Something More in The Credits: A Tribute to My Wife, Deanna
On July 4th, 2017, my wife Deanna passed away from cancer. She was 31 years old.
I’ve struggled with a hundred different ways to tell the story of my wife and I’s relationship. There are things I’m not ready to talk about, things about the cancer at the end of her life that I never thought we’d go through, things that haunt me every day. I feel shallow and silly reducing our love to how it centered around the silly prism of pop culture and movies. I worry that telling our story through that lens reduces what was, for me, a love that I never felt I deserved from an amazing woman that truly, and in very unglamorous ways, changed lives—mine, maybe the least important of those, but the one that feels the pain of her being gone like an open wound.
This is, as our relationship often was, a silly little jaunt, a slice of the story of our life, and how my wife accommodated, engaged and encouraged my little habit, by being nothing less than who she was.
In the fall of 2012, I considered giving up dating. Again. Another few months of digging around on the same old sites, seeing some of the same old people that I’d seen on dating sites for five years… Maybe I’d just start hoarding dogs, I thought. Maybe I’d take up gardening.
Then I heard from someone I’d never seen on the sites before. She’d been in the Phoenix area for a few months, we had a decent OKCupid compatibility ranking, and she was ok with horror movies. So, after a few messages that lead to text messages, and after a bunch of text messages that lead to a date, we had… a pretty mundane date that after two drinks was pretty much set to wrap up. We circled around the ‘tentative plans to hang out in the future’ part of the conversation, and she asked me what I was looking forward to. I began to exalt the virtues of a movie that I felt more people should have seen that summer, a little genre bending horror flick from Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard that was not just being released on Blu-ray, but would be arriving Tuesday morning from Amazon.
“The Cabin in The Woods?” she asked, excitedly. And she began to tell me how she saw it not once, but twice in the theaters, and how she’d been a huge fan of Joss Whedon’s work for years.
What had been the potential end of the date turned into another two drinks, plans to comb over the Blu-ray disc, and text message conversations that started earlier every day and ended later every night.
Deanna and I said two sets of wedding vows. We recited the chaplain’s version in the chapel in Las Vegas in front of our friends and family, and we also wrote personal ones that we recited to each other later that night back in our hotel room. In them, I told her that said I loved her too soon, we moved in together too soon, and we got (another) dog together too soon. But I did those things because I waited so long for her to come into my life.
About a month into seeing each other, we went to the movies for the first time together. 2012 was a great year for movies, with many all-time classics and Oscar contenders in theaters: Skyfall, Argo, Lincoln, Cloud Atlas, to name a few. With a bounty of films available, I deferred to Deanna.
She chose Pitch Perfect.
And I was more excited than I could hide.
We were surrounded by teenagers, and I was completely unprepared for the early vomit scene. But it was a charming movie, and in the car, we repeated the jokes, and she asked me my favorite part.
“Umm,” I delayed for a moment, and then she chimed in, “When Anna Kendrick did the boob thing?” imitating the boob-lift-dance move the Bella’s engaged in during their finale performance.
“Yes?” I admitted sheepishly and like a dirty bag.
“Yeah, yeah, I could see you liking that,” she said with a sly smile that turned into a serious look at the stop light, where she straightened her back, brought her hand to below her breasts, and pushed them upward while letting out the breathy, “Ahh!” beat.
She had me pegged pretty early.
By late November of that year, Deanna was spending three or more nights a week at my house. One of our favorite stories was the first night she stayed over. We watched Anchorman on the floor, and we fell asleep. She woke up next to me and my dog Monty, both of us snoring on either side of her. She went home the next morning, showered, and sat on the bed drying her hair. Her mom came in, put an arm around Deanna, her head on Deanna’s shoulder, and let out a sigh.
We adopted a dog, Roxie, a Jack Russel who needed to be rehomed. At Valentine’s Day, we decided to give it a full time go. As an only child who’d been single and living on his own for most of his adult life, it was an adjustment for me. We avoided most of the little fights of the initial growing pains. Most of them were ridiculous, like my hang up over certain hanger colors. We set up the extra bedroom as a space for her to do puzzles and read books, and we combined our DVDs and Blu-rays.
I said, “We probably don’t need two copies of Jurassic Park.”
“I mean, it’s the same edition, but this one just looks cooler.”
‘’What is this organization system, anyway?”
“Ugh. Woman. I guess there’s no point of us keeping two Pitch Perfects ..”
“No, I refuse. It was our ‘Gift of the Magi’ moment.”
“Fine, but I still think it’s ridiculous."
On our first vacation together, we went back to Chicago for a wedding of a one of Deanna’s college friends. I flew into Chicago a few days after Deanna, who went home to see friends and family for a few extra days while I handled some things at home and work. This was one of my favorite flights ever, as I made friends with a mom and her toddler daughter. The mother owned and operated a small one-screen theater in a small town in Minnesota, and we talked about theatrical distribution and digital projectors for much of the flight. I landed and was greeted by Deanna at baggage claim. Three days apart and we were ridiculously affectionate and happy to see each other. We made our way to the North Shore, and I found a hotel on Groupon for the night and then got to scrolling through Twitter and catching up on the world I missed on my flight.
Roger Ebert had died. I flew into Chicago on the day Roger Ebert had died.
I was pretty bummed out, and Deanna asked me why. I was like so many others around my age—sure, I knew him from At the Movies, but he was a go to source in the digital age, and his longer essays, that became the foundation for The Great Movies, were treasured as I examined movies and movie history.
We drove around the places Deanna called home during high school. We met an old friend, and then we met her old roommate for dinner before heading for our single night hotel. As we laid in bed, Deanna asked me why I didn’t take my writing more serious. She’d read my little musings on Tumblr and she loved our discussions—why didn’t I try to capture that and round it out more? It was the first time I felt really encouraged in my writing, having rarely gotten feedback from the world at large.
After the weekend (which was a shitshow of a drunken time at the wedding), and once we arrived back home, I pursued writing about new releases in a more serious form than I ever had. Deanna carved out time for me, and sometimes she would send me to my office when she knew something was bothering me, and wouldn’t let me out until I fleshed out my ideas on the screen.
This encouragement reached its breaking point later that summer when Deanna decided she’d had enough of going to every movie with me thanks to Kristen Wiig's Girl Most Likely.
In that first year together, we had pretty much decided we would be together forever. We only had one relationship-threatening fight, when Deanna was fired from a job and the extent of her student loans came to light. It was a tense few weeks, but from it Deanna understood my sensitivities about financial security a bit more, and I learned to communicate better. We started learning the balance of being an adult child to living parents and other family obligations. Deanna found new work, going from children with behavioral issues to adults. Then, the time came to, in the words of the classical poet Knowles, “Put a ring on it.”
(There was a detour of about six months because her sister got engaged and married in a relationship she had been in for under a year, and we were threatened that no pregnancy or marital announcements were allowed in that period, but I digress…)
I don’t believe that there are truly ‘surprise’ engagements anymore, at least not in our late 20s/early 30s. Who spends three months’ salary just to find out that you have fundamentally opposed values on stuff that you could have easily talked about beforehand? But I did my best to hide it from Deanna. I used a ruse of a work meeting to design her ring, and hid it from her for a few weeks while deciding the best time to propose.
We had agreed that proposals on birthdays, holidays and family gatherings were gauche. Any large gathering of people that caused a scene was also forbidden. And despite how it looks in movies and tv shows, we did not have the budget, nor trust our dogs, with a room full of candles. So, after carefully reviewing various milestones in our lives, and counting out the saved ticket stubs, I decided that I would propose at the 100th movie we saw in a theater together, which would happen in early October of 2014.
But what movie? Truth be told, the pickings were pretty thin and as the 98th movie passed, the prospects for movies #99 and #100 looked slim: The Conjuring spinoff Annabelle, or Gone Girl. Well, I knew what Annabelle had the potential to be, as The Conjuring was a favorite of ours. And I’d avoided Gone Girl, other than knowing that David Fincher was the director and I will watch David Fincher direct a kindergarten play if given the chance.
So, I decided to ask Deanna to marry me after we saw Gone Girl.
I started the movie-viewing off weird, asking Deanna to sit on the side that didn’t have the ring box in my short pocket. I was fidgety throughout the movie, grabbing at my pocket to make sure the ring was there, sweating profusely through my shirt at the prospect of what I was about to do. I honestly was pretty blanked out by the last third of the movie (“Was that N.P.H.’s penis?”, I thought, wiping away brow sweat) and as the credits rolled, I lied to Deanna and told her there was a mid-credit stinger. “Really?” she said, correctly guessing that this wasn’t the type of movie that had those. I lied through the skin of my teeth, “Absolutely, right around the soundtrack listing,” I think the old guy two seats away heard me say that, and ended up not leaving, waiting for it too. I wanted the theater cleared so we could have the moment together, alone, but he never left.
As the music credits rolled, it became clear that my mid-credit stinger was not materializing, I was forced to come clean, old guy be damned. I told her about the 100-movie milestone. I told her that I loved her. I told her she was the perfect person for me to go to the movies with, and I told her that I wanted us to keep being movie-going buddies for the rest of our lives. And I showed her the ring, and I asked her to marry me, and she never said ‘yes’, but she kissed me and cried and texted her friend that I had finally asked.
We started planning a wedding, but a few months later, life kicked our plans in the ass. I was ‘restructured’ out of my job and took a lower paying position. I was happier for a lack of responsibility and no more on-call weekends, but the money kick-down threw some wrenches in our plans. Deanna found a new job, transitioning from behavior services to an agency that certified families for adoption and fostering, it was her dream job. I was bitter about my work, and after a few months of my mood, Deanna demanded to know, did I still want to get married? Did I want to be angry like this forever? Yes, and no. She asked me to go to therapy, a suggestion she floated monthly for years now. I finally relented, and after my first session, felt relief and understanding and I moved forward with our smaller wedding plans.
It wasn’t the dream wedding we wanted, but it was still perfect for us. Knowing that most of her family would be traveling from out of state, and living just a short drive away, we agreed on a Vegas wedding. And she had just one request when it came to the pictures.
“Can we get a picture in front of the Bellagio fountain?”
“Oh, you mean an Ocean’s Eleven shot?”
“I mean, why are we getting married in Vegas if we AREN’T getting an Ocean’s Eleven shot?”
When we got home from our wedding weekend, the first thing Deanna spent any of our wedding money on was the Marvel Phase 2 box set. I asked if she didn’t need sheets or towels instead.
“Oh, we NEED those things. But I WANT this.”
I was now home with my wife.
If I could give you one piece of marriage advice, it’s to communicate. Even if it’s something unpopular, like that your partner needs to go to therapy, it’s better to know how you really feel than to hide it.
If I could give you two pieces of advice, it’s to find a method to choose what to watch that reduces choosing time. Deanna and I developed a random system for movie watching. We would agree to what movies on Netflix, our DVR, and our unwatched Blu-ray pile we would want to watch. We would put the titles on a Post-it note, title on the bottom, and the approximate running time on the front. We placed these on a shelf above the TV. Then, when it was time to watch a movie, one of us would use a random selector method; Deanna, waived her hand back and forth until I said stop and I would roll a 10-sided die, and then we would watch the movie we selected. We saved so much time, no longer browsing through menus and instead just watching what we had agreed upon.
A few months into marriage, a lot of shit in our lives hit the fan. My stepfather decided he wanted a divorce, and my mother needed out of the hostile environment. With no hesitation, Deanna said my mother would move in with us. We packed up the puzzle room, finding space for our games and doodads elsewhere. I was sad Deanna was losing her space, and I wondered if we might just donate or eBay it, as we decided to start figuring out how to be adults.
“Absolutely not,” was Deanna’s reply. We could be adults, we could be spouses, we could one day be parents, and we could still love our nerdy shit. This was temporary, but we should start thinking about the future, and the way we would shape it. We framed puzzles, bought posters of Hogwarts, and I started a plan to put the religious icons from fictional universes over our doors. Deanna settled any fears I had about marriage being boring by being a true partner, a best friend. Deanna and I firmly believed that soulmates didn’t always have to be romantic lovers, that they could be friends. But our closeness was something that was more important than a secondary definition—it was a bond of trust.
My mom moved in. It went about as well as being a newlywed and having your mom move in could go. For Deanna’s birthday, she and I went on a ‘Special Lady Day,’ I took her to the places I thought she would love. We went to Build-A-Bear and bought her a technicolor giraffe she named Shimmer; we went to Noodles and Company, one of her favorite lunch spots. We went to the second-hand movie and book store we love, and we used our credits to fill out our Disney/Pixar collection. We found Magic Mike XXL in the $10 bin. We asked ourselves why we didn’t own it already. When we got home, my mom was having a horrible day. Deanna, despite it being her birthday, her special lady day, insisted my mom join us. She demanded I make her favorite comfort food meal, grilled cheese sandwiches with bacon. She persisted in making my mom watch Magic Mike XXL, as no one could ever be sad when watching Magic Mike XXL. Even when she might focus on herself, as a newlywed, on her birthday, Deanna made helping others a core part of who she was.
(And look, I’m going to be quick about this, but for Halloween every year, Deanna would put on sexy costume lingerie and that… was… awesome. The only time that it was better was when on my birthday, she wore a sexy boxer costume and came into the bedroom to the Meek Milli remix of the Rocky theme from Creed and even did the shadow-boxing-while-getting-circled-by-motorbikes bit; a top five sex experience for us.)
Sensing the end of 12 years at my company, we felt that we should make a splash for what would likely be the final big holiday party there. Deanna found a TARDIS dress, and we scavenged together the bits and pieces for a suit that looked like Matt Smith’s The Doctor. For an event that had frequently been one of our biggest nights of fun every year, this special, not giving a fuck attitude about it made it extra special, between delighting the nerds around us and upsetting the bro-y salespeople whose nights we were ruining by not taking the proceedings serious.
In February of this year, I found a new job, my mom moved out, and we started really focusing on building our lives for a family.
It’s unfathomable to describe how fast my wife's cancer progressed. It’s unbelievable to say that we didn’t see signs. But we didn’t. While moving my mom in, Deanna assumed she tweaked her shoulder. Her doctor sent her for imaging and physical therapy. In the fall, she had a cough and a cold that she couldn’t kick. It came, it went. It came, it went. After the holiday party, in the taxi home, she coughed so hard she cracked a rib. X-rays in February of her chest saw nothing unusual. She was tired and fatigued, and had a hard time keeping food down. There was a strong chance, as we had been planning for, that she was pregnant. She planned to take some time off in April to relax, her first vacation in a year.
As March went on, she got paler. She never got her period. A pregnancy test came back negative, and her rest and recoup week wasn’t going well. We made the decision to go the ER; her vitals were dangerous, her pulse high, her blood pressure virtually hypertensive. Imaging revealed a mass that was compressing her lungs and pushing her nerves upwards, on or surrounding her liver. She was admitted to the hospital, where she underwent all kinds of imaging, poking, prodding, treatments, and monitoring. We celebrated our first anniversary in a hospital room; we talked about the future and put together a LEGO set of a wedding altar with two figures with hair the same color as ours. After a biopsy sample was taken, she was allowed to come home for a weekend. We went to The Fate of the Furious, and tried to have a weekend of a normal life.
We went back to the doctor on Monday, and we got the news. It was cancer, and it was aggressive. It was attacking the organs, but showed symptoms of skin cancer. Her vitals didn’t allow her to come home, so she was admitted while the doctors prepared a plan.
A 10-pound tumor was removed. Half of her liver. Sections of her diaphragm were sliced back, and a laser treatment was applied to spotting on her lungs. She was in the ICU for several days, then surgery recovery for a few more. She came home a week after the surgery, and she began to get her color back. Her strength. She ate a bit more, and was progressing solidly, but had headaches and didn’t sleep well because of the pain.
In early June, more than a month after the surgery, while expecting to begin chemo treatment soon, we got out of the house for the day. We went to the aquarium at the mall near us, a slower than normal trip that allowed us to pause and enjoy the soothing fish over the shouts and screams of kids. We went to lunch and talked about her going back to work; we talked about me writing more for the site again; we talked about if chemo was too much for her body; that we would be happy to adopt children. She was so optimistic that we could beat this.
Within a week, she had a backslide. At first, I thought she had a hangover from the Ambien, as she slept more and was lethargic. The next day, while talking about dinner, she had a hard time finding the right word for ‘fork’. Two days later, on a Friday morning, I woke up to the sound of her falling on the bathroom floor, crying and yelling in pain. She may have tripped on her way to the bathroom, but based on what I described, the doctors suspected she had a seizure. She possibly had her first stroke. The doctor also told me that imaging completed on that previous Monday showed the cancer had returned to her liver. It had also spread to her stomach, her lungs, and her spine.
We went back to the ER, and had emergency consultations. She had swelling in her brain, and tumor sites. We began targeted radiation as soon as possible, but the radiation prevented treatment to the remainder of her body. I was sad one night over dinner, and Deanna asked me what was wrong.
“You’re sick, baby.”
“I don’t feel sick,” she told me.
Every three days, Deanna seemed to decline physically and mentally. I came into the living room to find her on the couch, staring at the blank screen. “Why aren’t you watching TV?”, I asked. “I forgot how to turn it on,” she said.
On the sixth day of radiation treatment, Deanna needed further imaging. I was called back to the MRI room to talk to her after she became agitated and refused to continue. She called it torture. She agreed to complete one more round of imaging, and the doctor called me. Her liver bile was four times the levels of an unhealthy liver. Her ammonia concentration that was causing her to jaundice was at 51; the average is less than 1. The doctor presented me with the option of running tubes to her liver in a hospital, delaying treatment further, or allowing her to be home in hospice. I asked Deanna what she wanted me to do. She told me to make the right choice for her, and she kissed me and told me she loved me.
On July 1st, I made the decision to place my wife under hospice care. On July 4th, at around 8:10 PM, she took her last breath.
On July 29th, I gave the eulogy for my wife. I wore the thrifted jacket from the Doctor Who formal cosplay from our last Christmas party. I wore the black vans I wore on our wedding day. I put three buttons on the jacket pocket—A Gryffindor house sigil, the grape soda bottle cap from Up, and little kawaii figures of Han and Leia saying, “I love you” and “I know” on a violet background. I refuted a story from early in the service that said we had sent 1000 text messages before our first date; I talked about our little in-jokes and how she once yelled at the TV that was advertising a Potterhead Weekend, “No! That’s our word!” Her friends, her family, the family's longtime friend who presided over the service, everyone told stories, representing a wing of Deanna’s life, like a sprawling museum.
The wing that she and I lived in was the one that’s the least adorned, and it feels like I’m living in this huge space that had potential and will never be filled like it was supposed to. Every time I’ve cleaned out a dresser or cleared a section of the closet, it’s felt like I’ve closed that section, like I’m walking backwards, retracing my steps back out to where I was before we found each other. In the first month after she passed, I lived in the emptiness of that wing. A few months later, It’s like I’m there every day visiting. A few months from now, maybe my visits will be less frequent. One day, it’ll be a sealed off wing that I might sneak into, choosing to bring someone along with me or not, to find out the story of our love.
For now, I find myself living in the theater of the museum. I run back our pictures like slideshows. I wish there were more, and I wish that we went more places. I play videos listening to her voice, and I watch the movies we loved together, and I make my way through our collection of movies, watching movies she loved that I never gave a second chance. I watch things that we were excited about from this year with melancholy that we can’t debate over them together. I feel a pang of guilt when I let the next episode play of a show we loved.
And every time I go to the movies, I wait to see if there’s something more in the credits, right around where the soundtrack listings are…