Just when I think I’m going to proceed smoothly, step by step through Michael’s orphan cancer story, I screech to a halt and am unable to string any words together. At this moment in time, I have two friends who are caught in cancer world. One has been in hospice for about five months. She is waning into the inexorable end of life that awaits when treatment options run out or fail. The other friend has been rudely jolted out of a lengthy remission and is now preparing for part two of an aggressive intervention which began last week. I reach out to their families and make myself available in whatever capacity I might fill, if only as a listener who can hear what goes along with these painful times, the profound emotions and the helpless feelings which afflict those who walk this road with their loved ones. I can do that.
But when I sit down to read my journals, emails and notes for my next chapter about Michael, I can’t do anything. I know it’s my PTSD, the dramatic internal response to the years of erosion I experienced during the rollercoaster of cancer treatment. Just last night, I was listening to a news report that ￼announced the great news that cancer deaths are down in this country, particularly in melanoma and lung cancer patients. All that really means is that the introduction of targeted immunotherapy drugs is prolonging life for some patients. It’s misleading. Michael lived for awhile longer with one of those drugs than he would have without it. I’m grateful for that. But he wasn’t cured. I need to step away for a bit. Despite being in two and a half years down the road, I still need to take a cancer break.
So I’m going to write about other things today. I don’t know about you but I always feel like I’m behind. Behind, pulled in too many directions, too much to do. I also feel pressured to get things done as fast as I can, because after getting used to the knowledge that untimely death is real, I know every day could be your last. I’ve scratched a lot of items off my to-do lists but there are big jobs just sitting there staring at me. I decided the time had come to hit my closet that’s still full of clothes I no longer need or want. Time to sort things out, eliminate and brutally assess what used to belong but doesn’t any more. I reached all the way to the back and pulled out the first item, a zipped bag. I had a pretty fair idea that it contained my wedding dress, put away when I was a twenty four year old kid. ￼
Before my wedding, I’d been living with Michael for years. We were taking our time, getting to know each other, making sure that if we made this move, we’d do it right and stay together forever. We were also practical – we needed a decent vehicle and figured that wedding money would go a long way toward acquiring one. So we decided to do a streamlined ceremony, just family, few frills, maybe register for a few pots and dishes, and spread the word that we were looking for cash. We weren’t totally crass, just down to earth. After considering everything, buying some ridiculously expensive dress that I’d wear once seemed pretty absurd. White was out too. There was a moderately upscale fashion boutique in our local mall called Brooks. I decided to take a look at the evening/party-ish styles they had in a small section at the back of the store. And there was this dress. It was cream-colored with painted blue flowers. I thought it looked romantically Victorian, with a high collar and a plunging bodice which laced up with a satin ribbon. The sleeves and skirt were sheer with delicate designs at the cuffs. It had major swirl. It was perfect for me and I scrounged up the fifty dollar price. The dress was actually the favorite part of my wedding day, aside from marrying Michael. His family and mine were like oil and water and I most particularly detested his old-monied grandmother who considered herself superior to virtually everyone. I carried lots of sour memories from that day. But we were able to get the money we needed to purchase our new vehicle. We had the ceremony and a dinner, went back home and later, had a big bash with our friends. Then I zipped the dress away. I didn’t know anything about preserving such a fragile item but I did put it in a dark bag thinking that maybe one day I’d pass it on to my daughter. That ship sailed. My daughter was eight inches taller than me and not close to appreciating the type of style that was most attractive to me.
When I unzipped that bag, I hadn’t seen the dress in forty three years. I was prepared for seeing a moth-eaten, shredded moldy-looking thing. Imagine my surprise when I pulled it out and found it in pristine condition, looking exactly the same as it did the day I put it away. I spread it out on my bed so I could examine it for awhile and remember everything, feeling all the feels. I figured I would take a few photos of it and then bag it up with the other items next in line for discarding, still lurking at the back of the closet. But as I straightened it out, setting it up to get the best pictures, I felt myself getting more and more attached to it.
I was thinking about how irrational I was being. I have two grandsons. There’s no likely legacy for this dress that I can even begin to imagine. Still, even after taking the photos, the dress stayed on the bed.
I decided to take a break and tackle the next task, the last drawer in my four drawer file cabinet. That was another overdue task – I’d managed to thin out three of those drawers and thought the last one was nothing but empty hanging folders. Surprise, surprise. When I pulled it open, I found a big bunch of files which I couldn’t recall having put there. And I hadn’t. Evidently, Michael had decided to appropriate some of my space with his “unable to let go” stuff. I pulled out a bunch of them and brought them into my bedroom, sat down carefully next to my wedding dress and began sifting through these unexpected treasures. Michael, the gift that keeps on giving.
I found newspaper articles dating back to his days at the Record Service. I found all the mock-ups of his city council literature that he designed for his campaigns for alderman. I found all his statements of economic interest that he was required to file during his twenty years as a public official. I’d forgotten that he served on the cable commission for our city when cable was first a “thing.” I did remember the plan commission and the food bank board. But then there was the Campustown 2000 task force. Decades of public service.
There were legal opinions for when he worried that his votes might be construed as conflicts of interest because I worked in a government office. There were funny notes between the beleaguered Republican mayor and Michael over the crazy behavior of the one Republican alderman on our city council. An entertaining folder was that which contained all his hilarious satirical letters to people who annoyed him, on both personal and political levels. But the best discoveries were photographs and contact sheets that were set aside, maybe for sorting in his free time which never came.
After he left the music business to become a teacher, the years were so packed with his joy at finding his vocation that these files never again crossed his mind. So now I had a new project, sifting and sorting through these treasures, a new poignant and sweet assignment. My wedding dress hung on a rod in front of me so I could look at it for a time. Then I zipped it away again and put it back in my closet.
Next, I turned my attention to the music. In the fall of 2016, I’d finally prevailed upon Michael to sell our massive collection of vinyl and CD’s. Although I listened avidly to lots of it, I wasn’t close to being an expert on the value of everything he’d accumulated after 27 years in the record business. His knowledge was encyclopedic and was infinitely more sophisticated than me in terms of what it was all worth. During the years when he was in school picking up all the education classes he needed to teach, he’d sold some of his collectibles on Ebay. We’d also had music garage sales to supplement our income during that time when he was an income-less student at age 50. All I could think of was how ill-prepared I’d be to sell those 7500 items during the grief I knew would follow his death. So to make things easier for me, he unloaded almost everything. Note the almost. He was always fooling around with his computer, burning CD’s of one sort or other. The truth is, I didn’t pay much attention to his music projects, although he mentioned lots of ideas he wanted to make real. I remember one on his list to make a collection which included every song with a single woman’s name as its title. I’d usually just roll my eyes at that stuff.
When he died, I spent a long time sorting through what he hadn’t sold. I found all kinds of collections he was assembling at the same time he’d been getting rid of the bulk of the music. I laughed when I saw how many covers he’d found of “Who Do You Love?” and “Mona.” Those were high priorities on his list of things to do. Music going out the front door and coming in the back one.
Sorting out and eliminating the accumulation of all this stuff takes a long time. I know that there are certain things I’m never going to part with because I simply can’t. Looking at them, seeing Michael’s art work evolution on his CD’s, marveling at his consistency in humor and musical growth is too precious. I still haven’t looked thoroughly at everything, and listening to what he left behind could take more years than I have left. One thing is certain. Michael left me a lot of life. Immersing myself in it is like being wrapped in a comfy blanket. I’ll get back to the cancer story eventually. I still think it would honor Michael and benefit people who might face the same life-changing situation that was thrust upon us. One day soon, I hope…￼