On the day the phone call came, my brother, Sam, had lived in Vermont for seven years.
Seven years and I hadn’t visited him once. Not once. Why? Because I was busy. In those seven years, I had gotten engaged, planned a wedding, gotten married, had two kids, and earned a Master’s Degree- all while working a full-time job, a part-time job, and volunteering. I was busy. But I was also selfish. And completely engrossed in my own life. In my defense, it is an absolute nightmare to drive nine hours with a baby in the car; let alone two babies. Plus, he usually came back to south Jersey to visit once or twice a year. And that was enough, right? There’d be plenty of time for visits, I thought.
Wrong. On April 25, 2015, I got the call. It was my mom; she was at my house watching my kids. She had just gotten off the phone with my sister-in-law. Sam was in the hospital. His stomach had been bothering him for a couple of weeks. Maybe it was appendicitis or diverticulitis. So, I waited. But it wasn’t either of these conditions, it was cancer. That call came two days later. Maybe, based on the locations of the tumors, it could be lymphoma. He could beat that. Fingers crossed; let it be lymphoma. But, I still didn’t go. It wasn’t lymphoma. It was stage IV colon cancer. That call came early the next week. Yet still, I didn’t go. Why? Who knows. Hope? Denial? Avoidance? Not wanting to step on toes or be in the way? All of the above.
So, three weeks later- in mid-May, with a 1-year-old and 2-year-old in tow (along with my mom and my other older brother) I embarked on the nine-hour ride to Morrisville, VT and encountered the most beautiful place I’d ever seen… under the saddest of circumstances. My 33-year-old brother had terminal cancer. He was told he would have six months, maybe, to live. My God. I had no idea what to say to him. So, I said as little as possible. Emotions are uncomfortable.
In the following six months, accompanied by my kids and sometimes my husband, I made three more visits to Vermont. I think of those visits and those six months as the single most formative time in my life. Conversations, observations, and the grief have deeply impacted me as a person, a wife, a daughter, a sister, and most importantly, as a mother. My final conversations with Sam linger in my thoughts, when I’m alone, when it’s quiet when I’m searching for some meaning in life. Two of those conversations are what I want to tell you about.
Sam, the most magnetic, accepting, and steadfast person I have ever known left this earth on November 12, 2015. Surrounded by love.
Sam left home when I was 16. He was 18. He never really came back. There were four years in college, followed by a stint in Americorp, then there was a move to Colorado, followed by a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, and finally, he settled in the Green Mountain State. When I visited him in Morrisville, I could see why he was so passionate about Vermont.
The views are stunning. The pace is slower. The air and water are clean. The trails are abundant. The living is intentional.
But, back to that first trip to Vermont. Sam had been on a four-man crew that constructed the Winooski River footbridge. This bridge connects the Long Trail in a way that eliminates a difficult three-mile detour. I think it’s safe to say that the bridge, along with his dog, Woody, were his pride and joy. Though he was feeling far from well; he had recently undergone surgery to establish a colostomy and had begun chemotherapy, he wanted to show us “his bridge.” So, we (my mom, both brothers, myself, and my two boys) piled into two cars and headed to Bolton. The bridge was far bigger than I had imagined. It’s impressive, you should see it. No, really, go on a hike and check it out.
On our way back to his home, Sam asked me to ride with him. My mom and my other brother drove my car with my boys and I hopped in with Sam. About halfway into the ride, he brought up a conversation I had completely forgotten about. You see, three months earlier, in late February, I had called him to wish him a happy birthday. At the time, everything seemed bright for both of our futures. And, in sharing our excitement, I had mentioned that my husband had been accepted into a management development program at work. This could mean relocating in about five years or so. He had tried his best to pitch me Vermont as the best home state for our family. I heard him out but in my typically dismissive way. And, just as quickly, the conversation moved on and I completely forgot about it.
That is until we were on that car ride. He brought it up again. He asked,
If the possibility presented itself, would we relocate to Vermont… even if he wasn’t here anymore.”
I was completely caught off guard. I had no idea how to answer. I was probably thinking, “No, why would we want to move here if you weren’t here?” but I couldn’t say that. And, as I stumbled to find words, he began talking.
He listed all of the things he loved about Vermont. Why he and his wife had chosen Vermont to settle. Why it was the perfect place to raise kids. Why it was the perfect place for my family.
I listened, and when he was done, I told him that we would, of course, consider it. But, in my head, I was still like, “Yeah right, what are the chances that when Mike is up for a promotion, that promotion will actually be in Vermont.” But, I didn’t say that. I couldn’t say that.
In early November, we got another phone call. This time, there was no hesitation. Within two hours, I had my entire family of four packed, a hotel booked, and we were on the road to Vermont. This would be the end. To be quite honest, that entire week is a blur. But in one of our last conversations, I asked Sam if he was mad at me, that in his seven years in Vermont I had never come to visit. He scoffed at me and said; “God, no. We thought he had until we were 80.” Then, he hugged me and we both cried. And, that statement completely changed my life.
It was true. I was living and had always lived as if I felt 80 years were guaranteed. I worked too much and was always busy. Too busy. Eyes always fixed on the future; the next big thing. Never stopping to enjoy the present. Missing so many important, beautiful, simple moments. Especially with my kids. To be honest; it was tragic.
So that night, standing in the rain on the dirt road in front of my brother’s home, I poured my heart out to my husband. And he listened; he heard me. Now, I’ve only ever seen my husband cry three times. The first was at our oldest son’s Baptism. The second was the first time our oldest son was hurt. The third time was that night on the dirt road. We hugged and we cried. We made each other promises and we made our kids promises (even though they were fast asleep in the house). That we would slow down. That we would be more present. That we would never be “too busy” for anyone or anything that is important to us. That we would never rush through a moment or miss an opportunity. That we would say what we’re feeling when we’re feeling it. And we have, we’ve really tried.
Now, no one is perfect and I’m sure my husband would say that I’ve still got my nose in my phone a little too often. And I would definitely say that, sometimes, he works too much. But, we are trying, and we know what is important to us. Our family. And, the precious time we have together.
And now, because I DO NOT believe in coincidences, I need to tell you the final gift my brother has given us; aside from his wisdom. On November 12, 2016, exactly one year after my brother left us, my husband received a phone call. He was offered a promotion if he would relocate to… Vermont.
So, here we are. Living in Vermont. Surrounded by the beauty that my brother loved (that he, so, wanted us to love too). Living in the present. Making the most of what we have; namely, time together. And, teaching our kids to do the same.