He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother - Caretaking My Husband In Hospice

Last Sunday I hauled my tired and weary self to a local church wondering what might be there for me.

As a backdrop to this - I am sad to report that it has been a long time since I have been moved to weep at a Sunday service anywhere. Given that I have spent the last 3+ years traveling around the United States and actively grieving the loss of my soul mate, it seems like I would have cried often during church - generally, tears have not been in short supply. However, very few services have brought me to tears. I suspect this is an indication of how far away my life path has taken me from what a majority of what a church service is about. I have been in the slow grist of death and so much of church seems to be about being in the motion and details of undisturbed living.

But this Sunday, I wept.

Mid-way through the service, after an at-length apology about the lack of inclusive language, the choir sang a choral version of the song "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother."

This song has been around for many decades. I have heard it enough that I thought I knew most of the lyrics. But, now I am listening with new ears. The ears of a person that assisted someone in crossing over under hospice care.

When you agree to be a caregiver with hospice, you will find yourself doing many custodial tasks -  lifting a person physically who can no longer stand on their own two feet. Feeding someone who can no longer hold a spoon. We trim, toilet and wash, comb and brush. We administer meds. And more importantly, we lend a watchful eye to insure the provision of a safe and loving environment for the dying to spend their final days in.

Upon hearing these lyrics, the clouds parted and I was hearing something about love, as if for the first time. There was a clarity of kindness, an honest recognition of the need of community and commitment in our places of being stripped down... the bonds that hold us together in our most fundamental weakness and strengths.

I recognized so much wisdom in the words - so I was determined to know who wrote this song.

There are a lot of details that I might say about the song's origins, but I would like to only focus on one factor - that one of the two co-authors of this song was dying of cancer of the lymph nodes.

Yet, the song is written from the perspective of the one that is able-bodied to assist. Perhaps the lyrics were written by the co-author who was healthy. I am uncertain. Yet, it seems to me that the song being birthed around the dying makes perfect sense. Perhaps this is why the song is so stripped down to the elemental of what rests between human beings. What I imagine - is when confronted by a person who is actively dying or when we are actively dying - that we finally understand what all humans need.

My husband died in June of 2008 of pancreatic cancer.
I am a widow. My husband died in June 2008. I miss him so. But, I would do it all over again.

The Lyrics:

The road is long

With many a winding turn

That leads us to who knows where

Who knows when
But I'm strong

Strong enough to carry him

He ain't heavy, he's my brother
So on we go

His welfare is of my concern

No burden is he to bear
We'll get there

For I know
He would not encumber me

He ain't heavy, he's my brother
If I'm laden at all
I'm laden with sadness

That everyone's heart
Isn't filled with the gladness

Of love for one another
It's a long, long road
From which there is no return

While we're on the way to there

Why not share
And the load

Doesn't weigh me down at all
He ain't heavy, he's my brother.

"He ain't heavy, he's my brother" is a statement of disputed origins, many tales around it's source are interesting. The statement is what is called a paraprosdokian - a phrasing where the second half of the phrase causes the listener to revisit and gain a different understanding of the first part of the phrase.

To illustrate, this is where the assumptive reasoning would take us upon hearing:
"He ain't heavy..."

"... he only weighs 180 pounds."
"... he lost a lost of weight."
"... he is only 5 years old."

Instead, we hear an unexpected reason for the ease of carrying the person...

"... he is my brother."

This is often a device of humor, seldom is it used for an emotionally moving sentence. In this phrase, it alerts us to the bond between human beings as the metric for when something is a burden or a sacred responsibility.

Brian was my life partner, and in that way I would call him a mate as well as a lover and a brother. In 2008, I joined thousands of people who choose the supporting structure of hospice care as a way to carry our brothers and sisters down a long road with many a winding turn
, that leads to who knows where
, who knows when. I have often said that helping Brian cross over with the least amount of pain and the most amount of love was the most sacred thing I have ever done in my life.

When I meet others that have been caregivers with hospice, there is a connection that occurs - because we know what it means to work to deliver a person to the other side with loving-kindness and peace. We share the art of dying with the nurses and doctors. We do not shrink away from caring for our beloved unto death.

And when people voice how frightening, how hard and awful that might be, I can honestly say that it is awful and hard - but I would do it again for Brian or anyone else that I cared for. Because helping someone die surrounded by safety and peace - as much as is possible - is what we do when we love each other.

Brian actively dying from pancreatic cancer