One of my life principles for coping that I’ve shared so often with my family (and practically anyone else who would listen) is what I dubbed “The Five Year Rule.” Whenever my kids felt that what was presently happening in their lives was an overwhelming tragedy from which they could never recover, I’d abruptly interrupt them and ask them to tell me what they were doing five years ago today. They’d pause, stare and then try to remember exactly what was happening back then. And of course they couldn’t. I’d then explain that the momentous “now” would five years from today, be something that at best, would be a vague memory. Gaining perspective helped them in going forward, an important life skill everyone needs to acquire to have what I call “the best life.” Because the truth is, life will require coping skills from everyone. Today, however, I find myself with my memories from exactly ten years ago, vivid, actually blazing away in my mind. I’ve gone forward from that impossible time, but I can still see and feel everything that happened in the weeks leading up to and including Thanksgiving, 2013. Always my family’s favorite holiday, I couldn’t believe we were going to celebrate, not only with family, but with a number of other people who often found their way into our home in late November. Of what to that point was our 31st year of hosting Thanksgivings, only two times were more memorable. One was the first time my parents, grandmother and siblings came to our home for the holiday, back when I was thirty and a new mom, my daughter just three months old. I was sick that year but I dosed myself with every cold medication I could find, determined to show everyone I’d arrived as a fully competent person into adult life. Managing a baby, a holiday dinner and an illness, simultaneously? No big deal. The second memorable time was when my brother had a terrible argument with my parents, which was so upsetting for them, that they canceled participating in that year’s Thanksgiving. I was so hurt and angry that everyone had to pay for their issues which had nothing to do with the rest of us. But truly, those times paled in comparison to 2013, the one that for me, is unforgettable.
Back in April, 2012, Michael and I were slammed by his diagnosis of Merkel Cell cancer, the deadly orphan disease which if metastatic, had only an 11% survival rate at five years. Michael’s was metastatic but only slightly so, with just two lymph nodes out of sixty-six testing malignant, except for his initial small facial lesion. Even so, after an extensive surgery, he was hammered with thirty radiation treatments to his head and neck which left him dry-mouthed and partly bald on one side of his head. After a clean scan seven months from those interventions, his doctors felt he had a good chance of surviving for a lot longer than five years. We cautiously went forward, always reminding ourselves that anything could happen, but being more confident that with every passing month of good health, that Michael would be a long-term survivor. A year after his treatment we met with his cancer team. I was anxious for him to get another scan, like so many cancer patients who get followed with three month scans for years. After a fierce argument with the oncologist, who said those scans weren’t in the protocols for Merkel Cell, it was finally agreed that Michael would get one more scan on November 8th, 2013, about a year after his last one. That was a Friday. We met with his surgeon the following Tuesday to get the test results. I can still see that scan on the light board in the office. Bright red blotches were everywhere, up and down Michael’s skeleton, metastases on at least 11 large bones in the body. I don’t know who was more devastated, us or our poor surgeon who was convinced this had to be a new cancer. He had never treated a Merkel Cell patient before. But Michael and I knew right away that this monstrous and insidious disease had been quietly spreading. A bone biopsy confirmed that. The astonishing part was that despite the heavy cancer load, he was still asymptomatic. At that moment the team oncologist assumed Michael’s care. We immediately went to see him, listening as he told us about a harsh chemotherapy cocktail which, if effective, might stretch his survival to a year. Without it, we were told that at best, he had two to three months to live. We asked him if starting treatment in a couple of weeks was possible, giving Michael enough time to immediately retire from teaching and to clean out his classroom. We also hoped to have a last Thanksgiving with all our family gathered before giving ourselves over to the grueling pace of treatment. The oncologist didn’t think a bit more time would make any significant difference. So off we went, headed for home, stopping at our seven-months pregnant daughter’s office where we were joined by our son. The four of us wept and grieved, crushed by this tough news. Was it possible that Michael might not meet his new grandson, due in January? We didn’t know.
Journal entry – November 12th, 2013
The family is devastated, weeping constantly. Will Michael be gone at only 64? My future is an empty black space. Just a mother? Just a grandmother? No more partner. Michael is crying in the next room. He tells me he doesn’t want to leave. I am powerless. What I would do to keep him alive is anything. But for him to suffer? I can’t bear it. I can’t bear anything.
Journal entry – November 17th, 2013
Last night we went to see the film “12 Years a Slave.” It was beyond somber. The theater was absolutely silent at the end and no one said anything on the way out. Was this the last movie Michael and I will see together? I hope not. But is there any movie that will be a good last one to see?
Journal entry – November 24th, 2013
We lie in bed for 10 hours at a time, staring at each other, holding each other. We are in the moment, in the past and down the road. I am enveloped by love and lonelier than I’ve ever been. I feel my inexorable slide into isolation. I know it. I can’t see past Michael’s inevitable disappearance. Which has always been inevitable but is now breathing down my neck.
Journal entry – November 24th, 2013
Yesterday was likely Michael’s last Thanksgiving. A full house. As I prepared the food I felt overwhelmed, disconnected, detached. The meal turned out to be as delicious as any I’d ever served. Go figure. I guess it was the right thing to do. Lots of the day felt normal. I only cried twice. There was much love and support, yet not enough to touch the Grand Canyon of grief in my heart.
But we did get through that time. Nothing about it was easy. Michael managed to survive the brutal chemo with a minimum of side effects. Mostly he was exhausted, and often dark and cranky. He was ferociously angry about the possibility of dying a good twenty-five years before most people in his long-lived family. Still, he got through his 18 rounds of the chemical assault. Afterwards, we decided that we would take advantage of every moment we had together and promptly headed to St. Pete’s Beach, Florida for some time along the Gulf Coast, one of our favorite places. That was just the beginning. We moved our retirement to the current moment. Every time he was well, we hit the road. I wanted him to see everything he’d ever expressed any interest in visiting. We went from the Baseball Hall of Fame to FDR’s Hyde Park to the Outer Banks to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. We went to the Civil Rights Museum, to Graceland and to the Outer Banks. We saw four gorgeous national parks in Utah. Michael got to meet and spend time with our second grandson. We got three more Thanksgivings with our family and friends along with birthdays, anniversaries and just regular daily life. During that bonus time, Michael, always the best gift-giver, quietly designed a beautiful heart-shaped pendant for me, engraved in his own handwriting. He created three romantic CD’s he titled “Love Songs for the Lovely Renee,” all of which he wound up giving me while he was unexpectedly still alive. And when he finally died in May, 2017, I received his ultimate gift, a mourning quilt he’d commissioned, made from his clothes, with a beautiful note sewn into its fabric. There was even enough material for a wall hanging for each of our kids, with notes for them as well. He was planning for our comfort beyond his absence. A remarkable loving gift to treasure, always.
A decade ago, and now 6 and a half years since Michael’s death. I’ve experienced the most intense emotions I could have imagined in that time. I always knew that despite his encouragement about me eventually seeking a new partnership, that I never would. I still feel involved in our deeply intimate relationship, in some mysterious, inexplicable ways. I’ve tried leading a life rich in experiences during these years, and to be brave about facing the world on my own. I got new knees and have traveled multiple times by myself, always thinking that to do less would be disrespectful to both me and Michael. I can still manage the stuff of daily life. He still wanted to do everything he could, to the very last minute. I live by that memory. I am always wishing, even in my most joyous moments, when watching our children and grandchildren in all their various, exciting pursuits, that Michael could have shared these moments with us. I wish he could’ve met our daughter-in-law and our beautiful baby granddaughter. But I’m doing the best I can for both of us. As long as I’m able to keep going, I will.
Tomorrow will be my seventh Thanksgiving without Michael. Because we’re having a big crowd this year, I’m making the first turkey that I’ve made since 2016, to augment my son-in-law’s spread. Someone else will do the carving as that part was never my job. My cranberry orange relish is already made, as are my two sweet potato pies which just need to be heated. In the morning, I’ll put that bird in the oven and then make my family’s favorite cole slaw. For the most part, that represents most of my traditional dinner which I stopped hosting in 2017. A normal Thanksgiving, at least as normal as any of them have been these last years. There’ll be laughter and singing and rollicking around. I’ll have a good time and so will everyone else. My kids and I will acknowledge how much we miss Michael and I will say that he’s always nearby, which he somehow is. Ten years ago…sometimes feels like a minute.