Better, Worse, Sickness, Health

by Laura

DCP_0212For years, I had carted around a clipping file; magazine tear sheets of everything I loved and hoped for in a house. So when it came time to build The Last One, we set it all down on paper, handed it to our builder, and got an estimate. Then we started to cull the list. No… you can’ have everything, although it’s fun to dream.

We finalised our plans, and broke ground.That Summer, as time dragged on, we all looked for things to do. Diane was working and
preparing to go back to University. I had re-engaged in the music program at church, directing choir, singing, playing piano. Rick decided to drag out the old sax, warm up his chops, and play with a community band.

He was rustier than he thought. We went to the music store and got softer reeds, but he was still having some difficulty with his emboucher. Of course, it had been :mumblemumble: years, and he was out of practice; but his breath control was a bit off.  Odd.

Old age, we kidded him. Out of shape. Too much stress, too much crazy in the last eighteen months.

September rolled around and we closed on The Last House. Got the stuff we hadn’t seen in, got the things I had inherited from Mom and Dad out of storage, and started decorating. In odd moments, I still looked for Charlotte McManus, but even with better internet, and better databases, I still came up empty. I even contacted Catholic Charities in Chicago, but it was going to be costly and time-consuming. Illinois was still a closed state for adoption records. Back on the back burner.

Christmas rolled around and we noticed that Rick was beginning to have a bit of difficulty speaking. It was especially noticeable on the phone. He began having trouble chewing and swallowing; he seemed to bite his tongue fairly frequently. By February, the speech issue was very noticeable. Enough so, he had his co-pilots do any radio calls for him on especially bad days. He wasn’t ill, exactly; he had no other symptoms. Just this thing with his mouth.

He had no trouble passing his semi-annual flight physicals. But I insisted we see a doctor.  So we did. Lots of tests, lots of guesses, lots of rabbit trails, more tests… no answers. We were referred to Dr Larry Goldstick, a neurologist who had done his residency at the Cleveland Clinic. By now, I was trawling the internet, and I thought, perhaps, I had found something. After one of Rick’s appointments, in May of 2003, I asked Dr Goldstick. His startled response, “God, I hope not!”

So off we go to The Cleveland Clinic for some more tests and evaluations. Nothing definitive.

Eventually, Rick was grounded because of his speech issues. Yet the rest of him seemed fine.  He still continued to pass all his flight physicals. Strange.

We gave him a Surprise Party for his 50th Birthday. Diane graduated, with honours, November, 2004.  Next February, she moved to China to prepare herself for graduate school.  But before she left, Rick took The Girls for a ride. It was the last time he flew. In April, he, with Julie’s help, gave me a party for MY 50th Birthday. A week later, his neck muscles gave out.

I called Diane in China and she came home. I called the Doctors who called Hospice. And, finally, we had a diagnosis:  Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. ALS. Lou Gehrig’s Disease. You know, the Ice Bucket Challenge. ALS is a hard thing to diagnose. It takes a specialist doctor who can read the symptoms; both upper and lower motor neuron involvement with three areas of the body affected. None of that had happened until April, when Rick’s neck muscles failed to hold his head up, and his left hand began to weaken. He looked and acted as if nothing was wrong. He just couldn’t talk, eat, swallow. Until that April.

In May, Julie discovered she was pregnant. Rick’s response? “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes; blessed be the Name of the Lord!” We did a lot as a family during May and June. We learnt not to squander time.

One glad morning when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away…
And he did.  Quietly, peacefully.  20 June 2005.

When Rick and I married, back in 1976, we repeated our vows like almost every other married couple does: “…to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part.” In the 28+ years we were together, I learnt what those words meant. I learnt that, on my wedding day, I was vowing better, richer, healthier…with death about a hundred years off. In the time that Rick was sick, I learnt the rest of it; the heart and the soul of those vows…that it wasn’t just, only, all about me; it was worse, poorer, sickness, and death, up close and personal. It was about him. About us. Together.

We had a Memorial Service a week later. In December, our first Grandson was born, safe and healthy. As I did with both of my Daughters, I looked for myself in him; his face, his hands, his burgeoning personality. Life continued. The heat under my back burner slowly rose as I measured my losses and grieved anew.

And my questions began to bubble to the surface.