All he wanted was for his wife to live long enough to see their daughter’s sixteenth birthday. The girl’s birthday was early last month and the wife, whose body had been ravaged by ALS, was alive to see it. They are our downstairs neighbors; the girl sits for our cats when we are away. You’d be hard-pressed to find a sweeter family.
My wife Emily spent hours with them helping navigate insurance claims. On occasion, I made them food. The girl and her mother watched The Oscars with us a few months ago. By that point the mother wasn’t really able to communicate–she made noises but even using a keypad had become too much.
About three weeks ago I saw the husband and he said the end was near. I didn’t tell that to Emily. In fact, I avoided bringing them up entirely. But last week, I mentioned what he’d said and Emily said that he had said as much other times before. “We would have heard something from them…” she said.
* * *
Last night I was in bed reading a 1985 GQ profile on the great columnist Mike Royko written by my pal John Schulian. It was an entertaining look at the world of the big-city columnist that no longer exists. Royko was a son-of-a-bitch of the first order. (“I don’t know who the best is—maybe some guy in Peoria,” Royko said. “But day in, day out, you gotta chase me; I ain’t gonna chase anyone.”) But the end of the piece reveals a tenderness in the man, whose wife died in 1979 at the age of 44:
“I couldnt live with my grief,” Royko says. “I thought I might drink myself to death.”
When he lost his taste for that, he tried to end it all with work. Once again his days stretched to twelve and fourteen hours, lonely seances in the out-of-the-way place where the Sun-Times editorial writers dwelled, a place where reporters he never trusted couldn’t watch him suffer.
Five years have passed since then. To the outside world, it seems the tragedy has been put to rest, for there are still Royko columns condemning San Diego as a nest of John Birchers, and there are still stories coming out of Billy Goat’s about the female bottoms he has patted. But Royko knows the truth, and it has nothing to do with appearances.
“You lose a wife, you never really come out of it,” he says. “What happens is, you become different.”
He lights a cigarette and takes a puff.
“I don’t think my life has had a hell of a lot of meaning since Carol’s death. Since she died, I’ve never been sure what the hell I’m about. I could accept dying tomorrow because I don’t think I fill any great importance to anybody. My life has lost its structure.”
The cigarette is forgotten now, left to burn untended.
“I still know who I am. I’ve been who I am for so frigging long. I’m Royko the columnist. When Carol was alive, I was so much more.”
Maybe that’s smoke getting in his eyes.
I placed the article on my night table and reached over to turn my BlackBerry off for the night when I saw that I had an e-mail. It was from the husband downstairs. His wife died earlier in the day. She was 51.
Emily was in the bathroom washing up. I debated whether or not to tell her but in the end I told her. Like me, Emily was broken up.I gave her tissues to dry her tears. We remembered the wife over the past few years and finally we turned out the lights. But we could not close our eyes. The sound of rain pattered off the air conditioner and we lied there in the dark, eyes wide open for what seemed like a long time.
[Photo Credit: Emily Shapiro]