I was under other pressures to get The Hallelujah Chorus finished. I admit to being very goal oriented and once I had that writer’s bit between my teeth I felt compelled to churn out volumes. Still do. But finishingThe Hallelujah Choruswas more than that: carpe diem was ticking loudly in my head now.
Most important things in my life seem to have begun with little or no consultation with me. Leaving aside my own itinerant upbringing – that is between my therapist and me – my life with Marlene had been a series of surprises.
I suppose this is true of most marriages. You think you know the person you are in love with and, discounting the evidence, believe all will be fine, and you marry her anyway. Except you don’t know her and, and it isn’t fine. We discover all sorts of things about the person after we’ve settled in and are puzzled at what we find there. The signs were there all along, we just ignored them; or perception bias made them invisible to our indiscriminating brains. Only later are we ‘surprised’.
Marlene provoked our lives with dogs in a surprise announcement to the kids when we were about to relocate to Oakville. We ended up over the next 30 years with five of them: Winston, Spencer, Maxim – the wonder dog, Hallelujah – the beautiful bitch, and Bonnie, Halle’s most exuberant offspring. (To be clear, Marlene wanted dogs, the fact those dogs were poodles was entirely on me.) They made our lives so much richer. They were easily the best part of our marriage. (Surprised readers, and my children, and grandchildren, should not take offense: We would always have counted our children as our own personal miracles, but the dogs helped the miracle of marriage survive.)
The Hallelujah Chorus, the sequel to The Maxim Chronicles, is a narrative of our lives with poodles. By Hallelujah’s fourteenth year we were in bonus time; the sands in the glass were running out. I knew what the future would bring and I dreaded it. Every day became a long goodbye.
What I didn’t know about the future was another surprise brought to me by Marlene. And this time it was a surprise to her, too: An unexpected tenderness in her chest and down her left arm.
Four months and a parade of tests and imagining and biopsies later she had her answer: lobular breast cancer, ER+, metastatic, stage 3b; treatable but incurable. Prognosis, three to five years.
Marlene’s journey holding the Grim Reaper at bay began in earnest.
Over the next three years our lives completely changed. The weekly trips to the hospital – for blood tests, infusions, consultations, more scans – became our new normal. My attention was increasingly drawn to the care and comforting of this courageous woman. My consulting practice languished – I still went to my office downtown almost daily but my heart wasn’t in it. I served my closest clients/sponsors but had no interest in marketing and business development. What I did find compelling was a need to tell Marlene’s story. I began a series of newsletters to family and friends, and I continued to compile the story of our lives through the lives of our poodles.
I knew that serious writers were also disciplined people: they would force 2-5 hours a day cranking out words. I am nothing if not disciplined, but now I had a new sense of urgency with Damocles sword. My daily routine had me rising with the clock radio at the usual 6:45, even if I had had yet another restless and sleep-disturbed night. I would pull myself out of bed, find the toilet and then the coffee machine, put Halle out for her morning constitutional, feed and medicate her, and check e-mail. I would dress for the day, breakfast, then, from about 8:00 in the morning until about 10:00 each day, put myself in front of my computer to tap out my thoughts, sometimes even on weekends.
In Marlene’s final weeks at home my daily routine was almost entirely focused on her care and comfort. But I also had a desperate goal. I wanted to finish The Hallelujah Chorus and share the finished product to Marlene.
By the first week of July Marlene’s cancer had progressed to leptomeningeal disease, inflammation of the lining of her brain. She could no longer read; Whether it was a case of deteriorating vison, lack of concentration or simply unable to process ideas, she stopped reading. And here was a woman who read 2 – 3 books a week. The last book she started was a classic mystery novel, The Red House, by A.A. Milne, but simply couldn’t follow it. She asked me a strange question, not so strange really: “Could you read it to me, please?” And so I did. What a pleasant experience for both of us! We never felt closer. I followed that book with Tom Sawyer. By mid-July I put the final touches on the ultimate draft of The Hallelujah Chorusand had a test copy printed. And I read it to her.
“It’s very good,” she said.
I will never receive higher praise from anyone again in my life.
Marlene died on August 19, 2017. The Hallelujah Choruswas published for distribution by lulu.com December 17. The e-pub version took another 15 months as I descended into a fog of despair.