But last week I discovered a new advantage to coming from a family of six children: there are five remaining children to help carry each other through the all-consuming pain and sorrow when one of us dies.
My brother, Rick, passed away due to complications from leukemia on June 30, 2010. He was only 34-years-old. He had a wife and two adorable children; an 11-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son.
You may remember me mentioning a brother who was diagnosed with testicular cancer last year. It was him. He managed to pull through the surgeries and multiple chemo treatments and remain in remission until this past May when it was discovered that he had acute promyelocytic leukemia. We were told he would be facing another six months of rigorous chemotherapy and two years worth of maintenance, but on the bright side, this particular form of leukemia carried a promising 90% cure rate. We thought he had lucked out again. Our large family remained invincible.
He started the new batch of treatments in early June. When I saw him at my nephew's graduation party on June 12 he said he was feeling a little tired but overall he looked really good. He was taken to the hospital on June 17 after complaining of chest pains and they discovered there was water accumulating in his heart which I'm told is relatively common for patients receiving chemotherapy. He also had to receive multiple blood transfusions while there as the doctors were having trouble keeping his white blood cells in check. I did not visit him while he was there from June 17 through June 25. The little I knew about what was going on had been posted on Facebook or sent to me through text messages by my sisters and it was mostly telling me not to panic, what he was experiencing was normal, he was more anxious than anything because he wanted to be out of the hospital in time to go on the family camping trip July 9 and sit around the campfire. I'm told he wanted out of that hospital something fierce and was prepared to escape on his own if they hadn't signed the discharge papers when they did.
Sunday, June 27, 2010 was the last day I saw my big brother conscious. I'll never forget it because I honestly believe it was an act of God that made it happen. I haven't attended church since long before Owen was born and never really felt the calling to do so until that morning. I woke up thinking I should call my mother and ask her to save me a seat, so I did. I was determined to come straight home afterward though as I had a lot of things I needed to get done. So determined, in fact, that I purposely left behind extra bottles and changes of clothes for Owen so I would have no choice but to return home. Mass was lovely, Owen behaved wonderfully, and when my mom asked if I wanted to come over as we were walking to our cars I didn't hesitate to answer, "Of course!" I figured Owen and I would make due without the extras somehow.
When I got there my dad and Rick were seated in the living room watching an old episode of NCIS. Rick had been staying with my parents since he was released from the hospital because he had trouble sleeping at home. I think it was also because he enjoyed our father's company and found it comforting to have our mother taking care of him. We exchanged "Hi, how are you?"s and he smiled and said hello to Owen. He said he was feeling okay, but he looked off to me. He was pale and sweaty. He was jittery and anxious but I was told these were side effects to one of the prescriptions he was taking. I could tell he was uncomfortable but he was doing his best to ignore it. My brother was a sweet but tough guy.
While I'm convinced I will remember that day forever, the one memory that will always stand out to me is when our mom offered to make Rick a grilled cheese sandwich. She apologized that all she had left was rye bread but he didn't mind. She offered to make one for me but quickly realized there wasn't enough bread to make two sandwiches. I told her not worry about it, but when she brought Rick's sandwich out to him he said, "Katie, do you want half of my sandwich? I know I won't be able to eat the whole thing and I'd hate to see it go to waste if you'll eat it." And just like that, my brother shared one of his last meals with me.
My parents set out to take Rick back home a few hours later and I followed suit.
I got the call at 7:45 the next morning. It was my older sister leaving a message that I still can't bring myself to erase: "Hey Katie, it's Kim. Um, Mom just called me, she wanted me to call everybody and let them know Rick's at Mercy. He's in ICU. He has pneumonia. She said he's not doing very well, but she wanted me to call everybody and let them know. So, um, give me a call if you have any questions. I'll talk to you later. Bye."
I was at work for exactly one hour and a good chunk of that time was spent on the phone with my sister, me crying and asking as many questions as I could, and her doing the best she could to remain calm. She told me everyone else was already en route to the hospital and that's when I knew it was really, really bad and I had to go, too.
By the time I got there Rick was already intubated and heavily sedated. My parents had brought him in around 2:00 that morning after he'd vomited blood and began having trouble breathing. The doctors began by giving him oxygen treatments and when he was still struggling to breathe they requested permission to put him on a ventilator. I'm told he initially refused. He told my parents he was done, he couldn't do it anymore. He told my parents, in not so many words, he was giving up the fight to breathe and he'd rather die than be put on the ventilator. My dear, sweet, brave mother, held herself together long enough to convince her son to keep fighting. He let them sedate and intubate him.
The next 48 hours were spent mostly in the waiting room; sharing memories, playing cards, talking about food, or at Rick's bedside, giving him whatever encouragement we had to keep fighting for his life. We were all hoping for the best and only slightly bracing for the worst. The news kept getting worse. Rick had a staph infection as well as pneumonia, but he was hanging in there. He seemed to do the worst at night. His numbers would drop significantly between the hours of 2 and 4am but they always came back in the morning, only slightly lower than they had been the previous morning.
The call I had been dreading came at 4:17 Wednesday morning. Rick's blood pressure was dropping and it was advised that we all come in. By 6:00 AM his wife, our parents, two remaining brothers, two sisters, and I were all standing at his bedside, torn between telling him to keep fighting or letting him go but there really wasn't a choice. His blood pressure was so dangerously low that there was no coming back from here. We were told it was only a matter of hours. Eventually the lack of blood would cause his organs to shutdown and his heart would be the last to go.
I told him it was okay. I told him I would help look after his family. I thanked him for the wonderful memories and told him he didn't have to suffer through this anymore.
At 9:30 AM his wife was seated right beside him, holding his hand. The rest of us were intertwined in one way or another; my father's arm around my mother's shoulders, my head against my father's back, my hand in my little sister's, her hand in my older sister's, my oldest brother with one arm across my shoulders, the other hanging on to the last brother. This is how we watched Rick go. This is how we counted down his heartbeats from 78 to 0. It was the most tragically beautiful 78 seconds of my life. I was half way through the Our Father when his heart rate flat-lined and my father announced, "That's it guys. He's gone." And despite the fact that we spent the morning telling Rick it was okay to let go, I think we all regretted it in that moment. We wanted him back more than anything else in the world.
They removed the ventilator my mother begged him to have put in. Turns out it couldn't save his life but it did give us all a chance to say goodbye. He may not have been conscious but I'm pretty sure he heard us.
Time of death was 9:45 AM. At that time a woman lost her husband, a little girl and little boy lost their father, a man lost his son and his best friend, a woman lost her 3rd born child, and the rest of us lost one of our own--a sibling--one of 3 boys and 3 girls. Our balance will be off forever.
Richard P. "Rick" Crano
September 22, 1975 - June 30, 2010
From his memorial card:
God saw that you were getting tired
And cure was not to be:
So He put His arms around you
and whispered, "Come home with me."
With tearful eyes we watched you suffer,
And saw you fade away:
Although we loved you dearly,
We could not make you stay.
A golden heart stopped beating.
A determined spirit was at rest:
God broke our hearts to prove to us,
He only takes the best.