I first met Frances in 1980 or 1981, and thus cannot give firsthand data from before that. She was then working in the personnel office of the National Rifle Association, at its old headquarters at 1600 Rhode Island Avenue (since replaced by a hotel) and I was an outside attorney to them.
Here's a photo I took of her at her desk in the personnel office back then, when we were about 29-30.In composing these pages, I mean to commemorate her family as well as herself, so please forgive the initial digression into her parents' lives. Somehow I feel that in so memoralizing them I somehow perpetuate their lives. And emphasize, to those who did not know these people, or know them well, that these were human beings, real people, not mere names or memories or headstones.
Frances was born Frances Elizabeth Avery, the daughter of William and Frances Avery. Click here for some photos of her youth that I located. Bill Avery was a heck of a fellow. He was founder and chairman of the University of Maryland's Department of Classical Languages, fluent in Greek, Latin, Spanish, Portugese, Italian and French as I recall, and his definition of fluency was the ability to convince a native that you were a native. I once heard a Spaniard ask him what part of Spain he hailed from. Frances told of a trip to Italy where the Sicilians were convinced he was a Don from the US come home to visit. He was that good at it, mastering the language, slang, gestures, even local accents. If you count languages that he spoke but not to his definition of fluency, it'd probably be over a dozen. He not only knew the idiom, but its history: he was proud of publishing a paper, in Spanish, in the Review of Spanish Philology, that for the first time traced the word "loco" to a term in vulgar Latin (not the cusswords, but Latin as it was really spoken after the fall of the Empire and as it was evolving into the Romance languages) and solved the mystery of why an early term for feeble-minded came to be pronounced loco rather than locho, as it should have, given the linguistic rules for how the languages evolved.
We were once dining at a restaurant, and the waiter was from India. Bill asked about the Beef Wellington, and the waiter noted that as a Hindu, he could hardly say much about it. Ah, yes, Bill said, and uttered a phrase I couldn't follow. The waiter looked astonished, then laughed and said it was so. Bill later explained it was Hindi or whatever for "The English are such pigs" -- a comment the upper-caste Indians were constantly making, since they bathed seven or so times a day, while the English who ruled them rarely bathed and had what to their eyes were barbaric manners.
Bill was born in East Cleveland, Ohio. He was an only surviving child, a sister having died young of polio in the days when that was still a feared killer. He told me some tales of his youth. I remember a few:
At one point he dated a young lady who went on to become Mrs. Elliot Ness.
At another he dated a lady who, he later learned, had tuberculosis. Shortly after he learned of her ailment one of his professors happened to talk about the disease and waxed eloquent on just how contagious it was, ending with the statement that if you'd ever kissed someone with it, you might as well make out your will. Bill's memory flashed back: they hadn't just kissed, they'd spent a LOT of time smooching. Over the next few weeks he guzzled countless gallons of milk (which was in those days for some reason thought to ward off the disease).
He had some friend at Case Western who'd gone off to England to study for a year, and returned an artificial Englishman, adopting the accent, the manners, and anything else the British had not copyrighted. His wife said that he'd sit there looking morose and when she asked what he was thinking about he'd reply "India, Mary," pronouncing the country as "In-ja." That he'd never seen India, spent almost his entire life in Cleveland, and indeed been out of the US for one year, was of no moment. One night they were all drinking and twitting him about King George the whatever, who'd left the throne to marry Mrs. Simpson. He stood up, thoroughly inebriated, and called out "For all that, Avery -- he is my King!" Then he fell backward, grabbed a drapery, and pulled the draperies out of the wall so that they crashed down upon him as he collapsed, much to the shock of his wife when she rushed into the room.
He'd studied in Rome just before the War (he was on a boat returning to the US when it broke out). He was walking past some big fascist rally in a stadium -- a major affair, one of the few times Hitler and Mussolini spoke together. (After his death a found a medal from what translated to the national Nazi Party convention in 1938, held in Nuremburg, so that may have been the event.) A German was arguing with an Italian gate guard, neither spoke the other's language, so Bill stepped in to translate. He said it was amusing -- everyone thinks that to imitate a German you should be dour, when in reality you should raise your voice three octaves and get hysterical. He translated the German's pleas, which amounted to a hysterical "I have driven all the way from Munich on my motorcycle just to hear Mein Fuhrer speak! You must let me in!" and the guard's response that nobody gets in without a ticket. He thought the anomaly amusing -- here were two facists, depending for translation on an American who would later serve in the army opposing them.
He met some German professor, whose students had the custom of presenting him with a beer mug with their name engraved inside the metal cover. The prof. had a long rack of the more impressive mugs, and would hold one out, say "And whose name is on this one?" then pop the cover open to show the student's name. One was from the "Red Baron" von Richtofen of WWI flying fame. Another was from von Ribbentrop, Hitler's Secretary of State as I recall.
Bill had been nearby when one of the high Nazi officials -- Goering, I think -- was getting out of a car before a crowd. Bill had some small binoculars, and used them, and nearly was tackled by a Gestapo agent. The agent explained it was forbidden to look upon a high official with binoculars -- why, there could be a gun hidden inside one part, with the other serving as a telescopic sight.
While studying in Italy, Bill and some of the other fellows would have fun. One morning he and others were staggering back from an all-night drunk, and looked the part, with bloodshot eyes and crumpled clothing. They spied a celebrity (first name Gloria, but I forget last -- Vanderbilt? Swanson?) in an outdoor cafe, looking very stand-offish amongst her toadies. One of the students staggered up to her, faked anger, and berated her for having gone off and left him in that cheap hotel room, then staggered away. Another time they were in Venice, where there was an island, linked only by narrow footbridges (too small for horses or vehicles) to any other site. In a plaza in it were gigantic bronze horses. The students got sacks of fresh horse manure and, in the middle of the night, spread them about the plaza, particularly just behind the bronze horses. In the morning the locals were crying of a miracle. He mentioned that the Italian view of religion was much more personal than the English, etc. one. He was at some church named for the local patron saint, in which there was a vial of his dried blood; on his feast day, the saint was expected to intercede with God to work a proper miracle, of liquifying the blood again. Well, this was the feast day, mass was celebrated in his honor, and nothing happened to the dry blood. The parishioners were outraged... all this in his honor, and he couldn't be bothered to talk to God about a little favor for them. The local hero had gone to heaven, and couldn't be bothered by his hometown friends. A mob formed around his statute, cursing him, telling him his mother was a lady of the evening, shaking fists at him and bellowing rage. Bill said if the saint had come to life, he would have been martyred again on the spot!
During WWII, Bill was stationed in India, and made the acquaintance of some Scottish Highlanders. They were the roughest bunch he'd ever seen. Once he was drinking in a bar when two got into an argument. One was knocked down, and the other began kicking him, full-force, with hobnailed boots, in the side of the head. The fellow's head was whipping back and forth and Bill figured he was likely to get killed, so he started to rise. Another Highlander put his hand on his arm and said not to get worried, they were just having a little dispute; none of the other Highlanders seemed to be concerned in the least.
There was a fellow in the unit who was mortally terrified of snakes -- and India was not the best place for that phobia. Some guys waited until he was in the outhouse; the back of the outhouse below the seat was open at the rear. One guy yelled to look out for that cobra, then cried that it was crawling under the outhouse. The other guy took a long sharp stick and poked the fellow in the outhouse in the exposed portions of his anatomy. Bill said the poor devil nearly got out of the Army on a Section 8 -- i.e., mental disability
Bill had met Frances, Sr. right after WWII. His closest buddy in the Army had been her brother, Willy (who was a fun guy, too). Frances had been married to an Army officer who was killed in the fighting right after Normandy, so Uncle Willy (as I knew him) undertook to introduce them, and they hit it off.
Bill went into teaching. He had a doctorate in classical languages from Case Western, and had done post-doctoral work in Rome as a felllow at the American Academy, so he was qualified. He taught first at some place in Pennsylvania, I forget now just where, and then at the University of Louisiana, in Baton Rouge.
Frances, Jr. was born there, June 29, 1950. The timing was good, since the hospital had just gotten air conditioning, and otherwise the labor would have been in the swampy heat of a Louisiana summer.
Then Bill landed the job at Maryland, whose accreditation was threatened because they had no classical languages instruction. He got the program rolling -- I seem to recall he mentioned having Frances jr. running around the classroom during his teaching. Among his innovations was to introduce Latin and Greek for medical students. It was a simple course to teach, but greatly upped the Department's enrollment, and thus its clout and resources.
When I got to know him, he was about ready to retire, which I think he did in 1982 or 1983. Here's a photo from his retirement party. He's the gentleman at right. Fran, Sr. is behind him.
I'm not clear as to when I started dating Fran, but I recall we went to the 1981 Inaugural, so we were dating by January of 1981. I also remember we were very serious by the Yorktown Bicentennial, which was October 1781. As I recall, I'd been hanging around the personnel office for some reason, and just got to talking with her. After a few talks, I decided to ask her out.
I found her both witty and intelligent. She had a masters and nearly a doctorate from Catholic Univ., in medieval history. Her dissertation (never completed) was a study of pontifical law schools in 15th century Burgundy, based upon her original research in the Secret Archives of the Vatican (yes, that's the official title, and she had to get the equivalent of a top secret clearance to get in -- may well have been the first woman in history to get it). They still have the original university records, and what she found was that early in the century all the law students (almost all clergy, as these were pontifical universities) studied canon law. By the end of the century, they were almost all studying secular law. The church was under attack from the monarchy, and needed lawyers to defend its interests in the royal courts.
As I recall, she stopped short of getting the Ph.D for several reasons. She stopped working on it for a time, and by then the program had changed or her advisor had retired. Also, she faced the fact that there was little job market in the area. The average university needed only one prof. in the field, so openings only came when the prof. retired or died -- maybe six or eight yearly in the entire nation, compared to scores or hundreds of people graduating in the field and wanting those jobs.
She told a story of her father's visit to Rome -- she had started singing a song he taught her, something like "Jovinetza, Mussolini" (the first word meaning rejoicing). He told her to stop, stop.... it was a song of the fascists, and if any communist heard they might just kill them out of hand, and if any fascist heard, he'd probably assume they were mocking him and do the same. One of Bill's friends there had been a devoted follower of Benito, and would respond to any foulup with words to the effect that it would not be like this if Il Duce were still alive (while all his friends rolled their eyes).
Here's an image of the house where she and Bill and Fran Sr. lived, on Van Buren Street in College Park, Maryland. I was often over there for Sunday dinner, in the diring room on the left side of the main floor. Upstairs were the bedrooms, and downstairs was a basement housing Bill's impressive electric train collection. Somewhere along in there I wound up going to dinner in Georgetown with Jason Miskuly, who would later marry us. She had told me he was just like her big brother all throughout college. John later told me that she asked his opinion of me, and he gave a favorable one. She responded that she there were only two men whose opinion mattered here, and that was him and her father. I gather I did well with both.
I brought her out to Arizona for a trip at some point, I think January 1982; she had an assignment in Phoenix for NRA (she'd become State Associations Coordinator by then) and I brought her down to Tucson. She loved it -- flew out of a bitterly cold Washington, and got off the plane in a sunny, warm climate with palm trees waving in the wind. My father really was fond of her -- she reminded him of his sister Dorothy Briney, whom he thought saintly and who had died a few years before. When I parted from him at the airport his last question was "so when are you going to pop the question?"
The question was popped on Valentine's Day, 1982. We probably should have heeded the omens. We'd just had a long and messy fight about whether I had slighted her cousin by going home early the night before, we made up, and I asked and she accepted. I recall she said that she'd been ready for some time, but after a year of dating had rather given up figuring that I'd ask! We got out to Arizona again for my sister's wedding, on May 23rd 1982.
On one trip or the other she was frightened of flying, and it was not long after a plane had crashed into the 14th Street bridge in DC, with only a handful of survivors. We were in the back of the aircraft, one of the stewardesses was sorting out the big plastic bags they use for trash. She asked what the stewardess was doing, and I explained she was auditing the body bags -- new FAA rules require each aircraft to have enough for its passenger load. In spite of her fear, she broke up laughing.
We got a house at 3066 Valley Lane, Falls Church. It had plenty of bedrooms, so there was space for Bill and Fran Sr. when they wanted to drive across town to visit. We were married at her parish church in Maryland, St. Bernadette's, on August 21, 1982. Click here for the wedding photos. We honeymooned at Williamsburg, and in later years visited it with some frequency. I recall that our first night was at the Williamsburg Inn, which only had double beds. We signed out the next day. The only other available place was the Rochamebeau, which turned out to be a terrible dive (I think it's improved since). But who cared?
Fran spoke often of her days at Visitation, where she had taught before I knew her. She kept the old yearbooks (they're still somewhere in the house). She spoke of one trip where she'd taken a lot of girls on a charter flight to Italy. The charter airline (Evergreen, something like that) had done some doubtful things (I think they landed on too short a runway at one point) and generally made the trip something that would have given cold sweats to a whisky-soaked test pilot.
Seeking job security, both Fran and I left NRA. I went to work for Interior's Office of the Solicitor, and Fran ran a daycare center in Annandale. Amusing story from that period: one day she was chasing countless kids around when the daycare phone rang. She answered, and in her haste replied without thinking. The conversation went like this:
Crusty voice murmurs: "Hey, lady, will you talk to me dirty while I play with myself?"
Fran: "We're terribly busy right now -- could you call back in ten minutes and I'll talk to you then?"
I guess obscene phone callers aren't used to being offered a raincheck! Only after the hang-up did she reflect on what she'd just said, and broke up laughing.
In 1984 Fran called me: "Dave, I'm at the doctor's office, and he says I'm pregnant." I responded "That's great news, honey, great news! Uh -- who is this?" She didn't kill me, so I suppose I was lucky.
In 1985, when Fran was 7-8 months pregnant with Mark, the phone rang late at night. It was from a Maryland hospital: Bill had just had a heart attack, had coded, they'd brought him back, but he was not going to make it. I packed her in the car and rushed over. We waited with Fran, Sr. until his doc came out and said they'd done their best, but he was gone. He'd developed breathing problems late at night, had been ambulanced in, they thought it was pneumonia (it was probably blood clots hitting the lungs) and then he'd had three heart attacks in a row. The last finished him, at age 73. It was quite sad; Bill had been one great fellow. We were closer to brothers (albeit decades apart) than to in-laws; when they came over and stayed the night, it was something to which a person would look forward. Fran remarked, after his funeral, that she was surprised to hear so many men come up weeping and saying they loved Bill, not liked, but loved him.
I arranged the funeral (experience which was useful 18 years later) and he was laid to rest out at National Memorial Park. When I met with the minister who would conduct services, I mentioned one of Bill's tales. At the funeral, the minister worked it in. Bill had attended an OAS reception for a Latin American poet, and they had brought out cakes. He uttered a Spanish saying (which relies upon the rhyme, in that language, between graves and cakes, and the fact that cakes are served at a funeral there): "For the dead there are graves, and for the living there are cakes." He noticed the men chuckling and the ladies blushing--oops. He pulled a friend over, who explained that in this particular country "cake" is a euphemism for a certain portion of the female anatomy. The minister at Bill's funeral concluded by saying that Bill had a favorite saying -- he repeated it -- and it was appropriate here, even though it created a bit of a stir the last time he uttered it. Fran turned to me, eyes full of tears but a smile on her face, and whispered "Daddy would have loved it."
Fran Sr. resided for a time in a nearby apartment, but Fran and I decided that wasn't the best, and we got a contractor to build an addition where she could live, and talked her into moving in. It gave her a nice spot where we could keep a watch on her and she could be with her daughter and later with her grandson. It also saved her life the night her heart went into atrial fib, and she barely made it up the stairs to summon us for help.
Mark was born May 18, 1985, at Fairfax Hospital. We were both very happy. Click here for some photos of his birth. They had to do a C-section, and her face lit up when he started crying, which he did with vigor. And kept doing with vigor. He had colic, 90 days of it, when we learned how to function without sleep. She'd take him for half the night, I'd do the other half. On precisely day 90, we slept thru the night. Fran recalled that she'd also had 90 days of colic after birth, so perhaps it's genetic. For those of you who have never had a child with colic... just picture an infant who cries, not "I'm hungry" but "Aaaugh, I'm in pain" on a 24/7 basis, and will only stop for a half hour of sleep if he is rocked for a time. Even dividing the duties, you get four hours sleep a night, with the other four divided into 20 segments interspersed by rocking.
Mark turned out to be a bold and venturesome kid. He was constantly doing everything that causes a parent's heart to stop -- toppling things over, getting out of the house on a lark, experimenting with electric light sockets. As he was trying to get out his first word, I recall him reaching for something, not quite getting it, and in some frustration saying "Oh shi, oh, shi." Fran looked at me, since it was obvious he was trying to repeat a phrase he'd often heard me utter as I dove to catch a falling lamp or get his hands off the light plug. I cleaned up my vocabulary at that point.
One Sunday, when he was perhaps 3 or 4, the neighbor across the street called us to say Mark had knocked at his door and then run away. He liked to explore, so we kept the double cylinder deadbolts locked on the main floor to make sure he didn't go wandering off. We raced upstairs and found that he'd taken the keys from her purse, figured out which one opened the lock, popped the door open and gone off on a spree. He was nowhere in sight. I figured the most likely route and went running down the street barefoot (hurts like hades, by the way). About a block down I see a blonde head, middle of the street, running like heck away. I caught up to him in another half block (he was fast and I was winded). As I got up to him, he heard the feet pounding, did an about face, began running back toward the house, and casually said "I was just going home, daddy." No doubt about it, he had a quick mind.
In between the happy moments there were, unfortunately, constant arguments. Issues of control were involved, let it rest at that. On the eve of our anniversary in 1990 we agreed to separate, and I moved out in September. I lived first with a friend south of Alexandria, and then got an apartment nearer the house -- about two blocks down from the funeral home where she would be laid out years later.
In 1992 I got a job in Arizona. My father was in his 70s, my family was out here, and I intended to spend time with them. I'd seen them a total of 3-4 times in ten years, and Mom and Dad were not going to be around forever. (Dad in fact died in 2001).
The first summer I had Mark out she flew out with him to make sure everything was sufficiently safe. Fortunately no scorpions showed up (I've killed a few since) and she was pleased. She was positively happy. Life out here is very relaxing, and she relaxed, and for a time it was like back when we were dating. Then it was back to the grind, and things went back to the way they'd been.
Mark had a number of summer visits. The last summer he was out here (2001; Fran forbade him to fly after 9/11), he prepared a bit of a surprise for Fran. First, he didn't shave for three weeks, so that he went back not merely with stubble but with the beginnings of a beard. Then, he put on one of those tank-top muscle shirts. His cousins topped the outfit with temporary tattoos for his arms, and a fake pierced-ear earing in one ear. In short, he looked like a budding biker. He told me that his mother and grandmother nearly lost control when he got off the airplane, and for the entire drive back he heard nothing but the evils of people who get tattoos.
One amusing event of this timeframe.... I had discovered that the family name was a criminal alias. I found it dated back to Charles W. Hardy, a rancher who was elected first Justice of the Peace of Cave Creek, Arizona Territory, and married an Indian (making Mark 1/16 Indian). I then found that Judge Charles W. Hardy was actually an outlaw gunslinger named Nat Hickman, who'd fled the law in Colorado in 1872 and took Hardy as an alias. The marshall assigned to his area had started the Pleasant Valley War, the bloodiest range war in the Territory's history. (The lurid details of Judge Hickman/Hardy are on my main webpage.) Fran was not amused by this. In fact, when Mark proposed to write a school paper on his gunslinging ancestor, she talked him into writing on someone else.
Then, one day in the late 1990s, I called to say I'd found a big article on her ancestor, Ephraim Avery. (Fran is descended from the original Avery clan, which emigrated to the area of Grotton, CN in the 17th century -- the family is very big in that area, with monuments and such, and many of them fell in a British assault on the area during the Revolution). Ephraim was first Avery who had moved out of New England to the Cleveland area in the 1830s.
The problem was that the article on him was in a Time-Life book on famous American murders. Ephraim was a minister accused of murdering a lady in his parish, presumably to conceal the fact that she was pregnant. The book had some lurid woodcuts of him talking to the girl and then, when she turned her back, pouncing on her. He was acquitted, but fled to Ohio after angry mobs began showing up at his services. Click here for a college history course on old Ephraim. Fran took it rather well, although I did tease her that at least when my ancestors killed their man, they killed their man.
I can't give a lot of detail about Fran over these years, since I was in Arizona and only back in DC for some days every few months, and spent most of those times with Mark rather than around the house. The one thing that neither of us foresaw was that I might outlive her and be writing this. Given the relative lifespans of men and of women, I suspect both of us would have considered that almost impossible. Here's a photo of us with Mark and his grandmother, taken at his middle school graduation in spring 2000. As you may gather, Mark didn't like being in a suit nor being photographed. He was also a bit irked at all the hoopla. (At one point mother and grandmother were going on at length about how proud they were of him, and Frances asked why I had said nothing of how proud I was. I responded, "heck, I always expected him to graduate from ninth grade!" and Mark almost fell down laughing.)
Of my recent trips I have some memory. This I can now supplement with her medical records.
I was in DC January 1 to January 6, 2003. If I remember correctly, she told me was diagnosed with lymphoma right after I arrived, on January 2 or so. She first told me only that she had to go to the doctor's for some tests. I got some information from Mark, asked her some questions, and she told me. On the last day I was there, I assume January 6, she started chemo. She said that lymphoma responds well to chemo, and I did some research which seemed to confirm that. One source of worry was that it was both above and below the level of the diaphram, in armpit and thigh if I recall correctly, which meant it was stage III or IV of four. Still curable with chemo, but odds are worsened.
There was something I did NOT realize. Either because she erred or because she wished to escape "oh, you smoked?" (funny that a death from heroin OD or AIDS excites sympathy, while one from lung cancer winds up as "your own fault" if the person ever smoked) she had not given out the real diagnosis. She had been suffering what she thought was some viral infection, causing enlarged lymph nodes, since November.
A CAT scan had found cancer, two large masses and many small in the right lung, one in liver, many in the bones and lymph glands. If it were lung cancer, which the doctors guessed (cell studies were inconclusive, as they often are), would have been stage IV, metathesized, very low odds of survival. (15% at best, and this was pretty bad for stage IV)
The choice was made to treat with carboplatin and Taxol, with a less than comforting note that underscored that this was a bit of a shot in the dark: "This therapy will also be effective if the primary tumor was breast cancer, less so for other malignant neoplasms."
I was next in DC on Feb 11-13. She was wearing a wig, but otherwise seemed quite healthy, and said the chemo was working. She mentioned bone pain in her thigh. She said she'd gotten a really good oncologist, Roy Beveridge of Fairfax-Northern Virginia Hematology-Oncology, and everything was going well. Mark and I went out and bought her a laptop computer, so she could type and retrieve email while resting in bed. In fact, the medical reports over this period show the tumors were shrinking, in reaction to the chemo.
I recall talking to her on the phone over the next few months, and being told the same, and that the tumors were shrinking. In an email on March 5, she said that "Doctor sys I am doing well clinically and I am out most days for one errand and driving. I am so bored!!!!" Dr. Beveridge had said she might not even need radiation (projected as the next course -- shrink the tumors, kill off some, and then blast the rest.) Everything seemed to be going well, indeed exceptionally well. At some point toward the end she told me over the telephone that she'd be going back to work part-time in the future.
I called sometime around May 10-12 (May 11, according to my phone bill), and she answered. Her voice was slurred to the point where sentences were not understandable at times and I deduced she was on painkillers. She said the lymphoma had rebounded after the first round of chemo, but there were two more rounds to try. (Either she was confused or I was: actually, she was in the second round already). I did some quick internet research and emailed her -- details like get a bone marrow draw early... in a pinch they may have to blast your marrow to kill it, and if you wait too long the marrow may already be affected. She emailed back her thanks -- altho I noticed that, while she rarely sent short emails in the past, this was was just "Thx. Fran." .
What I did not know until much later was -- an April 25 CAT scan had shown the tumors' size was increasing again, and rapidly. In the lungs, they had encased the vena cava and pulmonary artery. Two more were in the neck. On April 26 she was hospitalized with respiratory distress. (I think she told me it was for the second round of chemo, which did in fact begin during this hospitalization but was not the reason. She told Mark the same.). She was finally sent home on oxygen. The records reflect that the doctors were talking to her about the possibility of needing a hospice, and that she had "unrealistic expectations" -- i.e., was not going to make it but was not facing that, and that she wanted the diagnosis kept private from family.
I got a later email from her, asking when I was coming in and reminding me to bring some flour tortillas so I could fix my favorite dish, green chile chimichungas. The email was unusual -- a lot of typos, gaps inside words -- not at all like her usual precision. Also, she mentioned that her cousin and the cousin's family would be coming down from New York, ostensibly for Mark's birthday. I wondered if Fran didn't understand some risks that she was not mentioning to me, and wanted a manner of last reunion. But so far as I knew, she had lymphoma, but was not in immediate danger. Of tumors and lung involvement there had been no mention.
I flew out to DC for Mark's 18th birthday. From here things happened so fast that they can be broken down by days.
Saturday, May 17.
I got to the house early in the morning, and was surprised to find Fran bedridden and on oxygen. Her throat was so painful that she could barely talk, although she was alert and with some effort could get out words or even short sentences. She was eating babyfoods (the cabinet was stocked with them) because solid food was too painful to get down. Now, I gathered, even those were too painful. I could also note a couple of cancer tumors on the skin around her collarbone. They looked like raised, glistening, bumps of scar tissue. I'd never before thought of cancer as something that concrete, specific tumors stretching and pressing on tissue. It gave real meaning to the pain.
She had a doctor's appointment on Thursday, five days off, and we agreed it was unfortunate that it took that long to talk to a doctor about something as simple yet pressing as a painful throat. (Actually, the appointment was to look into her reports of further complications and respiratory distress.) I called a doctor friend in Tucson and he suggested that the oxygen was drying her throat and suggested a room humidifier, so I got one and we set it up in her bedroom.
She still had mental energy, was quite alert. She was concerned about the mist coming from the humidifier, and I explained that was how it worked. I didn't spend too much time close to her, since I'd just gotten off the plane, might have a bug, and her immune system was compromised. We did talk some while I set up the humidifier and untangled the oxygen hose, the telephone line, and all of the electrical lines going to everything in the room. My doctor friends explained that chemo can cause fluid buildup in the lungs, and that might explain the oxygen. Fran still was giving no clue there was lung involvement.
Sunday, May 18.
Sunday we celebrated Mark's birthday. I got her into a wheelchair to go from bedroom to dining room. I had to do most of the lifting to get her into the chair, which suggested for the first time just how weak she was. Wheeling her to the table it was all she could do to keep her feet off the ground for a couple of seconds at a time (the wheelchair had no footrests). She'd lift her feet, I'd push it three or four feet, and she'd have to put them down for a rest. [For those of you who didn't know Fran: this was a woman only 52 years old and quite mobile when I'd seen her last, two months before.] She could speak a little, but only rarely a full sentence. We didn't converse a lot, because we were worried that her immune system was compromised and I was fresh from airline travel, where bugs can spread.An indication of how little we foresaw what would come about: when I left the house, her cousin Mary and I agreed that the main plan for Monday would be calling her health equipment provider to pester them into giving her a portable oxygen machine so she could move around a bit. She had only one of the big units, with about a thirty foot oxygen line, and a portable unit might be convenient and let her be driven around.
Monday, May 19.
I came to house Monday morning at 6 AM to get Mark for breakfast. As I pulled up from the side road, I saw a firetruck pulled up via Valley Lane, emergency lights on. As I got closer, I saw an ambulance already in front of the house. Word was that Fran had had serious breathing difficulties, and would need hospitalization. They wheeled her across the lawn as I stood on the porch; this is photographed from where I stood and was watching. She waved to me and then made the OK sign, indicating how alert she was at this point.
I and probably she had no idea it would be the last time she saw the house, the place where we'd moved when we got married, some 21 years before.
Mark and I, with her cousin and mother in another car, followed her to Fairfax Hospital. Diagnosis was pneumonia (at least that's what we were told; I suspect she asked staff to keep the real problem quiet.). I kept a close watch against septicemia, which had quickly killed my father; blood pressure stayed stable. Looked like she'd be out after a few days. She was alert, albeit unable to talk much due to the throat. I didn't think of it at the time, but she was much less able to talk than she had been the past two days. She asked for painkillers several times, in writing and by a few spoken words, and the requests were precise. Here's a note asking for the painkiller Oxycontin.
Her breathing was difficult , and they had to suction her airways several times. She was extremely (and understandably) anxious, and said that she couldn't breathe, although her blood oxygenation was 96-100%. My doctor friends in Tucson explained this was common. In pneumonia, esp. if thinking is clouded by painkillers, the person is taking unnaturally shallow breaths. They become convinced they simply can't be getting enough air, even though, because they are on oxygen, they are in fact getting plenty. They gave her some sedatives to calm her. A lady came in -- no idea exactly her role, but she had a headdress vaguely like that of a nun and some religious function at the hospital, She held her other hand and said some soothing things, and Fran nodded off.
They transferred her from the ER to Intermediate Care, which certainly sounded promising. Still, she was having trouble talking. She had to lower the oxygen mask, you would put your ear a few inches from her mouth, and with luck you could understand her over the hiss of the oxygen.
She still had the capacity to joke, even if she could hardly speak. At one point, while adjusting her oxygen mask, my hand slid across her breast, and she gave me a "I beg your pardon, sir!" sort of look, followed by a grin.
I later asked a biochemist friend about what had been happening here -- she seemed pretty stable, yet soon entered a rapid decline and died. He said that the body has a very high reserve capacity; you can have your coronary arteries 90% occluded and never know it unless you run a marathon. BUT once you've eaten up that reserve, you need every bit of what remains, and if it falls below that critical point, you sink rapidly. At the time we had no idea of this. The situation seemed stable, and we didn't notice the beginnings of decline at the time. In fact, it was becoming harder to speak -- she was down from sentences and phrases the day before, to a word or two at a time. I took a break and called a doctor friend in Tucson. I relayed the vitals and my friend judged that the signs were bad; she might make it, but it was likely that she was dying and I should prepare for this.
Her mother and cousin were constantly at her bedside. On the few moments when we were alone I blubbered out some things about how if worst came to worst I'd take care of Mark. She gestured me up and close to her mouth, lowered the oxygen mask and said "God will take care of everyone." I blubbered a lot about how we were young once. For some reason I couldn't think of anything better to sum up the feelings.
Her writing was often unclear--hands seemed getting weak--so we got her laptop computer from the house, built a cardboard stand to prop it up, and set the wordprocessor for very large fonts. Unfortunately, she wasn't able to do any useful typing. Between the weakness and the disorientation from pain-killers, it was hard to hit the keys correctly, and we gave up without having spelled a word. She was given tests to determine her capacity to swallow (in this state, getting something down the wrong pipe could cause lethal pneumonia), and the indications were that liquids would be dangerous but semi-solids were okay. Around 9 PM she got out a request for a milkshake, and the nurses said that would be OK. She specified a chocolate one, and I went racing to find one. It was late, just before the 10 PM cutoff for visiting, but the nurses said they'd wink at that rule. I got the shake, but she only got down a few spoonsful.
Later that night (Monday, first night, maybe 10:30 or 11:00) Mark and I were out of the room for a while). When we came back, just as visiting time ended at 10 PM, she was totally comatose. Mark and I went in and held her hands, and she opened her eyes at one point, and they rolled back into her head. When we got home I called St. Anthony's medical emergency number and left a message that they had a parishioner in the hospital and I couldn't see how she'd make it thru the night; she'd gone from halfway alert to utterly comatose in the space of an hour.
Only later did her cousin explain they'd heavily sedated her for a CAT scan -- didn't want her waking up in the machine and panicking. Ah! I was too tired to remember to call the church and say it was a false alarm.... I only did that several hours later. In both cases I talked to a voicemail medical emergency line, so had no idea what had happened.
Now, I'm not very religious. That said -- as a devout Catholic, Fran would have wanted absolution, eucharist, and annointing of the sick (extreme unction or last rites to us ancients) before she died. She would have wanted them more than anything else in the world. For the sake of you who aren't old-line RC -- you get those (esp. the first) with the right frame of mind and, unless you can somehow seriously sin while on your deathbed, a difficult feat even for a true scoundrel, you can die knowing to a 100% certainty that you are bound for the pearly gates. I mean 100%. There's no room for questions such as tormented Cromwell, as to whether he was predestined to be saved or not, and how he was supposed to know the difference. You have gotten right with God, and the only question is what time your spirit is going to ditch your failing body and move on to better things. You're as ready as can be.
After Fran died, I was kicking myself. I had gotten the hospital chaplain to give her last rites, but didn't know whether it had included the full works. The only countervailing thought was that, if she'd needed this, she would certainly have given some more clear signal, if she had to kill herself mustering the energy. It would have been that important to her.
At her funeral mass, Fr. Mcgraw mentioned that he had indeed gotten the first call, and had responded to the hospital before he got the second saying it was a false alarm, that she'd been conscious and made the sign of the cross when he entered, and he'd given her the works.
Religion is not my cup of tea, but maybe the Big Guy was seeing that the mistakes broke just right to make sure she died knowing that everything, everything, had been handled. The sedation. Mark and I out of the room when it was given. Our noticing she was comatose, her opening her eyes and them rolling back. The call to St. Anthony's and my delay in calling back. The quick reaction time of the priest, and his not calling back to confirm before going. It took a long string of unlikely events for all this to work out. The priest thought it might have been the divine intent, and maybe it was. Like to think it was, in any event
Tuesday, May 20
My memory is foggy here. I know I got there early, and we communicated some. She said thank you a few times, I don't remember anything else. It may have been this day that I said to her that if anything happened to her, I'd look out after Mark. She lowered her oxygen mask, I brought my ear close, and she said "God will look out after us all." I know that I spent some time weeping as she slept. You can fight with a person for twenty years, but still, seeing them there, in danger, their hair gone save for a few white tufts, you break down.
I was outside the room (her mother and cousin were in it) when a call came in from a doctor sometime in the mid-morning. Fran couldn't talk, but signalled that he could talk to me.
He said the CAT scan had found a 10 cm tumor in her right lung, encircling the superior vena cava and pulmonary arteries. It was pressing upon her heart. Also a node in the neck was growing, and other suspicious nodes in the lungs). There were no treatment options, and they were going to come over and talk to her about being put in a hospice.
This was the first I'd had a clue that there was any lung involvement, and only a single lung tumor was mentioned; the doctor probably assumed I knew about all the others. As it later turned out, the CAT had found not only the big tumor but quite a bit more. Extensive invasion of the mediastinum, the area in the chest between the lungs, with the tumor compressing the heart. Tumors in the upper abdomen approaching 3 cm. in size.
I got Mark and Fran's cousin outside and told them the grim news. The cousin's reaction was that we had to keep it a secret from Fran's mother. Mark responded with common sense: she's dying, how are we going to keep that a secret? The cousin repeated it. Mark again inserted common sense. Who should break the news? The divorced husband or the cousin who was virtually a de facto sister? The cousin said I'd best do it. Okay, I said, we'll have to get her mother out of the room. Her mother, understandably, was all but glued to her bedside; it was her only child, in danger.
A while later they had to suction Fran's airways again, and during that the family was sent out to the waiting room.
I waited until the end of the suctioning, and told the nurse why I had to go in and asked that she not inform the others in the waiting room until I was done. She knew my mission and said she'd see to it.
I held Fran's hand and explained the situation, adding I'd carry out whatever decision she made. I was still talking, she'd had maybe 45 seconds for it to sink in, when in came her oncologist's partner, Dr. Nicholas Robert (pronounced Roe-Bear for some froggish reason.). He stands at the foot of the bed, says "I see Dave is talking to you, so I suppose this comes as no surprise" (yes, like 45 seconds to reflect on "you're going to die here," that sort of "no surprise") and begins asking for a DNR (do not resuscitate) order. She wrote out a question, and here is is:
I deciphered this as "Dr. Beveridge (her primary doc) said there were two more rounds of chemo available -- one has failed, but what about the other?" Robert responded in her condition it would kill her, which undoubtedly true. She wrote out another question, and with a few words she could speak I could ascertain she was asking if she could call his office tomorrow. Here's the note. You can make out "call you" and a vague "tommorrow" below it (the original is a little more legible), but I could supplement it with the words she could speak:
Dr. Robert responded no, we might have to intubate you tonight, and that's irreversible, you don't want to die with a tube in your throat, unable to talk (showing he didn't know she could hardly talk at present anyway). Then he left. Wonderful bedside manner these folks have. He never got near the bedside, so I suppose bedside manner didn't matter.
From time to time he'd call the nurses to ask if we had a DNR order yet. I'd respond that her last orders had been against that (I was told this by the nurses -- when she checked into the ER she had indicated a desire for all measures to be taken), and I was in no position to overrule this.
Fran declined somewhat that night. Not knowing that her parish priest had already responded, I talked to the hospital chaplain, and he agreed to drop by and annoint her.
I can't recall other communications, except that when we were alone Fran asked whether Mark knew, and I said yes. She asked did her mother know, and I said no. She seemed pleased. I was doing a lot of crying; I don't remember much more.
Now, we still had no full idea of her condition, and she was in no condition to talk, and the docs were nowhere available, so far as I could ascertain. All the data we had was: lymphoma, apparently sudden discovery of tumor in lung, and Robert's statement that she was now too ill to try the last round of chemo. I called my biochemist friend in Arizona, and he suggested an idea. Use surgery on the tumor, remove as much as possible. Not to cure, but to restore her condition enough to where she could try the last round of chemo. They'll never get all, and it'll metathesize like mad, but what you're trying for is to let the chemo kill that. Maybe go laparoscopic. Odds are very long, but what are the odds in a hospice?
Wednesday, May 21, and early morning, Thursday May 22.
Wednesday morning I came in as visiting hours opened. Her mother and cousin had not yet arrived, and we had a few moments alone. Fran pointed to the clock. Since she could only barely speak, we were using sign language. I said it was 8:30. No, she nodded. I guessed again "time?" Yes, she nodded. She pulled down the oxygen mask, I put my ear close, and she said "hospice." I said "time for the hospice?" and she nodded yes. Then she fell asleep.
I was reluctant to reveal this to the docs, since there was still the biochemist's idea, and I wanted an assessment of that as a possibility for saving her. (Again, I had no idea of her real condition; it sounded like a single big tumor was the only threat to life). I kept asking to speak with a doctor. Finding doctors at the Intermediate Care Unit was about as easy as finding lawyers at the Mothers' League for Sobriety and Chastity.
Some doctor came in later in the morning, because he was in the room while Mark and I were in the waiting room, I don't know exactly what he said, but logically assuming that Fran's mother knew, he said something that filled her in on the fact that Fran would not survive (probably yet another request for a DNR). As might be expected, news that a parent is going to lose their only child came very hard. The doctor left before Mark and I heard of this and went to the room.
Finally, another oncologist came in, a Dr. John A. Miller (again, a partner, not her primary doc). His first question was whether she'd agreed to a DNR. We were standing outside her room, at the nurses' desk. I asked if we could talk -- there was no one in the visiting room at the moment, could we talk there? He replied "No. I have over a hundred patients, and I don't have time to spend an hour or two on this case. This is private enough." Wonderful fellow; I wondered why anyone would want to give inadequate care to a hundred cancer patients, but I suppose it is an achievement of sorts. I outlined the surgery idea, and he said it was impossible. (He gave no reason, but spoke as if it were obvious. To be fair, from the info in the medical files, it was perfectly obvious at this point; Fran had probably been terminal from the first diagnosis, and clearly terminal for the last month; if he assumed that I knew, he probably saw me as one more family member who couldn't face the inevitable and perhaps needed to be jolted into it. But I and the family still had no knowledge of that data: all lung involvement that had been mentioned was a single big tumor.) Then he wandered off.
She continued to sink--now she was too weak or too far into painkillers even to write a note. She'd make a few curly lines and then drift off to sleep. I went to the Fairfax Hospital patient representative or whatever they call it, and asked how I could get a surgeon to appraise the case. They said the attending or admitting doctor could call for a surgical consult. I asked the nurses and ... the oncologists were the attending and the admitting (admitting I could see, but what they were attending is quite beyond me), so back to square one. Miller was at the key location, and his only concern seemed to be clearing his assembly line.
A while later a staff doctor of some type came in and said Miller had called to see if we had a DNR. He seemed a decent type, and it was good to finally run into (a) someone with M.D. after his name (b) who was in the Unit and (c) who seemed a nice fellow.
I said we'd get the DNR if Miller would schedule a surgical consult. I explained the surgery concept. He allowed he didn't think it would work. I replied that if a surgeon told me so I'd accept it -- I just wanted to hear a surgery question answered by a surgeon, that's all. He suggested Fran would probably die before the consult could be set up (which in fact did happen). I said we'd take that risk and give them the DNR now. If she didn't live long enough for the consult, so be it; we were rolling the dice so many times that one more roll was of no consequence. But if she could live that long we wanted it. If the patient was 82, I wouldn't suggest this effort. Or 72. But Frances was 52, with a kid in high school. If there was a time to push the envelope, take some chances, this was it. (Again, the family and I still had no clue as to the spread of the cancer. If someone had pointed out what the real position was, far more than a single tumor, things would have been different. If they assumed we knew, then we probably sounded like folks who were just unwilling to face inevitable reality.)
The staff doc went off and returned to say that he'd called Miller, Miller had refused to call a consult, and said if I wanted a second opinion I should talk to an oncologist. The staffer started to say that if we didn't trust Dr. Miller ... and Mark said coldly "We DON'T trust Dr. Miller."
By now Fran was unconscious and breathing was labored. The staff doc said Fran had hours, not days, to go. The nurse agreed. Both of them seemed to good folks who gave a damn and actually were on scene, so we gave him the DNR and Frances was moved to a sort of in-hospital hospice upstairs in the cancer unit. They gave her enough painkillers to where she was completely out of it, and assured us she would pass without feeling a thing.
Frances passed quietly sometime during the early morning hours of the 22nd. Her mother had fallen asleep lying over her; at 5:22 AM Mark awakened and noticed there was no sound of breathing. The journey that had begun 52 years before in Baton Rogue had ended. A few days later we laid her to rest near her father, in National Memorial Park. The site is over by the children's area, toward the north end of the cemetery (i.e., at the far end, away from the highway, right at the edge of the road.)