Certain years of your life stand out from the others. Months and months can go by, with one day melting into the next. Maybe at times that feels stale or boring. For me, I think those times are often the best ones, when nothing special has happened, nothing to make the ground beneath your feet feel unstable and shaky.
One of my most intense years was 1989. The previous two were marked by personal tragedy. In 1987, my cousin committed suicide. He’d been troubled since his mid-teens. Our families were very close and although I knew his situation was dire, I don’t think anything can ever prepare you for a young person choosing to die. I attended his funeral carrying my young son. The grief of my family was spread over my shoulders. The following year, my oldest friend, who’d borne terrible emotional disturbances during our entire relationship, killed herself too. Her death was two weeks before our 20th high school reunion. I attended the event but was devastated and moved like a ghost through the living history around me. I was inconsolable. I dreamed my way through my grief. I would be at the high school reunion again, but it was in a different location. People knew I was suffering and suddenly I’d see their faces change and I knew she had appeared. I turned around and saw her, wearing a red sweater which complimented her dark hair and olive skin. We went rushing to each other and I reached out for her, only to feel her whoosh right through me and vanish. I took this as a message that she was better off gone. Those two events are the prelude to 1989, the year that tilted my world on its axis, to forever rotate differently from the way it did from the time I came to call “The Before.” This was the first of two cataclysmic sections of my life.
Michael and I started out 1989 with a plan. Four years earlier, he had run for alderman in our city, against a classic caricature of a corrupt good old boy incumbent who’d spent years in office. I was his campaign manager, completely inexperienced, but game. We ran a good campaign but didn’t have much going for our “Get Out the Vote” plan. Michael lost that election by 2 votes. That sting was still fresh as we heated up for the election season in January, 1989. I was reprising my role as manager, a more experienced and streetwise one. Michael had raised his competitive level and resolved to meet every voter in our ward.
We were really busy. Both of us had full-time jobs and two kids who were seven and two. My parents had moved to Urbana from Chicago two years earlier to join us and my younger sister. I was the precinct committee person in our jurisdiction. Life whirred along quickly during the late winter and early spring months. Michael, who’d been having back pain on and off for a few years from his relentless softball career, marched through it, going out every night after dinner and taking our daughter with him on weekends to knock on doors. I was organizing our team of volunteers, combing through lists of registered voters and still nursing our baby boy. But we were in our late 30’s and full of Michael’s campaign slogan: Energy and Commitment. This second campaign resulted in a victory on April 4, 1989 and the whole family attended Michael’s swearing in at the City Building in early May.
Our celebration was short-lived. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in mid-May. She had surgery 2 days before my birthday. We were all scared, but she came through it, despite other significant health issues. The first five months of that year were really intense.
In June, Michael and I took our kids on a one week vacation to see his parents in Florida. The trip was rejuvenating but when we returned, my dad picked us up at the airport and told me he’d been urinating blood. My mother was a scant month past her surgery. Dad was diagnosed with bladder cancer metastatic to bone shortly after our return. That meant both of my parents were struck with cancer in 5 weeks. My mom continued to recover as my dad began to decline. In the meantime, those long months of door-to-door campaigning, coupled with too many bat swings caught up with Michael. He began to suffer from severe back pain.
I chased around from one thing to the next, changing drains in my mom’s incision, driving my parents to doctor’s appointments and eventually dad’s chemo treatments, taking the kids to school and day care and feeling a sense of fear that was hovering constantly. As the summer moved along, dad was getting sicker, and Michael, who’d been diagnosed with a herniated disk, was in dreadful pain. I wound up sleeping on the floor to give him room to search all night for any comfortable position. To top off the chaos, we were having a new roof put on the house, supposedly a week job that stretched into months. Fighting with the roofers about the messes they’d made and getting them to clean up their detritus was my escape valve. Someone I could yell at to vent the agony of trying to hold up too many people.
By late August, Michael could barely move. My father was admitted to the hospital suffering from dehydration. Two days later, I told Michael his situation was unsustainable and drove him to the ER to be admitted for surgery. As we waited for a room for him, I took him to see my dad whom he hadn’t seen in weeks. When I wheeled him into dad’s room, Michael didn’t recognize him as he was so changed. Michael’s surgery was the next day and was a great success. As he rested in the hospital, school started for my daughter who was entering second grade. The first day was only a few hours – she would go to my neighbor’s house for the remainder of the day. My son was at day care. I was mercifully at work, trying to feel normal. That day there was a dramatic storm with lots of lightning. I was sitting at my desk when my neighbor called and told me to stay seated. I was terrified that my daughter had been hurt in the weather on the way back from school. Instead, she told me that lightning had struck a hundred year old tree in front of my house which flung limbs through our brand new roof. I rapidly drove home to look at the damage, noting all the city workers gathered in their trucks, ogling the disaster at the alderman’s house. As I stood staring at the mess, I remember thinking, “so this is the metaphor for my life – the sky is truly falling.” I drove off to the hospital to tell Michael what had happened before anyone else could.
Both Michael and my dad were released from the hospital within two days. My dad’s birthday was on August 1st and we decided to celebrate it, knowing that it was likely his last. He was turning 67.
At the time, I remember telling myself that I wished he’d be around longer, but that he’d had a good life, a happy marriage, children and grandchildren, the whole deal. But he was devastated. He cried at his party and my wise and brave little daughter went up to him and asked why he was crying. He told her he was sad because he was going to miss us all so much. She looked up at him and said, “Grandpa, you’re right here, right now. You should try to be happy that we’re all still together.” She was positively profound and exactly right. My dad was so close to my babies. We were all so sad.
After that event, his decline was swift. Each day he was diminished. My daughter was cognitive enough so that we could explain things to her. My son was too young. He knew something was terribly wrong but he didn’t have enough language to express himself. I remember him bringing his favorite cup to my father as he lay in bed. He hoped that somehow, his grandpa would get up and fill it for him. As my dad became progressively more ghostly, my daughter would delicately climb in his lap and he would mutter the words to a touching children’s book, Love You Forever, while the adults watched and wept. Dad died on September 25th, a month after my daughter’s 8th birthday. She understood that he wouldn’t come back while my son must have been mystified at my dad’s disappearance. The primary ramification of dad’s absence for him was relentless sleeplessness that continued until he was old enough to express his fears of closing his eyes at night and being alone. At last we had something to work on to help him recover from his inexplicable loss of a constant presence in his life. My life had changed forever – my children’s lives had as well.
Inexorably, time moves on. We either go with it and get with the program or not. Some of us bend and adapt and others get brittle and break. I was flexible and moved forward, different, looking at life through the new lens of mortality and vulnerability. I got deeper in almost every way. I tried to shepherd my children in a healthy way, help my mother and treasure my time with Michael. I always thought that I would die before him based on our genetics.
So daily life ultimately resumed. Subsequent years were full of average days and normal crises that are to be expected by just being part of the human experience. In late 2010, I retired from work to care for my firstborn grandson. Every day, from the time he was 7 weeks old until he was 3, he came to grandma’s daycare. Within a year, we moved my now elderly mother into our home as we felt she was unsafe on her own. Four generations were under our repaired roof, as our son migrated up and back between home and his PhD work abroad in Central America. Life was hard work but essentially good.
During the years following my dad’s death, my husband had left his music business of 27 years, returned to school and acquired a master’s degree in the teaching of U.S. History. He was one of the lucky ones who enjoyed two careers that he really loved. But teaching was his true vocation and he knew his career wouldn’t be long enough to satisfy his thirst for the job. Starting over in your 50’s is a challenging task. He worked long hours, perfecting his classes and developing one that combined his love of music and film in a course that encompassed critical movements of the 20th century. He was at school every day by 7 a.m. and returned around 4 p.m., unless he was advising or mentoring. As a man in his 50’s and 60’s, these were long hours. He was happy to come home and see our precious grandson at the end of his day. Often he’d lie down for a short nap and as little Gabriel became more mobile, he’d curl up next to grandpa, and bring him his favorite stuffed duck to hold while he slept. Michael adored him and really liked the duck as well.
Then the second cataclysm struck. Michael was diagnosed with Merkel cell cancer in the spring of 2012. We learned quickly what a lethal disease it was and got prepared for the surgery and subsequent treatment he needed after getting our second opinions. I had an impossible time assimilating the idea that Michael could be gone before me. In addition, we struggled with my mother, who was unable to understand why Michael’s cancer was any different from hers which had proved eminently survivable. Ultimately we moved her into assisted living as the demands of dealing with Michael’s disease along with those of a baby and an elderly person got too unmanageable for me. The first year after diagnosis it appeared that Michael’s cancer may have been caught early enough for him to survive. But in November 2013, a scan showed widespread metastatic cancer. We’d sent Gabriel off to daycare that August. My daughter was pregnant with her second son. Michael’s prognosis was 2-3 months, absent treatment, and perhaps a year with chemotherapy. We were all devastated. One of our most intense issues was trying to protect Gabriel who was about my son’s age when my father died. We were terribly worried about him and were also afraid that Michael wouldn’t meet his next grandchild.
He and I would lie together at night, clutching each other and talking about the impossible future. Both of us wanted to help all the children, even as we bent under the weight of the knowledge that the long life we’d hoped for wasn’t going to happen. The parallel with my father’s fate wasn’t lost on us. When things felt too dark he would often say, “ when things get bad for me, bring me Gabriel’s duck to hold. It’ll make me feel better.”
We rode the cancer rollercoaster for the next few years. Michael lived to see Tristan’s arrival in the world. His health ebbed and flowed but in the good times, he and Gabriel spent lots of time together and had great fun. Gabriel got old enough to talk about Michael’s illness and to understand more. When he was at our home, he frequently sat on Michael’s lap with the duck, playing with his grandpa’s pocket watch which fascinated him with its bright red light that he could flash on and off. Little Tristan seemed unaware of what was happening – at least we hoped so.
Michael outlived his prognosis, but he was seriously ill in 2015. In April of that year, my older brother died. Michael was hovering at the edge of death when we suddenly acquired an immunological drug off-trial that pulled him back from the brink. He was still very weak when my mother fell and broke her hip, dying shortly thereafter in July, 2015. Two powerfully impacting deaths in so short a time. I was thinking back to 1989, the year my father died at only 67, with 2 deaths preceding his. Michael was the next in line. He was 65 in 2015. I realized how foolish I’d been to believe that my dad had enough life. He’d missed so many marvelous experiences, ones that my mother enjoyed without him, although she missed him, always. I knew Michael would miss so much too.
His comeback lasted for over a year. But in January, 2017, the impossible Merkel cell reared its head again and this time, almost 5 years after diagnosis, I knew we were at the end.
By this time, Gabriel was approaching his 7th birthday. He was keenly aware of the decline in Michael’s abilities to share experiences with him. He would say things like, “there go my bike-riding lessons, there goes my swimming.” In the midst of my own pain, I was frantically trying to think of a way to help him.
As Michael’s disease progressed, he wanted to spend time with our grandkids but sometimes their energy level overwhelmed him and he would be verbally snappy. We talked about it and he was able to understand that he didn’t want to leave a negative impression with the boys at the end of his life. One afternoon he apologized to Gabriel and wept. Gabriel’s unforgettable response was, “ I know you didn’t mean it, grandpa. The cancer corrupted your brain.” Just like his mother.
As I grappled with my own pain, my children’s pain, I saw the similarity in the effects of Michael’s decline on our two grandsons that I’d seen when our kids were the little grandchildren. Gabriel was like my wise little daughter and young Tristan was like my too young son.
I talked with Michael about doing something for Gabriel while he was still alive. We agreed that giving him the pocket watch would be the best thing to do. Michael was a little confused but managed to pull off handing a gift bag to Gabriel containing his coveted red flashing watch. Gabriel said, “I never expected this -it’s making a memory. Such a profound moment.
When the end was coming close, I gave Michael the duck he’d asked for years before when we discussed his death. He held it while he slept just as he had during the after school naps.