My blog has hosted too many tributes to loved ones. But I now have another one to post. Today, it’s been exactly one week, since I saw my brother, Benjamin, for the last time. He was very special and I’ve written a very long tribute this time.
I was 19 months old when Benj (as I continue to affectionately call him, even though he preferred to be called Ben) was born. Obviously, I can’t remember life without him. That is until one week ago, when I watched Benj breath his last. I think Benj may have learned to talk before I did. Not really, but I can’t remember when Benj couldn’t talk. He definitely learned to talk better than I did. He would disagree with me, but this time, I get the last word. He would say that when it was just family that he couldn’t get a word in edgewise, because nobody could shut me up. I suppose it’s true. But Benj was the one who was so friendly to everybody around him. Everybody loved Benj. There was no stranger to Benj. He loved meeting new people. He talked to everybody. I was the shy homebody; Benj was the friendly traveler.
Let me tell you how it went. I would go to camp meeting and sit in one of the kids’ meetings toward the back, and somebody would come up to me and put their hand out and say “Hi, I’m so-and-so. Aren’t you Benji’s sister?” (Benji is what we called him in those days.) I would kind of sigh, and say, “Yes, I’m Rhonda.” I wished people would get to know me just as Rhonda, not as Benji’s sister. I mean what older sister wants to be in her brother’s shadow? It even got worse, as I hit my teens. Young men, who would want to get to know me, would come to introduce themselves to me. But even they would always say something like, “Hi I’m Mr. Macho, aren’t you Benji’s sister?” Even my husband was friends with Benj before making my acquaintance. (Ahem, but I went to him and introduced myself as Benji’s sister to try to start a conversation.) I’m very thankful that my husband got to be there with Benj those last few hours of life. They were always close friends. In fact, Benj was disgusted with me for taking Nathan away from him. He said, “I got Nathan to move here because I needed a friend and now he’s spending all his time with Rhonda.” So I owe a big thank-you to Benj for getting to know the right guy for me.
As I said, Benj was the friendly traveler. He may have found my man for me and brought him to our home so that I didn’t have to venture far, but he travelled the world over to find his wife. He met his wife, a beautiful German, in Sweden. They both loved about each other that they were both friendly and adventurous. They made lots of long distance flights and even more long distance phone calls before INS finally agreed that she could have her visa and they married on June 23, 2002. While I give tribute to Benj, I also have to give tribute to Silke. Benj married the most amazing woman. In spite of the fact, that most of their married life, Ben’s health was declining and declining, she not only stuck by his side, she loved him. I remember one day, when I was visiting Benj in the hospital a couple of years ago (when he nearly bled to death), and Silke had gone home to get a shower or something and then she walked back into the room. I will never forget how her face lit up to see Benj. I could see all over her face how much she loved him. Benj’s face lit up to. She was the love of his life. It was her love that kept him going for the last few years. I could see it. Silke always believed in Benj. She always did everything she could to brighten his life. She was his constant caregiver for the last few years, which ended up being a very big task, and through it all her love for him didn’t diminish, it grew. I have learned what true love is by watching Benj and Silke. Love is a lot more than a feeling. Love is a principle and Silke is a living example of that. After Benj passed away last Tuesday night, Silke broke down and cried, “It feels like half of me has died.” I replied, “That’s why they call them the better half.” She sobbed out “Benji was my better half.” Silke taught me what true love is. Benj did too. In spite of his miserable condition, when he was about to be intubated and there was some fear written on his face, Benj wasn’t thinking about himself. His first thought was of Silke. Benj’s last words before being intubated, after we had said three prayers for him, were “Mom, can you pray for Silke?” She did. I’ll always pray for Silke and she’ll always be my sister, no matter what her future holds. (I love you, Silke!)
Besides loving to talk, Benj loved speed. As we grew up, Benj was usually braver than me. He said at my wedding that, I could climb trees higher than he could. Well maybe, but let me tell you, he could go a lot faster than I could. He could ride his motorcycle faster than I could. He could ski better and faster than I could. (Do you know that he even taught me how to ski down stairs? He couldn’t wait for winter to roll around so he started skiing down the stairs in our house. Crazy kid! One of his famous quotes from when he was about six was “I know everything there is to know about skiing except turning and stopping!”) He would drive his car faster than I would even consider. I was always just a little afraid of all that speed stuff. Try as I may, I couldn’t keep up with him either on skis or motorcycles. He could play baseball and volleyball better than I dreamed of being able to. Maybe it’s because he was a boy! He loved to live life to the fullest and he was so coordinated. Before he could swim, he would do back flips off of the diving board. Then he would doggy paddle to the edge. It was impressive. That’s one reason, why it was so hard for me when Benj ended up in a wheelchair in 2006. I just didn’t think it was right for somebody who was so coordinated and who loved speed like he did, to end up in a wheelchair. It seemed like I should be the one in the wheelchair, carefully moving along. One time, I talked to Benj about it. I said something like, do you miss all of those fun times that we used to have as kids? He replied with a well thought out answer, “No. I’m just thankful that I did get to have those experiences. Our own little sister, Wendy, never got to do anything like that.” I looked at him and realized that I had a lot to learn from Benj. Benj and I lost a little sister in infancy when we were six and eight respectively. Rather than feeling sorry for himself, he was being thankful that he had it better than she did. Benj just wasn’t a complainer. He was always thankful that it wasn’t worse. I hope that I can somehow inherit that trait from Benj. It’s a lovely trait to have.
Benj and I shared many wonderful blessings with each other. We had the most wonderful parents (now the most bereaved) in the world. We considered ourselves the luckiest kids on the planet. We also gained two younger brothers and a younger sister (besides the one that passed away) that we both did our best to raise! (Just ask them!) We were the happiest family you can imagine. I don’t know if I mentioned how much Benj liked to talk and that I finally opened up when it was just family, but you should have joined us at the breakfast table. My dad used to say that he was going to make a reality show out of us. It was a riot. Benj had an awesome sense of humor and so do our brothers and our dad. My mom was the best cook and she can make vegan waffles like you can’t believe. When Ben developed allergies, she figured out how to make them for him too, so he never missed out on her wonderful cooking. We would all sit around the table and relish that delicious food and talk and laugh and just enjoy each other so much. Every time, since I’ve been married, when we would visit my family, mom would make one of her famous breakfasts and it was like old times. We would tell stories and laugh and make some of the best memories ever. I’ll never forget those times around the table. And when we get together again, it won’t be the same without Ben’s stories and wise cracks. I’ll miss his comments so much. He always brought so much life to the party.
Benj also loved to talk to his Heavenly Father. I remember thinking as a teen that he was sure a lot more faithful about having his morning devotions than I was. It’s a good thing that he developed that enduring relationship with the Lord. It took that to get through the last several years of his life and be the amazing example of Christianity to everybody around him that he was. Benj knew Jesus like a friend. He shared in sufferings with his Lord. He knew that he could turn to the Lord for strength and comfort. That is why he was able to be an encouragement to the rest of us, because he had been talking to and leaning on his Heavenly Father.
Did I mention that Benj loved to talk? Of all of my siblings, he has been the most faithful at calling me. There were times when he was bored, that he would call us every day, sometimes multiple times in a day. My kids loved to talk to Uncle Ben on the phone. Their faces always lit up, when he called. They loved their Uncle Ben deeply. And I will have ringing through my ears for a long time their constant prayer that they each prayed every morning and every evening for most of their young lives, “Dear Jesus, Please help Uncle Ben get better.” Even this morning, my five-year-old slipped into habit and prayed that prayer again. I don’t know why the Lord chose to answer their prayers the way He did, but I know that I can trust Him. After all, Benj was at peace with his fate. Now, I’m praying earnestly for my young children, to not lose that faith of a child through this experience. I have to say though, I would give anything right now to hear the phone ring and know that it was Ben on the other end. I would love to talk to him about his plans to go on to law school. That’s what our last several conversations were about. You see, Benj had returned to college a while ago and he had just received his diploma in the mail from the University of Phoenix on Friday, the day before he went into the hospital (four days before he passed away.) With an amazing amount of determination, he had finished his associate degree in business, while spending the last nine months of his life flat on his stomach. Benj’s optimism never died until he did. Same with his determination. He always planned on getting well. His cheerfulness never waned, when the rest of us were crying and worrying about him, he would cheer us up. That seems ironic, but that’s how it went. Benj’s hope for healing never diminished. He always was seeking new treatment methods both natural and traditional that would cure him. But through it all, Benj did not fight his fate either. He told Silke just before getting intubated, that if it was God’s will for him to go now, he was ready.
Benj longed to go back to the mission fields. He and Silke dreamed of being missionaries in Africa. That, in spite of the fact, that many doctors believed that his health condition was due to a disease that he had contracted as a student missionary in Ghana called Schistosomiasis. Benj would have made a great foreign missionary, because of his and Silke’s love to travel and because he was so friendly and everybody loved him. But that was evidently not the mission field that was chosen for Benj. I do believe however, that Benj has touched more lives than any of us will know in this world. I know that way too many people have to suffer in this world. And I hope that whenever any cross my path, that I can share about Benj’s life and it will cheer them and make them determine to be ready. I know many have already met Benj and their lives have been changed because of his cheerfulness. You know, one day, somebody told Benj, “If you just had more faith, you would be healed.” Benj told me about it a few weeks ago. It hurt him to be told that. He said to me, “You know, it takes more faith to keep believing, when you’re not healed than it does to be healed. Being healed is the easy route.” I said, “Did you make that reply to the person who said that to you?” He said, “No. He doesn’t know any better.” Benj knew better though, by first hand experience. And he taught me a lot in that one conversation. As I mentioned, he learned how to talk better than me. He clearly learned how to not talk better than me too. He tried his best to be kind to others, even when he was sick. I also learned a lot about faith from that one comment. I’ve been thinking about it now for eight weeks or so. I hope that I can always show sympathy to those who are suffering. Ben is not the first one in this world who had a strong faith in God, but was not miraculously healed or saved. There was John the Baptist, Elisha, Jesus, John Huss, Henry White, Annie Smith, just to name a few.
Ben’s final days were an exhausting ordeal. I went to sit with Benj at his house on Sabbath evening, because he had had a temp of over 105°F and Silke was trying to figure what to do. I talked to Benj. I thought he was talking to me, but he was so tired, that he said very little. He was a bit delirious too, but when Silke couldn’t remember the doctor’s phone number, Benj told it to her. When the ambulance picked up Benj, they were unbelievably rough with him. I ran out of the room crying, because it was so horrible to watch. Benj never complained, about their treatment, in spite of the fact that he had asked Silke not to call the ambulance.
Before Benj got intubated on Sunday morning, he looked at me and he said, “I don’t know when I’ll be able to talk again.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well they’re going to stick this pipe down my throat, so I can’t talk while it’s there. And who knows when it’s going to come out.” I realized, that he was really dreading that aspect. After he had been intubated for about a day, and my mom told him that they would soon take it out, he raised his eyebrows to show his excitement. He had managed to communicate with us with nodding his head and pointing at things with his hands and even typing on his iPad, while he was intubated. We thought Ben was going to come out of this, because he was doing so well, when they extubated him, but unfortunately about an hour after that, he took a turn for the worse. After Benj was extubated, he could barely speak. He tried, but he was very hard to understand. Basically the last thing he said was “another song.” The doctors thought Benj had no more than a couple of hours to live at that point, so we started singing and we kept singing, and singing, and singing. We sang all night long. As long as we sang, Ben’s stats looked stable, so we kept on singing. He went for over twenty-four hours after those two hours were up. That night there were two doctors that thought so much of Benj that they stayed and sang with us all night too. It was very special to me to see again, how people loved Benj, because of his friendliness and optimism and cheerfulness and his genuine Christianity. People who didn’t even know Benj when he was a healthy young man, but who knew that he was one special young man. One of the doctors said, the problem is that Benj always wants to hear the next song. Even the nursing director, who is my mother’s boss, told her that whenever he walked past Ben’s room he could just feel the grace coming out of the room. See Ben kept on touching people’s lives to the last minute and I believe it will continue in his death. Tuesday, seemed like it took forever as Benj struggled on for life. It seemed like he died three times, but two of the times he came back. The first time, he didn’t breath for minutes, and his heart flat lined. We all started crying, or make that weeping. My son went and found my phone and then called my husband to say that Uncle Ben had died. Then I took the phone to talk to my husband, but then my son came running out into the hall and said, “Mom, he’s alive again.” My eight-year-old son told the chaplain, maybe he’s going to be like Lazarus. Then that repeated itself in about an hour. That was very draining. I don’t know why it happened. I asked the doctors and they’d never seen anything like it. Finally Tuesday evening rolled around, by that time my husband had driven back over. I went and picked up my three youngest kids from where some friends were keeping them and we went back to the hospital. We were all sitting around trying to figure how to get sleep—who would stay, who would go home—because we had all gone at least one night without sleep and some had gone three nights without sleep. We were getting the impression that Benj was going to keep fighting for days. I asked if we could have family worship together before everybody headed off to different waiting rooms and places to sleep, so we gathered around Benj’s bed. The whole family, minus my oldest daughter, was there, as well as a very dear physician friend of Ben. (I feel very much closer to Ben’s physician friends as well as his pastor, now too, after spending those very emotional times with them. They are all very special people and were so kind to us and to Ben in those final days.) My husband said a prayer, then my brother, Joe, shared a few thoughts about sheep and the Shepherd from Psalm 23 and John 10. Then we sang Benj’s favorite song, “I Will Follow Thee My Savior”. While we were singing tears started running down Benj’s cheeks. Mom and Silke stood there and wiped them away, while the tears ran down their own cheeks. Then Joe said a closing prayer, which he concluded by saying “Into thy hands we commit his spirit.” With that Benj stopped breathing. The timing was amazing. It’s not like we hadn’t all told Benj throughout the day, that it would be okay to go. I’ve decided that Benj was waiting for the Holy Spirit to tell him that it was time to go. I could feel the presence of the Lord like I’ve never really felt it before. I think that’s why he revived twice, so that he would go like that at the end of family worship and we would all see God’s hand even in his death. Benj had a connection with Jesus, even to the timing of his last breath.
I never will get to hear my brother talk again in this life. I’ll miss it so much. I’ll probably go on talking my family members’ ears off. I can get kind of wordy, hence the long tribute. I still expect people to come up to me and say, “Now aren’t you Ben Reeves’ sister.” That will probably happen as long as I live, he had so many friends. Many of the dreams that Benj had, will never be fulfilled. He was only 33 and had the same dreams that every Christian young man has, and that breaks my heart. But his influence will always be felt in my life. And someday, a day that I can’t wait for, I will meet an angel in heaven, or somebody from another planet, and he’ll say to me, “I think I know you. Aren’t you Ben’s sister?” I’ll know Ben will have been around making friends much faster than me. And I’ll proudly reply, “Indeed, I am Ben’s sister!” I plan to spend much of eternity trying to catch up with him, perhaps not on motorcycles or skis, perhaps on wings. For sure he’ll be running there; he’s been looking forward to that for a long time. And I will continue to meet people that Ben’s already made friends with and when they ask, I’ll be thrilled to just be Ben’s sister, otherwise known as Rhonda.