Tuesday, May 19, 2015


One year ago yesterday (May 18) I graduated with my Ph.D. in Biology from Case Western Reserve University.

Less than six months prior, Cara had undergone major surgery and in fact it had looked like she might not have much time left to live. Instead, the clinical trial she started resulted in a dramatic improvement. One year ago, I'd say she was probably in the best shape of any time post-diagnosis.

That morning, I had to go to the school early to get ready for the ceremonies. I walked to school, as I always did. Cara herself then walked the nearly one mile from our apartment to attend the commencement ceremony. (She normally rode her bike to the school, where she was employed, but on this day she was too dressed up to ride.) During the invocation at commencement, the speaker included a line about how we should appreciate being able to "breathe deep" of our surroundings. He, of course, had no clue how poignant this remark would be to Cara and me. On this day, she was able to breathe very well, after having had so much difficulty breathing not such a long time before.

In between the morning university-wide commencement and the afternoon Graduate Studies diploma ceremony, there was a lunch in the University Hospitals atrium. The food was nothing special, so Cara and I decided to head over to the Hessler Street Fair, one of our favorite annual events. It was a gorgeous day for a walk. At the fair, which is something of a hippie event, we made quite the couple - Cara in her polkadot blue swing dress and me in my fancy Ph.D. robes - and we attracted a lot of attention.

We both got the famous Hessler Street Fair lemonade and we both both pizza from Fire Truck Pizza Co. In fact, we had gone to the fair the previous day and Cara also got pizza that day - it was so good that we had to get it again!

At the diploma ceremony, Cara joined me in walking across the stage as I received my diploma. It was a very exciting moment for both of us, the culmination of a long journey we had taken together, for I was but a first year graduate student when we initially met.

That day is a very good memory.

Someone told me recently that they hoped that with each passing day, things for me were getting just a little easier.

Now don't get me wrong, I can appreciate the sentiment and am not upset with the person who said it, but I find it a little misplaced. Actually, the idea that things would start to get easier within less than a month of someone losing his wife and best friend seems fairly outlandish. The reality is I miss her more as more time passes. I hope it doesn't sound like I'm wallowing in self-pity, because I'm not, but it's a very hard thing to deal with. There will always be a void in my life. I still have a lot of really great things going for me, even without Cara, and I can be grateful for that, but I can also choose to do all I can to keep her memory and spirit alive. And that I will continue to do, and I will continue to share it with the world.

In many ways I've spent the last few days paying tribute, in my own personal way, to Cara.

Friday was National Bike To Work Day. Cara always rode her bike to work, as long as she was healthy enough. Even last year, while she was undergoing treatment for lung cancer, she rode to work many times. Me? I always walked, until we moved farther up in the Heights last summer, so now I drive. But on Friday I did ride my bike to work. It was raining in the morning, but Cara didn't let a little rain stop her from riding to work, so I didn't either. (This is despite the fact that I once fractured my pelvis in a cycling accident that happened on a wet road. This time, I was very careful!) The local ice cream shop Mitchell's (a place Cara and I enjoyed) was offering one dollar cones for cyclists, so I stopped there before going home in the evening. Fortunately, it was no longer raining.

Saturday brought the first day of this year's Hessler Street Fair. I rode my bike there as well, meeting Jessiye, a good friend of ours (especially Cara's) who Cara had actually first met on Bike To Work Day last May. I got the same lemonade and pizza (a delicious white pizza with bacon and honey) that we had enjoyed last year. Before Jessiye showed up, I also took a little walk in the surrounding neighborhood. I walked by the apartment I lived in when Cara and I started dating. I walked to the stadium at Case's North Residential Village, to the spot where we first held hands.

So many memories.

I took yet another bike ride on Sunday. I had seen that Jukebox, a fairly new bar in Ohio City, had a weekly brunch by a different local chef each week, and this week's chef was Saucisson. That's not the name of a person, it's the name of a company - actually, just two women, "lady butchers" as they like to call themselves, whose products Cara and I loved getting at the local farmer's market. I thought this sounded nice, so I set out on my bike toward the other side of town.

I rode most of the way along the Euclid Corridor, thinking of Cara the whole way. From 2008 to 2011, Cara rode to and from work (downtown at Medical Mutual) on that same bike lane. Over time, she came to despise that job - providing customer service for a health insurance company that is always looking for ways to make more money by denying its customers' claims is a demoralizing task - but that daily commute was so great for her. She found such joy and freedom in those twice-daily five mile rides. I can remember her proudly telling me how her speeds were improving as she rode more and more.

As I entered downtown, I imagined what it was like for Cara to do the same. I rode all the way to East 9th, turned left and rode past the front entrance of her old building, where I had occasionally picked her up at the end of the work day. Then I turned onto Carnegie and crossed the bridge to the West Side.

Riding across that bridge to Ohio City was something else Cara did many times. Unfortunately, due largely to a number of injuries I suffered, it was not something I often joined her in doing. So again, as I crossed the river, I imagined Cara, the wind in her face, looking out at the river and at the city she loved.

Jukebox is in the Hingetown neighborhood of Ohio City, which, in the summer, has a Sunday Market that Cara and I also enjoyed attending. We had never been to the bar itself, which is too bad because it's a neat little place. I got the Corned Beef Hash with Saucisson's corned beef, Cleveland Kraut (another local company that Cara and I enjoyed patronizing at the farmer's market), Montana Girl Mustard (another great local product!), potatoes, and an egg. I also got a Cleveland Mule, a drink with local whiskey, ginger beer, and lime, similar to a drink that Cara sometimes liked to make at home. Both were delicious.

Not surprisingly given the establishment's name, there is a jukebox there with a nice eclectic music selection. I played four songs. First, "I've Got Dreams to Remember" by Otis Redding. I don't think I'd ever heard the original version of this song before; however, there is an Okkervil River song called "Listening to Otis Redding at Home During Christmas" that is one of my favorite songs ever, an incredibly nostalgic and emotional tune, and it quotes the chorus of the Redding song. Second was "Home" by Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros - one of the happiest love songs ever, and a song that Cara and I sung together in the car on the way home from seeing the Magnetic Zeros play a show in Kent. Third was "That Teenage Feeling" by Neko Case, a song that Cara once put on a mix tape (we used to make mix tapes - well technically mix CDs - for each other). Last, I played "A Day in the Life" by The Beatles, which doesn't actually have a connection to Cara for me but is a very emotional song that was one of my favorites around the time I finished high school and started college. How the years go by...

Of course, I thought of Cara the whole time, but I felt happy. I rode home feeling invigorated. Cara loved riding her bike so much, and even though I didn't ride as often as her, I now appreciate even more what a great feeling it can be. Instead of going directly home, I completed Cara's old route home by riding into Little Italy and past the place we first lived together. I then rode up Mayfield and stopped for frozen yogurt at Piccadilly in Coventry, another place we loved.

It was a weekend full of bike rides. It was also a weekend in which I went to two shows at the Beachland Ballroom, both Saturday and Sunday nights. On Saturday I met our good friend Troy to see local indie rock duo Mr. Gnome (a really great band who I had somehow overlooked for many years!) and on Sunday I went by myself to see singer/songwriter William Fitzsimmons. Although Cara did not go to nearly as many shows as I did, I have many great memories of going to the Beachland with her. Foremost would have to be the annual prom that the Beachland used to hold in May, a chance for adults to dress up and pretend they were kids again (without the hefty price tag). One year, Cara and I were voted the Queen and King of the prom! This was remarkable considering we did not actually know anyone else there, but we must have stood out as an amazing couple.

We danced at prom, of course, but some of my other best memories there also involve dancing. The first dance at our wedding was to the song "Northern Lights" by Bowerbirds. On our first wedding anniversary (to the day!) we saw Bowerbirds at the Beachland, and got to dance together to a live performance of "Northern Lights." Another time, we enjoyed dancing to Snowblink's cover of Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody."

Another fond memory comes in the fall of 2013, little more than a month after Cara was diagnosed. We saw Okkervil River, my favorite band of all and one that was very significant in our relationship. Cara, at the time, would have gotten too tired from standing for the whole show, so we brought a wheelchair and I wheeled her up to sit front and center below the stage. Although she couldn't stand, she sang her heart out along to some of the songs.

The last time we went to a show at the Beachland together was on my birthday last year. It was a stunning performance by Sharon Van Etten that we both very much enjoyed.

Spending so much time doing things that remind me of Cara is kind of a mixed bag in the emotions it brings, but I think, in the long run, it is better to do this. And it is important for me to share it with other people. I don't want anyone who knew her to ever forget what an extraordinary person she was.

Yesterday I was shocked to learn that the mother-in-law of one of my co-workers had just passed away.

From lung cancer.

Only ten days after being diagnosed.

Life is a very amazing and a very fragile thing.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Typhoon lyrics that make me think of Cara

Music can be a very powerful thing. In case anyone reading this doesn't know us personally, my wife Cara recently passed away from lung cancer. Music was a big part of our relationship. At the funeral service, we started and ended the proceedings with two songs I had gotten from Cara's starred tracks on Spotify, Cat Power's "Sea of Love" and Death Cab for Cutie's "Stay Young, Go Dancing," and they perfectly rounded out an already profoundly sad yet beautiful occasion.

This post, by the way, is not so much about Cara herself but rather about the role music played in my own handling of the whole ordeal. However, rest assured I fully intend to write a lot more about Cara in the weeks and months ahead.

Now that she is gone, I find I suddenly have the desire to share a lot of thoughts and feelings that were previously private. Some of them were things I only talked about with Cara, others were things I talked about with no one at all. This is one of the latter.

It's kind of eerie looking back. On July 1, 2013, my mother sent me an email with the title "Typhoon | Wexner Center for the Arts" and body as follows:
Have you heard of this band? The blurb makes comparison to Arcade Fire. I was wondering if you think Cara might enjoy going to hear them on her birthday. The 3 of us could go (Dad would be playing hockey.)
I'll also send link to their performance on Letterman.
I replied:
I have heard of them, but not listened to them much yet. I had thought they sounded interesting and was planning to listen to them more some time between now and September. They are playing at the Beachland the day before that show. I'll have to ask Cara whether she would be interested. She might like to visit Columbus for her birthday but I'm not sure.
Now, here's the thing. Asking a question like this wasn't something my mom ever did. I can't remember ever going to a rock/pop/folk concert with her and not my dad (we did go to an orchestra performance once but that's different). What was it that made her ask this, just this one time, about this one specific band, for a show on Cara's birthday?

We didn't end up going to that show, of course, because a month before Cara's birthday she was hospitalized leading to a diagnosis of stage IV lung adenocarcinoma. I did, though, go to the Typhoon show in Cleveland the day before her birthday that I mentioned in my email. It would be the first of three times I would see Typhoon live during the time that Cara was battling cancer. I did not start listening to Typhoon in earnest until shortly after Cara was diagnosed, and I quickly found that there was so much in their music that spoke to me. Their music became therapeutic to me in a way. You see, the band's lead singer Kyle Morton contracted Lyme disease as a youth, nearly died, had to spend a long time in the hospital, and has continued to experience the effects of this throughout his life, and this ordeal has had a huge influence on his songwriting. Thus, I could see reflected in his lyrics many of the same things Cara and I were going through. I never talked about this with anyone, because I didn't want Cara to know how much I was thinking about the possibility of her dying. In fact, although Typhoon is the band I've listened to by far the most in the 20 months since she was diagnosed, it was rare that I even listened to their music in her presence.

To better explain this, I wanted to just share some lyrics from Typhoon songs that really stood out to me. In most cases, the reasons should be clear, but for some I'll provide an explanation. By the way, I do find the Arcade Fire comparison apt, especially for the most recent Typhoon album White Lighter. It's not that Typhoon are aping Arcade Fire's sound, but rather that they also have the whole "band with a large number of members, many different instruments, rousing group vocals, and lots of cathartic moments in their music" thing going.

Some lyrics from the song "Artificial Light":

I woke up in the morning
To a pale light tangled in your hair
And I never wake before you
But this time I caught you sleeping there
[Note: I related to this part because, for most of the time we were together, it was very unusual for me to wake before Cara. On those rare occasions, I liked to watch her sleeping. But then, in the last 20 months, it became normal for me to wake before her.]

Yes, you are my sunlight
You are my last breath of air
I would try to hold it
I would try to keep the moment
Like a photograph of the sunset
Like a little kid with a bug net
Like a dying man, I swear

You belong to me, you belong to me
If you belong to anyone then you belong to me
But I have no other place to keep you safe
But in my shaky, ever shaking melody

From "Young Fathers":

Now I'm as old as you were when you had me
Should I be afraid? Should I start a family?
Raise them in the wild 'cause up against the city
My love is such a small thing
[The above is not really so much related to Cara, but sticks out to me because I am in fact now as old (31 years) as my mother was when she had me.]


I was born in September [Cara was born in September]
And if I died today
Just know I don't regret you
Some things I can explain

From "Morton's Fork":

Turns out that we are shit out of luck
There are things in the woods 
That will prey on the things that you love

And they'll come through the fold
This is the sound of a wild pack of hungry wolves
I won't lie to you
It'll be painful
It's in your nature to fear what is natural

From "Possible Deaths":

Count down the time that you have left
In a jar try to catch, try and capture it
Count down the time that you have left
In the dark try to catch, try and capture it
Count down the time that you have left
In a jar try to catch, try and capture it
Count down the time that you have left

From "The Lake":

And then as my body turned against itself
I prayed for death that I’d come back to be anyone else
As the sickness formed within my cells
You never loved me like the way you loved anyone else

From "Prosthetic Love":

Each time I wake I’m still alive
Outlived my expiration date imagine my surprise
[There was a time around Thanksgiving of 2013 when I thought Cara would die soon, but fortunately she was able to get better and live a lot longer than it first appeared she would, with a lot more happy memories.]


Of everyone I ever knew
I’ve gotten used to you
I’ve grown attached to you being here
Of everyone I ever knew
I learned to count on you
As my own fingers

From "Common Sentiments":

When am I gonna feel better?
When am I gonna feel better
When am I gonna feel better
I have been patient for a long time now
I’ve been a patient for a long time now
I’ve been a patient for a long time now
I’ve been a patient for a long time now
and I will never be a younger man now

O what am I waiting for
A spell to be cast or for it to be broken?
[What this line meant to me: "A spell to be cast" would be a cure for Cara's cancer, "or for it to be broken" would be if we were just under some sort of spell, like the whole thing was a dream, and it could just go away.]
At the very last some wild ghost from my past come to split me wide open?
No.  If I hold out my hand there is nothing at all because nothing’s the token
I will be good though my body be broken 
[The line "I will be good though my body be broken" then repeats a number of times, with the whole band joining in, building to one of those chills-inducing cathartic moments I alluded to. This line was a double whammy for me because, although it is not in any way on a similar level to what Cara went through, my own body has also been quite unkind to me over the years.]

I will be good
may I want for nothing at all

From "Summer Home":

Can we wait for the summer again?
Can we hold out for summer again?
Can we ever be whole again?
[During both winters Cara lived through with cancer, she was longing to get back to warmer weather.]

From "The Sickness Unto Death":

Life is for the living
I've heard tell that it is why we are young
In the morning sun
You take every year as it comes
But when your life is over
All those years fold up like an accordion 
They collapse just like a broken lung

Now I've only got one organ left and this old bag of bones it is failing me
And I try to tell people that I'm dying only they don't believe me
They say we're all dying, that we're all dying
But if you are dying, why aren't you scared?
Why aren't you scared 
Like I am scared?


Every bitter night into an empty room I plead my case
Every night I pray that in the morning when I wake
I'll be in a familiar place and find that I'm recovered and I'm sane
And I'll remember everything
I'll remember what I was like before that bug bit me

Well, that was a lot, but I guess it's pretty apparent why this music was and is so meaningful to me. I hope this journey into my mind was interesting.

I'd imagine some people who saw me recently might have been surprised at how composed I was staying. Well, I can say that the times I cried, it was mostly when I was by myself. I guess that's just the way I am. I have cried a lot, especially in the first couple days. Sometimes crying is important to do. When I was driving home from Columbus the day after the funeral, I listened to Typhoon's White Lighter album and that got the tears going again at some parts. Music can help us get in touch with emotions that might otherwise remain buried. That's part of its power.