What I Learned From My Brother’s Death

At holiday time, our minds naturally turn to family, especially memories of times with loved ones no longer with us. While in this reflective mood, I want to share a story of my dear brother Irwin. Here are some lessons we can all learn from Irwin’s untimely death from pancreatic cancer:

  • On your deathbed, your priorities shift to what really matters, and we realize all of the day-to-day “stuff” we worry about is just “stuff.”
  • We don’t always have much (if any) warning of impending death.
  • Estate planning documents are not just paper. They have a real impact on lives.
  • After we’re gone, our legacy can live on in a very powerful way.
  • Now is the time to do a “test drive” of your estate plan to make sure you’ve dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s.

Please indulge me to tell the story of Irwin’s passing. Here’s a guy who lived a model life of good health (no smoking, no drinking or drugs, exercised regularly, ate a healthy diet, not overweight). Irwin was rarely sick. One Friday evening almost five years ago, he called to tell us he thought he’d broken his foot. He was heading to a neighborhood clinic for an x-ray, lamenting that he’d soon have to endure the inconvenience of a cast on his foot. We urged him to go instead to a local hospital emergency room to meet an orthopedic doctor friend of ours. X-rays revealed that his foot was not broken, but the pain was coming from blood clots in his calf. Within hours, we discovered that there were blood clots throughout his body, emanating from his pancreas. We knew what that meant, having lost my father to pancreatic cancer 14 years before.

Irwin faced this diagnosis with the most amazing strength and courage imaginable. Doctors recommended no treatment, as the cancer was already too advanced, and Irwin went home with his wife Lea Ann and into hospice care. Irwin declined rapidly, but his spirit stayed strong. He even maintained his sense of humor, kidding with his buddies who surrounded his bed daily. His concern was never about himself, but about taking care of his loved ones. He wasn’t worried about his own health, but his focus was now on my health, aware that I have two close relatives (a father and a brother) both succumbing to pancreatic cancer. Doctors wanted to perform genetic testing on Irwin to be useful in assessing my own risk. Irwin held onto life just long enough for the kit to arrive so he could give his blood for my well-being. Only hours after giving me that gift, Irwin died. The journey from diagnosis to death was a mere two weeks. He was gone at age 65.

Words can’t begin to express my love and gratitude to Irwin. He gave so much, throughout his whole life, and his selfless act on his deathbed was just another example of the “mensch” he was. I was blessed with good news from both Irwin’s genetic testing and my own genetic testing. I still take every precaution and am enrolled in a program at UT Southwestern Medical Center aimed at early detection, should a problem arise. I am beyond grateful.

My message to everyone is to be prepared. It’s human nature to procrastinate when it comes to dealing with unpleasant things. At this holiday season, please accept a gift from Irwin. Let’s fight the temptation to postpone the things we need to do: express love, do things that bring you joy, and engage in planning to create a lasting legacy for those we will one day leave behind. Please allow me to suggest that your new year’s resolution list include an estate planning checkup. In the coming weeks, I’ll expand on the lessons learned from Irwin and provide more tips for that checkup.

Wishing all a joyful and meaningful holiday season,

Marvin E. Blum

Brotherly love—The Blum brothers: Marvin (left) and Irwin (right).