On the morning of July 17, I was backing out of my driveway when my cellphone rang. I knew the minute it rang that I was too late.
“Mern,” my younger sibling Paul said. “He’s gone.”
No matter how long we’d been expecting my brother Peter’s passing, no matter how prepared I thought I was to receive this news, how much I’d grieved in advance, it still felt as if the Earth’s axis has been thrown off kilter. “He’s gone” eclipsed everything.
The void was so tangible, my heart literally felt heavy. I kept on thinking, if this hurts so much, how in the world do people handle sudden loss?
The morning before, Peter’s wife, Carol, had sent out a group text: “Last night, Pete took a turn for the worse.” We all rushed to his bedside in that surreal and profound space that hospice calls “transitioning.”
Peter had just turned 67 when he died. He’d been diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer eight years prior and given a two-year life expectancy. While I always resisted the battle language applied to cancer because of its implication that there are winners and losers in this wicked disease, it was hard to deny that Peter was a fighter. He defied doctors’ odds at every turn. Up until last year, he was farming his 20 acres in South Lyon, raising peacocks, chickens, turkeys, tending to a fruit orchard, an enormous vegetable garden and during the winter, splitting logs and throwing them into a wood burning furnace.
While undergoing chemo, Peter broke two ribs playing ice hockey. Then he went back in the game and scored a goal. He completed a triathlon, ran several Turkey trots with me. Three days after he had emergency surgery to remove a tumor dangerously close to his spinal cord, he was grocery shopping. Two months before he died, and having crawled down the basement steps on his hands and knees, he was giving me step-by-step instructions from the wheelchair on how to hang grow lights so he could plant seeds for what affectionately became known as “Peter Pot.” Two weeks after he had broken his neck, he accompanied his youngest daughter Brenna down the aisle at her wedding.
At his memorial service, Peter was remembered for his uncommon compassion, which fueled his four-decade career in social work. One of his former clients, who had been abused as a child, credited Peter with saving her life. Lindsay, who now has a master’s degree in social work and works with the homeless in southwest Detroit, cried the whole way through her eulogy.
When it was my turn, I did not fare any better. But I did manage to convey how much we were going to miss our our resident family therapist. Whenever my brothers or I were struggling, we turned to Peter, who could talk us off the ledge, help us sort out priorities. He was a lesson to us all on knowing what’s most important in life, on how to be courageous.
His mastery of profanity was legendary. By his own admission Pete said the best swearing employs the perfect combination of religious and sexual references.
He was also easy on the eyes: All my high school friends had crushes on Peter. And yet he wasn’t one for making the rounds at a party; he always sought out one-on-one, often deep, conversations. To be in Peter’s inner circle meant that you could walk into a crowded room, and he would say “Ahah … there you are ...” as if he’d been waiting all year just to see YOU.
His oldest daughter, Devon, paid tribute to a devoted father. She described how her dad would wake them up when they were little by sitting on the edges of their beds and scratching their backs.
“Sometimes he’d do it for the heck of it, and just as we opened our eyes, he’d whisper, ‘You don’t have to wake up now. Go back to sleep.’ ” He would sit there, content to watch his children sleeping.
“Dad had the answer for everything,” Devon said. “ Every question, every problem. He did not judge. He always comforted. I feel like children are supposed to lose that God-like image of their fathers as they grow up. They are supposed to mature and see their fathers for the fallible humans that they are. That didn’t happen for me.”
She confessed that she had “an almost unhealthy attachment” to her father. In those last hours, she became fearful. “I was scared that when you passed I would cease to be able to function, that I would be paralyzed, that I wouldn’t be able to breathe.”
But on that Friday morning a funny thing happened, she said. “You passed and we held each other and we cried and we wailed and we screamed. And then we stood up and brushed ourselves off. We ate and drank and laughed and went swimming. And I was not paralyzed. I could breathe. In fact, I felt a wonderful lightness.”
“You were everywhere Dad, you were in the house and the garden and the woods. Everywhere I went, the air was full of you. And not only am I still alive and breathing, I’m up here, Daddy, in front of all these people. And I’m able to talk and to tell them how wonderful you were and how much we love you. This is the gift your illness has given me. It has taught me that I had strength inside me that I didn’t know was there.”
After the service, a couple hundred of us went to a restaurant for “an Irish wake” per Peter’s wishes. There were shots and toasts and people took turns at the microphone telling Peter stories.
All of a sudden, a crowd began to gather at the window. There were gasps, and then people started taking pictures with their cellphones. Out the window, in the clear blue sky, without even so much as a drop of rain, was a rainbow.
For anyone who would attempt to explain the odds of a rainbow forming without even a hint of condensation, may I remind you who we are dealing with a man who beat the odds and exceeded expectations at every turn. So, thanks Pete for the rainbow. We expected no less from you.