Orva Lee – A Memorial

My Mom has 3 brothers and 1 sister. Orva Lee is the oldest of the boys, born after my mother. He passed away this week after a valiant battle with brain cancer.

He served in the Army during Vietnam, but was stationed in Germany.

I remember when my family went to this special office somewhere in Houston to record a letter to him, it wasn’t on tape, it was an actual record that was mailed to him and he could play it. When he came home, he brought dolls for me and my sister. The dolls were dressed in traditional German clothing. We still have them.

Orva Lee always had gum in his shirt pocket for me and Leon. Leon is my other uncle but he is younger than me by 3 months. Whenever I was at their house and Orva Lee was going to the store he would take me and Leon with him. He always brought me a present on my birthday.

My family moved from Texas to California in 1969, I was 10 years old. I never saw or heard much from Orva Lee after that. I know he was working at Mosher Steel for several years. But then he was just missing for a while.

One day he showed up at my uncle Alvin’s house. Alvin was born after Orva Lee. It turns out Orva Lee had been homeless. By now Leon was grown and owned his own muffler shop, and he told Orva Lee to come live with him and gave him a job in the shop. This arrangement worked out for the next 20 years or so. Then Orva Lee officially retired.

He had a lot of friends around town, he met some of them for coffee, and I am sure when he and Leon went to supper they would run into friends there too. Orva Lee liked to flirt with the waitresses.

Over the last few months he began behaving strangely. I won’t tell all the things Leon told us about, for the sake of Orva Lee’s dignity. But he would forget things, like taking his wallet into the coffee shop. Or, forget to put his pants on. It got to the point that Leon called my mom, always the Big Sister. Leon said he was worried and that Orva Lee refused to go to the doctor. He didn’t want to hear that he was sick. But mom talked him into it. She has a way with people, she knows where they are coming from and talks to them without making them feel attacked or ganged up on.

So, Leon took him to the VA clinic, and they referred him to the VA hospital in Houston. He had an MRI and it showed a couple of tumors that were pretty deep and in bad places. A biopsy was done to confirm the cancer. I wasn’t there but I am told he took it pretty well. He decided that even though the tumors could not be removed surgically that he would go ahead with the chemo and radiation. He also signed a DNR.

The treatments helped him a lot. The next time my mom saw him he seemed like himself. He was getting around in a wheelchair and cracking jokes. Several days later he was moved to a nursing home close to home, where he had friends who were residents and others could come and visit.

But it didn’t last long. He had only been there about a week when someone from the home called Leon and said that Orva Lee was having trouble breathing and they were sending over to the hospital. Leon got there, and the doctors at this local hospital told him there really wasn’t anything wrong. Leon told them to transfer his brother to the Houston VA Hospital.

Once there, Orva Lee was diagnosed with a heart attack and blood clots in his lungs. His breathing was worse. They could not give him blood thinners because that might make the tumors in his brain bleed out. The doctor said he wouldn’t live out the week. Mom and Dad left for Houston the next day, a Sunday.

Mom called me Monday morning and said that the nurse had called Leon and said that Orva Lee was not going to make it through the day. They were leaving right then to drive across Houston to the VA.

I knew it was going to take some time for them to get there, so I called the hospital and got Orva Lee’s nurse on the phone. She told me he would not open his eyes, he was getting pain medication but that he was not responding to anyone. Never the less, I begged her to go and tell him that his brothers and sisters were on their way and that he should wait for them. She promised to do that for me.

Later in the day, mom called and said they were all there, taking turns in the room holding his hands, praying, talking to him. Believing that even though he was non-responsive he could hear them. Mom, Dad, Alvin, his wife Joan, Linda, and Leon were all there with Orva Lee, all day long. They left at about 7 p.m. and went somewhere to get dinner.

At about 8 P.M. the nurses called to let them know that Orva Lee had made his transition. He wasn’t in any pain. He just stopped breathing.

Linda said he must have waited for them to leave. That would be like him, not to want to pass away in front of them. He was a very private person. And he may have thought it would have been too hard for them to see it.

I asked mom if she was ok, and she said she was, but she didn’t sound like it. I told her so, and she said she was just tired. I am sure she was. But they lost their parents to cancer, and now Orva Lee is the first of the kids to go, cancer again.

I worry about mom, I think this will hit her harder at some point and I hope I can help her through it. I don’t know what it feels like to lose a sibling. Or parents. I have had some friends who have passed away from this life, and I know one thing for sure, leaving this life is NOT the end of life. We DO go on, into a spiritual life where many things happen and there are many things to do.

I can see Orva Lee now, in a big bear hug with my grandparents. Home at last.

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