Remembering my stepbrother Mike at tomorrow’s Honey Lake Hospice Tree Lighting ceremony

“He not busy being born is busy dying” — a queasy truth Bob Dylan turned us all onto in 1965.

Yep. Each of has an unbreakable appointment with death somewhere down the line. We may not know when. When may not know where. We may not know how. But we all know we have a definite reservation when our time comes.

It seems to me there are probably two ways we all depart. Some of us will move on suddenly with little or no warning while others slowly fall ill and linger a while longer.

Thankfully, here in Lassen County those who linger can find some relief from the selfless volunteers at Honey Lake Hospice who have helped numerous families struggle though their burdens and sorrows for 20 years. They also can offer solace to those who lose someone quickly, too. May God bless their humble but noble heartfelt efforts.

I can’t remember how many years it’s been since I first attended the annual tree lighting set for 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 18, at Methodist Fellowship Hall, 635 Cottage St. — I think I’ve been to just about all of them — but I do remember the flood of emotion I feel every time the handbells toll and a family member’s name is read out loud.

Those who wish to honor the memory of a loved one may have the loved one’s name inscribed on a dove and placed on the Hospice Memorial Tree that lights up each night after the ceremony through the first of the New Year. Forms are available at Margie’s Book Nook and Plumas Bank. $10 per dove – laminated paper or $100 per perpetual dove – acrylic.

I’m not a fat cat, so I purchase a $10 dove every year to remember a beloved family member. This year, I’m remembering my stepbrother, Mike.

Let me share Mike’s story with you. Mike was five years younger than me, and he came along with my stepsister “Sis” when my mother remarried after my father’s death in 1960.

About 10 years later, Mike called me at my house one Saturday July afternoon and asked me to come along on a family outing to Millerton Lake the next morning. I told him I couldn’t make it because I was playing at a bar the night before and by the time the band packed up the gear, ate breakfast and headed home, it would be 4 a.m. The family always headed to the lake about 6 a.m., so I just wasn’t going to make it. He begged me and begged me, and I said no, and no again.

So, here’s what happened the next day. Mike could hold his breath underwater for like five minutes, a practice he had developed in the big clawfoot tub in the family’s upstairs bathroom. He decided to show off his trick that morning at the lake, and with one last mighty gulp of air, under the murky water he went. Five minutes passed. Then six. Then seven. Panic erupted.

A deputy rescue diver finally recovered Mike’s lifeless body 90 minutes later hung up in the branches of a scrawny tree in four feet of water less than 10 feet from shore. The family later learned when one holds one’s breath like that the carbon dioxide builds up in the blood. If the carbon dioxide level gets high enough, one loses consciousness. My guess is that’s exactly what happened.

I took a chainsaw up to the lake one night that winter when the water was low intending to cut that stinking tree down. But standing there in moonlight, whirring chainsaw in hand, I realized the tree was just an unwitting, unknowing participant, so I decided to let it live, although I did wail and throw rocks at the lake for a couple of hours.

The trauma of Mike’s death eventually led to the disintegration of my family, although we didn’t know that would be the result at the time. For years, I carried the guilt of not being there, although I am very glad I missed the incomprehensible horror of that morning. While I know I would have been as helpless as everyone else, I’ve always wondered — could I, would I —  have made a difference if I’d been there? Was there some reason Mike insisted so strongly I join him at lake that day?

As you might imagine, I can already see tomorrow will be a pretty emotional evening for me. I’m OK with that. While every death has its story, we all feel the loss of someone who left us behind before we were ready to let them go.

I hope you’ll join me tomorrow night at the United Methodist Church, buy one of those doves and support the volunteers who help us through our grief and lovingly share it with us when we need them most.

I need to say it again right now — I love you, Mike. I need to take a moment to reflect and remember all the good times we had, and light up your life once again.