I can’t remember if I said goodbye.
It’s been almost three months since he died and I can’t remember if I said it.
I did at the hospital. I know that much. After five days of doctors, respirators, tears, a seventeen hour drive and a thousand miles from home, I know I said goodbye then. In fact I pleaded for him to go, begged him stop fighting because what lied ahead wasn’t a life he would want. I prayed for God to take him home. I spent five hours in a chair next to his bed when he was taken off life support, listening to his ragged breathing and snapping back awake when I dozed off for a second or he got quiet, to stare at his chest to see if he was gone only to see it rise and fall again. I said goodbye a dozen times during that last day, I held his hand and through tears passed on messages from family back home. I unsnapped the arms of his hospital gown because he hated sleeves. I told him I loved him and I’d see him again someday. I asked him to say hello to the loved ones we’d lost before and to give Grandma Grace a great big hug for me. She always loved his big hugs. I promised that I’d make sure his kids would be ok.
But still. I can’t remember if I said goodbye. The last time I saw him when I was pulling out of my parents cabin up north…I can’t remember. He was there and I assume I wouldn’t have left without saying goodbye but I can’t remember it. I don’t have that specific memory. The one thing I want more than anything to recall is the last moment I shared with my big brother when he was able to talk and laugh and share and I can’t remember.
I can’t remember. That kills me.
He gave the best hugs. He was big guy at 6’2, his strong arms were spotted with tattoos and seemed strong enough to keep the world away if you wanted. For those short moments he hugged you, you knew that you were safe. He seemed bulletproof.
Then at forty-three years old, he was gone.
A massive stroke took out the entire left side of his brain and in a matter of moments the big brother I knew was gone. Physically he held on for five days after the attack, but with the extent of the brain injury he wasn’t there anymore. The machines and medicine kept him alive but the person he was, the man we all loved, was gone.
He was stubborn, hardheaded like the typical redhead he was. He drank too much and said things he shouldn’t and made his fair share of mistakes. Some would say more than his fair share. He borrowed money he usually didn’t pay back and chewed tobacco only to leave his spit cup lying around for everyone else to look at. He made incorrect assumptions and like all families, our separate relationships with him were far from perfect. We would get into yelling matches and go far too long between phone calls. He wasn’t good with money. He was sloppy and spent too much time sitting in the corner of the couch when he was home.
He wasn’t perfect. That makes me miss even more.
Chuck had a hard life – a birth mother who basically abandoned him at age six and floated in and out of his life only when she needed something, molested at a very young age by a relative of the birthmother. Looking back now it’s easy to see the years of untreated depression that plagued him, that shaped his life and every decision he made.
He self-medicated that depression. From over-the-counter sleeping aids to prescription pills, later on alcohol. He wasn’t a druggy and most wouldn’t identify him as an alcoholic, but I think it was his way of coping. He was a big guy, a tough guy and anyone who is asked will describe him as “the toughest SOB I ever met.” I think some part of him always felt the need to play that role in front of most people. To be the hardass, the tough son of a bitch, the bulletproof guy who couldn’t be knocked down.
Sometimes I got to see the softer side. There were fourteen years between us so it wasn’t until the last few years that he started to treat me like an actual adult or solicit any type of advice. The phone calls were rare but once in a while he’d call from the road and tell me about the fight he had with his wife and ask advice on how he should handle things, or the last weekend I saw him when he asked my advice on concerns he had with his son’s upbringing now that he and his wife were officially divorced. Those moments were rare so they stand out in my mind. But when Chuck was ready to share and felt comfortable doing so, you got a peek at the huge heart inside our Big Guy. He loved deeply and purely and with everything he had in him. Though he didn’t often, if ever, admit the extent to which his early childhood haunted him, his need for acceptance and love and knowing that he was loved was a direct cause of that abandonment. The logical side of him knew that he was better off without his birthmother and that his life would’ve have been far different had she been around more. But inside his heart was that six-year old little boy wondering why his mom didn’t love him.
Like I said, he had a hard life.
There were good times. Lots of good times and memories and laughs.
Memorial weekend, he packed up the car, picked up my eleven year old nephew and went up to our parents place for the weekend. I had no idea that would be the last time I’d see him before he was hospitalized or how much I would now treasure those three days. I am so so thankful for that weekend.
I’m thankful for the moments that didn’t seem like any big deal while we were in the midst of them. Sitting around a foot-wide table outside with music playing, laughing and drinking whiskey and teasing Mom about her inhaler. Sitting across from him at the bar that night and making note that it was one of the only times we’d been out drinking together. Rolling my eyes and pretending to be embarrassed as he did his “awkward white guy” dance next to the table in a bar full of people. Laughing at him in sweatpants out on a Saturday night because he forgot to pack jeans.
My favorite memory from that night was when Chuck was talking to a guy at the table next to us and I looked up to see him pointing at me. I laughed and asked if he was talking smack about me. He shook his head, smiled, and said “I told him, that’s my baby sister. We fight a lot because we’re too much alike and both too hard headed to give in but I love the hell out of her.” I smiled and joked about him being a sappy drunk. That moment is crystal clear in my mind.
The next day though…I can’t remember if I said goodbye.
He was my big brother. With all his faults and me with all of mine, he was there when I needed him. Whether it was standing in my working parking lot in the pouring rain trying to fix my wipers and cutting his hands till they bled to make it work, or literally kicking in my door when I’d locked myself out of my house (“Those days as a bounty hunter really came in handy now, eh?”), he showed up the few times I called.
We shared a road trip to Tennessee for the wedding, and after a bit of cabin fever set in he had me in stitches at the siting of any Waffle House. There are A LOT of Waffle Houses between here and the Smokies.
He was a bounty hunter for a short while. That always gets a reaction from people but if you knew Chuck you knew that was something he’d been training for his whole life. He loved hunting and being outdoors. He would make inappropriate jokes just to get a reaction. He never actually ate dinner when everyone else did, instead he’d make a plate and hide it in the microwave till later. If you found a plate when you went to heat something up, you knew it was his. I never did quite understand what he had against Tupperware. He loved his dog so much he had him cremated. He liked Uncle Kracker’s “Smile” because he said it reminded him of his kids. He always ran warm and rarely wore sleeves for that reason. He had to have a fan directly on him whenever he slept. He always smelled good. He considered wearing jeans ‘dressing up.’ He loved with his whole heart.
He had a heart arrhythmia and three months ago he stopped taking his medication.
He took his son to New York because he knew it was his dream to go. They took pictures in Time Square.
If he kept taking his blood thinners, he wouldn’t have had clots and without that giant clot he wouldn’t have had that massive stroke.
He was on the road a lot the last couple years and spent hours and hours on the phone with his daughter talking about and working through a lot of things.
He knew the danger and he stopped taking his meds anyway and didn’t tell anyone.
He came up north the holiday weekend and he rarely made time for that. But he made time this year, sitting up till 5:00 am around the bonfire with Dad talking about life, love and everything else that came to mind.
He checked himself into the hospital with pneumonia, told the doctor he wasn’t taking his medication and one week later he was gone.
And I can’t remember if I said goodbye. I remember hugging my nephew and telling him I love him. I kissed my mom goodbye and told my dad that I always am when he told me to be careful. I made sure we had everything in the car and cranked up the music as we backed out of the driveway. I put $27.01 in my gas tank that day. I remember those details but I can’t remember if I said goodbye. That kills me.
I think he knew what was he was doing when he stopped taking his prescriptions. He’d been through a lot and lost a lot in his life and often times felt like he’d hit bottom. I’ll never know for sure but I’ll always wonder if he didn’t do this on purpose. If it was his way of letting go of all the pain.
Either way, I hope he’s able to let go of the pain from his past, the demons that haunted him every day, and the ghosts that wouldn’t let him be. I hope he’s sitting upstairs eating Grandma’s apple squares, swapping hunting stories with Uncle Steve and cutting up with Aaron. I hope he’s free.
More than anything, I hope he went into his next life knowing how loved he was in this one. I’m not sure he always understood that.
Miss ya, big guy.
“I watched it all up close, I knew him more than most. I saw a side of him he’d never show, full of sympathy for a world that wouldn’t let him be. That’s the man he was, have you heard enough? What a shame….The choir sings, the church bell rings so won’t you give this man his wings? “