There are two downsides to getting older. The first is ‘getting older’ and dealing with the wrinkles, weaker muscles, and inability to do all the things you once did so easily. The second is having to say goodbye to close friends or family members you outlive, and enduring the pain of their death. Sure, we know we will all one day die, that’s life, or rather death, but it doesn’t ease the pain when a loved one loses the race of life prior to us.
I lost another friend who is far more than a friend—he is family—my brother. Family is defined by genetics, I can’t change that definition, but the word “brother” does fit. One definition is: “One who shares a common ancestry, allegiance, character, or purpose with another.” Delete ‘ancestry’ and Steve Wiley fits perfectly into the definition of my brother.
Steve is the brother I never had. I can’t use past-tense, because death doesn’t change anything except our ability to share real-time. I can’t hear his voice, see his face, get his advice in a real way, yet I still can if I close my eyes. When one shares a powerful bond with another person, spouse, child, family member or friend, that connection doesn’t melt away at their departure from our everyday life. If it does, it wasn’t that powerful in the first place, it was casual, not love.
Steve is a man of impeccable character. That says it all, but I can’t leave it there. There simply is nothing more important in this life than one’s character. Everyone we share with, every hardship we face, every love we experience, every happiness and sadness we touch throughout life will hone our character one way or the other, and each of us determines the nature and form that results. Well, this man honed himself into the “Excalibur” sword. He pulled from life’s hard stone a character of pure love, empathy, kindness, and joy. And he shared it with everyone he came in contact with. He wore that sword not in a sheath but on the outside, visible to all of us, a gleaming personality no one could resist. You couldn’t escape his character if you wanted to, it was too powerful.
I met this man more than 30-years ago when he sat beside me in a professional technical public meeting and we shook hands, chatting a bit before the meeting started. I represented the Department of Energy and he was Martin Marietta. The meeting lasted nearly all day, and we seemed to stick together at breaks and had lots to talk about that had nothing to do with the meeting. The meeting continued to the next day, and of course we sat together. Well, he swung his Excalibur straight into my heart, and soon we formed a bond that grew and grew like kudzu on a hillside. Oh, we had our differences, and they even chipped at the bond, but they never broke that powerful connection between us.
Steve endured heart problems early on, which relentlessly kept pounding on his health, but he took it all in stride, never really complaining, never angry, only determined to beat the odds—which he did for a long time. When the doctor at the hospital came out after the procedure and showed Diana, Marsha, and me the video of him opening the “umbrella” inside the lower portion of his heart, we were aghast. Yes, we watched him literally open an umbrella in the nonfunctioning lower portion of Steve’s heart. When we saw him shortly after that, he said he felt like a new man, his heart had much more power—thanks to an umbrella—really! He even made the TV news and his photo and that of his heart still hangs in the hospital.
Steve endured many more difficult times over the years, but always with nothing but a positive attitude and belief that all would be okay, especially now that he had a wondrous, beautiful, bright little daughter Brooklyn—her “Papa”. A week earlier we talked and he was excited because he was at the top of the heart transplant list—he was confident a new heart was around the corner and said, “I’ll have 12-more years when I get my new heart.” I too was excited.
Sitting with him this last time at the hospital was most difficult for us, and far more for him. He was in great pain, but asked me to help him sit at the side of the bed. He couldn’t move his legs for he had such low blood pressure fluids built up and they were twice normal size, he needed dialysis. I got him to the side of the bed, his head was drooped, he was in such pain, and my heart was broken. He could barely talk. I told him I loved him and he needed to get his ass better.
They came in to move him to ICU because they had more monitoring equipment and more staff to watch the monitors while we waited for a plane to take him to Vanderbilt. I helped him lie back down and we looked into each other’s eyes for a long moment. I tried as hard as I could to pull into me the vision of my Excalibur soulmate, for I had the horrible feeling it would be the last vision I would have of his marvelous man. I ask the nurse if I could go with him to ICU and they said no, only his wife. The last thing Steve said to me was, “We’re going to do some more RVing when I get my new heart.” My reply was, “Yes, we will Steve, I can’t wait.” I lied, for I didn’t believe it—that feeling was strong. I felt deep down inside I was watching them move my brother down the hall to ICU and it was the last time I would see him. Sadly, the feeling was correct.
We wanted to be there for him, but circumstances beyond anyone’s control prevented it. He was flown to Vanderbilt where he succumbed to his failing heart several hours later. He died without family, without friends, without anyone holding his hand, or telling him he was loved. He knew he was loved beyond measure, he knew we were there in spirit beside him, that we loved him, that our hands were in his. Perhaps it is better for me to remember his beautiful eyes staring into mine for the last time, sharing our character and our love, rather than seeing his eyes close forever. I only see his beautiful open eyes, his love, his soul gleaming with love. Maybe this was best for us there with him at the end, viewing his brilliant Excalibur character through his wondrous open eyes, the windows to his loving soul.
Farewell and Godspeed, my dear brother.