I often think, even in difficult times, that optimism is baked into our DNA–but confronted with end-of-life issues I waver. There are so many possible tragic endings…in fiction and in life. From Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina’s throwing herself in front of the oncoming train, to the brilliant actor Chadwick Boseman’s secretive death from colon cancer at age 43, life shows us the unpredictability of our endings. Sherwin Nuland, the physician/writer, reminds us in his book, How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter that most of us mythologize that chapter, hoping and imagining a quiet slumber from which we never wake. “There is a vast literature on death and dying,” but rarely does it dwell on the ugly details.
When I was young, death was way over the horizon. As a 22-year-old fighter pilot it was something that happened to other people. Faulty equipment, bad weather, or someone else’s mistake could trigger an accident, but even then with “the right stuff” death wasn’t in the cards. If we trained hard, ate right and didn’t do anything stupid everything would be fine. Now, with a foreshortened future, that’s all in the rearview mirror. It may be something else that’s baked into our DNA.
My friend, Michael, is a case in point. An Übermensch—musician, actor, painter, potter, and tropical fish savant—he is one of the most engaging and talented people I’ve ever known. Handsome, artistic, accomplished, funny, and an exemplary husband, father and friend.
He and my former wife, both talented painters, met when they were art majors at UCLA. But, Michael was also a musician, and while still in school he formed a folk duo called The Other Singers with his friend Tom Drake. They began playing West LA bars and clubs, and in short order were discovered by talent scouts from Doug Weston’s Troubadour. It was the heyday of the folk revival, and the Troubadour was the hottest showcase for new talent on the West Coast. Mike and Tom shared the mainstage with Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds and The Eagles. I saw them recently on a poster in the Linda Ronstadt documentary, The Sound of My Voice.
While they were still playing the Troubadour, Andy Williams asked them to form a larger group he called The Good Time Singers, for his TV show. That gig lasted until his career took a different turn when his brother Jim, an actor on ABC’s One Life to Live, wanted out of his contract and thought Mike might be able to help. The brothers look alike, so Jim pitched ABC on Michael as his replacement. ABC bought it and agreed to write Jim out and Mike in by creating an auto accident that put Dr. Larry Wolek (Jim’s character) in the hospital where urgent surgical repair altered his visage slightly. Mike took over Jim’s role and stayed with the series for 20 years.
But, Michael was always resourceful and creative. When he was a pre-teen his father moved the family to England, where they knew no one. Before enrolling at an English public (private) school, his parents worried he would be seen as an outsider, an American interloper. They shouldn’t have worried. Michael was a bridge-builder. On his first day, he took a deck of cards to school and during lunch regaled his English classmates with card tricks and sleight of hand. By the end of the day he was the most popular kid in school.
In one of life’s cruel pivots, an insidious protein began depositing itself in Michael’s brain twelve years ago. When memory lapses alarmed the family they consulted a neurologist. The diagnosis, Lewy body dementia, is a cousin of Alzheimer’s. The invading protein changed Michael’s brain chemistry and brought on more than memory lapses. There were also disruptive disease-related hallucinations. Last month his wife Sally and daughter Maggie knew they could no longer give him the care he needed and moved him to a memory care facility. Invasion of the Lewy body brain snatchers.
For Mike, Sally, and Maggie the change is life altering. For me, his situation is sad and confusing. He’s lost to me in some ways but not in others. I’m trying to keep him present. I keep replaying old tapes of things we’ve done. Lunch at a little Cuban place on Columbus Avenue. Visiting their home in Dobbs Ferry. Playing guitars in our little garden in St. Tropez. Waiting for Mick and Bianca to emerge from the Hotel de Ville after their wedding vows. Here’s is a picture Mike took that day.
You can tell, I’m struggling with endings. Dying of “natural causes” seems benign but has a cruelty all its own. Alzheimer’s and its cousins don’t kill like brain cancer or a heart attack. If there’s a difference between a bullet and a slow-acting poison, is one more cruel? I don’t know. I just know the losses are mounting.
Sally tells me that until recently Mike and Jim were still getting together to play guitars and sing. I marvel that the brain, even a damaged one, can still grant this gift. I hope the brothers will be able to keep playing in Mike’s new home. I plan to play and sing along to The Other Singers CD as a way to feel like we’re all together again.
But everything is new. Sally is moving into a mother-in-law apartment at Maggie’s, where Maggie and her kids, Jack and Ella, will welcome and care for her. But she and Michael were each other’s life support and soulmates for more than 50 years. I can’t imagine how that will feel?
The rational me thinks this is all for the best, but the other me hopes Michael can pull off a Houdini-like escape from Lewy body prison. He’s had so many incarnations. Is there one last card trick up his sleeve?
When I close my eyes I can hear him strumming softly in that little garden in St. Tropez. It sounds like Swing Low Sweet Chariot…