San Diego author's African-American family surrounds dying brother

Big brother says goodbye

André had always spoken of the possibility of a miracle. Maybe he never stopped believing in one.
  • André had always spoken of the possibility of a miracle. Maybe he never stopped believing in one.

My brother was an easygoing man. Compared to the rest of us — York, me, Marcus, and Shawn — he seemed uncomplicated, maybe the most content. André was the youngest, unique for what he did not do: He did not marry, nor have children (though his girlfriends were always divorced women who did). He never went beyond high school; the farthest he ever traveled was the weekend he flew to New York to see me collect my doctorate from Columbia University. Yet he kept abreast of world affairs and liked to read, enjoying words for their different sounds. He was funny, his humor wry. I was 11 years older, well-traveled, and educated, but I always turned to him for advice because he had an abundance of common sense, something I always lacked.

He owned his own home and paid his bills—not just on time but often before they were due. He had style, disliked pretension, and for 26 years worked for the same supermarket chain. He was 16 and a junior at Grossmont High School when he got his first job at Lucky bagging groceries. Later he became a checker, and in the ’80s when the store was pressured to add minorities to their ranks, he became the first African-American south of Orange County to be promoted to assistant manager. André handled the added responsibility easily, but he said the politics undid him; after a year, he turned in his keys and went back to checking. He was working the 4:00-to-11:00 morning shift at the Lakeside store, stocking the dairy box and coordinating the store’s displays, when he first got sick.

“I have my faith, my family, and friends,” he said when he took his six-month leave-of-absence. He told coworkers he’d be back. He asked his friends to remember him in their prayers. André, who happened to look 10 years younger than his 42 years, was tall, muscular, had a quiet, sunny self-confidence. Those who were shocked when they got word of his illness told each other there was no reason for worry. If it is possible to look and sound like a survivor, he did.

But kidney cancer is tricky. Its spread is quick and erratic. In my brother’s case, the cancer metastasized from his right kidney, where it originated, to his lung. In 1978, he had accepted “God into his heart and Jesus as his personal savior.” Born-again Christians have no problem believing in miracles. And he prayed for one.

His death was the first in our family in a long time. My grandmother had died 36 years before. My grandfather followed 3 years later. After so long you forgot how, when someone you love dies, time loses its contour and perspective changes. I also forgot that there is no way to prepare yourself so you don’t hurt.

The oncology staff at Kaiser Permanente diagnosed the cancer, then ruled out surgery. Instead, André underwent chemotherapy. Three times a week, for six weeks, he gave himself shots in the stomach. The treatment made him sick; Thursday nights were the worst because he had to give himself a double-dose to last over the weekend. At the end of the treatment schedule, he went back to Kaiser for an evaluation. X-rays showed the chemo had done nothing. André liked his doctor and spoke highly of him, but when the man explained that all that could be done had been done — when he said the wisest thing for André now was to take a trip, do things he enjoyed, spend time with loved ones—my brother decided the guy was an idiot.

André came across information on alternative cancer treatments in Tijuana. He visited the Oasis Center, liked what he saw, and stayed. The ten-day treatment was not covered by his health insurance and came to about $1200 a day. It was worth every penny. André was sure the tumor covering his kidney was getting smaller. He rested easier. He had the signs of a remission.

The chemotherapy in the clinic was less aggressive than Kaiser’s, with fewer side effects, but André admitted the enemas and colonics took getting used to. He had to change his diet. Always a meat-and-potatoes guy, he now dined on organic fruits and vegetables, no red meat. Before going to Mexico, he moved into my father’s home in La Mesa. (Our parents are separated; my mother Pegi lives in an Oceanside facility for Alzheimer’s patients.) Upon his release from the clinic, André could not have managed the business of medicating himself, taking his herbs, shopping, and preparing his meals. “Your job is to get well!” my father boomed at him, as if his enthusiasm would knock the cancer out. “I’ll do the rest.” Dad cooked for him, mowed the lawn at his home in Lakeside, and collected his mail. André urged Dad to take it easy, reminding him to take his blood-pressure medication and check his insulin count. Father and son were a match. As André grew weaker, he moved upstairs, and they slept in the same king-size bed.

“We talk together and look at sports, don’t we, André?”

Blue light flickered against the wall as they watched games from their respective sides of that sea of a bed. Neither my father nor anyone else could understand why André loved the Oakland Raiders. I think it was for the same reason he had, hanging in his living room, a framed photograph of a young Muhammad Ali standing over a fallen Sonny Liston. André rooted for the underdog and the bad boy. Without recognizing the political nature of his feelings, but he was aware of life in America as a black man.

As they talked sports or the day’s events, my father drifted off. André would watch TV, or if the pain was bad, he walked from room to room or found a chair, sat, and read his Bible. York Mitchell, my father, was exactly twice the age of his youngest son. “I’ve lived my life,” Dad said to him once. “So why not me?” André said it didn’t do any good thinking that way.

André felt better when he first came back from Mexico, but he couldn’t keep weight on, and his heart was racing. “Here, feel —” he said, taking my hand and holding it against his chest. I was shocked. I could feel the bowed outline of each of his ribs. He was so skinny — which was bad enough — but beneath his rib cage came the thudding tremor of his heart racing at twice my rate. Was it always like that, I asked? He nodded. It was as if he was running a marathon, and he ran that race for the last three months, day and night.

Early in his illness, the cancer had thickened his blood. Later a clot formed and passed through his heart. A call to 911 and quick-thinking paramedics saved his life. When they got him to Kaiser, they thinned his blood but said surgery was out of the question. His heart couldn’t take it, his doctor explained. He’d die on the operating table.

There was something terrible and terrifying about a heart pounding like that, like brakes going out in a car hurtling downhill. He never said this, but I think André chose to share my father’s bed because he was afraid his heart would stop when he was alone downstairs in his childhood bedroom. Always a private person, now André craved company. He wanted his family and friends nearby.

More than 30 years before, when the doctors at Mercy Hospital said nothing more could be done for my grandfather, in the last stages of his illness, a nurse taught my mother how to give him morphine injections by sticking needles into an orange. In the car on the way home, Grandpa wept with relief. “I never thought I’d get out of there,” he said. His wife, my grandmother, had passed away at their home on L Street. My grandfather did not want to die among strangers.

But within a week, my mother’s morphine injections no longer cut through the mounting pain. She found a nursing home willing to admit him on short notice. He was wheeled into a three-bedroom. Two other patients, men as old and as sick as him, were already in bed. When they saw him, both cried out, “Get that nier outta here!”

“I don’t want to be here,” my grandfather said, demanding to be taken somewhere else.

“Just for tonight,” my mother pleaded. “I promise I’ll find us another place first thing tomorrow.”

“Make sure you come for me first thing tomorrow.”

She promised and then helped the nurse put him to bed. That night my grandfather died.

The medical team in Tijuana had told André that blood transfusions would give him strength. Back at Kaiser, he had two and found they did. I was there when he came home after his third transfusion. By then he’d lost more than 80 pounds, and while he did not know it, the cancer had spread to both lungs. He found it difficult to catch his breath and often it was hard to speak.

As he got sicker, my brothers and I tried to relieve my father, give him some time off. When I slept over, I’d slip into bed with André when Dad got up. Because André’s voice was getting hoarse, and it was progressively more difficult to speak, I let him initiate the conversation. If we talked or didn’t, it was up to him. One morning, his voice by then a croak, he said he was worried. “Suppose my voice gets to where you can’t understand me?”

André was the tallest in a family of fairly tall men, for which he was nicknamed “Tiny.” All his life he’d been robust and good looking. One evening, before the cancer was diagnosed, I noticed he’d lost a few pounds, which pleased him. He excused himself to go to the bathroom. When he came out he said he’d passed blood in his urine. We figured maybe kidney stones.

That was the evening of May 6. Five months later he was a skeleton. He could not live alone nor drive. To wash up in the morning, he’d have to rest, then make his way into the bathroom to brush his teeth, then go back and lie down for another 20 minutes. Very quickly he became a shell of himself, his body ravaged. Everything about him was altered except his eyes. Large, bright, and expressive, with long, heavy lashes, they remained unchanged until the end.

On his last visit to Kaiser, unable to walk distances, André had to be wheeled from the parking lot into the hospital. My father and my older brother were with him. Since returning from Tijuana, his case had been transferred to Dr. Nandida Raja, an Indian woman with black hair and a tranquil air. She invited York into her office while my father sat with André in the hall. When York came out, he fussed around André, getting him ready for his transfusion. Only when they were alone in the hospital cafeteria did my father ask York what he had learned from the doctor. York shook his head. He said it was not good news. That evening at home, for the first time, York broke down. He told his wife he had seen the X-rays; he had seen where both lungs were infected. “My brother is dying,” he wept.

The next day I called Dr. Raja and asked if she would make a referral to Kaiser Hospice. I had to be in San Francisco the next week and everyone else had pressing commitments. No one knew how long André might remain as he was, and my father was beginning to show strain from caring for him. We needed help. In the course of our conversation, Dr. Raja mentioned that André’s cancer had metastasized to the second lung. And while a referral to hospice meant the illness had reached the stage listed as “terminal,” she was not willing to make the referral unless André gave his permission. I had used the phone downstairs for privacy. Now I went upstairs to convince André to give permission to bring hospice in. As I sat on the bed beside him, he rasped, “I heard you.” There was a phone at his bedside. “I was listening,” he said.

This was how he learned that the cancer had spread to his second lung. This blow came after a letter arrived stating that if he did not appear for work within a month —at the end of his leave of absence — he would lose his job. “I can’t make it he said, putting the letter back in its envelope. Now he called Dr. Raja’s office to say he was willing to be referred to Kaiser Hospice. Did he know he was dying, that hospice is only for those clearly on their way out? Hospice strives to make sure the patient is comfortable and without pain during the dying process. But I said nothing about dying. I talked about how extra help would make it easier for all of us, including him. That night in bed he said to my father, “Can I stay here? Will you take care of me if I get sicker?”

That same night, I slept in my mother’s room at the Alzheimer facility in Oceanside. I awoke Saturday morning and repeated what I’d told her the evening before, that André was very sick, that he might not survive. My mother was diagnosed more than two years ago, but except for memory drifts and her inability to express appropriate feelings, she showed few signs of the disease. She said she understood what I was saying about André. But could I be sure? I checked my watch. It was 8:24. The hospice referral nurse had said she would be at my father’s place in La Mesa at 9:00. With a little more than a half hour to get from Oceanside to La Mesa, I crashed out of the building, jumped into my car, and traveled I-5, 805, I-15, then 8 at speeds up to 90 miles per hour. At one minute past the hour, I roared into my father’s driveway.

The referral nurse took the information and then made calls for the bed, the oxygen tanks, the potty. She was on the phone for half an hour with Mount Zion pharmacy, which handles Kaiser Hospice’s weekend medicine dispensary. She left instructions on medicine use and dosage. We moved André into the living room and settled him. The next morning, I took off for San Francisco. Marcus, the middle son, and his wife Rhonda arrived later to say they had to go out of town but would be back in a few days. Dad, meanwhile, had tried getting André to the bathroom and, staggering, had dropped him. He succeeded in lifting him, a dead weight, off the floor and back into bed, but was distraught by the time Marcus and his wife arrived. Dad was concerned he’d hurt André. On Monday the aide demonstrated how to bathe André and change the bed with him in it. The hospice nurse assigned to André came that afternoon and inserted a catheter.

On Tuesday, the last morning of his life, York’s wife, Thelma, came upstairs to find André sitting up in the hospital bed. The living room curtains were open and morning sun was pouring over his face. André neither blinked nor turned away. He was seeing nothing. Thelma called me at 9:30. “You have to come home right away.”

“Tell him I’m coming,” I said, and was kneeling at his bedside three hours later. “Thank you for waiting,” I whispered. Marcus was flying in from the Midwest; Rhonda was driving down from Los Angeles. “Please wait,” I said, bending close, and whispered, “I love you.” From far down in his throat, there came three tiny grunts: I-love-you.

The hospice doctor arrived in early afternoon, a little before Marais. She told us what André could no longer say.

“He’s in pain.” She studied his furrowed brow, the nervous play of his hands. “You need to start the morphine.”

André had always spoken of the possibility of a miracle. Maybe he never stopped believing in one. As for us, we accepted that he was going to die. (Why else were we selecting a mortuary and looking for his address book so that we might contact friends?) We just did not accept that it was happening now, that he was dying as we were with him in the room, as we were speaking with members of his medical team. He might be dying, but not really.

We grilled the members of his hospice team:

“How will we know if he should take one of the pills for stress and anxiety? Is it different than the morphine?”

“What about his mouth, how do we keep it from going dry?”

“How do we measure his pain?”

“When will you come back?” They were wonderful, and not just the medical team but the first contact with Kaiser Hospice, the telephone-receptionist who could have made that first exchange impersonal but did not; even Phil, who delivered the equipment, seemed especially kind. Because of them and what hospice-care offered, unlike 33 years earlier when my grandfather died, my brother was dying at home. And yet, did we really believe it, even as we found baby pictures to reproduce for the memorial service? There was no will, no statement of what kind of service André wanted. He had been expecting a miracle. We asked our parents if they thought we should have him buried or cremated. It was the denial that helped us talk this way.

In shock, we did what needed doing. We were unsure my mother fully understood what was happening, that her son was dying. But she did. It was as if she was willing herself to be present: she had brought him into this world and she would see him out. She straightened his blanket, touched his forehead, moistened his lips.

At 6:00 that evening, and two hours later, at 8:00, we stuck morphine tablets far back in his mouth, under his tongue, where there were no taste buds, so the morphine’s bitterness would go unnoticed. We used a straw dipped in water to moisten the two tiny pills so they would dissolve.

How different his last hours were from my grandfather’s. André’s girlfriend was with him for much of the afternoon. Now it was night; my parents, my brothers and their wives, and I, nine strong, gathered around the bed. We each had spent time alone with him. When I held his hand and said what a privilege it was to have had him as my brother and my friend, his glazed, unblinking eyes stared into some middle distance, but I think he heard me. My father, weeping, led us in the gospel song “Steal Away.” We sang “Amazing Grace.” Praises were offered in the name of Jesus. And somewhere in the middle of all this, my brother stopped breathing. It was the evening of October 27.

André once told me how he had twice miscalculated the number of eggs to order for one of Lucky’s Easter holiday sales. This was the store’s big egg day, and one year he’d ordered too little, and that had been terrible, so the next year he ordered too many, and that was bad too, but not as bad as not having enough, he said. André Kevin Mitchell died shy of his six-month prognosis by ten days. He had ordered too little, and it was terrible.

André always said that he had his faith, his family, and his friends to see him through. In the end he transcended cancer’s fear and pain and uncertainty and drifted off, guided by his faith, cared for by his family, held in the thoughts of his friends. André did not complain or ask “Why me?” He navigated past the jagged terror. He made a good death. That was the miracle.

We cried and touched his body. Moved by some maternal instinct, my mother pulled the blanket up around his chin and over his hands. He’s so cold, she said. Two men from the Eternal Hills Mortuary arrived by van. The name was as distracting to me as their latex gloves, which made a snapping sound as they put them on. They wrapped the body in a sheet and then covered it with a dark green blanket before strapping it onto a hand-held stretcher. Marcus held my mother who, her face stricken, keened. My father stood stunned. Shawn, just a year older than André, opened the door so that the men might descend the front steps. The two men from the mortuary would carry my baby brother away, he would never return. Doubled over, clutching my stomach, I heard myself bellow.

We walked through the next days numbed. On Thursday we viewed the body. On Friday, a caravan of cars, his coworkers, made the long haul from Lakeside to Oceanside. Lucky had the largest single contingent, but there were other friends of his, and family friends as well. Shawn, chaplain for the Chargers and pastor of New Venture Christian Fellowship in Oceanside, led the service as “a celebration of Andrés life.” Shawn worked with Laurie, his wife, and members of the church to arrange the mortuary business, the viewing of the body, this service. For two days, Shawn hardly slept. Only when it was over, as he stepped away from. the podium, did he let himself break down. Still, there was one task left. Later that day, Shawn told his six-year-old son. “But Uncle André didn’t give me a hug and he didn’t say goodbye!” the boy cried, inconsolable.

André had been the fifth son. He was born last and had died first, before our parents or anyone else. He was a grown man, but André was still the youngest. Eventually the sharp pain is replaced by ongoing heartache. In an act of survival, we abandon those who have abandoned us.

Today my family, all born-again Christians, speak of André being with Jesus in Heaven. They are made happy thinking of him in a “better place.” At his death, André, with his tender ways, met the definition of a puer aeternus, eternal youth. Perhaps this explains why now I find myself looking into the eyes of children. Buddhists refer to reincarnation, but for me it is not a question of André coming back. When I catch sight of my brother in my nephew’s eyes, I know that he has never left. But I cannot smile in recognition, not yet.

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