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In Remembrance


Michael Miller

Michael’s Heart

My husband was one of those people who seemed to have an endless circle of friends. I felt that people instinctively knew he was a good man and an honest man. He has a landscaping business and sometimes when we were out and about, we would run into his customers. I could easily see that those people thought a great deal of him, too. He was also an Indian artifact e…xpert and collector, and when I first went with him to a show, he was practically swarmed by fellow collectors who counted him as a friend and wanted to talk to him. I knew then, that I wasn’t the only person who thought he was a special person.

My husband was handsome. When I met him, his dark hair, mustache and “soul patch” gave him a ruggedly handsome look that I couldn’t help but notice. But even more, I was taken by his exceptionally kind eyes and friendly smile. As I got to know him, I found that he was a man who went out of his way to be kind to people, to keep in touch with friends, and to take good care of his family. These are all traits I admire and respect, and they are certainly some of the things that caused me to fall in love with him. The day I met him, one of the first things he did was pull out his wallet and show me pictures of his children. He was a proud dad and his love for his kids was evident. Even though I planned to just be friends in the beginning, in time, I knew deep down that I was falling in love with him. It was impossible not to love such a sweet, kind and sincere man.

My husband was a hard worker. When he was in high school, his dad would pick him up from school and they would work his lawn service business until the sun went down. When he got out of high school, he decided to join the Marine Corps, but then was offered a job at Chrysler at the same time. His dad firmly told him he should take the job at Chrysler, so he did; but he also went forward with his commitment to the Marine Corps by joining as a reservist. After 30 years at Chrysler, he was offered early retirement. He took it, but he wasn’t going to just sit around; that wasn’t in his character. He started a lawn service business and was working about 40 lawns in the summer of 2011.

Michael and I met shortly before that summer, and we became fast friends who never ran out of things to talk about. I was immediately comfortable with him, which is saying a lot, since I’m a quiet and reserved person. Our relationship evolved into dating. In August, 2011, I started taking a night class at the university, and it was our “thing” on those evenings to meet at a local Applebees for dinner after class and chat for a few hours. One of those evenings, as I sat down in the classroom, I remember looking at my phone and thinking that it was odd that I hadn’t heard from Michael since early afternoon. Usually he would text me now and then throughout the day. But, I also knew that he had a lot of lawns to work that day, so I assumed he was working hard so that he would be finished in plenty of time for our date. In the middle of class, my cell phone started ringing, but I didn’t recognize the number, so I didn’t answer. Just a few moments later my phone rang again. I got up and slipped out of class, but by the time I was able to answer, it was too late. However, Michael’s son left a voice mail message saying that one of Michael’s customers found him confused and bloody at her house. She thought maybe he’d hit his head and was taking him to the hospital. Before the evening was over, we found out Michael hadn’t just hit his head. Rather, he’d had some violent seizures and they left him incoherent. The cause of those seizures was a brain tumor. Within a few days, he had surgery, and we found out Michael had the worst kind of brain tumor possible: Glioblastoma Multiforme, Grade IV.

I literally hate those words. They make my stomach whirl every time I hear or see them. For that matter, I hate cancer. I hate what it does to people. I despise its harshness and cruelty. It doesn’t care whether a person is good or bad, it just kills or maims whoever it randomly strikes. Another cruelty about cancer is that the methods doctors use to kill the disease also destroy parts of the patient. Michael went through surgery, chemo, radiation, and all of the awful side effects of each, only to have the malicious tumor grow back again less than a year later. So now, along with the cancer, he had to deal with chemo brain, radiation brain, the effects of surgery, and the tumor regrowth. This concoction led to more memory loss, motor skills loss, confusion, vision loss, and other types of deterioration. It broke my heart to see this smart, capable, hard-working man begin to not even be able to remember that the spatula should be in the kitchen, not the garage. He wasn’t able to make sense of numbers anymore. He often asked me to pay his bills, add tips to receipts at restaurants, or write down phone numbers. He couldn’t even read his beloved Indian artifact catalogs and newsletters anymore and would humbly sit and listen to me read them out loud to him instead.

When Michael was first diagnosed, the doctors said this kind of cancer is across the board, terminal. However, when he had all visible tumor removed during his first surgery, had an incredibly positive response to chemo and radiation, and repeated reports of no visible cancer in his regular MRIs, I began to imagine years of remission. When we got married he had just found out the cancer had returned, and we were awaiting the second surgery. While I can’t say I thought I would have Michael for the rest of my life, I certainly didn’t expect the cancer to come back in less than a year. As a matter of fact, the second surgery would be followed by a promising experimental treatment and I hoped it would buy him many more years. However, after the surgery the cancer quickly recoiled and struck with a deadly force.

A few weeks after the second surgery, Michael had more seizures and was taken by ambulance to the hospital. Even though 90% of all visible tumor was removed during the surgery, the cruel cancer now snaked through his entire brain. Glioblastomas are incredibly aggressive and fast growing, but I don’t think anyone expected this rapid recurrence or progression. Michael’s deterioration accelerated. His confusion worsened. His sentences didn’t make sense most of the time. His vision was mostly gone. Brain cancer manifests itself as a horrible swirling mixture of weakness, frailty, and an Alzheimer’s-like mental deterioration. He required full care 24/7.

The one good thing I can say about cancer is that there is a little bit of comfort in knowing that we had a warning that we were going to lose him. It gave us all a chance to take care of unfinished business, heal wounds, or simply be together. Whether everyone in Michael’s life took advantage of that time, I cannot say. But, in my relationship with Michael, we used it to fully and completely love on each other. In the shadow of the “C-word,” it was easy to clearly separate the small stuff from the big stuff. Life was too short to focus on trivial things. It was a time to love and be loved. A time to honor and respect each other. A time to bless each other and enjoy being together. That led to my decision to accept his marriage proposal a few weeks before his second surgery. A few days later, we got married on his patio. Some people may have thought marriage was a bad decision, because his prognosis was grave and it could affect me negatively in some peripheral issues. But, I knew that he desperately wanted me to be his wife. I loved him, and I wanted to do this one thing that I knew would make him extremely happy. I had to believe that God would work out the rest, and I still hoped that we might be lucky enough to be blessed with years together. Maybe it was impractical, but it was an abnormal situation, calling for somewhat abnormal decisions.

While I can come up with one good thing about cancer, the bad things about it are countless. Probably one of the worst parts of brain cancer is that the gradual progression of the disease felt like a series of small deaths. Before we knew it, his bad days outnumbered the good. Even though we hoped he would be there to celebrate just “one more Christmas” or “one more birthday,” those celebrations ended up feeling rather hollow. We outwardly celebrated, but inwardly recognized and internally mourned the probability it was Michael’s last.

The months and weeks went by, and we lost Michael little by little, piece by piece, until he finally slipped away altogether. The impact this has on the grieving process is strange. I’ve heard some people say that it allows you to slowly come to terms with the loss. But instead, I felt like it jumbled the grieving process and made it unbearably cyclical with erratic ups and downs. Admittedly, I was often sad, angry, frustrated, or hurt to think that God would allow such a good man to die. I felt incredibly angry about it. Well, maybe not so much that he would die, but….. die in this way. I felt robbed by my God. In just a few months’ time, my life cruelly hurled through the stages of happy bride, caretaker, and finally grieving widow.

Is it easier to lose someone quickly or slowly? I guess you are more likely to have unresolved issues, regrets, or unanswered questions when a loss is sudden. But, when you lose someone slowly, it’s like you have a jigsaw puzzle in front of you, and each day more pieces come up missing, until it is all gone. At times, the grieving started anew as I recognized that yet another facet of him was lost. I guess what it comes down to is this: there is no such thing as an easy way to lose someone you love. It is agonizing no matter how it happens.

In the end, I have to believe that God put Michael and I in each other’s lives for a reason. In the days before his second surgery, Michael called me at work to tell me to listen to the song, “Angel by Your Side” by Francesca Battistelli. He said that the song describes exactly what I was to him and that he would not have had the strength to go through his cancer journey without me beside him. Michael’s nickname for me was already “Angel,” and to this day, I cannot listen to that song without sobbing. But, I am grateful that he saw me as an angel in his life and I hope I brought even half as much happiness as he brought to me.
The Bible says that “all things work together for good in the lives of those who love Him,” so ultimately, I have to believe there was some purpose in the way Michael slowly left this earth. One thing I know, because I feel it down to my bones, is that even as Michael slowly deteriorated, his love for his God, for me and for his family remained solid. It was a vital part of his being: it was nearly palpable.

Just a few days before Michael’s second surgery, the sermon at church was about facing the devastating trials of life. A young couple shared their testimony; a perfect love story that led to marriage and four children. However, the first child was diagnosed with a serious chromosome abnormality called Turner’s Syndrome, and the youngest child was born with a devastating condition that took her life on her first birthday. The couple talked about the emotional ups and downs, but in the end they said the trials have been “marked by an outpouring of God’s faithfulness… we’ve gone through a lot, we continue to go through a lot, but never once have we been alone. God has always been there, has always been good, and has always revealed that through his faithfulness to us.” We looked at each other and knew God was reminding us that he would never abandon us, no matter what happened. Whether things were good or bad, He is faithful, always there, and always loving us.

Michael and I went forward for communion at the end of the service and then stopped to speak to pastor Rusty and his wife, Kim, about the upcoming surgery. As they wrote down Michael’s surgery and contact information, I walked across the sanctuary to get some Kleenexes. She later told me that she couldn’t help but notice how Michael’s love for me was clearly visible in his countenance. I responded with an ardent nod, because it was something I knew about Michael. Every single day, I saw love in his eyes and in his actions. I never had reason to doubt it even slightly. He was good, patient, and kind to me every single day I knew him. Every single day.

Rusty and Kim were one way God wrapped his arms around us and demonstrated his love and faithfulness. Through them, the community of believers embraced us. The prayed for us, visited us, brought us meals, and even helped with things like having someone come cut Michael’s hair. During the week before Michael died, Rusty came to the hospital to talk to Michael about death, salvation and heaven. Michael could barely talk, but would force enough breath to say, “Amen brother!” My heart swelled with love and admiration of Michael’s faith in that moment. He was the love of my life and a spiritual leader to me, even in this desperately weakened state.

I believe that God brought Michael into my life for such a short time because he wanted me to believe that this type of love does exist. The selfless, completely giving love that never dies, never fades, and that illness or death cannot take away. The kind of love that makes you want to do something for a person even if it is impractical and maybe not “wise” in the ways of the world. We already know that a soul outlives a person’s body. I think love does, as well because I still feel Michael’s love in my heart.

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
(by e.e. cummings)See More

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Michael Miller