(First published in The Dominion Post, August 25.)
My beloved older brother Justin died a year ago today. We buried his ashes last Saturday in the Waipukurau Cemetery.
It was a simple but moving ceremony – a fitting final act in an exemplary life that touched many people.
It was a therapeutic occasion too, because it helped erase memories of the last months of Justin’s life. These were not easy.
He and his family had been on a roller-coaster for months: in and out of Wellington Hospital, subjected to endless tests and scans and in constant, acute pain whose source proved hard to identify.
Surgeons eventually removed an infection of his prostate and at the same time took out a section of cancerous bowel that had been found by chance.
For a short time the prognosis looked good. We thought the cause of Justin’s suffering had been found and dealt with.
But the pain continued, accompanied by a debilitating weight loss that suggested there was something else going on that the doctors hadn’t found.
Justin never showed a trace of self-pity, but there were times when he did get frustrated. He was an optimist by nature, and grateful for the care he was given, but toward the end his faith in the system was eroded. A bewildering number of surgeons and doctors came and went. The messages he was getting were conflicting and confusing.
Justin suspected his illness was related to a treatment called brachytherapy, which he had received privately four years earlier for prostate cancer. When eventually he got to see one of the specialists who had administered the brachytherapy, he was assured his sickness was unrelated. But the doubt lingered.
Eventually he was diagnosed with high-grade urothelial cancer. This was revealed to him out of the blue one morning when he was re-admitted to Wellington Hospital in acute pain.
The diagnosis had been made on June 27 but he wasn’t told until July 30. The doctor who broke the news to him did so almost casually, assuming he already knew.
Whether the time lag reduced his life prospects, I don’t know, but logic tells me it must have. It seemed that a vital window of opportunity had been lost.
A major operation was scheduled. Surgery to remove Justin’s bladder, prostate and urethra was expected to take eight hours. It was made clear this was a life-threatening procedure in his weakened state, but it was a risk he and the family were prepared to take.
We all gathered, hoping for the best but prepared for the worst. Then, early on the morning of the scheduled surgery, Justin was told the operation wouldn’t proceed because there was no intensive care bed available for him when he came out.
It was a crushing blow. I think Justin gave up all hope that morning. He no longer trusted the doctors to tell him the truth. He just wanted to go home.
In the emotion of the moment, we wondered whether the doctors had been stringing us along – that perhaps the lack of a recovery bed was a convenient excuse for not going ahead with an operation that had little prospect of success in the first place.
Maybe they thought they were being kind letting Justin think the operation might save him, when in fact it would have been less cruel to tell him what seemed the obvious truth: “There’s nothing more we can do – you’re dying.”
By coincidence, the day before the operation was scheduled, we bumped into a respected senior medical specialist whom I happened to know. When we explained why we were at the hospital and what we had been told would happen to Justin the following morning, he gave us a knowing look and made a comment that I didn’t quite understand.
It was only later that we realised he had been trying to suggest, without actually saying so, that perhaps his colleagues weren’t being entirely honest with my brother.
So Justin went home to die, and now he’s at rest in the town where he spent his formative years before he moved to Wellington, to a career in broadcasting that was to make him a much-loved presence in Wellington households over several decades.
He’s buried in the same plot as his older brother Martin. Our parents lie next to them and another older brother, Peter, who drowned in 1958, is only a couple of metres away.
I can think of far worse places to spend eternity. The cemetery is on an elevated site sloping gently to the west, with a pleasing outlook toward Pukeora Hill and the Ruahine Range beyond. Justin’s widow, Judy, and the rest of his family are satisfied it’s where he would have wanted to be.