It’s hard to believe that two years ago today my brother Oliver passed away at the age of 28. I had been home only a week after graduating college and going on a retreat. Yet I felt lucky to come home to the fragile and frail arms of my older brother Oliver. The arms that used to punish and hurt me as we fought growing up were thin and weak. I gave him a hug gingerly, not wanting to hurt him. I wish he could have been able to fly to California for my commencement like he was planning on before, but it was impossible because of his weakness.
Oliver and I on a bench in Mexico during a family Caribbean cruise, only weeks before his diagnosis. Apparently I was saying something pretty funny or pretty stupid since he’s laughing.
During the last week of his life I remember a few moments very vividly. On the Sunday after I got back there was a blockage in one of his fluid tubes, and he wasn’t able to get hydrated for a few minutes. All of a sudden, he fell unconscious and unresponsive. We kept trying to wake him up, but he wouldn’t wake up. My mom was freaking out, which scared me, since she had always been with him and knew what was normal and what wasn’t. I mean, we all knew that this could be it, and that it was his time very soon, but I guess once it gets to that moment you don’t want to let go. My aunt Edith was visiting us from the Philippines where she is a pastor there. She’s told me about performing miracles and healing people but I was very skeptical (Yeah, I know, you think I should believe my own aunt, but it was hard). She starts praying for him, calling on the power of Jesus Christ and yelling at Satan to get out. Weird noises and ululations spring from her mouth and later I understand that to be the language of tongues (which also weirded me out back then and admittedly a little now, too). Pretty soon after her intense prayer, we see that the hydration tube is dripping again and the blockage is unclogged. Moments afterward, Oliver wakes up. We are all relieved and so happy. Was it truly a miracle? A result of the prayer, or just an inevitable unclogging of the tube? I don’t have the absolute answer, but I believe in miracles. I believe I witnessed one.
We had gone to Galveston (I think) to go fishing, and I guess he was a little bored that night, or at least uninterested in taking silly photos.
The other memory I treasure from that week was the one night that my mom entrusted me to spend the night with Oliver in the living room. He was sleeping downstairs because it took so much energy to climb the stairs to his room. Mainly I just needed to help him to the bathroom in the middle of the night because he couldn’t get up or sit down by himself. It was such a weird feeling to be able to lift my brother (maybe 80 or 90 pounds at this point) with such ease when I remember him always towering over me and being bigger and stronger than me. I was humbled by the way he allowed me to take care of him, and now I connect it to reading Tuesdays with Morrie when the Morrie allowed himself to be completely pampered (because he had to) in his last weeks as well.
No words were really spoken that night, but it was one of my last nights with him alive, and I didn’t really know what to say anyway. It was what it was. Two brothers together, now the younger one supporting the older one. A role reversal where I did my best to repay him for paving the way for me, being an example and guiding me. He was always a solid rock I could count on, so I did the best I could to be there for him. Even for one night.
Oliver, Randy and I hanging out during Christmas break 2004.
I could write more, but I think I’ll save some tears for a time of quiet reflection later today. To all our family, friends, and Oliver’s friends: Thanks for being there for us, we love you dearly and will never forget the tremendous support you gave us throughout his illness and especially dating back to two years ago this week. I hope you can each take a moment today or this week to pause and reflect on Oliver’s life and death and how it has affected you, and still is today.
Before I end with an e-mail Oliver wrote to his whole high school (where he taught science class) about his diagnosis and treatment, I just want to write an open message to him.
Two years later there are still really no words I can use to express my gratefulness, gratitude and love I still have for my older brother. You were always the one I could count on, who would be there no matter how big or small the problem I had was. I guess it shouldn’t have been a surprise when you became a teacher since you were always ’schooling’ me - whether in mario kart or about real life: school, girls, how to treat people. I still miss you every day, and perhaps the most today more than any other day of the year. Though you aren’t with us, you still speak to me daily through the example you set, the way you followed your heart has allowed me to follow mine. I love you.
Always your little brother,
I think the way Oliver would like to be remembered most vividly is not the weeks or months before his passing, but rather the way he fought so fervently against his cancer, especially in the beginning. If you read the rest of the entry, you can get a sense of his ‘voice.’
Below is the “official” word from the raidiologist regarding my
tests last Friday, along with some commentary from me. Enjoy!
Examination: CT Scan of the Abdomen and the Pelvis, 12/5/2003.
Clinical History: Colon carcinoma.
1. Comparison was made to 9/30/2003. There has been interval improvement.
The metastatic lymph nodes in the anterior diaphragmatic region have
decreased in size with small residual lymph nodes remaining. There has
been interval improvement in the previously identified carcinomatosis with
decrease in the confluent implants in the anterior subphrenic space on the
right and in the right perihepatic space. The fluid in the lesser sac
previously identified has resolved, and there has also been significant
improvement in the previously noted implants in the pericolic gutters and
the omental region. Most of the previously identified left paracolic
gutter implants are not visualized on the present study. Similar changes
are identified in the mesenteric region and in the right paracolic gutter
and omental regions.
Commentary: For those of you scoring at home, using the ten-point must
system from boxing, I would score the fight like this: Through 4 rounds of
chemotherapy, Oliver is in the lead 40-37. Round one was scored even,
since the chemotherapy seem to really drain Mr. Cruz. However, the next
three rounds consisted of a systematic ass-kicking of colon cancer by
Oliver. In an brief interview between rounds, Mr. Cruz credited his recent
success to all the support of his family and friends. He also acknowledged
that the fight is still in its early stages and that there is much more to
be done before victory can be claimed.
2. There has been resolution of the previously identified pelvic ascitic
fluid. There has also been improvement in the previously noted implants
along the sigmoid colonic region. Some residual soft tissue remains
surrounding portions of the ureteral stent on the left in the pelvis and
this may be related to some residual implants and/or inflammatory changes.
There is no evidence of any significant dilatation of the left renal
collecting system, some mild dilatation is identified.
Commentary: These words are too big for me. So let’s just pretend it said
this: I am a badass!
3. There is no evidence of liver lesions. The adrenal glands are normal
bilaterally. Some small normal sized para-aortic retroperitoneal lymph
nodes are again identified without evidence of any significant
lymphadenopathy at this site.
Commentary: Borrowing the venacular of my students: ” Oliver is t3h
r0×0rs, cancer is t3h sux0rs!”
FULL RESULT: Significant improvement since the examination of
9/30/2003 with findings as described. The scans have been obtained
post-intravenous and gastrointestinal contrast enhancement.
Commentary: Using football as an analogy, I wouldn’t put this result in
the same category as say, a 77-0 beatdown. However, I think it certainly
qualifies to be considered similar to a 46-15 “whooping”.
If you’re still reading this, I’m impressed and thank you. Reading his commentary makes me smile and remember his competitive fire and will to survive. He made it almost 3 years when doctors only gave him two. He fought a long and hard battle, and some may say he lost. I don’t know if it’s that black and white. All I know is he taught me a lot back then, and I’m still reviewing my notes today and learning new things.