24. Bud
Sunday, March 3, 2013 at 04:49PM
Jim Kurtzke





"It's Jim."

"Oh, hi."

Thus began my recent phone conversation with Bud, my oldest brother. Actually, his formal name is John, which everyone calls him, except for his family. We call him Bud. Don't know why. Might be a holdover from 1950s culture, when he born. Also could be that Bud is John Jr., and my mom didn't want to say, "John," and have two people respond to her...assuming either my dad or brother would actually respond.

This day found Bud/John is pretty rough shape. He had suffered a nasty fall that completely ruined his right arm and shoulder, which he promptly reinjured with another fall, forcing him into a wheelchair for fear of a three-peat. Then bad went to worse. A particuarly aggressive infection found its way to the shoulder area, and prevented doctors from performing surgery. Additional tests revealed that Bud was suffering from liver failure. The wheelchair suddenly became a hospital bed.

"How are you feeling?"

"Oh, well, you know."

I didn't really know, but I knew enough. As Bob, my other brother, explained it to me, Bud suffered from a genetic deficiency in his liver. Like all of us, Bud had inherited two genes that affected his liver. Think of the genes as a good one and a bad one. Most people inherit two good ones. Some inherit one good and one bad, which makes them a possible carrier of liver disease. Inherit two bad genes and liver failure often results. Bud had inherited two bad genes.

"How much pain are you in?"

"It comes and goes, but it can get pretty bad."

"Do you know what's happening to you?"

"Oh, yeah, I know that."

Liver disease and an infected shoulder weren't Bud's only problems. About 10 years ago, he suffered a brain hemorrhage that permanently robbed him of certain mental and physical faculties. So much so that, still in his early 50s, he was forced into retirement. He had been an active Catholic priest and college math professor. He had been the intellectual powerhouse in our family. And now, he couldn't teach anymore. His priestly duties were significantly reduced. He sometimes struggled to get words out of his mouth. And he was sent to a retirement home for priests at the University of Notre Dame.

Years earlier, Bud's heart problems required a pace maker be inserted into it. And he experienced seizures from time to time. Safe to say, he had experienced a lot of suffering. And now, he was confined to a bed, laying prone and not able to read or otherwise occupy his mind. This I could relate to. My experience with bladder cancer -- chemotherapy, surgery, complications and recovery -- often left me with the vast emptiness of time.

"The biggest problem I experienced was getting from hour to hour," I said.

"It's tough. It's tough. The nurses and doctors fill some of that time. Mom, dad and the others (our family members) help, too. But I'm still left here." Sing songs in your head, I suggested.

"Bob says the gameplan is to get you strong enough to qualify for a liver transplant."

I said that, knowing that his chances might not be so good. After all, his body was withering away in a bed, his liver filling with toxins, and the counter-acting medicines creating other problems. His shoulder was mangled, and he couldn't stand. And his prior medical problems might make him an unlikely transplant candidate.

"Yeah, they want to get me to Chicago, and see what the doctors say."

"When I was going through cancer, staying with Kate was my biggest motivator to keep living. Do you have something like that to live for?"

"Yeah, I always have."

This made me feel better. I assume he was referring to his faith. Bud is my sibling that I know the least. He is 10 years older than me, and for the short time we shared the same house he was very private. Then, he was off to Notre Dame for college, UCLA for graduate school, back to Notre Dame for the priesthood, and then to a Catholic college in Oregon, where he spent most of his time. So I haven't seen him very much.

Broaching the unbroachable, I asked, "have you thought about what it might mean to die?"

God knows those thoughts crept into my mind during cancer, especially alone at night. So I figured I was qualified to asked the question.

"Yeah, but I'd like to avoid it for a while."

Ah, wit and truth at the same time. That's Bud. He has one sharp mind, even in a diminished state. He can weave in and out of focus, of course. But when he's on, he's on.

Case in point: when I was a kid, he took Bob and me to a Washington Senators baseball game. Bud is a big baseball fan. A a few years ago, Bud came home for a few weeks. So I returned the favor and took him to a Washington Nationals game. On the way to the park, he was kinda spacey. Once the game began, boy, was he locked in. He chattered on and on about game strategy, why the National League is a pure form of baseball because it doesn't use a designated hitter for the pitcher, and asking questions about the Nationals players. What a joy to see.

"I know talking and thinking can make you tired. I know it did for me. So I'm going to let you go now."

"Okay," he said in a fatigued voice.

"Hang in there."

"I will."

That was the last conversation I had with Bud. He was too weak to travel to Chicago for the transplant evaluation. And he died soon thereafter.

When it came time to tell people the news, my mom made a few calls and then got to my name. "But I couldn't tell you," she told me as her eyes teared up. I believe she thinks that death weirds me out more than the others. And of course, it's not a rosey subject. But I also feel that, because of my cancer, I am more in tune with the concept.

I know what it's like to have an illness you might not survive...to confront the reality of near-term death..to live moment by moment...to endure pure agony...to know what to live for. In that sense, Bud and I were in the same boat.

But he entered a phase I had not: knowing when all is lost. I don't know what that feeling is like. At least not yet. What gives me comfort is this. While in hospice, and still feeling pain, another priest came to Bud, said prayers over him, and blessed him. Bud's face turned calm and rested, suggesting that pain had left his body. He really did have something he treasured in his life -- his faith in God -- and now it was helping him transition to a new life.

Let's hope that God gives Bud's soul a big hug. We no longer can.


Update: Bud had quite the funeral for a Catholic priest. When his casket arrived at the great doors of the Basilica at Notre Dame, more than 80 priests escorted him into the church and then to the cemetery. He was surrounded by love.

Article originally appeared on moralkiosk (http://www.moralkiosk.net/).
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