5/26: Happy birthday baby, I miss you so much.

5/27: Happy Memorial Day. Thank you for serving and for being there for our country. I miss our weekends when we did Rolling Thunder. They were so much fun riding there and back…many funny stories and foibles to be had when you take the backroads on Harleys even from Boston to DC. We laughed so much about the memories only we shared. They were the craziest of times…and we did the craziest of things on those trips…so much fun in just a few days. I can only imagine the fun we would have had if we had been able to make the cross country trip we planned.

But Rolling Thunder itself was very solemn and I will never forget your face as other Vietnam Vets said, “Welcome Home, brother.” They were only a few of the times I saw tears in your eyes. It’s an experience I’ll never forget. You all deserved welcomes you did not get and our country has learned from the injustice done to you all. So I thank you for sharing Rolling Thunder with me and allowing me to see one of the few areas where you were truly vulnerable.

The 2013 Get M.A.D. at Brain Cancer NBTS NYC Fund Raiser

Other than Rolling Thunder and the night our dog died, one of the only other times I saw Michael’s eyes fill with tears, was not when HE was told he had cancer, but when he saw the children in the cancer treatment center. While I was busy navel gazing and trying to not be hysterical over the thought of losing him (I was screaming inside while paying attention to him on the outside), he drew my attention to the plight of children with cancer which is why I continue to fight the fight he would never win.

I will never forget his sad face as he looked at the kids and whispered to me, “I’ve lived my life, they should be out playing.” Although I wanted to scream at him that he was only 56, and he was leaving me, and what the hell????, I just smiled at him and nodded in agreement.

His favorite thing in the world was bass fishing. He was severely ADHD and told me that fishing had a calming effect on him and that his thoughts were not racing a mile a minute when he was fishing.

He was a tournament fisherman at one point and a fishing instructor for people new to tournament fishing. He only fished catch and release, which made no sense to me. I used to call it “looking at fish.” I said, “So you pull this thing out of the water and look at it and throw it back in.” He said, No, you also have to kiss the fish. I said, “WHAT? KISS the fish?” He said yes, it was good luck and a ‘kiss goodbye’ as well as offering a mark of respect to the fish and a thank you for the sport (I think that was some Italian thing with him).

Michael said he also kissed the fish to apologize for catching it with a hook and speed its healing (like a Mommy kisses a boo boo). I said that was THE stupidest thing I ever heard especially since most Moms do not hook their children for sport (though sometimes it seems like a good idea.) I said that maybe instead of apologizing for catching the fish, you just don’t catch it. Of course, to him that was the most ridiculous thing HE ever heard. But our kids, who regularly fished with him, said he did, indeed, kiss the fish.

I made up many of my own jokes about this crazy bass fishing hobby of his, which he loved. I also told him, at some point after I’d heard it, the Mitch Hedberg joke about catch and release fishing (I believe I heard years after we met and I added it to my repertoire one day…Mitch said catch and release fishermen don’t want to kill the fish, just want to make it late for something.) I said, since he fished a lot on Sunday, that he was making fish late for church, christenings, family bar-b-ques, birthday parties. And he would say that was okay because then they were able to show up to the event with a great story to tell. Sometimes it was a horror story and other times it was a fascinating adventure.

He believed he had much to contribute to the world of fish entertainment at fish birthday parties and was doing a favor to the shy fish who may have gotten caught on the end of his line. He imagined this encounter catapulted the fish to fame among his friends. I suggested that perhaps his friends thought him crazy or lying and he would be ostracized for it. He said it was not his fault if the fish were bad at choosing friends.

Sometimes I would ask, “What did you make the fish late for today?” Once he told me that it was breakfast brunch, buffet style, and by the time one of his caught and released fish got there they were all out of baked beans (a Boston fish for sure). Mrs. “Caught and Released and Late for the Breakfast Buffet” Fish would normally be angry that he was late, but this time was relieved as they had a formal dinner with her boss and his wife that evening and she did not want Mr. “Caught and Released” to embarrass her with any smelly behavior. I said he could learn a thing or two from that fish.

Yes, we had great, utterly inane conversations that we both loved and could feed off each other’s silliness for hours. It actually started with fishing on one of our first dates when he told me how he loved to fish and I quoted comedian Steven Wright who said, “There is fine line between fishing and standing on the shore looking like an idiot.” Someone else may have been insulted. He just shared his greatest passion and she insults him with a Steven Wright joke. Not Michael. He merely grinned and proclaimed proudly, “I have a boat!” I knew then, we were a match. Not sure how great a match we were, but I knew we were definitely a match. And he knew it too. Turns out, as little as we had in common, we were a match times a million. A one-of-a-kind match.

We regularly engaged like this with each other and everyone else. Pity those who managed to be the target of both of us…usually our kids. One complained about not being informed about things we talked about regularly and, on the spot, we made up the family newsletter and how and when it was delivered and perhaps you should read it. Our pat answer to “Why doesn’t anyone tell me these things?” was “It was in the newsletter.”

The kids were not amused. We were.

But mostly we made great fun of each other’s hobbies and interests and things where we were completely different. I could (and will) spend 6 hours at dinner with a friend. If Michael lasted 20 minutes, it was some sort of record. But he loved to eat and he loved to eat out so he regularly ordered his appetizers and meal to come together. I said he had a buffet no matter what restaurant we ever went into…but in buffet restaurants there was no way he wasn’t getting his money’s worth. And he would not waste his time with things like salad. He came to eat, not to graze. Michael’s favorite buffet items were seafood so I asked him once if the fish he made late for buffets had seafood on their buffets and he said, “I fish on lakes, hon. Where are the fish going to get SEAfood from?” He also could not see a bass trying to eat a lobster correctly.

Not enough thumbs.

Or fingers for that matter.

And the butter tended to float away.

. . .

After teasing him about his most valued hobby very early on, I spent the next 15 years making fun of looking at fish and how manly it was to chase this thing around that has the IQ of ketchup with all this electronic equipment and other gadgets and trickery (there is actually a product that you put on your hands so that whatever you touch doesn’t leave a “human scent” on your fishing apparatus) and be so proud when you caught aforementioned dumb-ass creature. He said there was an art to catching small mouth bass (I said, why because they have small mouths? Why not just try to catch the by tail? His eye roll told me me everything I needed to know.)

Though I know nothing about bass fishing, I had a tendency to believe him. He was so analytical and was a master at pool and chess. There had to be something to the challenge, otherwise it would not interest him at all, let alone , but not anything I was interested in no matter how challenging it was. I never fished with him but took a ride, at least once, on the boat. Still, that did not stop him from asking, rather sarcastically, and very early, and almost every week, if I wanted to join him.

He would be leaving at some ungodly hour of the morning on Saturday or Sunday (like 5:30 a.m.) and shout into the bedrooms, “Off to look at fish hon, are you sure you don’t want to join me?” And I would promptly throw a pillow at the door. He slammed it shut before the pillow ever reached him.

He was still in the hospital when we had our first radiation consultation. With brain cancer, you have to be fitted with a special cap to protect the “healthy” part of the brain. So I met him on that morning and went down to the radiation unit and was surprised, as we rounded the corner, to see his face light up.

The reason for his brightened face, was that he saw a ginormous fish tank filled with very unusual fish and lots of great fish tank props. Because his brain did not always function properly, I was always afraid he would try to fish in it (no, he never got so bad and tended to be most alert when we were there for treatment though unsteady on his feet and confused about the doors, which were confusing to someone NOT battling the neurological effects brain cancer combined with the debilitating “chemo fog” and “radiation memory” that all cancer patients experience).

There were two waiting areas in the oncology unit. The first area was where you signed in if you were outpatient and then they would bring you into the second area, where usually only patients went. I was allowed to go with Michael because he had a tendency to wander if I didn’t. Then he would become utterly confused and be somewhere in the hospital looking perfectly normal, like a man in his mid-50s, but about as confused as one could be so others had no idea what his problem was. After one episode of this, I accompanied him into the patient’s waiting area every time.

Inside the patient waiting area, the fish tank was a huge thing that separated the waiting area from the treatment area. The nurses tended to park the kids whether in a hospital bed or wheelchair or walking, in front of the tank on either side.

The presence of the tank and the kids would snap Michael into clarity no matter how confused or out of it he had been that morning or that week. While waiting his turn, Michael would sidle up to the tank and ask the kids if they wanted to hear about fishing and he would show them the fish in the big tank of the radiation unit and tell them stories about bass fishing and making them laugh with “You have to kiss the fish.” before you put it back in the lake.

And he would mimic how you unhook them, kiss them on the head and put them in the water and watch them swim away. He told them of the days he was sure he was just catching the same fish over and over again. The older ones thought that was hilarious. I had heard the story many times before but I always maintained (and this was before I went to law school) that the particular fish in question had grounds for a restraining order. Michael said he was equally unhappy about catching the same fish over and over again. But the kids thought it hilarious. And I loved watching him make them laugh. The nurses would look away when the kids tried to kiss the glass of the fish tank but sometimes a particularly grumpy nurse would be on and tell them not to do that. But usually the kids would be laughing at his stories and how he would assign different fish in the tank names and personalities.

I sometimes had to turn away so he didn’t see my tears. While he was either being treated or entertaining the kids one day, a young mother sat down next to me, took my hand and said, “Your husband has been so helpful to me, he convinced me to have brain surgery (her tumor was small and operable) and I was so scared and he told me there is nothing to it.” Since he was in a coma when they did his brain biopsy, he had not present for the decision nor did he remember the before or after. He didn’t really lie to her as, for him, there WAS nothing to it. He was in a coma when the decision was made to biopsy his brain and in a coma for a while after it was done. She was a young, single mom and they thought they were able to remove the tumor and the cancer cells around it, so she had a very good prognosis for at least a few years.

She said how he looked her in the eyes with such compassionate and warmth, that she believed him, whereas she had not believed anyone else. I knew that look. He didn’t give it to many people, but I knew those brown eyes and how they could penetrate your soul. “She has 5 kids,” Michael told me. “She can’t leave those kids so young.” It was always about others. He never asked “What about me? I want to see my daughter graduate high school! I want to see my grandchildren grow! I want to go to Italy again! I want to retire and ride my Harley across the country and stop at every lake I can find and look at fish!” which would have been what I was screaming about (except for the fish part.) I almost took him back to Italy but the doctors talked me out of it in case something happened while he was there, it would have been a nightmare, both logistically and financially, to get him back to the U.S. His aunt had died in Portugal and he was her only living relative and he told me about the expense and nightmare of getting her body back home. The type of money they were talking about, I didn’t have. And I couldn’t leave all the kids at home so I would have to fly them out if anything happened to him over there.

On the grounds of the hospital was a prison and any prisoner who had cancer was brought up to the hospital to be treated. They were in orange jumpsuits and handcuffs and accompanied by two NY state troopers and were kept on the other end of the waiting room, away from the other patients who usually ignored them. Michael did not. He would turn to the prisoner and say, “How are you doing?” and the prisoner would usually smile and say “Okay, how about you?” I asked him about this. He said, they don’t have anyone in their family there and the rest of the patients ignore them as if they are not there. “He has cancer,” Michael would say, “That doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist.”

Even at home, he would be exhausted from the ride (over an hour each way) and the treatment and I would put him on the couch, cover him with blankets, turn on the television and get him something easy to eat like soup and crackers. The cats would jump up on the back of the couch and keep him company while he ate and watched television. One day he turned to me and said, “I bet that guy in the jump suit isn’t getting this right now.” I said you have NO idea what kind of heinous crime he was convicted of…and he said it didn’t matter. He figured it was not child molestation because they allowed him in at the same time the kids came in and he wasn’t shackled so it probably wasn’t terribly violent (when he was sharp, he was sharp as a tack, I never thought of that).

But as Nelson Henderson said, “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

In those rainy October days in the radiation unit, he planted in me, the pledge to fight against brain tumors and brain cancer and childhood cancer for the rest of my life. And maybe one day some of those kids will grow up and remember the silly man who told them stories about kissing the fish and letting it go. Or perhaps the young mother beat her cancer and told them about Michael. I can only hope the children afflicted by brain cancer and the young mother’s kids get to sit in that shade.

And enjoy the tree.

Long after I’m gone.

Long after they find a cure for this dreadful and horrible disease which took one of the most delightful and wonderful people I’ve ever known from me and others I hope that people get to sit in the shade of the tree we’re trying to plant by raising money for the research, treatment and cure of brain cancer.

Michael is gone, and nothing will bring him back, but brain cancer is so difficult to treat because of its proximity to healthy brain cells which control all of your mind and body functions. There are over 120 different types of brain tumors that have been identified and each one responds to treatment differently, and, depending on the location, the person and how early or late it is caught, responds differently to treatment. Brain cancer is completely indiscriminate when it comes to age, race, and station in life. But it is a leading cause of childhood death and while there has been no direct link between Vietnam vets and manufacturing jobs (Michael was a blue collar machinist), there seems to be a high incidence among those groups. And, as we all well know, both blue collar and Vietnam Vets (& Vietnam Vets who came home from the war were often unable to get anything but blue collar or civil service jobs). I don’t care if they ever find the link, I just want them to end it…for other families, for young mothers and for children and for families blessed with a wonderful family member who puts the family first. Those are the people who need to STAY HERE on Earth and, as Michael did, plant trees, but unlike Michael, survive long enough to sit in the shade of those trees.

SO Please join me in my fight against brain tumors, brain cancer and childhood cancer.

The 2013 Get M.A.D. at Brain Cancer NBTS NYC Fund Raiser