The Cruelest Month, Part 3: Sorry-Grateful

The Cruelest Month, Part 3: Sorry-Grateful

Nancy Dawson, my beloved wife of three years and friend for over 30, died a year ago today. April 27, 2020. She had just turned 53.

She died of cancer.

Nancy told me to say that. She wasn’t big on euphemisms.

Nancy’s time of death was listed as 5:53 pm.

Fourteen years earlier, Nancy’s only sister and my first wife, Jennifer Dawson, died of an undiagnosed heart ailment on the same day, April 27. Time of death 6:01 pm.

This was one of many remarkable symmetries that have followed our family throughout the last decade-and-a-half. So many that I can’t help but laugh thinking about them all.

Nancy is survived by her three children by her second husband Greg Dastillung, Ella, Jack and Phoebe, as well as by her niece and nephew–later stepchildren–Hannah and James, and her parents, Jan and John Dawson. She also leaves behind a rich legacy as a makeup artist, theater performer, local businesswoman, philanthropist, spokesperson for parents of transgender youth, and cofounder — with Tristan N. Vaught and Ella– of Transform. Transform is a nonprofit based in downtown Cincinnati that gives free, donated clothes and makeovers to transgender youth seeking a new look to compliment their new identity. Nancy was moved to get involved in trans youth causes through her support for her daughter Phoebe. During her final weeks, she often referred to Transform as “my sixth child.” The best way to honor her memory is to donate to it, which you can do here:

https://secure.acceptiva.com/…

Over the past few years, our families have melded, folding in her friends and their families, and my brother Richard, her third husband and my predecessor, who has been a great friend to me both in the aftermath of Jen’s death and throughout Nancy’s long cancer treatment. Richard even came to Cincinnati from New York in fall of 2018 to stay with the kids while Nancy and I went to Columbus for her mastectomy. We’ve been blessed to have been supported continuously by so many as we went on this long, strange, ultimately tragic journey, and we’ll be forever grateful.

Nancy was officially diagnosed as terminal in December, 2019, following what seemed to be a successful treatment for breast cancer.

In April of that year, she had received the diagnosis “no evidence of cancer,” which is what they say now instead of “cancer free.” Unfortunately, it was a rare and pernicious form of breast cancer—”a tough one,” as her oncologist put it, even within the subset of tough cancers. We knew going in that there was a greater than one in four chance that she wouldn’t survive it. It looked like we were out of the woods for a while.

Unfortunately the cancer returned and metastasized in October, 2019, spreading to her bones and organs. It started when she was suddenly afflicted by severe back pains, which she ascribed to lifting too many Tupperware bins at Brideface, the bridal makeup company which served as temporary headquarters for Transform. The oncologist gave her weeks to live, which would have put her “expiration date,” as she put it, sometime in early February. True to her defiant spirit, Nancy kept going and going, selling her business to her friend Julie Niesen and spearheading the fundraiser that gathered enough money to relocate Transform from the basement of Brideface into a dedicated space right down the street.

The final few months were increasingly difficult for her. Although the injection of synthetic cement into her cancer-damaged vertebrae returned some of the mobility she lost near the end of 2019 and in early January of 2020, the disease continued to spread in the following months.

Soon she began to exhibit symptoms of liver failure, including swollen legs that were hard to walk on. She shifted to a series of canes — she acquired a wide assortment, being fashion conscious, including a terrifying wooden cane with a snarling wolf head that she approvingly said made her feel like a Disney villain — and then shifted to a walker, then a wheelchair. We relocated our bedroom from upstairs to downstairs, in what had previously been a sitting room and workspace. She continued to climb the stairs to our old bedroom to take showers until it became too hard. She insisted on doing everything herself before making a determination that it wasn’t possible, which was true to her spirit. Even at the end, she was trying to do things on her own that were impossible by that point, only calling for assistance when the inevitable became impossible to deny.

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Throughout this period — nearly five months — the children were my allies. Jack, the only other driver in the house, picked up the slack on errands around town that were formerly split between me and Nancy. Hannah quit her job for several weeks to help out, returned to New York briefly, then came back to stay with us in the house — spending two weeks in an air B&B in quarantine first, to make sure she didn’t bring the virus into the house — and pitched in, hanging out with Ella and Phoebe and doing makeup and nails with Nancy. John was a constant help, bringing food and medical equipment by and advising me on household finances and how to be a caretaker to a disabled person (Jan has been disabled since 1983).

We set up a puzzle station in the new bedroom and did puzzles together. I installed a projector and screen in the new bedroom when it became impossible for her to watch films comfortably on the couch where we usually did it. At various points, all five children could be seen kneeling at the base of their mother’s bed or wheelchair to empty her catheter, without complaint and often without being asked. They are all fantastic human beings, every one a shining example of compassion as well as the willingness to do what a friend of mine calls “the boring but necessary shit that tells other people that you really care.”

Nancy’s last days were difficult but inspiring to all of us. She continued to see all of her most important personal and professional projects through to the end, despite being in constant pain — so much that, as she confided in me, “even my dreams are about being in pain.” She hated it when people said that a person “lost their battle with cancer.”

“It’s not a war,” she said. “You either get cancer or you don’t, and you either survive it or you don’t, and if you die of cancer, when people say you ‘lost’ it makes it sound like you didn’t fight hard enough. When I die, I want you to just say “she died of cancer.”

But I’ll be damned if I don’t think of her as a warrior, engaged in a ferocious battle with an treacherous, elusive, invincible opponent. She cropped her hair very short near the end, a touch that brought a smile to my face because I already throught of her as Joan of Arc, scarred by battles with a dragon. She lost a breast, then her legs, then finally the use of her arms, and much of her vision. Her skin was mottled from radiation burns. But still she kept going, being a good friend to others and a loving wife to me and mother to all of her children. And whenever she went out in public, her makeup was perfect and she dressed in style.

She continued to create right up to the end, leaving all of her family members with handwritten letters and even decorating stones with paint and marker. One of my last memories of her as an artist was the night before she went into hospice for the last time: she asked me to call up the logo of Better Things, her favorite TV show, on my phone, and she took a silver marker and duplicated it perfectly on a stone, impeccably replicated its distinctive handwritten font, without a single mistake, all in one smooth, patient motion. I mailed the stone to Pamela Adlon, the creator and star of the series, who became Nancy’s friend after Nancy wrote her a fan letter, texting Nancy at all hours, and sending her personal videos as well as advance links to unaired episodes of the show with the admonition, “Don’t show this to your husband! These are for you!”

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And finally, she was gone. On 4/27, just like her sister. I married her 27 years and four months after I met her, Thanksgiving week of 1989, when Jen brought me home to meet the family. The address of the last New York apartment that I lived in before moving to Cincinnati – the apartment that I got right after Nancy and I became a couple — had the address of 427.

4+2+7 = 13. The unlucky number.

“You’re all out of sisters,” Nancy told me on the day she died.

I am grateful to Nancy for so many things, but not the least of which is the way she gave James and my daughter Hannah the mothering that they missed out on when they lost their own biological mother when Hannah was eight and James was two. They are all my sons and daughters now, as well as Richard’s and Greg’s and Michele Applegate‘s and Honour Hook‘s and Trey Moynihan‘s and Aaron Ellerbrock‘s and Kelli Wilt Ramey‘s and everyone else’s who came to their aid, not just during the worst of times, but the best, throughout their lives.

I don’t know what the memorial service will entail or when it will happen because, as you all know by now, we live in interesting times. As I write this, the pandemic appears to be slowing, but new strains keep appearing, certain countries are in lockdown again or considering it, and our fellow citizens are, as we now know, ignorant and selfish, so this thing might go on a lot longer than we want.

We can wait. We’ll gather in person when the time is right. There will be food, art and music, because that’s what Nancy wanted.

Although I published an abbreviated obituary for Nancy on Facebook after she died, it took me a year to publish this piece at RogerEbert.com. I didn’t want to face it. I was dreading the fifteen-year marker of Jennifer’s death and the first year of Nancy’s.

But now that the day has finally arrived, I feel fine.

The children have gathered in our house in Cincinnati. Hannah is playing the upright piano that Nancy eagerly accepted from a friend who was moving and didn’t have space for it. It hadn’t been tuned since 1989, according to the piano tuner—the year I met Jennifer and Nancy. When Hannah tried it out, the notes were so distorted that they made me imagine spinning newspaper headlines in an old movie montage. Now it sounds pretty good. Hannah’s been playing some of her favorites, which happen to be songs that Nancy also loved, including Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” and Nina Simone’s version of “My Baby Just Cares for Me.” I hope that we’re working up to Stephen Sondheim, a favorite of both Dawson sisters.

I will always think of this house as Nancy’s house. She bought out her second husband’s half of the house with a loan from the bank and worked to pay that off with her bridal makeup business. She loved this house, leaky basement and all. The drawings and paintings on the walls, the sheet music affixed to the second floor steps with craft glue, the stenciled silhouettes of branches on the bedroom wall that look almost like Al Hirschfeld caricatures when you stare at them with certain eyes: these and other details testify to the care that Nancy lavished on presentation of everything that mattered to her, whether it was her home, her family, her art, or herself.

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We’ve been getting rid of unneeded things in the past few weeks, including Nancy’s remaining clothes and a lot of stuff left over from her business—stuff to be thrown out or donated. I don’t feel strange about the process. It’s a thing that eventually happens when you lose somebody. You can’t be Miss Havisham living in a diorama of a past life. I understand. As my stepmother Genie liked to say, this isn’t my first time at the rodeo. (I said that to Nancy one time, shortly after her terminal diagnosis, and she laughed and said, “What kind of a sick, sad rodeo is that? It’s gotta be the worst rodeo ever.”)

Ella, Phoebe and James helped me with the cleaning process, just as Nancy helped me go through the closets at the old place in Brooklyn after Jennifer died. Looking back on it, I think that might’ve been the first time I truly appreciated Nancy as her own person with a sensibility, proudly distinct from her sister’s. There was nothing sentimental about that weeding process. It started out with me holding up blouses and pants and jackets and sweaters and shoes and Nancy saying, “Keep” and “Toss” and “No, no, no” and “Oh my God, no, what was she thinking?” Then Nancy took over, tossing bundles of clothes into a hamper to be taken to the church next door. Her hands were a blur. Toss, toss, toss, keep, toss.

Nancy was tough. Nancy was fast. Nancy was elegant. Nancy loved to dance and sing. She’d dance and sing through the house while she was cooking or cleaning or talking to clients on the phone. She’d even dance a little bit behind the steering wheel as she drove, singing along with the cast recordings of “Ragtime,” “The Music Man,” “Oklahoma!”, “Guys and Dolls,” and the list of Sondheim favorites, including “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Follies,” “West Side Story,” and of course her favorite, and mine, and her sister’s: “Company.”

I think about Sondheim’s “Sorry-Grateful” a lot. It sums up my relationship with Nancy. And Jennifer. And my dad and mom and stepmother, and everyone I’ve lost that I miss dearly.

The hyphen in the song title says it all. You’re never just sorry or grateful for people like Nancy. You’re always both, at the same time. The last few years with her were terrible and wonderful. She was one of the worst things that ever happened to me, and one of the best. The two ideas will remain entwined. There is no contradiction.

You’re always sorry
You’re always grateful
You’re always wondering what might have been
Then she walks in

And still you’re sorry
And still you’re grateful
And still you wonder
And still you doubt
And she goes out

Everything’s different
Nothing’s changed
Only maybe slightly rearranged

You’re sorry-grateful
Regretful-happy
Why look for answers
Where none occur?

You always are
What you always were
Which has nothing to do with
All to do with her.

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