A year ago today, as the sun began its tangerine sneak through the oaks and maples that dot our property, the best person I ever knew flew out our bedroom window to dance among the clouds. Her name was Jerrle Miller Gericke. For forty years she was my love, wife, and best friend. And then, with one short, snorting gasp, she was gone. Metastatic breast cancer claimed a giant at 6:02 a.m., and life as I knew it changed forever.
I’m writing this essay through moistened eyes to accompany a video produced by our dear friend Janice Page. I played this video tribute to a gathering of friends after Jerrle’s funeral, and I will play it for you now. The music is Petula Clark’s “I’ll Never Live Without Your Love,” the most emotionally perfect song to describe how I feel about the woman with whom I lived my entire adult life. The video is at the top of this post. I love this tribute and hope you do too. Jerrle’s thousand-watt smile at the end is worth the few minutes it takes to watch the whole thing.
Metastatic cancer is a slavering beast, with the soul of the ferryman crossing the River Styx. “The Mets” spit cancer cells like machine-gun bullets, rending flesh and organs faster than oncologists can keep up. From Memorial Day 2014 to that chilly, softly lit dawn of August 2015, I watched the Mets eat my wife ounce by ounce, piece by piece, punching this muscle and scarring that organ, till it finally reveled in the gluttony of its destruction: Killing the nerves in her GI system. No food equals no life, and when the ensuing starvation reduced her to eighty pounds, death mercifully befell her. But though her body shorted out, her spirit, life-spark, joy of family, friends, beagles, Mallard ducks, noir films, reading, and the Chicago Cubs and Black Hawks never died. Her love for me remained as fierce and protective as the day we met. Yes, her heart stopped. But her love won’t because it’s in the sunbeams that caress us and the stars that twinkle at night.
To anyone who knows Jerrle’s nuclear-level organizational skills—lookin’ at you, Rose and Jan!–she’s already built a rambling cloud house filled with memories, ceramic pigs, and a big, comfy recliner for the day those autumn winds blow for me. There’s plenty of room for anyone who wants to join us. We’ll have pizza, ice cream, milkshakes and beer, because in Cloudland, calories don’t count.
My year without her has been . . . bizarre. She died on Monday, I buried her on Thursday, and my (then-new) novel The Fury launched on Friday—what would have been Jerrle’s 60th birthday–necessitating a Happy Author Face for the hundred-plus fans jamming the launch-day bookstore, because she and I agreed that the show must go on. A month later my gallbladder went rogue, forcing me into emergency surgery. After I healed, I decided to clean the basement (the house was in the midst of total remodeling, hence the mess), and nearly died from an ammonia spill. I threw out my lower back in December, again in the spring, and a third time in July, the day I was supposed to fly to New York for Thrillerfest, the literary conference I had a small part in founding a decade ago. (My back spasms were since diagnosed as lumbar spinal arthritis. It’s not curable, but can be effectively managed, making my neurological pain specialist my new BFF. Combined with six weeks of painful physical therapy, intense daily exercise, and 35 pounds of weight loss—65 more to go; I plan to look like a Navy SEAL by this time in 2017–I’m back on my feet again.)
But my pain wasn’t just physical. In October, I tumbled into a deep, dark well of desperation. It wasn’t depression, it was overwhelming sadness at losing half my soul. Jerrle and I were married our entire adult lives, having met in college. Since we were both 60—technically, she died four days short, but I threw her a friend-studded birthday party in our bedroom eight days earlier, so as far as I’m concerned she reached that milestone fair and square, and who’s to say otherwise?—my past year has been a series of train derailments called We Becoming Me. It’s exhausting to run my life by myself, and I wind up far more zombie-eyed than I should. I’m still alone, literally and romantically, but that suits me fine for now. It may suit me forever, or it may not. I’m taking life day by day.
My sisters, Diana Gericke and Marianne Taylor, remain my guardian angels. They flew in from Arizona the day Jerrle left the hospital for home hospice, and they took care of us both in the final three weeks of her life. When the oncologist—a guardian angel in his own right—told us there was nothing more he could do after a year of fighting multi-organ tumors, kidney failure, esophageal collapse, stomach and bowel upheavals, thrown blood clots, deadly MRSA, and deadlier sepsis with his counter-missiles of chemo, surgery, radiation, stents, clot-catchers, Vancomycin bombs, and needle-suction of her abdomen, which was excruciatingly distended from the cancer juice—technically, “ascites”—excreted by the thousands of micro-Mets leeching off her abdominal wall. The moment Dr. Joseph Kash said he’d run out of medical options, Jerrle announced she would die not at the hospital, but in our home, in our bedroom, next to me, hand in hand, the same way we fell asleep every night. When we got to the house I called the hospice people, then e-mailed my sisters for help. They hopped the red-eye that night, and for three long weeks helped me help Jerrle die with as much dignity—and as little pain—as love and pharmacology could manage.
It worked. Her final breath came in her sleep.
In the last days of her life, the only thing she worried about was me. She knew I could take care of myself—I’ve always been self-reliant—but feared I would quit writing because of her death. She read seventy books a year, loved that I was a novelist, and couldn’t stand the thought of me not putting words to paper. She laid out that fear on the morning of the night she would start her final journey. I promised I would get back to the keyboard when I was ready. She hedged her bets by asking our friends to herd me back to Wordland if I stumbled or strayed. She was determined that I continue what I’ve loved doing since, literally, second grade: Tell Stories.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure that would actually happen. I haven’t written anything but Facebook posts in a year. I haven’t read one single book. It all seemed so fucking pointless . . .
But then I climbed out of that deep, smelly hole. I saw her in the sun and the stars, and I smiled. I was sick of being tired, and aghast at not caring about anything. So I’m back, not yet whole, but no longer pathetic. I am now the first draft of my second life.
So, Jerrle, this essay is the start of my promise to you. Many more are in the works, from essays to short stories to full novels. So you stay warm and comfy in those blue and fluffy skies, I will continue to write the books that you love to read, and I’ll join you in the cloud bed you built when the autumn winds finally blow for me.
Promise made, promise kept.