Keeping Vigil

I pulled a chair close to the bed and sat down. My brother was deeply asleep. He didn’t murmur or acknowledge my presence, even when I leaned over, touched his hand and said softly, “Billy, this is Kathy. I’m going to spend some time with you.” I suspected that on some level my brother knew I was there.

From where I sat in his room, I could see part of the dayroom. Other residents of the home were coming and going. The television next to the Christmas tree was on, although no one was watching it. The sound gave the room a normal, homey atmosphere.

As I quietly sat watching my brother slumber, I remembered how I had taken care of Mom as she aged. I had paid bills, given baths and filled her pill box each week. Billy and Casper, my bachelor brothers who lived with her, made meals and kept her company.

A few years after Mom died, my weekly visits to the farm resumed. Both of my brothers had developed Parkinson’s disease. Now my visits were to fill their pill boxes, pay bills and keep them company.

Two years ago, my brother’s needs began to exceed my ability to keep them safe, so I moved both into assisted living homes. Their health decline accelerated. On Christmas Eve the nurse taking care of Billy called and said, “Your brother is no longer able to swallow. He’s having pain, so we’re giving him morphine. If you want to say good-bye, now would be a good time to come to visit.”

The end is drawing near for Billy, but he seems reluctant to leave. Keeping vigil is hard to do, but I feel drawn to be there for Billy’s and my own sake. He often watched over me while I was growing up. As I sat there, a kaleidoscope of childhood memories flashed through my mind.

Most people know my brother by the name William, or Bill, but I’ve elected to continue calling him Billy, his little boy name. Like most big brothers, Billy liked to tease and sometimes scare me. I remembered the times I bravely crept up the farmhouse stairway in the dark, scorning the need to turn on the lights. As I felt my way to my room at the end of the hall, Billy would wait until I passed his doorway before making a low, wild snarling sound. With a shriek, I would dash the rest of the way and slam the door.

By the time I was ten years old, most of my brothers and sisters were adults, so I sometimes felt lonely. Billy tried to cheer me up by doing new things like taking me to a skating rink…a first for me. Once, he took me for a ride on his motorcycle, another first.

It was on a hot summer night after milking chores. I remember holding onto him as we traveled county road M. We rode through different currents of air that evening, some were warm and moist, while others were cool and clammy.

Trips to the woods near our farm were always a treat with Billy. When I was little, he usually ended up carrying me home. When I got older, he’d tell me the names of every weed and grass we saw. He knew the names of all the trees, sometimes just by looking at the bark. Even before seeing a bird, he knew what it was from its song.

When Mom lost her eyesight ten years before she died, Billy took over as chief cook and bottle washer on the farm. Some of his favorite family recipes have unusual names. He made ‘Monkey Leg Stew’ and ‘Reindeer Stew’. The latter was Billy’s favorite Christmas Eve meal, where he would use venison instead of beef.

Parkinson’s had already begun by then, so he’d sold the cows. He had said, “I want to enjoy seeing the sun come up from some place other than the milking parlor.”

Billy bought a cast iron train at a flea market. He took pleasure in displaying it and other odd toys in the dining room. Sometimes when I visited my brothers, Billy would greet me at the door and say with a smirk, “There’s been a train wreck. Want to see what happened?” Sometimes the engine would be tipped over, obviously hit by a rampaging dinosaur. Other times the scenario he devised showed that a cow on the tracks had derailed the train.

In the silent room where I sat watching Billy and waiting, the sounds of life going on for others filtered in from the dayroom. I smiled and patted his hand as memories continued to flow. Through good times and bad, Billy was always a part of my life, helping his little sister.

Sighing, I said to my fading brother, “Billy, you don’t have to stick around here for me. I’ll be okay.”




8 thoughts on “Keeping Vigil


  2. What a beautiful tribute to your brother Billy! May your precious memories give you consolation. May Billy rest in peace!

  3. First, hello Carmen!! Kathy , nice article. Some of those memories from growing up on the farm are so poignant. If I could write like you do I would write about the smells from my childhood…especially the smell of the phlox in front of Grandpas house !!

    • Rosie,
      As I recall, everything and everyone had a smell when I was small. As an adult I don’t notice that so much anymore, but the scent of certain things can bring back very poignant memories!!

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