Nostalgia, Pt. 1

Kim and I were introduced to each other by a mutual friend, Mary Dolans, as I was working, stocking the shelves at Andrews Drugs near the end of my college days. Mary was a cashier there, a cute little thing who reminded me of Elizabeth Montgomery. Mary had been telling me about this friend of hers who she thought I’d really like.

Our first meeting was a very brief “Hey, Pat! I want you to meet Kim!” while I was at work at Andrews Drugs. We said hello, maybe a few words (I don’t recall precisely), and then went on our own ways. A short time later, Mary approached me and asked if I would be interested in going out on a blind date with Kim, accompanied by Mary and her husband, Denny. Just dinner and some drinks at the Livonia Chi-Chi’s. I said “Sure! Why not?”

2 March 1988. Some of the details remain a bit foggy – I don’t recall if I met them at Kim’s house, or if we drove there together. I think we drove together because I have a vivid memory of Denny turning to me and saying “Well? Are you ready to meet the mother of your children?” and seem to remember this as him turning around in the front seat to do so – but that’s a very old memory. I do recall meeting Kim’s dad that night – a muscular construction worker – intimidating, to say the least. And prone to tease. My first impression of her home was of a fire in the fireplace, a wood-burning stove in the kitchen, and hunting trophies on the wall. It was a bit uncomfortable being the guy in that house coming to take his youngest daughter – Monster, he called her – out on a date! I remember her hair and the way it curled and feathered back at her ears. She really was beautiful.

We went to Chi-Chi’s and, while making small talk in the bar area while we awaited our table, I asked Kim “Why pharmacy?” and she immediately shot back “Why engineering?” Seems like that would not have been the best start to a relationship, but… Frankly, I don’t remember Mary and Denny being there at all at that point – I guess my attention was so keenly focused on this lovely girl that all memory of any conversation with them has faded away. I remember Kim’s drink being a frozen strawberry margarita; mine likely beer, though I don’t recall – I explicitly recall the strawberry margarita, though.

There was a lot going on in my senior year at Lawrence Tech – one of which was scrambling to sit for the PE-EIT exam the university had forgotten to notify several of us of, but the taking of which was required to graduate. All local seats for the test were filled by the time we realized it was time to register. My friend, Pete Lewellyn, and I found an opportunity to take it in Waukesha, Wisconsin – better to drive 400 miles for the test than have to wait another year to graduate. This was more than three weeks after Kim’s and my first date. And it was the night we arrived for the test that I finally decided to call Kim for a second date. She told me then, and several times afterward that she thought she would never hear from me again. Her friends all said that “If a guy doesn’t call within two weeks, he’s not interested.” Well, we proved that one wrong.

We dated steadily for many months. After her classes finished at Wayne State, she would sometimes pop into the robotics lab at LIT where I was proctor and we would run up the road to have lunch at Shield’s – a great Detroit pizzeria and our favorite at the time. I remember the dressing from the leftover antipasto salad dripping out of its container into the carpet of the car on the way back to the school. I don’t remember whether it was my car or hers, though. Probably mine. I recall that whichever it was smelled of vinaigrette for some time afterward.

She was my date at the LIT honors convocation and, after some prodding, nervously stood when the call came out for significant others to stand and be recognized for supporting their newly-minted engineers through the rigors of our education. Afterward, she told me “I really didn’t know you long enough for that!” – we’d only been dating a couple of months. But she was the prettiest one standing. 14 years later, she’d stand again for an honor I received with my second master’s degree, and the same was true.

We had matching Ford EXPs when we met – both silver, though mine was an ’85 and, if I recall correctly, hers was an ’82. We liked the same kind of movies, and had similar, if not exactly the same, taste in music (I couldn’t stand George Michael or Wham, though…). Our favorite date was to just jump in the car, hold hands and talk as we drove all over God’s creation. I ran that poor old EXP into the ground, putting miles on it as we drove around metro Detroit and beyond. I recall going to Hines Park one steamy summer evening and parking by the river to look at the fireflies. There were so many of them along the water’s edge that you’d swear they were Christmas decorations. Tap-tap-tap – a friendly police officer telling us to move it along: the park was closed at that hour…

She interned on the afternoon shift at Garden City Osteopathic Hospital. Whenever we could, we’d have her mom drop her at work, and I would pick her up afterward and drive her home. Our favorite thing to do was to stop at the Taco Bell on Lilley and Main in Plymouth – I’d get a couple of spicy bean burritos, and she was usually a Burrito Supreme or a Nachos Bell Grande. We’d have our snack and some conversation, and then I’d take her home. Sometimes we’d just go to her home and sit in front of the ever-present fire in their fireplace and hold each other and talk.

I recall one of the jobs I interviewed for in my senior year was with TI Missile Systems based in Texas. Boy! I wanted that job! Kim later told me that she was terrified that I would get that job and that I would fly off to Texas. I guess she realized she loved me before either of us admitted it to the other. I know I told her first. We had just returned from somewhere – a date, or a drive; I don’t recall. As we were getting ready to leave the car, parked in the street in front of her house, I just turned to her and, said in French “Je t’aime!” She asked me what that meant, and I told her. I only remember her smile. It became her favorite phrase.

We had little picnics in Hines Park and spent at least one weekend day each week in the summer at her parent’s lake lot enjoying the water whenever we could. Movies with her brother Nick and his wife, Chris; and her sister Rhonda and her husband, Geoff. Runs for frozen yogurt at a local shop.

One of my fondest memories was running to Frankenmuth in her mom & dad’s motorhome and stopping at Birch Run on the way back. It was Kim’s mom and dad, Nick and Chris, and, if I recall correctly, Chris’s daughter, Brianne. I remember parking the camper WAY in the back of the parking lot and walking quite a distance to the restaurant. Inside, seated for dinner, the plate of chicken would be passed around, and by the time it got to me, I was dismayed to see so little left! What was happening? The wait staff would come with more, and I DEFINITELY got my fill, but I wondered at how much chicken this family could eat! It wasn’t until afterward that they let me in on the secret of the Zip-Loc bags in their purses. It was that little kookiness (and the Cherry Fudge Incident) that burned that trip into my memory.

Ah, the cherry fudge. Nick has a sweet tooth as big as they come. At Birch Run, there were a couple of fudge shops – including a branch of the famous Mackinaw Fudge Company. Nick bought a pretty sizable piece of cherry fudge. It was awful – way too sweet, with a rather cloying, medicinal cherry flavor. Ugh! All the way home he kept offering a piece of cherry fudge to Kim and me, who, after that first taste, quickly declined. He would say “This is really awful…” and then eat some more. It was gone by the time we made it home. (I recall going a second time after we were married, where I was both better prepared for the mystery of the disappearing chicken, and I bought a wool-lined jeans jacket at the Levi outlet – a jacket my youngest son is wearing today. There was no cherry fudge this time, though…)

I remember a trip beginning after midnight, when Kim got off of work, with her brother, Nick, and his wife, Chris, to Hubbard Lake, where Kim’s mom and dad were with their camper…

If I sit here long enough, there is a flood of little memories that will surface and I could write here all day.

Sigh. Maybe a couple more memories. I’m not sure if this is cathartic or deepening my grief, but they come rolling out, one after another, once I start.

I remember the day I proposed to her. We had picked out rings for her months before and I had them on a payment plan. I was working overtime on a Saturday, and we were to go to one of Kim’s friend’s weddings that night. I had determined that I had enough free cash to pay for Kim’s ring, so, instead of rushing over to her house, I went to the LeRoy’s Jewelers at Twelve Oaks Mall and paid the ring off. When I finally got to Kim’s house, she was steaming mad that I was so late, worrying that something had happened to me. That all melted as I dropped to one knee and gave her my explanation. What a great memory! I wish I could remember the date. I recall having come across the receipt from paying it off recently; I just don’t remember where.

To be continued.

And so it begins…

The date is 18 April 2020. Kim isn’t feeling right, and hadn’t been for at least a month. But COVID. She didn’t want to bother her doctor with what she thought was an ulcer. 18 April 2020. Kim is just so uncomfortable. She finally calls our family doctor and explains her symptoms. Suspecting a bowel blockage, he advises her to go to the hospital to get checked out. But COVID.

My daughter being a critical care nurse already dealing with COVID patients, we figured she’d have the best chance of being allowed to accompany Kim to the emergency room, so she took Kim instead of me. No dice, though – she isn’t allowed to accompany her into the hospital. Kim is admitted, all kinds of tests, a CAT scan… A text hits my phone from Kim: they think it’s cancer.

18 April 2020. When she is admitted and is brought to her room, she calls me. “I have cancer,” her voice came across the ether with a pleading note. I’m dumbstruck. “They think it’s pancreatic.” I’m devastated. My beautiful wife – my life partner – has just received what amounts to a death sentence, and I’m 30 miles away. Because of COVID.

18 April 2020. I pray – I beg God – that it is not pancreatic cancer. I can see her test results through the patient portal. A tumor marker – Antigen 19-9 – is over two hundred times higher than what is considered high baseline. It is definitely cancer, and, because 19-9 is its harbinger, it’s pancreatic.

They keep Kim over the weekend to get her electrolytes back in order. We have several Facetime visits – it’s the best we could do because COVID mandates disallow any visitors. Since I know the Ring doorbell buzzes her phone every time someone moves on the porch, the kids and I take a second at the door to tell her we love her before continuing in or out – just in case she peeks in on the app.

And then, on Tuesday, the consult – via Facetime – with the hospital oncologist. It’s definitely pancreatic, and it has spread to her liver. As is typical with that ugly disease, it has metastisized before presenting any symptoms. The doctor describes the standard of care, which is predominantly chemotherapy to extend life. Life expectancy was cited as 3-6 months without treatment; 11 months with.

We got about seven and a half.

They discharged Kim on Wednesday. I picked her up, and we drove home. Oddly, I cannot remember anything from that trip besides her being brought to the car in a wheelchair, and everyone wearing masks.

We consult with two other oncologists – one suggested by our doctor, and one treating a friend’s aunt for pancreatic cancer over the past seven years. Both say pretty much the same thing the hospital oncologist did. There were also no first-line trials active and open at the time. We decided to stay with the oncology department of the hospital who initially saw Kim.

Due to COVID, there was a long delay in getting a port and starting chemotherapy, too. After what seemed an eternity, they finally put the port in 8 May, and she had her first chemotherapy session at the hospital – their local cancer clinic was closed (you guessed it!) due to COVID – on the 11th. She had opted to pursue the more aggressive therapy for pancreatic cancer – Folfirinox. Chemo every other week.

Kim actually did very well on this regimen. She was a bit wiped out on day 3, after the take-home pump was removed, but only got physically sick from it after her first treatment – this likely having more to do with the half hour drive, as she was always prone to carsickness.

God didn’t forsake us, either. Despite not granting me the miracle I constantly prayed for with “Garden of Gethsemane” fervor, he did arrange things to make this ordeal easier on us than it could have been.

I had spent the majority of our 30 years together on the road for my employer, Ford Motor Company, launching vehicle body production systems in far flung plants. Even when I lucked into an assignment at one of our local plants, it still meant 12-14 hour days pretty much seven days a week – I had just finished one of those in January when my employer decided it was high time I “flew a desk” and headed up a section of engineers in the home office.

Then, due to COVID, my work had been moved from the office 20 miles away to a workstation in my family room. I was home 100% of the time, and able to give Kim whatever care she required. Many meetings were held using my iPhone and my Surface behind the wheel of my pickup truck as I sat parked at the hospital where I had just dropped Kim for an appointment, a procedure, a test…

It sounds funny, but, in this regard, the COVID hysteria was a godsend. My management also gave me a lot of latitude with my assignments and deliverables which helped a lot with caring for Kim.

And, until mid-October, Kim was fairly strong and ambulatory. We took at least daily walks through the neighborhood, picking up gum tree seed pods and pinecones for her next craft project – pinecone wreaths for the girls! We also went through the local park with her iPhone on a selfie stick so that she could have some recent pictures with us together (and our youngest daughter). We would sit on the couch together evenings, holding hands and watching the 1960s series “Dark Shadows”, laughing at its campiness, but still fascinated enough with it to watch episode after episode. We unfortunately didn’t get the opportunity to finished watching the series.

Kim said we grew closer to each other during this period than we had been during our entire marriage, and, frankly, I have to agree.

And then came the next scan – the one we just knew would be full of good news! Not so: it showed that the growths in the liver had stopped, but those in the pancreas continued to grow. It was decided after a brief respite that they would switch to the less aggressive, but equal standard of care: Gemcitabine and Abraxane. Kim tolerated this chemo pretty well, too, but the neuropathy was hell for her – instead of the intensity of cold sensation that came with the Folfirinox, this one was taking feeling away from her.

Then the day came that Kim did not have enough feeling in her fingers to work on the quilt she was making for the car to use for winter chemo trips…

Her 12 October chemo was declined due to her blood numbers being too low. At her next palliative care appointment (one in which I got the building wrong, and made her very late), the doctor stated that it appeared the second course was destroying her liver. She suggested that Kim consider hospice, and then asked what I thought. And I simply broke down. It was 15 October.

Kim and I talked on the way home, and she decided that she agreed. She had had enough of the chemotherapy and its side effects. We drove around a little while to look at the fall colors that were all around, but then Kim had to use the bathroom, so we wrapped up our color tour and went home.

We were trying to decide on what hospice to pursue – we wanted in-home; not institutional, and were really ill-prepared to make this sort of decision – plus the hospices were having apparent difficulty getting any information to us via the (good ol’, dependable…) US Postal Service, so it went a bit longer than the Oncology department expected, I guess – when Kim had a lymphedema episode that scared her. She called the oncology department only to be told that she was a hospice patient now – call them. I was furious, but we called Angela Hospice, and they had their triage team out the following day – about 11 days after she opted for hospice.

Kim declined pretty quickly after that. Within a a few days, she could no longer make it up the stairs, even with my assistance. A hospital bed was brought in and set up in the front room, and I stationed myself in the easy chair in that room. She could still get up with my assistance to use the restroom, eventually requiring a walker, and me to help her get up off the toilet… then, when that became too much, a bedside commode. Sometime during this, I developed some vestibular issue which affected my balance. I opted to “deal with it” rather than take a chance on being pulled away from caring for Kim.

Kim started what the Hospice nurse called a “terminal fever” on 16 November. Her breathing was horrible to listen to and sounded so croupy. Eventually she coughed up some nasty yellow phlegm that I was able to clear from her mouth, and she settled into normal sounding breathing and looked rather comfortable. About this time, she could not manage the bedside commode and was catheterized. The only words I heard from Kim in her near comatose state after this was that she had to pee. She tried to say other things on occasion, but no sound came and, when I’d move my ear to her mouth, she hadn’t the energy to repeat it. Isn’t it crazy that those are the most vivid of the words I remember from her? “I have to pee” in a panicked whisper…

Eventually, Kim could no longer take sips of water or swallow her pain pills. There were three: two were available as liquids; one was not. I became quite expert at measuring out the liquid medications, then dissolving the third in them, then taking them all up into a syringe to squirt into Kim’s mouth every eight hours. At first it was easy as Kim could close her mouth around the syringe and swallow, followed by a syringe with water flavored with Body Armor or apple juice. Eventually, though, she was no longer cognizant of this activity, and care had to be taken to ensure (a) she didn’t choke on the medication and (b) that it didn’t simply run out of the side of her mouth. I lived terrified that she was in pain, and that I couldn’t tell nor do anything to help her.

The choking breathing returned about two weeks later, on the 29th of November. Her nurse was due to come in on the 30th, but called to say that she had been treating a patient with COVID, and would need to change her clothing; and asked if it would it be OK to stop in on the next day. I told her it really didn’t appear to matter, that I didn’t expect Kim to be here much longer. And, at around 2:42 am the next morning, 1 December, Kim left. I had awakened to use the bathroom, or perhaps it was because I sensed something different, but when I woke up, she was no longer breathing. Her fingers were still warm, so she couldn’t have been gone long. And she was smiling. By God, she was smiling!

It’s odd what the mind does at times like these; what we do. I arranged a blanket to nestle her head. I said a rosary, the Divine Mercies, and the St. Michael Chaplet over her. I removed Kim’s Miraculous Medal medallion and hung it on the crucifix next to our bed. I removed all the equipment that did not belong to the hospice from the room. And then I called the hospice to let them know she had passed. The woman on the other end was the initial nurse assigned to Kim when she entered hospice (we’d had two since).

A fourth hospice nurse arrived shortly after my call, checked what needed to be checked, disposed of the Class 2 medications, contacted the medical examiner and funeral parlor; and then left. Sometime during all of that, I contacted the kids and let them know. Those who lived out of our home began showing up – I had told the funeral home to give us until about 9:00 am to ensure we all got an opportunity to say goodbye. They came promptly at 9:00 am, moved Kim to a stretcher, and she took her final trip away from home.