Jamie's Last Days

Buechner recounts the final days of his brother Jamie.

It was on July 11, 1998 the day I turned seventy-two, that Jamie phoned me to say that he had been told he had incurable cancer of virtually everything and didn't intend to be around for more than two weeks more if he could possibly help it. He then added, "By the way, Happy Birthday," at which he managed somehow to give his extraordinary laugh once again, with some fractured, hopeless echo of it from me. ''I've told Jackie to think of it not as losing a husband but as gaining half a closet." I told him that I would come down right away to New York to see him, but though he never in so many words asked me not to -there wasn't much to see was what he said-I knew that was the way he wanted it. And it was the way I wanted it too. The alternative, we came to agree, was too harrowing to think about. Instead, we talked almost every day on the telephone, and that way we could go on believing that there would always be another time still and another time after that, whereas a last visit would be the last and we both would know it.

When I called him on the afternoon of Saturday, July 25, I said, remembering about his two-week deadline, that it must be that the end wasn't very far off. He said that it had already started and that it was the happiest day of his life. Although he was a dying man, he in no way either sounded or seemed like a sick man. He said how good it had been to see Judy earlier in the day. She had gone down to be with Jackie, and I decided I had to go with her despite the earlier agreement, but was saved by a cold and fever. I told him that I had loved him as much as I had ever loved anybody in my life, and forgetting about the green caterpillar and the bubble gum, he said, "You have been a wonderful brother." I said I had a feeling we had not seen the last of each other, and he made a soft, descending "Ah-h-h" sound as a way to thank me for saying it, for maybe even believing it. Then I said I guessed this was good-bye, and he said yes, and then we both started to cry so that there was nothing more we could do but hang up, he in the old brownstone on Madison Avenue and I in what our grandson Dylan calls "the breakable room," rarely used because it is filled with things too precious to risk breaking and now with this other precious thing.

One of our sons-in-law, David, was with him when he died a few hours later, and Jamie told him how he wished he knew how to thank him properly for all he had done, flying down from Boston four or five times those last few days to help him wind things up in every conceivable way. He said he wished he had some way to repay him for his inconceivable kindness, to which David replied that I had once said I might think about giving him the Uncle Wiggily books. "If I were you, I'd try to get that in writing," Jamie said, and those were among the last of all his words.

He never went to church except once in a while to hear me, and he didn't want a funeral, he told me-too much like a direct question, I suppose-but when I suggested maybe cocktails and dinner for some of his old friends in the fall when everybody got back to the city, he said that sounded like a good idea. But he did ask me if I would write a prayer for him that he could use, and David said that he had it there on the table beside him.

"Dear Lord, bring me through darkness into light. Bring me through pain into peace. Bring me through death into life. Be with me wherever I go, and with everyone I love. In Christ's name I ask it. Amen."