What Words Can Possibly Be Said?

Yesterday my dear brother and friend went to be with the Lord he loved so dearly. He had battled an insidious form of cancer for months, and fought valiantly to the end. Many if you have so graciously followed and supported our family as you have read our mourning, hopeful posts about his fight. Know that all your fervent prayers (from saints and professed sinners alike) and kind words have humbled me. It’s easy to be cynical of Facebook and other social media for their trivial nature, posts on our pets, or the meals we have eaten, but for me, on many a difficult day, I have been touched by your kind, caring comments. Many a despairing nights I have thought, “Why am I writing this? Who would possibly care?” only to discover that the words would connect with someone else’s own story. Often it was the comments of a distant friend or someone who had only seen the link. There is a profound human connection to this that is still a mystery.

So now I settle in after a long, sad, draining day, and I think, “What words can possibly be said? How does one even honor a loved one’s life on a post?” That task is beyond me. So I apologize to my brother Jeremy, and his loving wife Angela, and my dear parents David and Karen who raised him so well, that my words will be a poor reflection of this amazing man.

Jeremy was an artist. His work was beautiful, whimsical, and profound. Yet as amazing as he was at with pen and ink, it was never as satisfying for him as connecting with people. He loved people. He loved people from other countries. He was a learner of languages. (Spanish & Mandarin) He would say, “The greatest way you can show a culture honor is to speak their language well.” Books and vocabulary lists would never be enough for him — it was the humans behind the words he loved. When he wanted to learn words about a barber he would go get his hair cut at a non-English speaking shop and do his best to get the cut he wanted. When I pointed out he was sporting a rather bad trim, he was undeterred, “True, but now I KNOW the right words! Plus the barber told me this amazing story . . . ” Hair grows back, right?

He truly craved knowledge — not the half a Time magazine article type of knowledge I specialize in — but the seminal 1200 page definitive tome on ancient China type of knowledge. The type of books people only buy to fill large gaps in their bookshelves and make vague promised to someday read. The books on his selves were read often. And he would use his knowledge to challenge my strong opinions with a simple, “Is this actually based on something definitive, or is it simply speculation?” Admit to spouting strong unfounded opinions enough times, and eventually you will discover the great joy in having an opinion founded on actual fact! Thank you for that Jeremy. My life has been better because of you – and the world has had to listen to a lot less of my strongly stated baloney as well.

Jeremy loved making lists. Endless lists. The list of classical music everyone should know. The lists of songs to take with his cancer pills when he needed inspiration to get them down. List of books to read. Lists of places to visit. Lists of plans for each child — he had over 180 books in his Amazon cue of “important books” for his children to read some day. For a couple of years I had been buying him Newberry Award winners at thrift shops because he simply wanted to read them all. He had great plans for his kids, and much of his earlier hospital time was jotting down ways to make their lives intentional, and special.

Jeremy loved to laugh deeply – often leaning his head back and clapping his hands. “Joel, you don’t laugh right. You just grunt and say, ‘that’s funny!” He loved his wife. He loved his kids. He loved his parents and family. He loved his simple town of West Chicago with its Railroad Day Festivals, and Cinco de Mayo parades. We was not ashamed of its diminished status compared to the Naperville’s and Geneva’s that surrounded it. He was not a small town thinker, but he was an unabashedly small town lover. He relished the fact that his kids could enter into a predominately Spanish speaking classroom. In a great test of fortitude, Jeremy only spoke to his children in Spanish – making them bi-lingual. He will be buried in the cemetery next to Reed-Keppler Park – under the big trees he loved. A fitting resting place.

Jeremy challenged my habit of jumping to mental conclusions, and blurting out half-baked ideas, and I challenged him on seeing the world less as an obstacle and more as a place for opportunity. Over the years as life knocked us about with its endless waves of happiness and pain, it was those long discussions with him that gave life such flavor. Having the phone ring and hearing his voice say, “Hey bro, it’s Jer.” would usually only come to an end with one of our wives sighing and asking us to come set the table – “leave the problems of the world for another day.” How does one replace that?

For months now his wife and family, and gracious friends have kept vigil around his bed. Very rarely was he alone. We have been by his side. Holding his hands tightly as they sucked out his lungs. Rubbing his legs and feet to combat bedsores. Walking him through the halls baby steps by baby steps. As he lost his ability to talk we asked him laborious yes or no questions to discover what he needed through a squeezing hand. We prattled away in one-sided conversations and spun plans for when he got better. And we also sat with silent tears streaming down our cheeks as we saw him fade from us. Together we discovered what it is to love someone to the very end. We have seen the tired lines across each other’s faces. It cost deeply, but you do it without hesitation.

Yesterday we gathered around this precious man — his body shrunken by months of battle. We are tired. We are weak. But we were with him to the end. We spoke words of love over him. We cried over him. We prayed over him. We took turns holding his weakening hands and feet. Finally, without struggle, he passed on in the company of those who loved him so dearly.

There is no handbook for this type of thing. No, “Dealing with Death for Dummies,” book that would do any good. We all bumble through. We scream and spit, and step on each other’s raw emotions in some vain attempt to satiate our own pain, and some desperate desire honor to a brother/son/husband/father/uncle’s life. We couldn’t save him. We couldn’t fix him. We couldn’t love him back to health. But we were there, amidst our failings, united in love for this amazing man, none of us could let go.

Brother, I can’t believe you’re gone! I ache. I cry. I shake my head. You made me a better man, and the world around you was brighter because of you.

I love you, and already miss you so much. I will forever hear the phone ring and for a moment expect to hear on the other end, “Hey bro, it’s Jer.”

~~ Joel

One thought on “What Words Can Possibly Be Said?

  1. Rosemary

    I love what you said about laughter. It means so much that you record these thoughts; you are able to capture what it means to love and to grieve with such clarity and feeling.

    That is a feat of fortitude to speak to your kids in Spanish when you weren’t a native speaker! I love to hear the details of this brother of yours who touched so many lives. I feel so blessed that God called on me to intercede for him when someone shared Angela’s words about him back in October. I have had too much experience with grief and deaths that were not peaceful and surrounded by family – the way all of you and Jeremy approached his illness and death has been so healing to me. I know it has been ugly, but the grace, the grace is luminous through the passion and death.


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