This story begins — and sometimes, I fear, ends — when my wife, Susie, died two weeks short of our 49th anniversary, and I sink into a deep depression even though she had been battling early-onset Alzheimer’s for too many years, and I knew, in a way I know few things, that the best way for her battle to end was with endless sleep.
I also knew that when the time came, I would tell the love story of Mike and Susie because the truest thing about being a writer is that, whatever the circumstances, writers write.
I didn’t think writing would cheer me up. I didn’t think it was a route to closure. I did think it would be a memorial to Susie, but Kieran Nicholson had done an excellent obit in the Post and my great friend Tina Griego did a lovely obit in The Indy and I figured the memorials were taken care of. But when writing is not only what you do for a living but what you must do to live, writing this story would be a marker, a letter to myself about what life and death and mostly love mean, an attempt to capture grief in words, to explain what Susie meant to me and I to her and to share those thoughts with readers because I don’t know any other way.
I don’t usually get personal in my columns, and I rarely write about my family because, not least, of the crazies out there who have physically threatened me over the years for the audacity of voicing a political opinion. But this was different. I couldn’t write about the world if I didn’t write, this once certainly, about my world. And the hard thing here is that I lost her twice — once to the disease and again when she died.
Susie died in her sleep at home in her hospital bed. It was June 1 about 2 a.m. when her caregiver woke me up. I was grateful — more than thankful — that I didn’t have to make any of those terrible end-of-life decisions. I thought, in a way, I would be freed up. But I found I couldn’t write about her — I was totally blocked — and my depression deepened at least in part because I couldn’t write about her. Writers use their pain, the best of them, to create art. I wrote about inartful Donald Trump instead.
But, Susie. My daughter and I decided not to do a big funeral. We did a series of small memorials in towns across the country — the cities I had dragged Susie to, forcing her to leave all her friends behind one more time, to satisfy my career ambitions. She had never been to Denver before we moved there, and she thought it was like Buffalo, snow all the time. I told her that the weather was actually one of Denver’s real selling points, but I couldn’t make the sale.
Still, I was in a deep war with the top editors at the Baltimore Sun. I felt I couldn’t stay, and so I picked 10 cities where I could see us living. Denver was one. When we got there, I rented a house across from Cranmer Park in the Hilltop neighborhood, which was far more expensive than I could afford, but I wanted to make it up to Susie. That was 1997, the year of one of our October blizzards, the one where the Broncos needed snowmobiles to get to the airport. I — a sports columnist for my first two years at the Rocky, planning all the while to return to writing a news column — was in Fort Lauderdale for the World Series, sipping a South Florida drink poolside while Susie was literally snowed in back home for days. She stayed with me anyway. And she came to love Denver.
At the memorials, we celebrated her life with close friends, Susie’s and mine, who were often the same. I told the same stories that I’d been telling throughout our life together, and it was Tina who noted that no one enjoyed those stories more than the person who lived them with me. I loved these gatherings.
I told — and this is true — how 99 percent of our fights came in a car when we had gotten lost. We had disagreements, of course, but we learned in time where the vulnerable spots were and we learned not to go there. The problem was that I’m always getting lost, even with a GPS, while Susie had a great fear of being lost. And to make it worse we traveled all the time — I traveled the world for work and Susie and my daughter would often travel with me on frequent-flyer miles and certainly on vacation — and Susie loved all of it, the new places, the new people, the dramas, the food, the everything. Except for the fights.
Once we were on the West Side Highway in New York, and Susie, holding the map, was tasked with keeping track of the exits so I’d know when to get over to the right lane. She lost track, and she couldn’t find the highway again. I told her it was next to the river. She said she couldn’t find the river. Finally, in exasperation, I grabbed the map from her hands — while driving — and pointed to the Hudson, “Look, the bleeping blue thing.” She started crying and I felt terrible. But the makeups? The makeups were marriage-saving. And they lasted as long as we didn’t venture anywhere near the car together.
Why am I writing now? Because I think I finally can. And because it’s the holiday season when family is paramount, and though my daughter and my two grandkids were there for Thanksgiving dinner this year along with a couple of friends, it was my first Thanksgiving without Susie since 1967.
So, this is how I always begin when I talk about us — and we were an us for 50 years. We were the most unlikely successfully married couple ever. She was not only beautiful and always dressed just so, she had flair and she had a face that refused to age, even a little, until the end. She had relentlessly good manners and a deep, well-earned sense of empathy. She cried at movies or our daughter’s piano recital. She flossed twice daily. She cleaned the hotel room and made the bed before we left. She knew every neighbor and every relative’s birthday and kept a record of every place we had visited and every restaurant we ate in. She was everyone’s personal Michelin Guide. I could talk about the smile she so freely gave away, but I confess I care most about the ones that were for me. I never met anyone who didn’t like her, except those who loved her. She was not just any teacher. She was a first-grade and kindergarten teacher who came home with dirty-hand hugs still visible on her skirt.
Meanwhile, I looked then much as I look now, a vagrant lurker, except possibly even more unkempt. And so, when people saw us walking together, I’d say, they thought that I must be out on work release and that Susie was my social worker. Susie stayed with me anyway. And somehow, it’s still not altogether clear how, we fit perfectly.
When I met her, she was dating David, one of my best friends during high school. They broke up a couple of months before I would tumble off the back of a moving car and fracture my skull. This is critical to the story. I was 16. Four of us were at McDonald’s on a warm spring night trying to decide which movie to see. Suddenly we all broke for the car. The guy who used to date Susie got there first (the keys were still in the ignition) and squealed out of the parking lot. One friend jumped on the hood, I jumped on the trunk and the other friend jumped through an open window. You could say this was incredibly stupid or you could just say it was four teenage boys.
Anyway, after maybe 15 seconds, I fell off. David immediately backed up the car, nearly running me over. And because we were teenagers, we were now deciding whether to go to the movies or the ER, and that’s when I looked at my hands and saw they were covered with blood — blood pouring from my head where it had met the road. We rushed to the hospital, trying to get our stories straight because we knew the cops would be there asking questions. Meanwhile, one friend went to my house to tell my mother, “Mike’s a little cut up,” as if I had been in a knife fight.
I was in the hospital for a week in April, during which I celebrated my 17th birthday. About a dozen friends sneaked into my hospital room for a party and Susie brought me fudge. I’m one of the strange animals who doesn’t like fudge — too sweet — but I did like the idea of this beautiful 17-year-old, suddenly single, bringing me anything. And a week after I got out of the hospital I told her how much I loved the fudge and then I asked her out. She said yes. It was a start.
That summer we went dancing every weekend — I’m a terrible but enthusiastic dancer; she took ballet and laughed at my enthusiasm — and to the movies most weekends and to Shoney’s drive-in, where the kids hung out, for a late dinner. Think of American Graffiti and you’ll understand. And on July 4th, 1966, we saw The Rolling Stones from the second row, and I was pretty sure I finally had this teen thing down pretty well.
Meanwhile, my father, whom I worshipped, was dying of MS — galloping MS they called it then. Susie’s mother had died when she was 14. There’s never a good time to lose a mother, but 14 has to be among the worst. We each had these huge voids, and we both needed something or someone to fill them. So we fell into each other’s arms, and only rarely did we let go.
Then we went to college — different colleges; mine was all male and hers was all female — and said we would date but not be exclusive. And we did date, but we got more and more exclusive over the years. I would hitchhike the 50 miles on back roads nearly every weekend to her school and invariably would get picked up by a drunk driver when returning after midnight. I was sure it was worth the risk. And she would come down for football games on a caravan of buses loaded with eager young women as eager young men waited for them. I was working for the school’s just-opened alternative newspaper and making revolution. She was going to school and making As.
As soon as we got past graduation, we were married. We were 21. It was 1970 — in other words, still the ’60s — and the idea of getting married that young was as socially acceptable as saying you had to work so you couldn’t get to Woodstock. Getting married at 21 is the greatest crap shoot possible. But we were from the c’est-la-vie-say-the-old-folks school of rock — we saw Chuck Berry together in ‘67 — and we didn’t know what else to do.
So we did it, but we had to have the wedding first. And since I was Jewish and Susie was Presbyterian, we had to figure out a way to do this while causing as little turmoil as possible. We held the wedding at Susie’s house. Susie worked with a friend who used to be a minister, which was what we told her family, except leaving out the used-to-be part. And I told my grandparents that he was a justice of the peace. I wrote the ceremony — which was about two minutes long, with just a hint of dialectical materialism as subtext — and it was all going well until somebody told. And then all hell broke loose. For years, her NASA-engineer father and I had an Archie Bunker and Meathead relationship until we finally, for Susie’s sake, worked it out. And everything about the wedding seemed to make matters worse.
The next day, when we took off for our honeymoon in my prized yellow MG, we had driven about a half hour out of town when Susie asked me to pull over. When I did, she jumped out of the car and threw up on the side of the road. The wedding would be the worst day of our marriage — at least until the day Susie was diagnosed with dementia.
I had a job at the local newspaper. Susie became a juvenile probation officer for about a year until she quit. She couldn’t take looking after “wayward” teenage girls who had been abused by their fathers or step-fathers or some other male figure. She was afraid to be alone with these men, and I would accompany her on home visits, which broke every rule and several laws. She found a better way to help kids when she went back to school to get her teacher’s license. And then a baby came. And Susie settled on doing home-schooling for the public schools. And when the no-longer-baby turned 4, Susie was looking for a pre-K class. When she found one she liked, Susie drilled the principal on the school’s academic principles so impressively that the principal asked if she had any teaching experience. Susie said no, but she had a license. And so she was offered a job without ever having asked for one. That’s how good she was.
Less than a year later, I got offered a job at the Los Angeles Times, and so we moved, taking Susie away from the place she had lived her entire life. She got a job at a fancy-schmancy private school in Pasadena, one where Kevin Costner sent his kids. One where my daughter went for a playdate at a friend’s house and came home to ask why we didn’t have a children’s wing. I explained that our house — like most houses — was completely wing free. Susie got that job by showing up when a French teacher was out for the day and Susie was asked if she could teach the class. One of Susie’s great regrets in life was that she was a terrible French student. She got offered a job that day anyway. That’s how good she was.
My first year at the Times, I was a sportswriter, and I covered the Dodgers, meaning I was on the road half the time and even when I was in town, I was covering games six nights out of seven. I was never home. Susie’s friends, whom she met at the neighborhood pool before she found her job, would tell her, “Look, we know. You don’t really have a husband and to save face, you just picked a name out of the paper.” Susie loved much of LA, but hated the traffic, hated driving on the freeways, hated the chance of an earthquake and the highways giving way, hated being 3,000 miles from home. I heard all that, and it took me only seven years to move back to the East Coast, where she would teach at schools where most of the children came from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Meanwhile, we grew up together. We liked different movies, but we’d watch each other’s favorites. We didn’t always read the same books, but we always read, often together. Mine, we would kid, were the ones with death in the title. We loved eating out. We didn’t always love the same places, but we always found the best compromises.
We had one child, the law professor I often mention, and for whom Susie was the best possible mother, who asked Susie one day — she was 4 or 5 and I’ll paraphrase here — “What do we need Daddy for? I don’t see what he contributes to this family project.” And we laughed when Susie told me. And we laughed so many other times, too. We lived the life we wanted to live. So much laughter, so much adventure, so much seeing and learning new things, so much Susie and I chasing presidential politicians in Iowa and New Hampshire, so much Susie and her book clubs, so much Susie at the piano, so much Susie volunteering for a decade after retirement in the Discovery Zone at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and at the Denver Public Library’s read-aloud programs, so much Susie and our daughter and our friends, so many friends, some of them vacationing with us in a Maine sea-captain’s house, some for a week in Ireland, others for a week in Portugal, Christmas dinner in Paris, gelato in Italy, at the Christmas Market in Hamburg while I chased the ghost of 9/11 terrorist Mohammed Atta, in Prague and Leipzig before the wall fell, in maybe two dozen countries. We knew how fortunate we were. Susie gave back in every way possible because that’s who she was.
God, we lived a life. And then there was the end. I still can’t stand the end. Caregivers 24/7. Loss of cognition. Loss of memory. Loss of being able to get out of bed. Loss of everything. On the days she recognized me, I had brief moments of joy. On the days she didn’t, I just carried on. I can’t stand reading those stories on Alzheimer’s that suggest some silver lining to a disease that, as far as I can tell, steals you from yourself and then from everyone else. And for so many families, it would mean losing all your savings, maybe giving up your job, taking away everything. I was lucky enough to be able to afford the care. I was in a rage much of the time about the millions who could not and who get no help from the government unless they end up penniless on Medicaid. For those who wonder about Medicare, it doesn’t pay a cent for home care or memory-care institutions. Trust me on this. I had to learn the hard way.
Our last trip to Europe was to London (a West-End-play-watching vacation with our daughter) and then to Provence for a week and then to Nice for two nights. All on frequent-flyer miles. Both nights, we walked the glorious Promenade Des Anglais, a walkway along the sea. A couple of years later, on Bastille Day in 2016, a truck driver drove down that promenade, mowing down 86 people, including 10 children, and wounding more than 200. He drove that killing truck for a mile just at the place Susie and I would walk. I was angry and heartbroken, of course, about the terrorist act, but I was more heartbroken than usual. When we were taking those walks — Susie in a wheelchair — I knew that Susie and I would never be back there together, that trips were too exhausting for her, that soon enough she would be mostly past enjoyment. And so as that driver was killing hopes and dreams of all those innocents, he had attached himself to one of my last unforgettable moments with the person who, unforgettably, made every moment we were together better.
When I start to write, I start to think that way. Which is why I couldn’t write. The anger accompanied with loss shows through. The people expert in these things tell me to concentrate on the good, to take out the photos — Susie had lovingly put together years’ worth of albums reflecting our entire lives — and smile and laugh the way I would if Susie were there looking at them with me. So I work at remembering the good. I work at remembering that the joy of our life together was a 50-year gift given to few people. I work at remembering that life goes on and that love never really dies.
And whenever the work of living gets too hard, and I get too low, I remind myself that together Susie and I brought into this world a wonderful daughter who brought into our family two grandsons — one 4 1/2 (the half is critical at that age as all parents know) and one 16 months, who will always know of their Grandma, at least as long as they have me and our daughter to tell her stories. She got to know the older, Lalo, a little. She fed him. She held him. And later, when she could no longer talk, he would rub Grandma’s back like I would rub his when he wasn’t feeling well.
And though he understands that Grandma is dead, he thinks it’s like the dinosaurs he loves — that she’s somehow extinct — and I know how this would amuse Susie and how she would comfort Lalo. She would know just the story to tell him, just the words to use, to let him know he shouldn’t be afraid and shouldn’t be too sad, because she would love him always and forever. The idea of him in her lap, asking her life-and-death questions as ever-inquisitive 4 1/2-year-olds do, Susie making sense of it all, makes me smile, if through a tear or two. Which is why I’m glad I could finally write this.