Kids Memories

Ballads and Birthdays

Sometimes, I can convince myself that everything is fine. And maybe it even is: maybe I’m not convincing myself. But today was not one of those days.

Typically, I try to steer clear of music. It reminds me too much of Jeff. And it’s not even a particular genre. It’s just music altogether.

“Jeff, what should we listen to?” I’d sometimes ask.

“Jeff, put something on Alexa so it’s not so depressing in here,” I’d say.

I wish I was more passionate about music, and I do enjoy it, but anyone who knew Jeff knows that it wasn’t worth trying to keep up with him. Music was his thing. I couldn’t hang.

So when I was in a store today, and “If You Leave Me Now” by Chicago came on, I just stood there and started crying. Right there by the avocados. Not because it necessarily reminds me of Jeff, but because it’s a ballad.

I had these thoughts of how many people must have listened to that song since it was first aired in 1976. Awkward kids at middle school dances played through my mind. I didn’t go to middle school dances until the 90s, but I’ve seen enough movies to envision what it might have been like. I imagined something not unlike the dance in Sixteen Candles, when Samantha can’t stop looking at her crush, Jake. Somehow, she ends up sitting in a convertible with Anthony Michael Hall’s character. I thought of how tender and vulnerable those years are. I distinctly have my own memory of being at a Boyz II Men concert on Valentine’s Day in 7th grade – listening to them sing “End of the Road” – and thinking, “I hope I have a boyfriend one day.”

(When Kate was born, Jeff was so excited to meet her, but also so freaked out because he knew she would have to go through middle school and all the awkwardness of being a girl in middle school. If you’ve never been a girl in middle school, let me assure you: they are the strangest years of your life.)

So there I was, standing there in the middle of the store, envisioning middle school dances and high school dances, and I thought of Jeff. Jeff in middle school. Jeff in high school. I obviously didn’t know him then, but I’ve seen the typical pictures: Jeff standing in front of someone’s fireplace, awkwardly smiling while a girl pins a corsage on his lapel. Jeff, standing with friends and their dates in the front yard of someone’s house. I know almost all of the people in the pictures, and I’ve met nearly all of them, because Jeff was a good friend. He was loyal. He kept in touch. He could tell you details about each of his friends’ lives and took interest in those details.

Imagining Jeff as a baby, a toddler, a child, a teenager. It breaks my heart. I can’t explain why, but any time I imagine it, it tears me apart.

I think it might be because it all seems so tragic. I know this probably sounds naive and probably entitled, but seriously: of all people… this happened to JEFF THOMAS. It just doesn’t seem like something that happens to Jeff Thomas.

So all day, I’ve had that song in my head.

If you leave me now, you’ll take away the biggest part of me
Ooohh no
Baby please don’t go

It’s the “oooooh no, baby, please don’t go” that keeps coming back and back and back. And every time it plays in my head, I can’t catch my breath.

Tomorrow is Kate’s birthday. She’ll be three.

Three years ago, Jeff and I put Jake to bed and we finished packing our overnight bag. I was five days overdue. I scheduled an induction with my favorite doctor, and arranged to have the same nurse that coached me through Jake’s birth. All was set.

I couldn’t sleep the night before. I used to say that Jeff’s greatest talent was sleeping, and I remember being so annoyed that he was sleeping so well. But there I was: super pregnant. Couldn’t get comfortable. The baby, who ordinarily made things easy for me, was tossing and turning and kicking and running a marathon right under my ribs. I finally tried sleeping in the basement. I probably slept for three hours. I tell Kate that we were both nervous the night before she was born.

And in the morning, we got up. We ate breakfast for the last time as a three-person family. We took Jake to daycare and drove to CDH. We didn’t know if the baby was a boy or a girl. And if it was a boy, we had little idea what we would name him (very unlike me and Jeff not to have a plan).

But as luck would have it, a baby girl appeared at 2:55 p.m. Jeff cried and said, “It’s a girl!” I cut her umbilical cord. Nurse Margaret wiped her head and said in her British accent, “You have a redhead!”

Jeff and I said, “Another one?!”

And that’s how Katherine Margaret Thomas made our family complete.

And that was three years ago.

One year ago, we were also preparing to go to the hospital. Kate had her adenoids removed on her second birthday (happy birthday, Kate!). Jeff and I drove her to Lurie. He was yellow. Very yellow.

As we were prepping for surgery, Kate’s ENT came in. He was talking to us and finally stopped, looking at Jeff.

“Are you under the care of a doctor?” he said.

“Yes,” said Jeff. “I had a CT last night.”

“Okay, good. I thought it was just a bad spray tan until I saw your eyes,” the doctor said.

We laughed an awkward laugh.

I took Kate home, and Jeff went to work. Because you go to work even when your bilirubin is over 10 and your pee is the color of iced tea. His legs and brain were functioning, so that means you go.

Here is the narrative from the CT Jeff had one year ago today. It times the data collection at 8:57 PM:

In the right lobe of the liver there are heterogeneous hypodense lesions measuring 6.9 x 4.4 cm on image 24 and 5.8 x 5.2 cm on image 32. There is dilatation of the intrahepatic bile ducts throughout the right and left lobes of the liver and the lesion also appears to encase the right portal vein which also may be thrombosed. There are additional ill-defined areas of hypodensity seen in the right lobe of liver extending to the peripheral surface. Findings are suspicious for primary hepatic malignancy. Further evaluation is recommended.

The next day – on the evening of Kate’s birthday – Jeff told me, “They found a mass. I’m sure it’s nothing, so let’s not tell my parents because I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.”

“Oh, totally. Absolutely,” I said.

I even remember that I was only half listening. I was in the kitchen. Jeff was working at the dining room table. It was one of those, “Yeah, uh huh,” type of responses that you make when you’re emptying the dishwasher and all seems right in the world. And I really believe that Jeff didn’t think it was anything. I think he really thought that this was fixable. Cancer?! No way.

I was going through Jeff’s MyChart again tonight… the files associated with his PCP. Between 2011 and his diagnosis, Jeff had four referrals for gastroenterology. I remember at one point, Jeff saw a gastroenterologist, who implied that Jeff’s pain was all in his head.

Jeff came home, unbelievably pissed to the point of his voice breaking (not the kind of pissed where you yell… the kind of pissed where you’re on the verge of crying because you’re so mad, which didn’t happen to Jeff often). The story went something like this.

“Sometimes, we have pain that we can’t explain, and it’s because our brain is confused,” the doctor said.

Jeff, feeling embarrassed and pissed, called him on it. “Are you saying that the pain is all in my head?!”

The doctor backpedaled, but Jeff had asked the elephant in the room to take a front row seat, and the appointment ended shortly thereafter.

I wish we would’ve taken him to Mayo Clinic then. I wish we would’ve taken him somewhere other than this medical practice and doctors who told him he was making this up. I wish I had known then what I know now.

Once it turned into cancer… that was it. And maybe that would’ve happened anyway. He had to die at some point, and no matter when it was, we would’ve felt sad and maybe even cheated.

Sometimes, if I’m in a good place, I can thank God for the time we had with Jeff. That I’m so glad a person like Jeff existed, because it redeems my faith in humanity and its possibilities. Jeff was not flawless, but he was a great example of how to handle flaws. I’m thankful that I got to be his wife, and that he chose me, and I chose him just as equally. I’m thankful that I have these two unique and endearing kids as a living reminder of Jeff, and a part of him in the flesh. I’m thankful that I got to spend my 20s with Jeff Thomas — damn, that was fun. I’m thankful that I got to know what it’s like to be pregnant and happy and have a baby with a man that you love. And look at that baby as a living reminder of your love and devotion to each other: a little person who is half of each of you. I got to do that twice! I learned so much from Jeff, and I feel like we had a great marriage because he learned from me too. I think about all of that when I’m in a good place.

But now, sitting here in the overstuffed chair – which is situated almost exactly in the spot where Jeff’s head fell to the side and he died… where I looked at all 6’3″ of him and realized I would never see that body move again – now, I’m really just so sad. Because Kate and Jake and I will wake up tomorrow morning and celebrate Kate’s third birthday, and Jeff won’t be here how we want him to be. Because a year ago exactly, Jeff got a CT scan, which showed the result of all those years of random pain: a huge ass tumor in his liver that would precipitate his death exactly 8 months to the day he turned to Trish and said, “Do I look yellow to you?”

Oooooh no, baby, please don’t go.

Oooooh no, baby, please don’t go.

Tomorrow will be bittersweet. Just as Easter was. Just as holidays and anniversaries and birthdays will be for a long time.

Two years ago, on Kate’s first birthday, Jeff and I took the day off to celebrate it with her. It was a Tuesday. I remember telling my students the day before, “I won’t be here tomorrow. It’s my daughter’s first birthday, so we’re taking both kids to the Brookfield Zoo.”

My 7th period clapped. The whole classroom. That was an unexpected reaction. I had expected them to be annoyed. I had expected them to say, “Well, what if we have questions about our presentations?!” But they didn’t. And I was so touched by it.

I love a particular picture from that day at the Brookfield Zoo. I’m attempting a family selfie. Jeff has a bag of freeze-dried bananas in his hand. Kate’s hair looks wild, and she has one of those banana chips in her hand. Jake has one in his mouth. We’re sitting in the dolphin show pavilion. And there we are: an exceedingly normal family.

And so tomorrow, we’re taking Kate back to the Brookfield Zoo: me, Jake, Barb, and Randy. Kate has a cute little shirt to wear that has a hand with three fingers sticking up. It says, “I’m this many.” We have cupcakes and treats for the day. She has presents to open when she wakes up. We’re going out to breakfast so she can order Mickey Mouse pancakes. Tomorrow will be special and happy.

But I know what I’m going to hear in my head.

Oooooh no, baby, please don’t go.

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