Some thoughts on living and dying.

An autobiographical obituary by the late Mike Hughes

After many unexplained delays, I have finally lived up to my prognosis and have at last departed this life. It’s been a life I’ve loved.

In the months leading up to this moment, I was astonished at the outpouring of love and caring and respect from hundreds of people.  There were handwritten notes, emails, blog posts, comments, letters, magazine articles, personal visits and phone calls. The tsunami of glorious thoughts sent my way has made it increasingly hard to justify my deep insecurity about my place in the world—an insecurity I’ve clung to all my life.

I want to take this last opportunity to clear up one common misjudgment in the oft-repeated, highly exaggerated list of my virtues.  Many of you have credited me with humility.  That’s not even close to true.

No one has ever been prouder of a marriage than I’ve been of my 38 years with Ginny.   There have been outrageous laughs, tears, squabbles, joys, illnesses, heartbreaks and thrills.  We’ve shared eye-opening travels and surrendered to high calorie challenges.  We’ve held hands during quiet moments that I’ve treasured more than any other.  Although we’ve never quite recovered from it, we somehow survived Preston’s death, holding on to each other the whole way.  I’m proud of that.  There’s been love and friendship and high expectations.  She’s made my life feel extraordinary even in its most ordinary moments.

Our sons have been the source of unending pride.  Preston, who provided some of the biggest adventures in my life, was always a handful, but he was also always his own man.  What father wouldn’t be proud of that?

And Jason.  Quick and smart and passionate and outspoken and funny and competent and good and nurturing.  I’ve never met a better man.

Jason brought us Carley and Ella, the daughter and granddaughter we wanted and needed.  There’s no room for humility in my feelings about my girls.  Carley is the best baker in the world and Ella is, as she’s quick to tell you, “the best drawer in the world.”   I’ve always been afraid of women and I’ve always been a feminist.  These are two of the reasons why.

I’m proud to have been the son of Ann and Jim. They loved each other as much as they loved Patti and me: there’s no better gift parents can give their children.  I’m proud we shared our home and I shared my room growing up with my uncle, Jim Kennedy, known to all as Foo Foo.

You can’t help being proud if Patti Hughes is your sister.   My whole life has been a quest to be as funny as Patti.  She’s lived a life filled to the top with great friends and great adventures around the world.  She’s taken care of our mother with a gentleness and strength few people could muster.

“Uncle Doctor Todd” Jarrell is an honorary third son and I’m proud to have him in the family.  And I’m equally proud to have Preston’s partner, David Jackson, as an honorary son-in-law.

I’m proud of my most intimate friends.  I won’t name them all, but it would be wrong not to mention George and Megan Douglas, Craig and Beverly Bowlus, Larry Hall and Flinn Dallis, Bruce and Nancy Mansfield, Ed and Eileen Kitces.   Over many years, they’ve put up with my crazy work hours and my general unreliability.  The conversations we’ve had have been invigorating.  I am especially proud to count many of their grown kids among my closest friends today.

I’m proud, too, to have lived and worked alongside incredibly talented people who were also incredibly good and generous people.  My mentors always treated me as valued friends.  Father Augustine made high school bearable and made me try new things.  During my newspaper days, Jerry Finch was the editor every young reporter should have.  Larry Kaplan was my first advertising boss, encouraging me early on to reach higher—even if it meant working somewhere else.  Bill Wynne was my first partner/mentor.  He brought out the entrepreneurial side of me.

Then there was Harry.  Harry Jacobs made The Martin Agency a contender in the industry worldwide–and he made me an advertising man.   He put me on a wonderful track that I’ve stayed on for 34 years.  I hope he’s half as proud of me as I am of him.

I’ve learned from many of the industry leaders I’ve worked with at The Martin Agency, but none taught me more or stuck with me longer than John Adams.  He’s the wonderfully stubborn, highly principled partner every creative director desperately needs.  He and I have had the extreme good fortune to work side by side with the best agency management people in the business.

I’m proud to have been one of the hundreds of people who put The Martin Agency on the map.  We owe a lot to our clients and stockholders, of course, but no one gets in this line in front of the men and women who earned their paychecks doing things a little group in Richmond, Virginia, wasn’t supposed to be able to do.  I can’t begin to list the account, planning, media, design, tech, administration, finance and business partners who have done the work for which I’ve been given so much credit.  I hope they know how much I’ve needed them and how much I’ve loved them.  I can’t remember the first time I said “I do work I love with people I love,” but I know I’ve said it thousands of times.  Every word is true.

A special call-out is due to the magnificent, crazy, elegant, messed-up, damn-near-perfect gaggle of creative partners who have put up with me for so long.  Hundreds of writers and art directors have come through the doors of the agencies I’ve been lucky enough to serve.  A huge number of those writers and art directors taught me valuable lessons—not just in advertising, but in how to live a meaningful, all-in life.  The greatest joy in our business comes not from a gold medal or a place in the industry hall of fame—it comes from doing the work and from doing it with people of integrity and ambition and good humor.

I’m embarrassed that I get way too much credit for the success of the VCU Brandcenter.  Diane Cook Tench, Rick Boyko, Gene Trani, Helayne Spivak, the students, the alumni, the faculty and the administration deserve all the bows.  Still I’m proud (if a little self-conscious) that my name’s on the side of the building.  And I proudly liberate the current administration from any obligation it might feel to keep that giant painting of me hanging over the stairway.

I should say I’m proud of all the honors I’ve been accorded in my career, but the truth is, I’ve never been sure I deserved them.  I’m a hall of fame creative director because I’ve worked for and with hall of fame caliber people.  My honorary doctorate—and every other citation and award I’ve collected–is also an honor for those people.  I am inordinately proud to have represented the groups I’ve represented.

I’m both proud of and grateful to the people who have taken care of me in the cancer years.  Julie Garner made the appointment for me to visit Johns Hopkins.  Helen Vennard and Susan Lueke have been eternally patient with America’s medical systems and with me.  I have no idea how they do that.  They wrapped their arms around Ginny, Jason’s family and me and made us feel safe and protected and indulged.

One final thought.  I hope each of you enjoys every minute of your life.  You’ve all contributed so much to mine.

And one last favor.  Keep me in your thoughts. I love you.


Ring dem bells.

Ginny’s getting nothing but good reports from her docs.  She’s right on schedule for her chemo test program and her tumors continue to shrink.  (As expected, if everything stays on schedule, she’ll just continue her once-every-three-weeks chemo routine indefinitely.  Which is what we want.)  Of course, she continues to push herself way too hard.  Tomorrow morning, she picks up a UHaul rental truck at 7:30 a.m. and fills it up.  Tuesday morning, with Susan Scott by her side, she drives the truck to Beacon, NY.  That’s what?  Eight hours or so?  She thinks that’s perfectly normal for a 72-year-old stage II Hodgkins Lymphoma patient on chemotherapy.  In the meantime, she’ll give me grief for not taking care of myself.  Sheesh.

The obit desk.

When I was a young reporter for the Richmond News Leader, I often worked the obituary desk.  That was different than reporting on the death of, say, a celebrity or a government official.  Reporters needed to be unbiased and skeptical.  Obit writers for a local, community, family newspaper were expected to be sympathetic and understanding.  Unless you worked for The New York Times, you believed that every single person who passed on was beloved and accomplished and destined for sainthood.

I find myself in the obit business again.  I wrote my own obit some months ago, to go in this space when I’m being skyrocketed into my own personal sainthood.  I wrote about my mom a couple of weeks ago.  And about Ella Kelley today.  Enough.  Wordsworth wrote that “the world is too much with us.”  I disagree.  Give me big bites of the world:  it’s death that’s too much with us.  In one of my first posts in this space, I wrote that cancer bores me, but that “dying is endlessly interesting.”  I still believe that, but I could use a break here.

Ella Kelley

Ella Kelley died this week.  It breaks a piece off of my heart.

She was supposed to outlive me. She was younger than me and her disease came after mine.   I teased her about having a “wimpy” ailment, unlike my big bold killer cancer.  There’s no question in my mind that she should still be here, putting up with her husband Bruce, trying to straighten out my liberal ways, trying to build a bridge that would be a park, .  She had some odd ways about looking at things, odd and funny and wise and, well, odd.  When most people say they don’t want to live in the spotlight, you take it with a grain of salt.  Ella was serious about it.  She was curious about everything, but always trained the spotlight on others.

I am one of many people who want more than ever now to build that park in the sky, to make it available to everyone who comes to Richmond for the next 500 years, and to name it for Ella–even though that naming idea horrified her.  I respect her wish to have lived her life quietly, but c’mon. The world needs role models like Ella.  I couldn’t help but smile when I saw that her obituary didn’t appear until two days after she died.  I bet considerable time was taken by her family to make sure Ella’s wishes would be reflected in the writing.  It turned out beautiful, of course:

Kelly, Ella

KELLEY, Ella Lippman, 63, of Richmond, died peacefully in her sleep on the morning of Sunday, December 1, 2013. Born in San Francisco, Calif., she moved to Jamaica, Queens, N.Y., with her beloved parents, older sister and two older brothers, where she grew up. After earning a degree in French literature at SUNY Buffalo in 1967, she worked in Paris, France for two years before returning to New York City to begin her career in advertising. It was while working at Doyle Dane Bernbach in 1979 that she met the love of her life, Bruce Lewin Kelley. They were married on September 26, 1981 and had their first son, Devon, in September of 1986. Ella, her husband and son moved to Boston, Mass., at the end of 1987, where she gave birth to her twins, Emily and Connor, in June of 1991. Ella and her family then moved to New Canaan, Conn., where she found complete joy in raising her three children. In Connecticut, she balanced being a loving mother with working part time in marketing. After 10 years, she and her family began the next chapter of their lives in Richmond, Va., where Ella spent her remaining, happy and full years. Ella was a beloved, kind, generous and loving daughter, sister, aunt, wife, mother, grandmother and friend. She made every place she lived a home by filling it with her warm presence and selfless outlook on life. Her determination to create a beautiful life for her loved ones trumped all of her other amazing accomplishments, of which there were many. She was never one to inform others of these, but in her passing her family wished to reveal the successes she humbly kept hidden from everyone she met. She received a full academic scholarship to college, where she became fully literate and fluent in the French language. Her brilliant career trajectory in advertising, which was supplemented by an MBA from New York University, ended only because of her unconditional love for her children, for whom she left the industry. Ella was a member of New Canaan’s Town Council, and thought of by many to be the town’s next mayor had she not left with her family for Virginia. In Richmond, she was an active member in the community; she taught undergraduate classes at the University of Richmond, worked on the development of Center Stage and was the founder of the Richmond BridgePark Foundation, a city-wide project her family hopes to complete in her honor. While her accomplishments were varied and many, she always thought of herself as a mother above all else, a role at which she succeeded every moment of her life. Ella is survived by her husband, Bruce L. Kelley of Richmond; three children, Devon G. Kelley, Emily M. Kelley and Connor B. Kelley, all of Richmond; one stepdaughter, Amanda (Matthew) Forgione; and two grandchildren, Caitlin Forgione and Andrew Forgione of Atlanta. She is also survived by two brothers, Thomas (Sidney) Lippman, Stacey (Diana) Lippman; and one sister, Abigail (Martin) Margolies; and numerous nieces and nephews. A memorial service will be held for Ella at The Collegiate School’s Hershey Center for the Arts at 4 p.m. Friday, December 6. In lieu of flowers, please send donations to the American Cancer Society, or to the Richmond BridgePark Foundation,   P.O. Box 1116, Richmond, Va. 23218. The BridgePark was founded by Ella, and we hope to complete the project in her honor.

Smart, beautiful, funny Ella.  Now that I think about it, a disproportionate number of the finest people I’ve ever known have been named Ella.

The heart of an industry.

Patti and I had lunch with Jeff Goodby two weeks ago. I’ve been amazed and touched by the reaction of the advertising community to my upcoming demise.  I feel like an old mafia don to whom respects are being paid even if they’re paid with not very respectful good humor.  (Jeff’s parting words:  ‘you’re never going to f—— die, are you?”)

I strongly discourage anyone from making a special trip to Richmond to see me:  too often if I’m having a bad day I have to cancel visits at the last minute.  I’d hate to do that to someone who made a special trip.  But I do get to see some people in NYC and some folks stop by when they have other business in Richmond.  Dan Wieden is like Jeff.  They’re my brothers from from the other coast.  Dan made the arduous Portland-to-Richmond-to-Portland round trip earlier this week.  Bless him.  We had two meals together and I got a little sick at both of them.  Dan was, of course, gracious about it.  (He probably preferred Ginny’s company at dinner and Patti’s at lunch, so he might not have even missed me.)  The conversations with Dan and Jeff don’t stay on work or advertising for very long.  They’re men who lead full, interesting, meaningful lives.  Jeff’s working on a project now to help prepare young children who live in poverty for better lives.  Dan’s work with his amazing Calder school continues.  I am ridiculously proud that they’re my friends–and that both of them promised me that these get-togethers won’t be our last.

I’ve had memorable face-to-face conversations recently with Jean Robaire, Jim Riswold, David Droga, Jon Kamen, Jelly Helm (and family!), Ignacio Oreamuno, Rick Boyko, Matt Scheckner, Matt Miller, Derek Koenig, Jennifer Cortner, Alex Bunch, Ben Ashauer, Geoff McGann, Flinn Dallis (of course), Helayne Spivak (of course) and so many more.  It was great reconnecting with Kerry Feuerman.  Bill Westbrook sends handwritten notes (showoff!) every month or so.  I’ve always hated telephone calls—including Skype, Face Time and all the other digital permutations–but the ones with Brian Perkins, Marvin Sloves, David Bell and Bob Mikulay have been more than special. I love both my snail mail and my email.  (I’m the only person in the world who loves getting email—if it’s the right kind of email.)  I wish I could post more of those e-notes to my site, but I don’t want to do that without permission.  (I have a horrible and well-earned reputation for forwarding emails that the sender didn’t want forwarded.)  The We Love Mike messages mean more to me than the site’s creators and contributors could ever know.  I rarely re-read any of mypwn rambling blog postings—but I do re-read the comments.

I was also able to stop in briefly at both Brandcenter board meetings this year.  I really love those guys.  As I’ve written before, I leaned on John Adams to take my place as board chairman.  He’s already actively involved with at least four universities and he didn’t need another one, but I thought that in at least her first couple of years in Richmond, Helayne might appreciate having an industry leader who was right down the street.  John came to see me after the most recent meeting and he was energized.  “What great people.  Smart and funny.”  He was reminded—as I have been so many times this year—that this is a great business to be in.  There he was in a meeting that included some of his fiercest competitors and they’re all being helpful and respectful to each other (in a wiseass kind of way—which is the only good and true way to be respectful to peers.)

Jeff Goodby started his conversation with me about the last time he, Wieden and I were together at an Art Directors Club Event.  He echoed John:  “What great people.  Smart and funny.”  Some of the people who have written very kind words about me place me in contrast to the many “egotists” and “a——-“ in agency or creative management.  That surprises and disappoints me.  I’ve only worked in Richmond, so I obviously know most of my competitors only through social contact at industry events.  I’ve spent enough time with a few of them to know they’re deeply special people.  I hope I’m also right about the overwhelming majority of industry leaders:  that they’re good people.  I know some are real characters, but I don’t see much that’s evil out there.  (Yes, yes, I do get my share of grief about my Pollyannaish view of the world.  Isn’t that nice?)

Harry Jacobs–my friend, mentor, big brother, inspiration–visited today.  Of course, I can personally vouch for the character of hundreds of advertising people who have worked at The Martin Agency.  We’ve had our clunkers, but it’s a damn impressive group.  (I say I could vouch for the character of “hundreds” of Martinites.  That’s true.  I love them, I just don’t remember all of their names.)

Modern love and me.

As if it were needed, here is more evidence that I possess a strong inner female.  I am addicted to the Modern Love column that runs every week in The New York Times.  It’s a first person true story from a Times reader.  The paper says it receives more than 1000 submissions every week for the one slot in the Sunday Styles section.  I don’t think I’ve ever entered anything like that–and certainly not anything with those daunting odds.  A few days after I sent my entry in, I did some research on the column.  (Yes, I wrote 1700+ words, sent it in–and then decided to do the research.  Fire, ready, aim.)  What I found out was, the column’s guardian doesn’t want any more cancer stories.  He says they outnumber any other two or three topics combined.  So you won’t be reading the following in the paper.  I was rejected on perfectly reasonable grounds; I know what it means to be sick and tired of cancer.  Here’s my submission:

My daughter-in-law recently told us something about our 36-year-old son that my wife and I had never noticed before. For his whole life, someone very close to Jason was fighting a life-threatening illness.  For Jason, death has always been nearby.

Of course, since Jason was born 18 months after Ginny and I were married, death or its prospect has been a constant companion for the two of us, too.  It’s just that we’ve never looked at our lives that way.

A quick history.  When Jason was very young, Ginny needed surgery for melanoma.  Then Jason’s grandfather, to whom he was extraordinarily attached, had a series of heart problems.  Dad died when Jason was seven.

Meanwhile, Ginny had begun a long, enervating battle with breast cancer.

By the time that crisis passed, Jason’s older brother had been diagnosed HIV positive.  Preston would die in 2001.

In the mid ‘90s, Jason’s uncle, a North Carolina policeman, was shot and nearly killed.  Recovery seemed to take forever.

Through much of this time my mother-in-law—Ginny’s mom, Jason’s grandmother—was dying a long, agonizingly slow death, a deathwatch that lasted too many years. 

A few years after her death, one of her grandsons—the policeman’s son, our nephew—committed suicide.  None of us had seen that coming.

In 1998, even though I’m a lifelong non-smoker, I was diagnosed with lung cancer.  I was told there was an 84% chance I’d be dead within five years.  If you survive lung cancer for five years, you’re supposed to be cancer-free.  I obviously didn’t die, but I’m not cured either.  I still have it.

Since 2005, I’ve been in Stage IV Lung Cancer.  (There is no stage V.)  I was told then that my life expectancy was about 8 months. Ha!

In January of this year, there was for a change for the worse. Over the years I’ve had major surgery, at least seven or eight different kinds of chemotherapy and three or four rounds of radiation treatments.  But the program I was starting at the beginning of this year wasn’t working. I was feeling pretty bad, my tumors were growing and spreading—and the doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering told me I had two days, maybe two weeks to live.

Two days before they gave us my prognosis, I asked one of the doctors to take a look at a bump on Ginny’s neck.  They scanned it the next day. On the same day I’m getting off the treatments and entering hospice, we learn that Ginny now has Stage II Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  Having survived both melanoma and breast cancer, she is now undergoing chemotherapy while I’m in a hospice-at-home program with lung cancer that’s spread to my brain and liver.

Of course, everyone’s family knows sickness, death and tragedy.  But as I write this, I can’t imagine how Ginny and I had failed to notice this particularly intense, morbid, unremitting pattern in our lives.  The fact is, we’ve always considered ourselves extraordinarily lucky.  We still do.

We were always an unlikely couple.  She was the 33-year-old divorced mother of a 12-year-old son.  I was a geeky 26-year-old from a very Catholic family.  She was gorgeous and sexy—a model. (No kidding.) I was a geeky 26-year-old from a very Catholic family.

She had a house.  I had an apartment, a roommate and a couple of beanbag chairs.  Moving in with her was an important decision:  I wasn’t considering partnering with just a woman.  I was considering partnering with a woman who had a 12-year-old son.  If I didn’t have Preston’s approval, this relationship wasn’t going anywhere.  Preston welcomed me into the family from day one.

As beautiful as Ginny is, this wasn’t the marriage my mother had in mind for me.   Mom started calling my apartment every night.  My roommate (bless him) kept the fiction alive that I was still living there.

On the other hand, Ginny’s Bible Belt Baptist family wasn’t exactly thrilled about having a papist at the dinner table.  Especially after Preston told them that I was lucky Ginny wasn’t a black widow spider because if that were the case, she would have eaten me after we “mated.”  (We hadn’t yet told my God-fearing future mother-in-law about our living arrangements.)

The Catholic Church proved very difficult for us.  The routine they wanted us to follow to be married “in the church” would have cost us a lot of money and required some things of Ginny’s previous husband that we weren’t about to ask.  In the end a Baptist minister from Florida, who was very gracious about the Catholics and their cocktails at the Friday night rehearsal dinner, married us in my parents’ backyard.  Both new mothers-in-law choked back tears.  We chose to believe they were tears of joy.

Ginny’s family has a history with lots of divorces.  My family doesn’t.  We were both committed to the death-do-us-part ending, but it hasn’t always been easy.  The clichés of modern marriage haunted us.  I’m a workaholic who put in nights and weekends on a regular basis.  I couldn’t figure out a way to be home as much as I should have been.  I loved my work and I’ve always been useless around the house.  Ginny was (and is) completely capable of handling everything at home.

She spent money in a way that made me uneasy. She had a temper.  She was right that I didn’t know how to fight. Things were plenty strained at times.  We were both diagnosed as clinically depressed.  (It probably helped that there was never any suggestion that either of us caused the depression in the other.  In fact it became clear that we’d both been depressed at least since our respective high school days.)

So how did this unlikely marriage survive? We both give antidepressants and therapy some of the credit.  She gives my never-say-die determination to make it last a lot of credit. Although I long ago abandoned my Catholic faith, I’ve always held onto the Catholic commitment to one marriage.  More than Ginny, in the rough times during the early years, I insisted that the marriage survive.

I wonder now if we were helped by the medical and life-changing challenges all around us:  did they give us common purpose–a shared cause that united us?  Stories float around about couples coming apart when one partner is diagnosed with cancer or when a child dies:  I can’t conceive of that.  We never failed to come together when we needed each other. 

The most frightened I’ve been in my life was in the early ‘80s when we kept getting increasingly bad news about Ginny’s breast cancer’s progress.  It reminded me how much I loved her—but also, selfishly, how much I needed her.  I couldn’t imagine raising our sons on my own.   When she was finally done with the brutal surgeries and savage chemotherapy treatments, the workaholic took three-and-a-half weeks off.  With Preston in college and our seven-year-old in tow, we headed out on an adventurous journey through Korea, Sri Lanka, India and Nepal.    That trip, plotted by my sister, became a model for us.  If I wasn’t able to stop working nights and weekends, at least I could take off a month or so every couple of years and we could go where the office couldn’t find me.  Far away places brought us closer together—and I’m not sure I would have taken those long vacations if the cancer scare hadn’t rearranged my priorities.

Preston’s HIV diagnosis knocked the life out of us.  He had been a handful to deal with for a number of years, coming to grips with his sexuality and with life in New York City as a student at Columbia. He survived 14 years while the disease morphed into AIDS.  After Columbia he was accepted in the graduate architecture program at Catholic University in Washington.   When his partner David called late one Friday to tell us Preston was being taken to the hospital, we immediately drove to D.C.  from our home in Richmond. It was three days after 9/11, so even though it was late at night, traffic was slow around the Pentagon as drivers reduced speed to get a good look at the damaged building.  We arrived at the hospital two or three minutes after Preston died.

That was devastating.  It still is.  Parents aren’t meant to outlive their children.  To this day, nothing brings tears to our eyes quicker than some random memory of Preston.  Again, it’s something we share.

Until the beginning of this year I was never able to piece together the work-life balance Ginny wanted us to have. Now I can.  I work for a wonderful company that allows me to stay involved without expecting me at the office every day.  My 60+-hour workweek is dramatically reduced.  I love my work, but Ginny was right:  the extra hours for the two of us are irreplaceable.

Even with the great help given us by the hospice nurses and social workers, a lot of work comes with illnesses.  I try, but I’m never much help in these situations.  That always fell to Ginny.  She took care of Preston and her mom.  When my sister needed help in caring for my mother, Ginny jumped in.  Ginny has been my caregiver for the 38 years we’ve been married.  She insisted that I get tested for depression.  She knows what medicines I need and when; I haven’t got a clue.

And when Ginny’s needed help because of her cancers?  She’s a great nurse, but a lousy patient.  She insists on taking care of herself.  She usually drives herself back and forth from her chemo sessions.  I’ve never even met her Richmond oncologist.  (Of course, who would trust me?  I was scatterbrained long before tumors started showing up in my head.) We’ve received a whole lot of help from my son and his family, my sister, my coworkers and all of our best friends.  Best of all, we’ve been given every reason to believe her cancer will be brought under control.  (We’re lucky, right?)

Here’s the surprise ending.  Ginny and I have never loved our life together more than we do right now.  We both have good days and bad days health wise—but even the bad days are days we didn’t expect to have. We finally have the time together we both want.  I was supposed to die right on Feb. 14.  Every day since then has been a Valentine for us.  I might die tomorrow.  We’re as ready for that now as we’ll ever be.  And, besides, we know our love will never die.   Just look at what it’s survived already.

An update.

            It’s Thanksgiving weekend and I’m once again repeating myself:  No one has more to be thankful for than I do.  I have a fabulous family, a wonderful job and a life that’s filled with life. Despite the dire warnings from the nation’s medical elite, most of my days are good; many are even great, filled with meaningful interactions with the extraordinarily interesting people who surround me in life and online.

But I haven’t felt much like celebrating for the past couple of weeks.  After so many good months, I feel like I’m slipping.  Starting last spring I could feel the days getting better as they got longer.  The summer and fall were better than I ever could have wished for.  Now…not so much.

I should expect times like this.  After all, hospice is by design a time of gentle “slipping.”  Once again, my old feelings are intruding.  Once again, I’m not scared of death; I’m just frustrated—very frustrated—with feeling sickly.  I don’t want to make too much of that:  it’s still about discomfort and not pain. I’ve been spoiled by the good times.

Now I almost never get through a whole meal–even the tiny snacks I now think of as meals– without puking up some phlegm or having to go some place to lie down.  (It helps when I make ice cream a “side dish” to help melt the problem away.  Even knowing that, it’s hard to remember to put out the ice cream when we’re dishing out the main course.  I only remember it when I need it.  Stupid.)

Of course, this could just be a bad month. But I have to ask:  how many times can I pull off my “near death” experience?  Do I have any credibility left?  (As Jeff Goodby told me this week, “you’re just never going to f——die, are you?”  Well, that’s the plan, Jeff.)

Prayers, sacred and otherwise.

Hal Tench just sent me the best email I’ve received this year.  This is it in its entirety:

Are you dead yet?

Not everyone can get to the heart of a question the way Hal can.  (It was tempting to  let Ginny send him a sad follow-up telling him I’d just passed away;  I  bet we could have made him feel bad for a minute or two.)

Hal’s note serves as good contrast to something I’m seeing a lot of these days–very kind almost sweet messages from men.  I’m not talking here about the nice notes people send a dying man.  I’m talking about very enchanting but real expressions of meaningful feelings in the course of everyday life.  The kind of messages we usually associate with. . .women.  The notes aren’t sentimental, but they don’t conspicuously avoid sentimentality the way men often do.  (“How ‘bout ‘dem Bulls!”  or “Are you dead yet?”)  I hope to share some of those with you in the weeks ahead.  Of course, I’ll consider it a success if I’m just alive in the weeks ahead.

Here’s the first example.  These are the words Jeff Goodby said before his family’s holiday dinner on Thursday:

Not everyone has this.  Not everyone has a family that thinks about each other and shares and cares. 

Okay, and eats too much.

To have a family like this is to care about something outside yourself, beyond yourself. 

The family cares about you when you might not feel worth caring about.  The family is hopeful when you are not.  The family is patient when you are not.  The family forgives when you don’t feel all that forgiving yourself.  The family laughs, when you don’t really feel like laughing. 

The family is bigger than you are.  It was here before you were and it will be here after you’re gone. 

In that way, it is a holy thing.  And we are in the midst of it today. 

 We are very lucky. 

You don’t have to be religious to get behind that kind of prayer, to sense its sacredness.  I’m thankful Jeff shared it with me and let me share it with you.



I have an incredibly bad handwriting.  It’s something everyone can agree on.  Nobody ever says, no, no, Mike, you’re being too hard on yourself; you have an OK handwriting.  Nobody’s ever said that.  The parts that are legible in my writing are like the scribblings of a three-year-old.  The parts that aren’t legible are worse.  I take notes all the time, but I never go back to my notes.  Why would I?  I can’t read them.  People say, just slow down when you’re writing.  That makes it worse.  (I can’t sing either; I’m no more on key when I sing slowly.)  The handwriting problem has been lifelong for me; the shaky hands thing is new.  My handwriting is so bad, I can’t even say the shaky hand makes it worse.

In all my blog postings, the thing that got the worst reception–worse than my thoughts on religion or politics–was my admission that the note I was writing to my granddaughter–the note she’d open in eleven years when she turns 16–would be typed.  I was told over and over again all the good reasons the note should be handwritten.  I agreed with all of them.  They didn’t change my mind. 

I continue to get wonderful handwritten notes from a number of people.  I hope the senders know how much I appreciate them.  (Of course, maybe they’re sending them to make sure their comments don’t get posted here.) 

Someone told me she thought it was “horrible” that I even send condolences via emails.  I hope it’s not worse than sending nothing. 


My mother’s death

For the past 15 years we’ve assumed that I would die before my mother.  Nobody hated that idea more than mom.  As Ginny and I have said many times since the death of our son Preston twelve  years ago, parents aren’t meant to outlive their children. 

My medical condition has encouraged me to think about death more than I naturally would have.  A year ago mom wasn’t very happy.  She could recognize the nasty effects of the dementia that was eating away at her.  One of the most social people on the planet, she couldn’t keep up with conversations.   She didn’t feel good.  She often didn’t know where she was.  Although I worried what mom’s death would do to my sister, who had built much of her life around caring for our mother, I thought mom should die then.  It turns out I was wrong.  She moved into an area at her retirement community for more advanced dementia cases and she thrived there.  She was smiling and happy.  The last seven or eight months have been good.  The dementia helped her forget my condition.  Last week she made her exit gracefully.  There was little pain or suffering.  We don’t know how much of our conversation was able to pierce her coma, but at least we had our chance to say goodbye.  She’d had 90 years and only one of them–the year my dad died–was less than wonderful. 

She died like I want to die.  Maybe that’s why I haven’t shed any tears about her passing, not even as I comforted cousins who were weeping.  I choked up once or twice, but I didn’t even have to fight back tears.  It’s felt like everything has happened the way it’s supposed to happen.  Patti and Ginny feel the same way. 

The right kind of death can be a gift.