Let's set the stage. Our son, Steve, had just graduated from high school that June and was readying to head off to college at Tufts University in the fall. He is our only child. We had been incredibly close to him throughout his life (he would turn 18 in July 1990)--both of us, in fact, had taught him in school: I had him in 8th grade (and directed him in seven play productions in middle school); Joyce taught him in both English II and AP English at Western Reserve Academy. He'd had a placid adolescence (he still liked to hang out with us, go to movies with us--when he was in high school), and there was not at all any sense of relief in Joyce and me that he would be leaving home. Something more akin to grief.
Also, Steve was working his first job that summer (schoolteachers, we'd always traveled in the summer, and we had always taken our son with us; he was a great traveler, even from newborn days, and we know he learned a tremendous amount in our car). He was working the early-morning shift at the local McDonald's.
All of us--Steve included (perhaps, especially, Steve)--were grieving that summer for the loss of a dear friend, Bill Appling, the choral director at Western Reserve Academy, whom the school had summarily fired. Steve adored Bill (as we did), and his dismissal had caused quite an uproar in the area. Steve and his friends had protested all his senior year--wearing black armbands in his honor, arranging a student concert in the spring to celebrate him and his many achievements--refusing to let the school forget. (Bill would go on to a distinguished career at Vassar College--and then with his own William Appling Singers. His death a few years ago was another blow to all of us.)
But there was even darker news we had to deal with that summer. Joyce's mother was manifesting very serious symptoms of the Alzheimer's that would eventually kill her. Joyce's father, who'd retired from Firestone in Akron, earned a free pass to Heaven during those years. He kept her at home, watched her 24/7, taught himself to cook and clean and do laundry and all the other household tasks his wife had done over the years. He would not entertain the thought of placing her in any kind of institution. One didn't do that.
But the care was wearing him out. When he would doze off on the couch, out the door she would go, and the Akron Police would go find her, bring her to a home that she barely, if at all, recognized. In the depths of her tangle she would say astonishingly unkind things to him (and to us)--things so far from the truth as to be barely visible but words that wounded nonetheless.
Link to book on Amazon.com).
And then Joyce's father learned he had lung cancer (probably from his work all those years in the rubber factory)--and it was racing through his system. The doctor gave him only weeks to live. And the doctor was right. But this we did not learn until something seemingly more sanguine had happened.
That summer, I had been accepted into a five-week seminar for teachers on the Works of Jack London out at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif., Jack London-land for sure--a seminar led by Prof. Earle Labor, the world's leaning authority on London and his work. I'd been teaching The Call of the Wild for a few years and had become fascinated with London--his life, his writing--and this was a great chance for me--all thanks to the National Endowment for the Humanities (a government program run by, you know, bureaucrats). That summer would be the direct cause of my publication of annotated editions of The Call of the Wild--and of a YA biography of Jack London (1995, 1997).
Joyce had already done an NEH Seminar--on Appalachian Literature, down at Appalachian State University--and she was eagerly encouraging me to go. The London course would consume most of July, some of August.
But as the time for my departure neared (I was going to drive), Joyce's father's illness became more apparent (though we did not yet know its severity). I felt I should not leave home for a month. But Joyce insisted. She saw an opportunity for me--and she's always encouraged me. So, tearfully, I loaded up the car and headed off onto the Ohio Turnpike toward San Francisco. I made it to the first westbound exit before, overcome with guilt and sorrow, I left the Turnpike and drove home and unpacked the car.
Joyce was moved--and said little for a few hours. Then ... she, again, insisted I go. She could handle things. She told me such opportunities don't arrive all the time. And so on. So, tearfully, I loaded up the car again, and off I went the next morning.
These were pre-cellphone days (at least for us), so I kept in touch via payphones and motel phones. Joyce assured me she was doing fine.
The seminar was great. I greatly admired Earle--made good friends with some of the dozen other teachers from around the country--was hiking in the mountains, reading London, working on my annotations. One night, I drove with a few folks down to Oakland, where I saw the Tribe play (lose to) the A's in their huge stadium. It was Joyce's birthday--July 20--and I could not get through to her. Ringing. No answers.
Finally, near the end of the game, I got her. And she was in tears. She'd learned that her dad's cancer would be fatal--and quickly. I asked if she wanted me to come home. No ... she and Steve could handle things. Was she sure? She was. But I heard in her voice the tremble of uncertainty.
That weekend, Earle gave us an extra day off, so I drove 700 mi (each way) up to Seaside, Oregon, to see my parents, who had just built a more "elder-friendly" home there after selling their wonderful Cannon Beach place, the home they'd loved more than any other. (Mom was about to turn 71; Dad was 77.) It was great to see them--but when I called Joyce, she told me, weeping, that she needed me at home. I left immediately, drove the 700 mi back to California.
I left virtually everything in Rohnert Park and took a flight home the next day. Joyce's mom was now living with us--her dad was in the hospital--and those next few days were among the hardest of our lives. Poor Mom--totally confused. She didn't know where she was; she wasn't always sure who we were. She did not know the difference between night and day. She was a constant threat to bolt away. After a few days, we were all exhausted. We knew this couldn't continue. So Joyce made some inquiries, and we placed her in Anna Maria over in Aurora--a splendid Alzheimer's unit--and there she stayed until all her money ran out--near the end of her life--and we had to move her to a Medicaid facility in West Akron, the place where she would die. By the end--she didn't know any of us, didn't know what food was, had forgotten how to swallow. Joyce would spoon ice cream against her lips, the last thing she would eat. But soon that was an annoyance for her too, and she vanished.
Once things were mildly settled at home, I flew back to California, attended one more seminar class session, said farewell to my friends and Earle, packed and arranged the car to travel back aboard a truck (oh, the complications of that), then flew home once again to deal with the darkest of all news--the swift decline and death of Joyce's father. He spent a few days at home (with 24-hour nursing help), but the nurse herself was soon overwhelmed with it all, so he returned to Akron City Hospital for the end. Steve, who deeply loved his grandfather, rode that last ambulance ride with him. It must have been surpassingly difficult for him.
It was over quickly, on August 13, and then--all those funeral and burial arrangements ... And then Steve was off to Tufts on an evening flight in August, Joyce and I weeping all the way home from the Cleveland airport. (He'd had a miserable McD's experience--but that's another story.)
And then Joyce--who, fortunately, was on sabbatical that year--began the sad task of cleaning out and selling her parents' home--the Firestone Park house where Joyce had lived since she was a little girl--while I readied to return to Harmon School for the 1990-1991 school year.
I mustn't forget: Helping us through much of this was Jerry Brodsky, our friend (also the Harmon School principal) and attorney, who made all the financial arrangements for Joyce's mom, who arranged for the auction and house sale. We never had to worry about the details, not with Jerry looking out for us.
And--thankfully, finally--that horrible summer was over. Other bad times lay ahead--the death of Joyce's mother, my father's death, my mother's decline, illnesses ... but nothing to compete with those times that tried our souls to such a fierce extent that sad summer of 1990.