Friday, January 29, 2010


Let brotherly love continue.
Be not forgetful to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Hebrews 13: 1 and 2

A few years ago my brother, Gary, died after a fairly short struggle with cancer. But my story starts several years before the onset of his illness.

About three years before Gary got sick, one of Gary's friends asked permission for his cousin to park his truck in Gary's driveway at night. "Jim's* ex-wife and daughter are living in his house," Billy* said, "so Jim doesn't have a place to stay." Jim was fighting alcohol addiction. It cost him his wife, child, home, and job. Eventually it also cost him his truck, which was repossessed.

Gary and his wife, Faye, then allowed Jim to clean out a shed in their back yard and move his possessions into it. They ran a long extension cord from their house out to the shed, so Jim had a working electric blanket and lamp. This was Jim's home. Although Atlanta enjoys mild weather most of the time, winter has quite a bite. We sometimes get snow and ice, freezing temperatures and occasional drops below zero degrees (F). Somehow Jim survived the winter in his shed, working when he could find employment and a ride to work.

After my brother told me of Jim's new home, I worried a bit about my sister-in-law, a pretty woman with blue eyes and waist-length blond hair. "Are you comfortable with that man living in the back yard?" I asked her. "You're not afraid of him, are you?"

"Oh, no," Faye answered. "He's as nice as can be."

And he was. Before long I was hearing about the tall, thin, dark-haired man carrying the heavy garbage cans to the curb for Gary and Faye. He began to mow their grass. A carpenter and handyman, he repaired anything around the house that didn't require much money, since none of them had very much. For her part, Faye always brought dinner for Jim on the nights she picked up hamburgers on the way home from work. When she cooked, she invited Jim to partake. Eventually, he was allowed to help himself to food in the kitchen. When he could, he gave Faye money toward the grocery bill and occasionally grilled food in the backyard for the three of them and any other friends who were there.

Billy, Jim's cousin, was also handy, and always willing to help repair things in the worn old house. He fixed plumbing, helped install a water heater, and used his car to take Gary and Jim around town.

Gary's contribution to these two men was emotional support. He was older and listened to their problems, helping when he could. Billy also suffered through a divorce during this period and poured out his frustration and the grief of missing his two young children to Gary.

My brother was always easy to talk to. Somehow he never seemed judgmental or shocked. When arthritis made his back so painful that he could no longer work as a motorcycle mechanic, he studied (of all things!) cosmetology. While he worked as a barber and hairdresser, I guess he did "hear it all." Somehow, people just opened up to him. I am sure he was a steadying and sympathetic listener to his friends. And, as they became more aware that Gary's health was deteriorating, his friends responded to his need.

Gary, who suffered from severe back pain despite earlier spinal surgery, called me one day. "I am feeling dizzy," he said. "I fell yesterday."

"Have you seen your doctor?" I asked.

"Yes. She said I have an inner ear infection," he told me. "And she gave me some more anti-inflammatory medicine for the pain in my neck and back."

As days passed, Gary became weaker and more unsteady on his feet. Jim checked in on Gary whenever he was not working, cooking for him and helping Gary walk around the house. Jim could easily lift Gary because Gary was a small man. Even before he became seriously ill, Gary, who was 5' 9", weighed only 125 pounds but he became emaciated due to food allergies and pain and had trouble maintaining even 100 pounds.

Faye was able to work during Gary's illness, because Jim was mostly unemployed. He sat with Gary, eventually having to carry him to the bathroom or his chair in the living room. When I called one Friday, Jim said that Gary wouldn't eat or even drink anything. "I fixed him some soup," Jim said sadly, "but he won't wake up enough to eat it."

Thoroughly frightened, I called Gary's doctor, who told us to take him to the emergency room. Jim and Billy carried him to Billy's car and drove him to the hospital. They stayed with him until Faye arrived. The news was bad -- Gary had cancer in his lungs, brain, liver, and bones. There was no hope of recovery; however, radiation on his head cleared Gary's mind.

He also tried chemotherapy, but to no avail. The chemo changed Gary's appearance. Gone were his brown hair, black eye lashes and eye brows, and grizzled beard. "You're all eyes and ears," Faye told him. It was true. His large, round, dark brown eyes and small but prominent ears seemed to be all that was left of Gary.

Once he was home from the hospital, Jim stayed with Gary every day while Faye worked. Eventually her company moved a computer into their home, so she could work at home and be with Gary. Then, Jim and Billy visited continually, sometimes several short visits each day. Jim, being young and strong, was helpful in Gary's care as he inevitably declined. These good friends even cleaned Gary and changed him when he could no longer care for himself.

Although there were several others who helped Gary and stayed close through his illness, I would like to mention one more -- John. Gary and John had been friends since Gary was 14 and John was nine years old. The cute little boy grew up tall and handsome -- and addicted to drugs. Both men had trying times and made mistakes -- grievous ones. Through the almost 40 years of their friendship, they helped support each other. During Gary's last illness, John stood by him. He visited often at the hospital before Gary went home to die. During the five months after that, John spent many evenings sitting with Gary, watching motorcycle races and boxing matches on TV and giving Faye help in Gary's care. He sat up with us all night when Gary lapsed into a coma. He read a prayer and spoke touchingly at Gary's memorial service.

I thank God for these three friends of Gary's. What would we have done without them? In the comic strip "Snuffy Smith" Loweezy often said, "You're gooder than airy angel!" Jim, Billy, and John were also gooder than airy angel. And who were they? Just three men down on their luck. Not people one would usually hold up as an example -- jobless, homeless, penniless at times. But not heartless -- no, they were big in heart, full of love, courageous to the end.

To Gary they were brothers. They "Let brotherly love continue," as exhorted in the verse quoted above. And Gary and Faye were blessed when they "entertained strangers" who returned their kindness as if they had indeed "entertained angels unawares."

I thank my God upon every remembrance of you.
Philippians 1: 3

*Names have been changed.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing those sweet memories of your brother Beth. Gary was always so kind & I know you miss him so. :)