Sex, facing death

My brother -- athlete and veteran -- was dying. I wanted to make his deathbed wish come true, in my own way

Published June 11, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

        (<a href=''>David Kay</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(David Kay via Shutterstock)

This article was adapted from the new memoir, "Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails", about the years following the events of Swofford's previous book, "Jarhead."

X-POP3-Rcpt: swoff@pop3
Subject: Talk to me
X-Mailer: Juno 1.38
From: (Jeff Swofford)
Date: Fri, 23 Jan 1998 13:54:47 EST

Dear Tony,
I left a message on your telephone today at about 12:30 to call me ASAP.
I’m planning a big party the end of next week and want you to be here.
You can get discounted tickets to visit relatives who are facing impending death. I can tell you on the phone how to show proof, if required. I can help with the money. I know you just started school and I’m sorry to die at such an inconvenient time, but I really need you here little brother. There won’t be any gloom out here, just guitars, singing and lots of partying. Call me soon.


Your Big Brother

Impending death. Upending death. How do you show proof to the airline that your brother is dying? Photographic evidence?

See here, Mr. Airline Representative, this is a photo of my brother a year ago, the picture of health, a thirty-four-year-old father of two: notice the shine and elasticity of his skin, the sheen and splendor of his red hair; notice the bulky forearms, the wide strong chest; notice the two radiant children, notice the smiling pretty wife.

Now, Mr. Airline Representative, here is a photo of my brother from last week: notice the sallow and hollow cheeks; notice the grayish pall of his skin; notice the hairless head; notice the thin weak body. Notice the children at the back of the frame, watching their father as death watches him, and notice the wife, turned away from the camera, eyes on the distance unknown.

May I have a discounted rate? Sacramento to Atlanta?

I don’t recall if I received a discount or not. I wouldn’t have asked of my own accord. There are those people you’ve just met who will give you their entire medical history along with the histories of their parents and lover and siblings: leukemia, heart murmur, childhood diabetes, heart failure, intubation, constipation, hernia, dementia, delirium tremens. I do not share such information with total strangers.

My younger sister Kim picked me up at the airport. At the time she lived in Atlanta and during the past few years, when she and my brother both lived in the city, they had become very close. Twelve years separated them so Kim barely remembered Jeff from her childhood.

Over the last year while my brother was ill Kim had been a regular caretaker for the children and for my brother’s family in general—staying with the kids when my brother was at chemo with his wife, driving them to school, doing the shopping, performing all manner of errands.

I jumped in the passenger seat and gave Kim a kiss on the cheek.

“How is he?” I asked.

“Dying,” she said morbidly. “They’re increasing the morphine. The hospice nurse is at the house now, with Mom and Melody. The kids are a mess.”

She took us out to Camp Creek Parkway and drove the long, sloping road southwest toward Douglasville. As a kid I’d taken this route many times, always on happy occasions: a family reunion, my grandparents’ wedding anniversary, a summer vacation trip to Six Flags.

We passed Six Flags, shuttered for the winter.

Kim said, “Iris wants to see you again.”

Iris was her friend and whenever I was in town we flirted and drove around the rolling hills of West Georgia in her beat-up car listening to the Velvet Underground and talking about living someday in New York City.

We passed the chain stores and restaurants that signaled I was in another country: Piggly Wiggly, Chick-fil-A, Winn-Dixie.

My brother was the only true athlete in our family. When it came to sports, I was a dilettante: a few years of unimpressive football play; four years of wrestling in high school where I was known more for guts and conditioning than moves, with one strong season my junior year; two seasons of rugby during which I scored one tri, received a concussion, and split my face open twice—causing my mother to faint at least once.

Jeff ferociously played defensive back for the same school where later I’d founder. He received a small scholarship from Sacramento State College. He joined the Army, I’m still unsure why, halfway through his junior year of college.

In the Army he stayed ripped by spending hours at the gym. In Munich, in the mid-1980s, he competed in bodybuilding competitions. The photos of him from that era show a man with a deeply chiseled body and a confidence that could have been bottled, copyrighted, and sold.

In early 1997, at the age of thirty-four, Jeff still committed himself to tenacious workouts. Despite being married with two kids and attempting to start a new career after thirteen years in the Army, he always made time for exercise. Such was his dedication to the gym that I wondered if he might have a slight mental imbalance that manifested in manic fitness pursuits. Or, equally likely, he was simply vain.

Over the next several months I visited Jeff whenever I could. His prognosis was never great, but he always put a positive spin on his illness: he was going to beat the thing, he was young and otherwise healthy and there was no reason he wouldn’t survive—no reason other than that he had stage four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and that the cancer had appeared on his spine, in his left lung, in his stomach.

The reason his back hurt so much when we were lifting weights previously was that the tumor on his spine was about the size of a grapefruit—a grapefruit on his spine, blueberries on his lymph nodes, peach on his lung, plum in his stomach.

Why when describing tumors do we invariably use fruit comparisons? Is this to soften the blow of the horrible news? Throw fruit, not cinder blocks.

So with my brother it started with a grapefruit. The word was on everyone’s tongue, as if to say grapefruit was to not say cancer. You say grapefruit, I say live.


A few nights before his death, Jeff asked me to take Jesus into my heart and life. It would have been easy for me to tell Jeff that I’d do this for him. He was in and out of a morphine cloud. I’d been reading to him the Christian inspirational verses he’d requested.

“Brother,” he said, “I want you to live a good life. I want you to have a family. You need God for a family. For cohesion.”

I said, “You know I’m an atheist. I have been since I went to war. I respect your beliefs. I just don’t believe them.”

“Pray with me,” he said.

“I can’t, Jeff. It wouldn’t be right. It would make a joke of us both. I love you. I love your family. I love your children. I will do anything for your family. What do you need from me?”

“Let’s pray for you.”

“No prayers, Brother. Let’s talk. What will your family need?”

“Mel has it covered. She knows. You’re just a kid. Make your own family. Someday you’ll find God.”

I wanted, more than anything, to tell my brother that he was right, and that one day I would find God, but none of that would have been true.

I did say, “I will have a family someday. And I will be a good husband and father. And I will tell my children about you and how much I loved you. I can promise you that.”

I read some more from the verses, poorly written inspirational Christian drivel. Jeff stopped me. He needed to piss.

He couldn’t walk on his own. He asked me to carry him to the bathroom across the hall. I cradled his body and I carried him down the hall. His skeleton pressed against my body. Where once there had been so much muscle there was now only bone and skin. His chin rested on my shoulder and I felt his faint breath against my ear.

He wore the green flannel and gray sweats. I steadied him in front of the bowl and helped him shimmy the elastic-waistband sweats down his bony hips.

“I am happy to piss on my own,” he said. “I need to keep pissing on my own. When I can no longer piss standing up I want this to end.”

I looked at my brother’s dick. It was shaped like mine, a natural bend toward the right. It was about the same size. He had no pubic hair. His piss was dark yellow with a faint trace of blood: the water in the toilet bowl looked as though a teaspoon of saffron had been dropped in.

“I haven’t fucked in so long,” he said. “I don’t even know what sex is. Or what it means. I wish I could fuck my wife once more. No. I wish I could live and keep fucking her for the rest of my life.”

I helped him back to bed. My mother and Jeff's wife Melody came into his room. They administered another morphine patch and Jeff floated away.

I called Iris and met her at the Waffle House by the interstate. We ate the usual greasy mess of food. I didn’t want to eat, though. I wanted to fuck. I wanted to fuck for my brother.

We jumped in her car and drove around for a while, our usual trip, the Velvet Underground our musical guides, from old church to old church, from cemetery to cemetery. It was late now, past midnight. I asked her to drive to my brother’s house. We’d had sex here before, in the spare room, on the ground floor where Jeff now slept in his hospice bed. We entered the dark and quiet house through the downstairs patio.

I held Iris’s hand and I walked her into Jeff’s room. A reading light at the side of his bed lit his wan face. She stared at him for a moment and then she followed me down to the floor.

I heard my brother’s soft breathing.

Iris giggled. “What are you doing?”

I took her shirt off. And her bra.

“Jesus,” she said.

Yes, Jesus, I thought. I kissed her and took her breasts in my mouth.

“Jesus,” she said.

She slid down my body and took me out of my pants. I looked at my brother. I thought his eyes were open but I couldn’t tell. I thought I saw a smile, but I couldn’t tell. I wanted him to watch.

I pulled her on top of me. I had never had sex in front of someone else before and here I was inside a woman in front of my dying brother. I was usually a fairly attentive lover but this time I was not. I was hard and I was deep inside Iris and I pulled her hips roughly against mine and all I thought of was my dying brother: his gap-toothed smile as a carrot-topped little boy; his high school football number, twenty-two; I thought of his Phoenician Yellow ’66 Mustang; about playing catch with him in the yard, the way he taught me to use the laces on the football; I thought of his once-powerful body and I thought of women riding him, I thought of my brother fucking Iris; I closed my eyes and I saw him under the sexy young Iris and I saw myself dying in his hospice bed.


On my way to the airport I swung by the cemetery. There were already two Swofford men buried here, my grandfather and my uncle. I didn’t know when they were going to inter Jeff. The Swofford plot was at the top of the hill, at the deep right curve of the horseshoe drive. I knew its position well. When I was a boy, every time we visited Georgia my father took us to look at his brother’s headstone. I could find my way there in the dark.

As I banked toward the plots I saw two cemetery workers in the Swofford grounds. One man leaned against a shovel and another man sat atop a small backhoe, working the blade into the earth, working out the dirt, making way for my brother’s ashes.

Years later, when I begin to try to write about my brother I sort through boxes of notes, years of notes and photographs. I find an official Army portrait of my brother when he must have been going for a promotion. He’s thirty or so and handsome in his rugged tough-guy-soldier way.

I find my DD-214, the military discharge, and also the DD-214s of my brother and father. And I find a note in my mother’s perfect cursive script. The word Jeff. The words Nurses Station. And a phone number. I call the number. It is the VA hospital in Nashville. They instruct the caller to call the VA’s 888 suicide hotline number if it is an emergency.

Well, is it?

 This is an excerpt from "Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails" by Anthony Swofford. Copyright © 2012 by Anthony Swofford. Reprinted by permission of Twelve Books. All rights reserved.

By Anthony Swofford

Anthony Swofford is the author of the memoirs "Jarhead" and "Hotels, Hospitals and Jails" and the novel "Exit A." He and his wife and daughter split their time between West Virginia and Los Angeles.

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