share this in the how to plan a funeral post)

red barn family pictures

{See more of their red barn family pictures on that link}

My daughter Alyssa and I were staying at her neighbor Ashley’s house (6 doors down). She and her husband Cade were SO helpful in so many ways, and it was great to communicate with them as well as another sister in Jen’s ward, Michelle, before I got there and during. They helped me collect frames and easels from other church members wanting to help, that were also used in the displays. Besides that, I also drove around a car that week from someone that I never even met! So many generous people offering their services.

I went with Jen to get a haircut. Had a girls outing for a manicure/pedicure, helped her write an email to a school teacher, visited the auto shop to fix something in her car, It’s just kind-of annoying that REAL LIFE has to happen amidst turmoil and upheaval.

mother daughter pedicure

I shared on Instagram last week a bit about Jen, and that when they got married 3 months after us, I had an internal struggle about a competition of who would win the grand prize of being the favorite daughter in law. I soon found out I couldn’t hold a candle to her, so stopped comparing myself to her and just wrapped my arm around her and made her my best friend.

The service was lovey and emotional and thoughtful and funny. Jen asked my husband in advance to lead the “after party” where we all shared stories of funny memories of Steve. My mind kept drawing a blank, as I couldn’t think of anything beyond that tumultuous year of us dating and then him intervening and pushing me towards my husband. It just didn’t feel right to talk about that year then. I’m still not sure what his kids know, and I feel like it would somehow throw my husband under the bus without the full story, so I just listened.

When I was scouring their computer for family images, I stumbled upon this picture from 2011, and it just made me laugh. Steve was a teaser, and he took a liking to teasing my daughter Alyssa. I love this shot, because she is not putting up with his teasing, and it reminds me of the uncle that STILL teases me, but I’m wrapped around that uncles finger.

not scared of you

Then in 2014 with my younger daughter, being silly on a golf cart.

Crazy Uncle on golf cart

All in all, it’s been emotional.  So many moments, conversations that I feel are too sacred to share, but grateful to have them in my heart. Maybe I will actually write in my personal journal that I tend to only pull out quarterly.

I have mostly written 3 other posts that stem from this experience, hoping it can help others. So watch for them to be published soon.

I posted another tribute on instagram, but I wanted to add this video here also. I couldn’t find a lot of videos on their computer, but this is one of 3 I did find, and it’s a birthday song for me on the 30th, 10 years ago. I love it. I love them, it makes me happy.

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