“Life changes in the instant” – Joan Didion in her book The Year of Magical Thinking Please pardon me for being imprecise about dates, I can remember things as they relate to other events, but am not very good with exact dates. In January 1994 Mike and I were living outside of NYC in a little town on the Hudson called Dobbs Ferry. That day we were having one of those nasty East Coast snow/sleet storms, and everything was coated with ice. We were holed up in our apartment with our dog, watching movies. Late that evening the phone rang.
It was my mother, “Cori, they found a baseball sized tumor behind Lee’s eye and he is going in for surgery. He might not make it out. You need to get here,” speaking with the cold clinical speech that comes after telling a horrible medical story over and again. Lee is my brother-in-law, who was in his late 20’s at the time (forgive me, I cannot recall exactly his age).
Numb with shock, I got on the phone and booked a ticket to Denver. I arrived in time to see Lee waking up from his surgery. I squeezed his toes and I remember him smiling at me and hoarsely croaking, “What are you doing here?” I remember how the doctors were glad to see that; his awareness of me not belonging there was an excellent sign after his perilous brain surgery.
Lee was in the hospital for a few more days. He was released on his birthday in early February with a terminal diagnosis and six months to live. I have never seen so many people that I knew in one place with such swollen eyes unable to cry anymore. Even before he got sick, Lee was one of those guys who you felt truly blessed to know. Upbeat, always able to see the bright side, gorgeous, hysterically funny, bright, and someone who would hang out doing nothing all day without the need to fill the gaps.
He had a motto, “Always make the best of every situation.” He was the big brother you all have always wished for. When he married my sister it felt so good to call him brother! When they were first dating, Lee lived across the bridge in NJ with his family. My sisters and I still lived at home. Lee would come home on the train from the city with my sister and me and borrow some sweats from my dad and hang out for mom-cooked dinner and movies and games until it was time to drive home.
When I started dating Mike in 1991, he too would come home with me on the train for family dinner and hanging out. Lee would boast that that particular outfit of sweats from my dad that Mike was wearing used to be “his”, and he would sagely give Mike pointers about Mr. Carr, and how to be a boyfriend to one of the Carr girls. It was an incredibly fun and happy time. One of the things that was especially fun about life at our house was games. My mother loved to play games. Scrabble was one she and I played daily. Pictionary and Trivial Pursuit were group favorites. We would laugh and laugh through the hilarity of Pictionary. We are a competitive crew!
Lee liked to doodle often. His trademark doodles were Bill the Cat and Opus. You would find them all over the place and it was his personal “Lee was here” mark. I found Bill the cat scribbled into the final pages of the books I read, on a postie note in the car, on the newspapers that were left around, and even on the bathroom mirror in lipstick more than once.
In Feb 1998, my mom was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer. She died that winter, on December 4th. Lee was in his 4th year battling brain cancer and was smiling daily and teaching us all about the power of positive thinking. He had already beat the odds. In 1999 Mike and I had been engaged for about 6 months when we found out I was pregnant. Our wedding was in Aug 1999.
Lee couldn’t make it to the wedding. He died shortly afterward in September 1999. Losing my mom and Lee in the space of a year was… dark. A light in the world had been extinguished. There is no other way to describe the loss of beautiful Lee. In the two of them we had lost a huge part of the glue that was holding our family together.
That winter, Mike and I were expecting our baby to arrive. After this horrendous year of grief and pain, and the terrible emptiness that followed the loss of my mom and Lee, everyone was looking forward to the birth of our child with such hope. A closing of the chapter of sadness and the start of something new. As many of you already know, our daughter lived for only a day.
So much has changed in the decade since these events. Good, bad, and ugly… life has traveled down such a crazy path, so different than the one we were all on back then. Last night Mike and I had some friends over for dinner.
We settled the kids down for a movie and I broke out my mom’s old Pictionary game. It was covered in dust, and had not been used in over 10 years. Imagine the burst of joy in my heart when I opened the card box and saw this: