09/29/2015 01:17 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When the Dying Start to Outlive Temporary Plans; Will You Stop Getting Better Already?


The youngest of seven children whose parents are deceased, Colleen Haggerty chronicles about the coalescing of her adult siblings following the sudden brain cancer diagnosis of their single/childless 53-year-old brother, the makeshift care-giving they built along the way and her experiences with the surprising person who awoke from that fateful brain surgery.

Within two months of our brother's brain aneurysm came an aggressive stage IV brain cancer diagnosis, multiple brain surgeries, the discovery of a new spot on his lung and his decision to stop the cancer treatments that were proving to be ineffective.

When the doctor explained that ending cancer treatment meant focusing on Kevin's end of life pain management for his final weeks, we fixated on the "final weeks" part and immediately toured the best hospice facilities around, placing Kevin on wait lists.

You see, our brother is single and has no kids, so it's up to us siblings to ensure he is taken care of  --  living safe, comfortable, and relatively happy in this limbo time of not knowing when the end will come. Only we had no idea how to do this, so we are pretty much winging it.

A few weeks after Kevin returned home from the hospital, we got a call from a high-demand hospice home   informing us that a bed became available if we wanted to place him there. Now. Half the siblings sighed with relief that the right support was now available for our ailing brother, while the other half wanted to hide Kevin away, for he didn't seem ailing, at all. As a matter of fact, he was strolling the Dollar Store aisles making fun of merchandise the day that call came in.

Inexplicably, since Kevin ceased his treatments, marvelous things began happening.
Without anymore radiation, chemotherapy or MRIs, our brother improved week by week as speech, memory, balance and old personality crept back.

True, our makeshift support system we hurried together was never meant to be sustainable for more than a few months. But this guy was clearly not ready to live in a hospice facility surrounded by dying patients - bed available or not.

How inconvenient of Kevin to improve just when the best hospice home was ready for him! I jokingly asked him, "Will you stop getting better already?" He got a kick out of that, quietly chuckling at my gallow's humor.

Kevin stubbornly went on to enjoy Halloween, his friends dressing him up as a zombie, the irony not lost. BRRRAAIIN.

Then, one morning he was able to draw again. Art was his passion and source of emotional communication since he was a teenager. Color pencils were his medium of choice, sketching out mythical lands resembling places that exist only on the outer edges of Disney-meets-Tolkien.


Regaining his drawing abilities was magic, a wellspring of happiness, confidence and solace for him during this time. Kevin would show his steady stream of visitors what he had just drawn and excitedly share why he chose particular color palettes. Sometimes his words weren't correct, but his enthusiasm made up for it.

None of us could believe it, least of all him. If he could regain such a highly specialized creative skill while supposedly dying of brain cancer, what else was possible?

Well, he got strong enough to take mile-long walks on the beach every day while snacking on Whoppers. No regimented organic vegan diets or alkaline water for Kevin - just a steady diet of candy, song, laughter, sun and ocean breeze.

Then came his December birthday. He had made it to 54. This guy wasn't going anywhere.

He then held court at our sister's ugly sweater Christmas party, laughing and sipping wine. But we all know his true motivation for attending was to dominate the contest with his hideous Christmas sweater and to one-up all the white elephant presents in the steal-a-gift exchange - an old phone adorned with a naked Barbie doll on the receiver that the neighbor boy unwittingly selected, clearly confused as he unwrapped the gift.


At the library a few weeks later, Kevin blew my mind by easily reading book covers and identifying photos of famous people in the biography section. This from a guy who just a few months ago couldn't recognize an image of a cow, let alone read or annunciate simple words, like C-O-W.

We had slumber parties in his tiny apartment, made videos of us singing show tunes and Brady Bunch songs, held reiki sessions with a group of chanting energy healers, and he was even able to be left alone for a few hours at a time, just him and his colored pencils and sketch pad.

It wasn't all hugs and kisses, however.

Nerves grew raw as he and our sister, Keri, who moved into his apartment to be the primary day-to-day caregiver, began bickering like brother and sister. The McGyver-esque care giving system we cobbled together for Kevin in that ICU room five months ago was a short-term design.

The stress of his living longer was beginning to show on everyone.

As time went on, friends weren't able to visit as often, my 175-mile commute to Oceanside every Friday gave way to staying in the office to catch up with work, and Keri felt like a caged tiger being in the apartment with Kevin every day, taxing her own stress and patience levels.

We loved that our brother was beating the odds, but we'd need a new game to support his unexpected longevity if he keeps improving.