That night, the full impact of the news finally shattered Steve’s self-defense force field of denial.
“What am I going to do without you?” He was crying so hard, that it only made me wish that I had not told him the truth.
His fear made me stronger, as I had to force myself to pretend there was nothing to fear.
“I’m going to be just fine,” I told him. “Nothing’s changed at all. It’s all about the chemo now,” I said, repeating what the surgeon and radiation doctor had said.
Exhausted from worry and ravaged by his man-cold, he went to bed without dinner.
I couldn’t sleep. I had too much to do. The surgeon had told me to get my affairs n order, and I went to my upstairs office to do just that.
First, I went online to look at funeral homes. I knew that when the time came, Steve would not be able to deal with this unpleasant task. I intended to pre-plan and pre-pay for everything so he would not have to worry about a thing. Plus, I wanted this event, my final hurrah, to be as joyous and unique as my life had been. I looked for a funeral home that had a kitchen. I wanted my guests to be served hot fudge sundaes.
My whole adult life I had battled with a sluggish metabolism, fueled by excessive estrogen from polycystic ovarian disease. Hot fudge sundaes were forbidden fruit I could never have. Now I saw them as a gooey metaphor. They were a celebration of life, the joy of living for the moment, and the need to leave world without regrets, with a maraschino cherry on top. I wanted to impart this invaluable lesson as my last official act on earth.
Not just any hot fudge would do for my friends. Oh no. No Hershey’s syrup for this crowd. The funeral director would have to procure Heggy’s hot fudge sauce.
Paris has the louvre, Toronto has Niagara Falls, St. Louis the arch. My hometown has Heggy’s. For nearly a hundred years, this family run chocolate shoppe and soda fountain has served the Mona Lisa of hot fudge sundaes, with a rich homemade French vanilla ice cream, slathered with heaven in its chocolate syrup state. Only that particular culinary blast of decadence could properly impart my final message to the world.
Though my old country grandmother had told me when my grandfather had died when I was twelve that music during this time was disrespectful, at my funeral, I wanted music. I started to go through my I-tunes collection and picked out songs for the soundtrack of my life. “Someday” by blues belter Michelle Willson brought me to tears with lyrics that came right out of my own heart.
I will go home
I will go home
And I will see the face of my father
And I will fear pain no more.”
No, no. Too sad. I wanted people to celebrate my life, not roll in the aisles wailing.
I tried Josh Groban instead. Poor Josh. His sweet baritone voice was probably played at more funerals than “Taps.”
Hearing her favorite singer Dillie pushed open the door and came in to listen, laying her head on my lap as she always did.
I could not keep my composure any longer. I stroked her beautiful face as the tears fell. “I will miss you so much, Dillie,” I told her. “Please take care of your daddy for me.”
Dillie licked my tears, liking the salt. Her tongue flipped out of the side of her mouth, in the goofy way it always did, and that made me smile.
Pets are completely in tune to their human companions. They know when we are happy or afraid. They know when our world is crumbling around us. Dillie laid down at my feet. For a princess used to lounging on her micro-fleece blanket, 330 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets, and Sealy Posture-pedic mattress, laying on my office floor was slumming it. A few minutes later, Lady joined her. Then Spazz the cat. My entire animal family was around me as I continued to “get my affairs in order.”
My next task was going to be tough. I needed to write my own obituary. I am not a control freak, by any means. I am surrounded by many, and I share the DNA of at least one of them, but I am not. However, writing my final farewell was important to me.
I was very bothered by the fact that nothing in my life was lasting, that I would leave the earth without anyone knowing I had even been here. I planned to be cremated and have my ashes scattered with Steve someday on our land in Idaho. I wasn’t even going to have a headstone. There was going to be no granite marker telling the world like Ozymandias that at one time there was this person Melanie Butera that had been a vet and loving, breathing person. I thought that if I wrote my own obituary, I would at least have something somewhere that told the world I had been here that was lasting, even in this increasingly paperless world.
As I struggled to find the words, my music library continued to play random selections. Pavarotti began to sing the beautiful “Il Lucevan le Stelle,” the heartbreaking aria from Tosca. His doomed character Cavaradossi recalls his love and life from his prison cell. He knows he will be executed at dawn, and he sees the sun rising.
Even in happier times, this performance had always brought me to tears. Pavarotti’s rendition is the most extraordinary three minutes of beauty and anguish I have ever known. That night, it devastated me. I wept uncontrollably from the bittersweet cry of the opening clarinet to Luciano’s heart-wrenching finale.
I wished I didn’t understand the Italian lyrics.
“I die hopeless
And never before have I
loved life so much.
Loved life so much.”
I had the breakdown to which I was entitled, but up to then had not allowed.
“Is this all there is?” I said out loud to a Creator I thought would not answer me. “I am just here and then ‘poof’ I am gone? Did nothing I have done mean anything?“
Cancer had taken Il Maestro’s life, too, but his gift and voice were immortal. Peformers and artists touched people long after they are gone. Writers teach and entertain people for eternity. Builders create bridges and monuments that time will not wash away. What had I done? I knew that I had achieved my goal of being a good vet and I had helped a three hundred thousand and change clients and patients, but nothing I had done was lasting. Nothing I had done made a single mark on the universe. My life had not mattered.
Awash in self-pity and the futility of my life, I didn’t even notice that the next music library random selection was perhaps not so random after all. The Master DJ had His own playlist that night. His next choice was from the soundtrack of “The Color Purple.” The song He chose stopped my tears long enough for me to regain my composure: “God is Trying to Tell You Something.”
I was so self-absorbed, I didn’t even notice that what God was trying to tell me was that He was trying to tell me something. It wasn’t until the third “random” selection I finally got the hint. Of the 1436 tracks in my eclectic collection of blues, jazz, opera, and soundtracks, He chose the one single track He knew would grab my attention by the horns: “The Brain,” from Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein, the Musical.”
A lesser god would have chosen any song that was meant to turn my tears into laughter. Only a truly ominiscient and omnipotent Super-God could have known that this particular song would not only dry up my tears, but make me know He was there.
The lyrics of that crazy song were not what finally got my attention. The coded message was the musical and its parent movie themselves. “Young Frankenstein” had become a key symbol of hope between an old friend and me as we fought our illnesses together.
The day before my first cancer surgery, a friend from high school, Sandy , had posted essentially a goodbye to the world on her Facebook page. I called her, perplexed why such a beautiful, gifted, and spiritual lady could be so desperate.
Sandy explained she had been battling a mystery illness for several months and despite countless visits to specialists and emergency rooms, she still had no explanations. She couldn’t stand without passing out. She had constant headaches and neck pain, vertigo, nausea, shortness of breath. She had twice coded in emergency rooms when her blood pressure fell to forty over twenty.
Through it all, she had kept her faith and her humor. Once she awoke from a blackout in a hospital room, unwittingly sporting an Inspector Clouseau French accent. She tried to get the resident to understand her speech had changed. For some reason, however, the doctor could not hear the problem. He insisted her speech was just fine, and that he had never heard of such a condition in all his years training in his hometown of Paris, France.
The last straw for her, though, that had finally beat her hope into submission, was a snooty lady neurologist that had gone so far as to suggest that Sandy was faking her symptoms. Although this doctor with accolades out her overeducated wazoo could not explain how anyone could fake a BP of forty over twenty, she arrogantly chose to accuse her patient of hypochondria instead of accepting her own limits as a doctor. Instead of researching Sandy’s symptoms or even just asking “Siri” on an I-phone, she ignorantly assumed that Sandy was “faking it.” She addressed Sandy in a shockingly condescending manner.
“So,” she said, oozing insensitivity in tones reserved for speaking to a child, “you’re mother died from a stroke. We want to be like our mother, don’t we?”
After that enraging experience, Sandy, this vivacious, loving, gifted, child of God was ready to give up. She could no longer fight both the illness and the doctors. Exhausted, she gave up all hope that she would ever be well and accepted that she was dying.
“Sandy,” I told her, “don’t you give up. My surgery is tomorrow. I’m just starting my journey . We’ll keep each other company along the way.”
We prayed together. Sandy was a minister’s daughter and I was Catholic. We were raised in different traditions and radically different faiths, but we prayed to the same God. She led a prayer from her heart that she would have enough strength to help me fight my illness and that I would help her fight hers. I told her, jokingly, that I was praying to the modern Catholic saint Padre Pio for strength, and was making her an honorary Catholic so he would help her, too.
I was infuriated at her last neurologist. “Don’t you dare let some arrogant doctor ruin your hope,” I told her. “As soon as I get back on my feet from surgery, we are going to get you to a better doctor, to the best doctor – to the Luciano Pavarotti of doctors.”
When I called her a few days later to tell her my surgery was over and I was home, I discovered she had been in the hospital herself during the same time. After our last conversation, she had blacked out again. She had been taken by ambulance to the hospital. She would not allow them to assign the same snooty neurologist, so the French doctor was back. She jokingly called him in an exaggerated French accent “le docteur Gi Gadois” (Peter Sellers’ alter-ego to Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies.)
Despite what she had just gone through, her voice was strong and full of hope. She explained why. Two things had happened this time that had not happened before. They had put her on a “tilt table” to test her to see if different angles induced her signs. It did . She coded when they elevated her about 40 degrees. During this time, as the doctors and nurses ran around her trying to get her BP to register, she had a feeling of warmth all through her body. She knew that the Lord had wrapped His arms around her. He then told her: “You will live as long as you are supposed to, my child.” This brought her peace. Whether she lived or died, she took peace in knowing that either path was her destiny.
The second thing that had happened during this hospital visit was that her MRI finally showed something wrong in her brain, not a tumor but changes were noted in the brainstem area. She was greatly comforted that finally someone, in this case Dr. Gadois, could point to something and show the world that she had not made this up. The problem wasn’t in her head, it was in her brain.
The source of her problem was still a mystery, but le docteur saw an area where the structure was wrong. In his French accent, he told her that her brain was “abby normal”.
“Melanie,” she told me laughing. “As soon as he said that, the first thing I thought about was your brother Tom in high school mimicking Marty Feldman in “Young Frankenstein.” He had the whole schtick down and kept saying his brain was ‘abby normal.’ He was such a cutie!” Poor Dr. Gadois never did know why the patient he had just given serious news to responded with a hearty laugh.
Just a few hours after that conversation, the “Young Frankenstein” symbol between us was solidified. I was recliner-bound, recovering from surgery. Steve turned on the tv. Without changing the channel or consulting the channel guide, the movie that was playing was, of course, “Young Frankenstein.” The very first image as the tv came to life was Marty Feldman looking through the “brain depository” flap, on his way to steal “Abby Normal’s” brain.
Now, six months later, as I hopelessly faced my own death as the sun began to rise, God was trying to tell me via “Young Frankenstein” what He had told Sandy: “You will live as long as you are supposed to.” This gave me such peace. This song “The Brain” could only have been chosen by a truly divine all-knowing, and surprisingly cheeky God.
Smiling, I trashed the draft of my Magnum Opus obituary and with dry eyes looked through digital folders for a certain picture of myself. Again thinking that “getting my affairs in order” meant I had to prearrange my own funeral, I wanted to find a photograph to enlarge and frame to display at the calling hours. I don’t really like any photos of myself, but there was one with Dillie that I thought would be all right.
I opened a folder I had entitled “Dillie.” The photograph was not there, but I discovered I had stored the first draft of a book I had begun to write about Dillie two years ago. She had gotten famous in 2009, and all these people were writing about her and putting her in books. I had boldly and, perhaps, foolishly thought: “I know her better than anyone. I should write a book about her.” As I reread the pages I had written so long ago, before my cancer, before Pat’s cancer, before Dean’s tragic fall off the ladder in his dream home, before all the losses of the animals and people in my life that had occurred in the last two years, I knew I had to finish this book. Even if it never sold a copy, even if no one else ever read it, I had to finish it. This was my legacy. This was my ganite marker. This was my proof that I had existed.
With the sun rising, and Dillie, Lady, and Spazz lounging around me, I began to “put my affairs in order.” I wrote “Dillie the Deer, Love on Hooves.”