My “Gorilla” Story

As a child growing up in Lindenhurst … on the south shore of Long Island … we had a dog … a mutt, really … named Ranger.

Ranger near Hamilton Avenue mid-1950's adjusted & corrected

Ranger, Lindenhurst, mid-1950’s

Ranger’s mother … Lucky … wasn’t. She was hit by a car and killed not long after Ranger’s litter was born … and they weren’t even weaned yet … my mom had to hand feed them until they got big enough to eat on their own.

I was five at the time … and given my choice of which of the puppies we would keep … I picked the runt of the litter … and named him Ranger, after the lead character of a children’s TV show that I liked to watch … Ranger Joe.

Ranger became my faithful companion from then until I left home to go to West Point 13 years later … other than school, he went pretty much everywhere with me … and particularly enjoyed loping along next to my bike when I did my paper route … and running along with me when I did laps around the block as training for cross-country and track.

Eventually, he got too old to do the running … instead, he would lie on the grass in front of our house … and follow me with his eyes as I ran by each time.

Despite his small size, Ranger was fearless … too fearless, as it turned out. One day in March of 1964, he was with my mom and two younger sisters as they walked to the neighborhood grocery store. A much bigger dog came out of the Narrangansett Inn, a local restaurant and reception hall … thinking the dog was coming after his humans, Ranger ran to intercept him … and got into a fight which resulted in injuries so severe that he had to be euthanized.

Mom called me at West Point to give me the news … and I cried myself to sleep that night.

But, that isn’t the main point of this story … which is really about the dog I fell in love with three years later and who was going to be my next “Ranger”.

My Aunt Ethel and her family lived in West Babylon, not far from where we lived in Lindenhurst … and I visited there frequently after my family moved to California in mid-1964, shortly after Ranger’s death. They had a female dog named Queenie … and, coincidentally, she had a little of puppies in April 1967 … just a couple of months before I was due to graduate from West Point.

In my journal for May 6, 1967, I wrote that I had picked up Jessica Poulson, who I was seeing at that time, and then … “we drove out to Aunt Ethel’s. Queenie had her puppies. I picked out one for me — it’s all black with 4 white feet, a white-tipped tail, a white ring around its neck and a white face.”

Yurochka Standing in Grass


I had just that week also finished reading Boris Pasternak’s book Doctor Zhivago … and Jess & I went to see the movie based on the book that same night. I decided that I would name the puppy Yurochka … the affectionate name that Larisa Antipova calls Yuri Zhivago … and then ended up calling him Yuri for “short” (even though in Russian Yurochka is the diminutive of Yuri).

On Saturday, June 3rd, Jess and I were back on Long Island … and I picked up Yurochka …

Yurochka & Jim

With Yuri, June 3, 1967

… to take back to West Point with me for a few days. In retrospect, he was probably a bit young to be separated from his mother … but he enjoyed the visit … particularly sleeping with me on my brown boy (our plush comforter). Needless to say, it’s a good thing no one in authority saw him there in my room!

We graduated on June 7 and I spent the first three weeks of graduation leave hanging around with family on Long Island and visiting with high school friends and teachers … while Yuri was back at Aunt Ethel’s with his mom.

Yurochka on So Rare Too smaller

Yuri had the run of my Corvette

On June 28th, I finally left New York … driving to Washington DC, where Yuri and I stayed at a Holiday Inn. The next day, I visited the Pentagon and confirmed that I would have a few weeks temporary duty at the Pacific Mine Force headquarters before going to the Defense Information School at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, in the fall … then on to Saigon, Vietnam, in November.

While driving, Yuri would sit in the passenger seat … or, if I had the top up on my Corvette, would lie on the convertible top cover, just behind the seats. When in the passenger seat, he was too small to see over the doorframe or hang his head out the window … so I usually turned the vent window in so that wind would blow on him while driving.

The third day of our trip, June 30th, Yuri and I visited my high school track teammate George Brown in North Carolina … then went on to Merritt Island, Florida, to visit with my best friend from high school, Jim Clark. We spent five days there, then on July 5th started the drive across the South … headed for Memphis, Tennessee, to visit with my West Point roommate & best friend, Jim “JO” Vance.

On Friday, July 7th, JO and I had dates with two sisters who lived in the Whitehaven section of Memphis … my date that evening was Sandy Douglas … and, as they say, the rest was history …

… regarding which, see…

After two days in Memphis, Yuri and I headed to Oklahoma, where I hoped to see my former girlfriend … Candy Sayes (ah, yes, a whole other story for another time). I was able to visit with her and her fiancée, Joe Davis, for about an hour … then drove down to Lawton, where I planned to see another of my West Point friends, Norm St. Laurent, at Fort Sill.

After visiting with Norm, I decided to drive straight through from Oklahoma to California … in part because I didn’t have any friends living between the two. On Tuesday, July 11, I got on the road about 8:00 am and drove until 3:00 … slept on the side of the road for about an hour … then hit the road again.

I stopped again about 10:00 and called home, then decided to continue driving until I got home … which I expected to do about 2:30 or 3:00 am. For most of the trip from Oklahoma to California, I was driving on either I-40 (which was not yet complete) or the old Route 66 … which connected the completed sections of I-40 at the time.

Shortly after midnight, I stopped in Barstow, California, for gas … I had the top up and Yuri was sleeping on the convertible cover behind me … I pulled up to a pump, got out and began pumping gas.

Perhaps a minute later, a woman from another car at the station asked me, “Is that your dog?”, while pointing toward the highway. I turned to see where she was pointing and saw Yuri … just as he was hit by a car speeding along the highway.

I immediately ran out to Yuri … and when I got to him, knew instantly that, although not yet dead, he would be soon … I picked him up and carried him back to the car … by the time I got to it, he had died.

I wrapped him in my lightweight West Point grey jacket … borrowed a shovel from the gas station attendant … and took Yuri out into the desert to bury him. I dug a hole about three feet deep … laid Yuri in it … and filled the hole. The driver of the car never even stopped.

The rest of the drive home took about two-and-a-half hours … during the entirety of which I was crying so hard that I had trouble driving … and which makes me cry even now thinking about it. My mom had stayed up, waiting for me to arrive, and I fell completely apart when I got there.

To this day, I do not know for sure how Yuri got out of the car … the convertible top was up … and the windows were up high enough that I don’t think he could have wiggled through the opening of either window. The only thing I could … or can … think of is that he must have awakened as I opened the driver’s door, then jumped down onto the seat and out the door behind me as I closing it.

However he did it, it took just a matter of seconds … no more than two or three … and, because I was concentrating on pumping gas, I never saw that he was out of the car until it was too late.

It is nearly 49 years since Yuri was killed, but the guilt I feel over his death burns my heart every time I think of it … which is still often. My journal entry for that day ends with the comment, “He trusted me so & I let him down in the worst way possible.”


I was motivated to write about Yurochka by the incident at the Cincinnati Zoo which resulted in the death of the silverback gorilla Harambe … and the resultant outpouring of animus and vitriol toward the mother of the child who got into the gorilla enclosure.

To the Christians among the vocal critics of the mother, I commend Matthew 7:1-3, King James Version (KJV):

1 Judge not, that ye be not judged.
2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

In other words, clean up your own act before you judge the actions of others … and once you do, perhaps it would be best to help those others, rather than judging them.

Or John 8:7 (KJV):  He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.

In the context of the gorilla discussion, it is a certainty that everyone, without exception, has at one time or another, been distracted in such a way as to lose track of a child … even a small child … for a short period of time. Most people are lucky in that nothing untoward happens during that momentary distraction … the Cincinnati mother … and I … were not so lucky.

Apparently, the Hamilton County, Ohio, prosecutor will announce tomorrow whether or not he is going to file criminal charges against the boy’s mother. The legal standard in Ohio for filing charges is whether or not she acted “recklessly” or created a “substantial risk” to the health and safety of her child.

Factual circumstances likely to play a part in the prosecutor’s decision include the child’s background and any history of dangerous behavior, risk factors at the zoo, and … perhaps most significantly … the length of time that the child was out of the mother’s direct sight and why.


A few more pictures of Yuri

Yurochka & Little Caruso smaller

Yuri (in the bushes) & his brother, Little Caruso

Yurochka Little Caruso & Little Queenie smaller

Yuri, Little Caruso & their sister, Little Queenie

Yurochka Bath 1 smaller

Bathing Yuri

Yurochka Bath 2 smaller

Drying Yuri

Yurochka & Suzie 1 smaller

My sister Suzie & Yuri

Yurochka & Suzie 2 smaller

Suzie & Yuri Snuggling


Three Dot … 127

Could I Have This Dance


Today is the 13th anniversary of the day my sweet Sandy lost her long, heroic battle with breast cancer.  Shortly after she died, I wrote the following as a tribute to her and, I hope, an inspiration to others.

Could I Have This Dance

I’ll always remember the song they were playing

the first time we danced and I knew.

As we swayed to the music and held to each other,

I fell in love with you.

My wife Sandy and I started our life together with a classic “How We Met” story. It was Friday, July 7, 1967, exactly one month after I graduated from West Point and was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Navy (a whole separate story for another time).

I was in Memphis, Tennessee, to visit one of my classmates, James O. Vance.  He had arranged dates for us for the evening, but the mother of one of the girls got sick, so they canceled at the last minute.  Casting about for a way to save the evening, he remembered that his dad and the mother of a Memphis State coed named Sandy Douglas had been trying to get the two of them together for a couple of years.

J.O. said he’d never met Sandy, but knew she had a younger sister.  Deciding we had nothing to lose, even though it was already 9:30 pm, he called and asked Sandy if she and her sister would like to go out that night.  To our surprise, they promptly said yes.

We showed up at their house about 10:15, dressed casually.  They, of course, had fixed themselves up in nice dresses and fancy shoes.  We were off to a bad start.  Sandy and her sister Penny went back to their rooms to change, while J.O. and I discussed the situation.  During our four years together at West Point, we had double blind dated on several occasions, always with the understanding that J.O. (who is six feet tall) would get the taller of the girls, while I (5″6″) would get the shorter.  Eliminated a lot of arguing over who got the blonde, who got the cute one and so on.

Meanwhile, the girls were having their own conversation.  When J.O. called, they had assumed he would be Sandy’s date and Penny mine.  Penny, however, is 5’9″, and she was telling Sandy (5’3″), “I’m not going out with that shrimp.”  Sandy told her that for one night, she would just have to put up with me.

By the time they were ready, it was about 10:45 and the girls had a normal curfew of 12:30.  Looked to be a short date until their father, much to their amazement, told them, “Have a good time and stay out as late as you want.”  A World War II vet who had landed at Omaha beach on D-Day, Joe Douglas apparently thought he could entrust his daughters to two recent West Point grads.

When we got out to J.O.’s car (a 1967 Ford Mustang), we maneuvered the girls around so that Penny got in the front and Sandy the back, then J.O. took the wheel and I got in the back with Sandy.  With that, she realized that she would be my date that night.  To her credit and my never-ending gratitude, she made not so much as a single murmur of complaint.

In those days, they pretty much rolled the sidewalks up at eight o’clock in Memphis, so there wasn’t much to do by the time we got going.  We finally ended up at the local bowling alley and had such a great time that I asked Sandy for a date the next night, even though I had planned to leave Memphis in the morning.  Not only did she say yes, but Penny agreed to make it another foursome with J.O.

For this second date, J.O. and I each drove our own cars, so Sandy got to ride for the first time in my maroon-with-white-top 1967 Corvette Stingray convertible.  We went to a local amusement park called Lakeland, rode the roller coaster and played miniature golf.  By about 11:00, Sandy was tired (she had been up at 6 am to go to work for the day), so she & I went back to her house, sat in the living room and talked for a couple of hours, while J.O. and Penny went to a movie.

I left Tennessee the next morning, heading home to California.  Over the next several weeks, Sandy & I wrote to each other almost every day and talked on the phone a couple of times.  I couldn’t wait to see her again.

For my first permanent duty assignment, the Navy had ordered me to Vietnam.  First, though, I was to attend a two month training program at the Defense Information School, Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, which started on September 1st.  I could visit Memphis again on the way to Indiana.  So, I left California at midnight on August 23rd and made the trip in 38 hours, with only one brief stop to sleep for a few hours in the car.

When I arrived in Memphis Friday afternoon, Sandy was at work and her Dad was the only one home.  Although I looked like hell from the trip, he promptly invited me to stay at their home during my visit.  “Sandy can sleep with Penny and you can have Sandy’s room,” he said.  Needless to say, Sandy was horrified when she learned of this arrangement.  Besides being dispossessed of her room, she wasn’t sure that she wanted to have me living in her home for the better part of a week while she tried to figure out exactly what was the deal with the two of us.

Well, the “deal” worked out pretty well.  For the next few days, we spent every possible minute together.  By Tuesday, having known her less than two months (most of which we’d spent 2000 miles apart), I knew I’d found the woman I wanted to spend my life with.  That afternoon, on the seventh day we’d actually spent together, I asked her to marry me.  Without hesitation, she said yes.

Realizing that perhaps we shouldn’t share this news with her family just yet, I gave her my West Point ring to wear on a neck chain until we could get formally engaged.  We later found out that her mother, Dorothy, had noticed right away that I was no longer wearing the ring and correctly surmised that I had given it to Sandy.

The next day, when it was time for me to leave for Indiana, we nearly decided to elope and make the trip together.  Reason finally prevailed, but driving away that night without her was one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do.  This was especially true because I would be too far away to drive to Memphis for weekends and weekly airfare on ensign’s pay was out of the question.  We weren’t sure how often we’d be able to see each other before I had to leave for Vietnam in November.

The solution to that problem proved simple – and became one of those family stories that gets repeated often, even now.  I had bought my Corvette by obtaining a personal loan, not using the car as security.  So, I sold it and used the proceeds to finance trips to Memphis nearly every weekend in September and October.  By the end of October, I had spent nearly all of the money and still had two-and-a-half years of payments to make on the loan!  To this day, my sons think I was crazy (#1 is fond of saying, “No kids & keep the Corvette”), though my daughter thinks it was very romantic.

During one of my visits in early October, I took Sandy and her parents out to dinner and formally asked her father for permission to marry her.  Sandy’s mother later told us that after I invited them to dinner, she told Joe that I was going to ask about marrying Sandy.  He said he doubted that.  But, when I did, he said yes, as long as we waited until I got back from Vietnam.

The first weekend in November, with my Indiana school finished and Vietnam looming, Sandy flew with me to California to meet my family (wiping out what was left of my Corvette).  This time, however, emotion prevailed over reason and we did elope – running off to Tijuana, Mexico, and getting married on November 4th, less than four months after we’d met.  Two days later, she returned to Tennessee and four days after that, I left for Vietnam.

Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?

Would you be my partner every night?

When we’re together it feels so right.

Could I have this dance for the rest of my life.

I wouldn’t recommend spending more than a year apart after having been married for just two days.  But, the time passed and I returned to the U.S. on November 24, 1968.  After a short visit with my family in California, I flew on to Tennessee, where Sandy and I were to be married on Pearl Harbor day, December 7th.

Oh, yeah, we were already married.  Well, no one else knew that yet.  At least not on her side of the family.  My parents suspected, but neither of them ever said anything about it.  Eventually, when my little sister eloped to Las Vegas in 1980, we told her so that she could relieve some parental heat.  Sandy’s family never knew until I mentioned it at the remembrance after she died.

We were married at Trinity Baptist Church in Memphis, then flew to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands for our honeymoon.  Shortly after the new year, we started our married lives together in Charleston, South Carolina, where I was stationed at the Sixth Naval District Headquarters.  Later that year, I was transferred to Long Beach and we arrived in California in November 1969.

Fast forward through the intervening years:  #1 son Douglas was born in 1970; we adopted #2 son, Matthew, a Korean orphan, in 1975;  daughter Larisa was born in 1977;  and youngest son Sean snuck into the family in 1979.  During this time, I left the Navy, went to Pepperdine University School of Law and became a deputy district attorney in Orange County.

For most of these years, Sandy was a full-time Mom, a role for which she was naturally suited.  Nevertheless, she yearned to return to school (having finished only two years at Memphis State before I dragged her away) to obtain her teaching credential.

In 1984, we moved from Southern California to Marin County, north of the Golden Gate Bridge.  I opened a private law practice and Sandy worked in the office with me for the better part of the next ten years.  She also spent countless hours doing volunteer work at the schools our children attended.

Sandy had a special way with teenagers in particular and our home was usually the “hangout” for our children and their friends.  She was a wonderful cook and always made sure there was enough of whatever we were having in case extra kids showed up – which they invariably did.  Because our children were spaced out over nine years, we had at least one and sometimes two in the local high school for 13 years, from 1984 until 1997.  All four were high school athletes and Sandy rarely missed a football, baseball or softball game, track meet or wrestling match.

In 1993, with our youngest son in high school, Sandy decided it was time to return to school herself.  She enrolled at Dominican College in San Rafael, dual majoring in history and political science.  She became an honor student and her lifetime dream of becoming a teacher was about to come true.

I’ll always remember that magic moment

when I held you close to me.

As we moved together, I knew forever,

you’re all I’ll ever need.

The next year, however, that dream – and our entire life together – was put in jeopardy.  Sandy found a lump in her right breast.  On July 15, 1994, came the daunting confirmation; she had cancer and it had spread to her lymph glands.  Further testing revealed a small spot on her liver as well.  Stage IV cancer, the most advanced form and very aggressive.

The prognosis was not good.  Her oncologist, Dr. Tim Crowley, told us that patients with cancer in this advanced state had approximately a 5% chance of living two years.  I was stunned; Sandy was stoic.  I was about to learn some things about her that 25 years of living together had not yet taught me.

Surgery would be necessary, but the doctor wanted her to undergo several rounds of chemotherapy first, to reduce the size of the breast tumor and halt the spread of the cancer in the liver, which was inoperable.  “The chemotherapy will be very debilitating.” he told us.  “You’ll feel sick and be very tired.  I suggest that you drop out of school for a semester until we see how things are going.”

Sandy would have none of that.  “I will NOT drop out of school,” she informed the doctor.  “I’ll do the treatments on Thursdays.  That way, the worst of the side effects will be on the weekend.  When the time comes, we’ll schedule surgery around my classes.”  Privately, the doctor told me, “I admire her determination, but she won’t be able to do this.  It will be too much and she’ll have to give up school.”

Wrong, doc.  The chemotherapy, traditional heavy-duty Adriomyacin, Cytoxin and 5FU, took a heavy toll.  She was sick for days after each treatment, was tired and weak all of the time.  Worst of all as far as she was concerned, her long, beautiful hair fell out.

But, she refused to give in.  Her professors accommodated some missed classes, allowing other students to tape record the lectures for her to play back later.  Her papers, though, were submitted on time and exams were taken as scheduled.  Two of my sons and I shaved our heads in sympathy and support.  Sandy soldiered on.

By late September, the potent chemicals were collapsing her veins.  Surgery to implant a port-a-cath in her chest became necessary.  This seemingly simple procedure (took less than 30 minutes) had unexpected complications.  Infection set in and Sandy suffered extensive bruising and swelling.  It would be more than a year before her chest wall and left breast returned to normal.

October and November brought more chemo  –  and more health problems  –  pneumonia set in and Sandy had to have fluid aspirated from her lungs.  The lining of her stomach became irritated and she could eat only mild foods.  Then she developed gallstones.  Dr. Crowley said, “Now you have to drop out of school.  It’s too much.”  Sandy said simply, “No.”

Finally, in early December, after ten chemotherapy treatments, both the breast and liver tumors had shrunk.  It was time for surgery  –  a modified radical mastectomy, including removal of several lymph glands, as well as a cholestectomy to remove the gall bladder.  The surgeon told us, “No sign of unexpected cancer.”  Good news for a change.  Four days after the surgery, Sandy returned to the doctor’s office to have one of the drainage tubes removed from her chest.  That same afternoon, she went to school to take a final exam.  She got an A.

A full schedule in the 1995 spring semester would earn Sandy her coveted degree.  She scheduled six classes, three history, two poli-sci and one economics.  One of the history classes was her senior seminar, for which she would have to write a major thesis.

In mid-January, she resumed chemotherapy, receiving six more weekly treatments with the traditional chemo.  By April, the chemo treatments seemed to have lost their effectiveness, so the doctor recommended interrupting them for a five-days-a-week, seven week course of radiation treatment.  These daily treatments left Sandy feeling tired and listless.  Nevertheless, she continued with school  –  final exams came during the 5th and 6th weeks of radiation.  She graduated during the 7th week.

Through all of the medical procedures, surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation, Sandy not only stayed in school, she earned her bachelor’s degree with honors in each of her majors and was also the #1 graduating student in the Department of History.  Her graduation ceremony, on May 13, 1995, was a very proud moment for our entire family.

Still, there was the cancer.  In June, Dr. Crowley recommended a new chemo treatment, using a drug called Taxol.  This chemo had been effective in treating ovarian cancer and had just been approved for use against breast cancer as well.  Unlike the earlier treatments, these would be given only once every three weeks, but would take half a day to administer.

And there was our daughter.  Risa graduated from high school in mid-June.  An excellent student, she was a National Merit Scholarship finalist and had been accepted at New York University.  She had been offered not only an NYU National Merit Scholarship, but an NYU Trustee’s Scholarship as well.  She worried, however, about leaving California while her mother was fighting cancer.  Sandy said, “I’m very proud of you.  You’ve earned this chance;  go to New York and do your best.  I will be there to see you graduate.”

The Taxol treatments continued through the summer and seemed to work a miracle.  A CT scan at the end of August showed no sign of cancer.  Even the stubborn tumor on Sandy’s liver was “non-detectable”.  When remission was confirmed in September, she was referred to UC San Francisco Medical Center for possible participation in a peripheral stem cell bone marrow transplant study using a Taxol-based protocol.

And there was more school.  Post-graduate study to obtain her California single subject teaching credential in history.  Classes the fall semester, more classes (five days a week) and student teaching in the spring.

With approval of the Taxol BMT procedure delayed, Sandy resumed remission maintenance chemo treatments in October and continued them through the end of the year.  In January, her doctor switched her from chemotherapy to Tamoxifen, which she took in pill form.  No side effects and her hair grew back!

Not for long, though.  In May, the Taxol BMT procedure was approved and she resumed preliminary Taxol treatments.  On June 1st, she graduated from the teaching credential program.  On June 13th, she entered UCSF Medical Center to begin the bone marrow transplant.  Sandy was patient #1 in the study of this newly approved treatment.  By the time the treatment was done, she had been in the hospital for 30 days.  Heavily medicated, she slept most of the time, day and night.    I slept each night on a fold-out bed set up next to Sandy’s hospital bed.

Though warned in detail about the debilitating nature of this procedure, neither Sandy nor I was really prepared for its effects.  Four days of continuous infusion with massive doses of chemotherapy was followed by three days of “flushing” the system with cleansing medications.  All the while receiving a stunning array of other medications necessary to keep the body alive while it is being bombarded with what would otherwise be a lethal dose of poison.

By the second day, the chemo was already making her sick to her stomach and she could not eat.  The doctors ordered intravenous feeding.  By the 3rd day, she had severe diarrhea and was vomiting frequently.  The doctors ordered more medications;  by this time, there were 10 bags hanging from the IV “tree” next to her bed.

When the chemo infusions were finally done and the flushing started, Sandy perked up a little.  At the end of the first week, though, other side effects began to kick in, including a heavy mucus build-up and open sores in her mouth and throat.  The doctors ordered Marinol (a marijuana derivative) for the pain.  Sandy didn’t like it and said “creepy things” were chasing her around while she was sleeping.

The 8th day, they reinfused Sandy’s stem cells and for several days after she received infusions of platelets and whole blood (donated in part by me and youngest son Sean).  Finally, on the 16th day she had a detectable white cell count (very low, but the count built up slowly over the next five days).  By the 22nd day, she was able to get up and walk a little, but continued to suffer from extreme nausea and vomiting until the 26th day.

Finally, the 30th day, she was well enough to go home, though it was several more weeks before she was anything close to normal and months before she was fully recovered.

Nevertheless, when the 1996-97 school year started, Sandy was right back at it.  The uncertainties of her recovery from the transplant procedure had made it impossible for her to apply for a permanent teaching position.  So, she accepted whatever substitute teaching assignments she could get.  And because she was so good at it, she soon had classes to teach almost every day.  Our lives resumed a somewhat normal rhythm, with Sandy teaching all the way through the end of the school year.

In August, I closed most of my private law practice, which had suffered severely from neglect, and began working almost exclusively for companies owned by my brother and his wife.  Sandy decided not to continue student teaching and accepted a position in the Advancement Office of her alma mater, Dominican College. Working at the school, she would be eligible for tuition-free enrollment in the masters program and she intended to take advantage of that opportunity.

Sixteen months in remission had also made us confident about Sandy’s health.  With the consent of her oncologist, she decided to have the port-a-cath removed from her chest.  With good luck, she would never need it again.

Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?

Would you be my partner every night?

When we’re together it feels so right.

Could I have this dance for the rest of my life.

Just two months later, however, the good luck ran out.  In mid-February, while doing a short walk on our treadmill, Sandy noticed some pain in her right hip.  A few days later, one of our granddogs accidentally pushed against her right leg, which caused considerable pain.  On February 24, 1998, a bone scan of her hip confirmed our worst fears.  The cancer was back and with a vengeance.  The integrity of her right femur and hip socket had been so compromised by cancerous lesions that a hip replacement would be necessary.

Follow up scans showed that the cancer was also in her left femur, her spinal column, some ribs, the skull bone and both lobes of her liver.  The prognosis was, once again, grim.  This time when Dr. Crowley told her that she would have to stop working, he actually expected her response – and got what he expected.  “No.  I want to live my life as normally as possible.”  She was still hoping to return to school in the fall and wanted no interference with her ability to do so.  She would no longer be able to drive, but by having me drop her off every morning and pick her up every evening, she would continue to work.

On March 5th, Dr. Edward DeMayo performed the hip replacement.  Four days later, Sandy was able to come home, but still faced a long period of physical therapy and renewal of both radiation and the dreaded chemotherapy treatments.  With little time to waste, the radiation treatments started immediately.  As soon as they were done, another port-a-cath was implanted in her chest and on April 9th, chemotherapy resumed, using another new drug called Taxotere.

Within a couple of weeks, her hair started falling out again.  Other side effects of the Taxotere were much more severe than those caused by Taxol.  So after just two treatments with this new chemo, Dr. Crowley switched her back to Taxol.  These treatments continued until January of this year, when a new set of scans showed that the bone tumors had been completely eliminated.

Through all of these travails, I had never seen Sandy cry out of sorrow for herself, or pain either.  When we learned that the bone scans were clear, however, Sandy cried for the first time since she’d learned of the cancer.  Me, too, though not for the first time.

We went through several more cycles of Taxol, then in March had another set of liver scans done.  These showed that the main tumor there had grown larger and some new nodules had formed.  More grim news.  Dr. Crowley surmised that the cancer had grown  resistant to the Taxol and recommended another switch, this time to Navelbine, which would be given weekly, three out of four weeks each month.

Not long after the start of the Navelbine treatments, Sandy kept her promise to our daughter, attending Risa’s graduation from NYU in May.  This was undoubtedly the happiest moment of the last five years of her life, watching Risa graduate cum laude, with a dual major in history and journalism.  The ten day trip, which included visits with family on Long Island and in Syracuse, as well as excursions to New York City and West Point, proved physically taxing, however.  She was happy to return home to California.

In July, Sandy passed a considerable milestone  –  5 years since her initial diagnosis.  Less than a week later, though, she suffered another blow.  Her mother, also suffering from cancer, had suffered a dramatic downturn in her condition.  We rushed to Memphis, barely in time to be with her mother when she died on July 22nd.

And still Sandy continued working and having her regular chemotherapy treatments.  The room in which they were given seated two patients; almost every week Sandy shared the room with a different patient, frequently women just starting their fight against cancer.  This was no accident.  Dr. Crowley’s nurse, Dana Monroe, intentionally scheduled first-timers for their treatments at the same time as Sandy.  No matter how bad they thought they had it, they were invariably amazed to hear what Sandy had been through.  Many gained confidence and determination from Sandy’s encouragement.

One thing I particularly noticed was that while some of the other women had a support person with them, it was always a child or a friend.  Not once in five years did we see another husband accompanying his wife to treatment.  While I missed an occasional treatment, I did so rarely and with great reluctance.  Nothing was more important to me on those days than being with Sandy.  Dana Monroe called us “The A Team”.  Mostly, though, it was Sandy’s dogged determination that kept her  –  and me  –  going.

Over the summer, Risa decided to take her masters at Dominican.  She and Sandy signed up for the same classes and on August 31st, began their masters programs together.

Sandy, however, didn’t seem to take to school with the same enthusiasm she had previously shown.  She tired more easily than ever and was having trouble concentrating.  By the time of her regular chemotherapy treatment on October 1st, she had begun to have trouble speaking and had fallen once for no apparent reason.  The doctor gave her some preliminary neurological tests and ordered a brain scan, which was performed on October 8th.

This scan showed a really alarming spread of the cancer to her brain.  Several tumors in the cerebellum and one large tumor on the brain stem.  A self-defense mechanism called the “blood-brain barrier”, designed to prevent toxins in the body from damaging the brain, had instead prevented the chemotherapy from killing cancer cells which had migrated to Sandy’s brain.  Unchecked and undetected, they had grown into potentially lethal tumors.

An immediate three-and-a-half week course of full-brain radiation was started and the doctors remained hopeful that the tumors could be completely eliminated by this treatment.  Initially, it appeared they might be right, as she seemed to improve.  Then she developed an unrelated inflammation of a bursa sac in her right hip, which was extremely painful and required an injection of novacaine and cortisone.  This kept her from working for nearly an entire week.

By Sunday, October 24th, her leg was feeling better.  But, she told me that day that she thought she should take disability leave from work, as it was getting too difficult.  I was not surprised, as I had been suggesting it for some time.  On the other hand, I was concerned; she had never before shown a sign of giving in.  Nevertheless, she insisted on going to work the next day.  On Tuesday, she was worse again and stayed home, but returned to work again on Wednesday.  This proved so taxing, however, that she stayed home again on Thursday, October 28th.

That night, she also told me that she thought she was going to have to drop out of school because she could no longer keep up with the work.  More than anything else, this told me that she was feeling much worse than she wanted to let on.

Saturday, she was extremely tired, something we had been told to expect from the brain radiation treatments.  When she woke up Sunday morning, though, she could not stand or walk without help and couldn’t say more than a few words at a time.  Truly alarmed, I called the doctor and, against Sandy’s wishes (“I just want to lie down on the couch and go to sleep”), took her to the hospital.  She was immediately admitted and they found that her blood pressure was dangerously low.

They also found the reason for the dramatic decline in her condition  –  her kidneys had stopped functioning and her body was slowly poisoning itself.  She had long ago told me that when the time came, she wanted no machines keeping her alive.  In a barely audible voice, she affirmed this desire at the hospital, telling me “DNR”.

I called our children to the hospital and they all came, three with their significant others.  While we were all in the room, I told them that if I had realized what was really going on, I would have brought her to the hospital sooner.  Heavily medicated by this time, Sandy nevertheless heard this, opened her eyes and said, “No second guessing”, then lapsed back into a semi-comatose state.  Right to the end, she wanted to spare others  –  me in particular  –  from any self-blame for her condition.  I was glad that the kids had been there to hear Sandy say that, as each of them was also having guilt feelings for one reason or another, especially Risa, who had been away from home most of the time Sandy was sick.

A kidney specialist called in for a consultation told us that it was unclear whether the kidneys would resume functioning, but that we would know in “a day or two”.  Since she seemed stable, I told the kids to go home and laid down on the couch in the hospital room to sleep myself.

About 1:30 in the morning, Sandy’s labored breathing awakened me.  I called for the nurse, who checked Sandy’s vital signs, then called the doctor.  She then told me that Sandy’s condition was critical and that I should have the kids come back.  I was able to reach the boys quickly, but Risa was sleeping so soundly that it took several tries before the phone woke her up.

Our sons arrived quickly, but it was sometime before Risa made it back to the hospital.  During the delay, Sandy had grown increasingly agitated and distressed.  Then, within a few minutes after Risa arrived, Sandy’s breathing calmed and began to slow.  I am certain that she knew, subconsciously at least, that all of her children were there.

At 2:45 in the morning, November 1, 1999, my sweet Sandy lost her long fight with cancer and died peacefully in her sleep.

Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?

Would you be my partner every night?

When we’re together it feels so right.

Could I have this dance for the rest of my life.

Sandy wanted no memorial services, but we held a “Personal Remembrance” on the Dominican College campus the Saturday night after she died.  We displayed numerous photos of Sandy, as well as our wedding album, family scrapbooks and other personal mementos.  A large group of family and friends gathered to remember Sandy and her life.  For nearly an hour, we took turns telling the group stories about her and the effect she’d had on each of our lives.

I also had printed up “Remembrance Cards” for people to write out their favorite memories of Sandy.  On one of them, my Mom wrote:  “When we all first met you, we told you how lucky you were to get ‘our Jim’.  Over time, you showed us that it truly was Jim who was lucky to get you.”

Mom was right.  I was truly lucky to have found something everyone wants and all too few find.  A companion with whom I could share a lifetime commitment, unreserved love and all of the joys and sorrows that come with such love and commitment.

                                                 … For the Rest of My Life


Could I Have This Dance” by Anne Murray was our song.