Sunday, November 29, 2009

Chances Missed in Life

At a time we are all giving thanks on Thanksgiving, I was unknowingly saying goodbye to my younger brother, David Michael McMillan. Growing up, David preferred to be called Mike. Mike has lived in Texas for some time and was here visiting and helping our mother who had open heart surgery last month. Mike has had some physical ailments of his own and was struggling with health issues brought on by the life he lead. On Thursday, November 19, 2009, Mike was having trouble breathing and was taken to Sharps Hospital. Within a couple of days and after a series of tests, it was discovered Mike had cancer. The cancer had taken over his lungs, liver and lymph nodes. This was Tuesday the 24th and treatment options were being evaluated. Wednesday the doctors told Mike's wife the outlook was grim and treatment options were limited to making him comfortable. If Mike wished to prolong his life, the only option for adding a limited time was oxygen delivered by a machine.

Mike and his wife Debbie discussed the options and Mike made the decision to be kept comfortable and not allow any other measures to prolong his life. Hospice was notified and they were to take over his case on Friday morning. I visited Mike Thanksgiving morning and he was struggling to keep his focus. The pain medications were suppressing the pain and also suppressing his ability to communicate. I returned that evening after Thanksgiving dinner and spent time with Mike's wife Debbie, his three daughters; Kristine, Patti and Amanda. Our sister Julie and her daughter Taylor were also there spending time with Mike. Mike was, for the most part out of it from the pain medication. I left that evening telling Mike I would see him tomorrow.

Friday morning I got up early and headed off to Iron Mountain for a hike to work off some of the calories piled on the day before. The morning was crisp and cool but clear, sunny and perfect for an early morning hike to the top. I met several friends along the way and sat at the top for a bit chatting with others before heading back down. I had just started down the mountain when my cell phone rang and the number showed Mike's daughter Patti was calling. I got a cold chill in my spine when I saw her number. Something told me before I answered the news on the other end was not going to be good.

I answered the phone and Patti struggled to say my name. Fighting not to cry, Pattie said, "Uncle Steve?" She didn't need to say another word. I knew from her voice, what was to come next, "Dad just died." I felt numb and all of the sounds became muted as I stood on the trail processing what Patti had just said. What do you say to a niece who just called to tell you her father, your brother, has just passed away? The pain and anguish in her voice was unmistakable. I told her I would be there as soon as I could.

I ended the call and stood there for several minutes thinking about Mike. I was not prepared for his death. I'm not sure what I expected but for him to pass 48 hours after deciding to forgo life sustaining methods was not even considered in my mind. I started down the trail moving faster than before. I was three miles from my car and the hike was a blur. My mind drifted to our childhood. Mike and I shared a bedroom until I left home. Mike got married before I did and had his first daughter in 1978. I graduated the Police Academy and was married in 1979, having my first child in 1982. Mike worked at General Dynamics like our father. Dad was an engineer who worked first in the space systems, working on the Apollo, Gemini space modules. Mike worked on air frame fuselages and became a lead supervisor.

Mike's last years were spent in Texas with his second wife Debbie. A serious traffic accident almost took Mike's life two years ago. The injuries from this accident had taken their toll. A heavy smoker from his teen days, Mike struggled with diabetes and other issues that restricted his ability to work. Mike drove to San Diego several weeks ago to assist our mother who as I said earlier had open heart surgery to replace a heart valve. Mike was helping out around the house and driving his mother to and from various appointments. When Mike's breathing became difficult and he was admitted to the hospital it was thought at the time he may have had pneumonia.

Mike's two daughters, Patti and Amanda live her in San Diego and were at the hospital checking in on their father. Kristine was in Texas with her husband and was told of her father's illness and decided to drive out to be by his side. Kristine left Texas on Friday last week never thinking her father's life would end so suddenly. Kristine is a special education teacher in Texas and her husband Chris is a volunteer caregiver for hospice. When Kristine arrived in San Diego it appeared Mike was improving, even if slowly. Debbie arrived and after a series of tests she was told the seriousness of Mike's illness.

Friday morning, Debbie, Kristine, Patti and Amanda were by Mike's side when he took his last breaths. There is little to prepare a child for the death of a parent. The feeling of loneliness and fear hit hard as the reality of Mike's passing hit home. The realization of never being able to call their dad to ask for advice or tell him of a first for his grandson or the break the news of an engagement, strikes a pain so great it cannot be expressed in words. The realization of a daughter her daddy is gone is overwhelming.

I was not close to my brother. We travelled different paths in life and as we wandered down these widely different roads we moved further and further away. I loved my brother and will miss him. I have many regrets and wished we had an opportunity to talk more before his sudden passing. Mike is in a better place and his quick passing meant he did not suffer long. His three wonderful girls have grown to be great young women and with the support of the family and friends will get that playful life back in time. Mike's wife Debbie will head back to Texas and her son will take leave from his military post to help her through this difficult time.

Remember how precious and fragile life can be. In the blink of an eye any one of us can be taken from this planet. Cherish every moment with family and do not put off talking to one another and telling them what they mean to you. Do not put off calling a loved one just to say hello. If there is a bridge that needs to be re-built; be the first to make that happen. If you don't, you may not get the chance.

Happy Thanksgiving to all and be safe. Hug your loved ones and tell them what they mean to you.