October 22, 2010

Harold Burson's Blog

Bette Burson (March 11, 1925 – September 16, 2010)

Posted By Harold Burson

So it started with a fender bender, an ordinary occurrence that can happen to anyone behind the wheel in a crowded parking area. A squish of cold-rolled steel initiating a damage claim that gets settled and then forgotten.

But this one was different. One could credibly call it a life changer. For the driver, her husband, her children and grandchildren, her friends.

Bette Burson, my wife for six weeks short of sixty-three years, celebrated her eighty-fifth birthday in early March at a small dinner party at Gramercy Tavern, with a few close friends; our only grandson, Wynn, a student at Parsons School of Design; and our younger son Mark, who lives in California. We all agreed she could easily pass for sixty. She was her sprightly outspoken self, hoping for warmer weather that might alleviate the worst asthma season she had ever suffered. She was proof positive that life, even fifteen years beyond the allotted three score and ten, was a continuing joyous adventure.

Not mentioned was an event that occurred a few days earlier. Returning one day from my office, she sheepishly produced a lawyer’s letter claiming she side-swiped his parked car in Scarsdale’s compact shopping area. She had no recollection of her misdeed, but a passer-by noted her license number and sent it to the damaged car’s owner. An examination of the right side of her car, parked in our garage, confirmed the claim.

Recognizing her fifty-year-plus driving record marred only by a single shopping mall brush-up two decades past, I told her not to fret, explaining that’s what automobile insurance was all about. But she was puzzled that she had no recollection of what had occurred,

A few days later Bette informed me she had another accident less than a hundred yards from our home. It was identical to the first: the right side of her car side-swiped the left side of a parked car. This time she was fully aware of her misdeed and immediately reported it to local police and our auto insurer. Fortunately, no one was in the car, as in the first accident.

My immediate reaction was to telephone our ophthalmologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. He said he would make time to see Bette early the next morning, March 17. I thought she had a peripheral vision problem that could be corrected with new lenses. The examination did, in fact, confirm Bette had lost most of her right side peripheral vision, but it was not an eye problem. She was urged to see a neurologist as soon as possible.

We scheduled a neurologist appointment (at our age, one has a practitioner in every known medical specialty) for the next day, March 18. Neither of us felt any anxiety making the appointment. I offered to accompany her even though I was scheduled to be in Washington for a Business Operating Team meeting, but she encouraged me to go. Instead, she was driven to her appointment by our longtime housekeeper.

As the BOT meeting broke for lunch, I received the most devastating phone call of my entire life. Our primary physician, one of our closest friends, informed me the MRI disclosed that Bette had an inoperable brain tumor. I excused myself from the meeting, returned to New York and met Bette in the doctor’s office to plan for what we knew would be the remainder of her life.

Bette made it easy for us. Her first words when we came together were: “I’m 85 years old; I have two sons, 58 and 55, and five wonderful grandchildren; I’ve had a good marriage for 62½ years; I’ve been more places, done more things, met more interesting people than I could ever have imagined; and 85 years is a long time to live.”

We – Bette and I and our devoted physicians, three in all — made two decisions that governed Bette’s treatment. The first was that no “heroic” measures would be undertaken to prolong her life; we accepted the finality of the original diagnosis (confirmed by a biopsy on March 25). We declined chemotherapy and radiation. Her week’s stay in the hospital was abnormally debilitating, but she felt much better when she returned to our home on March 30. Her prognosis was three to five months.

My objective – and that of her physicians – was to make her remaining days as comfortable as possible. She had round-the-clock care and our three Manhattan-based physicians collectively made fifteen “house calls.” She was fortunate indeed that she suffered no pain during her final six months of life.

Bette was ambulatory for the better part of a month. Actually, it was a great month for our entire family. On alternate weekends, our East Coast and West Coast parts of the family visited us in Scarsdale and we shared memories of the past, expressed our true feelings toward one another and looked at the hundreds of photographs that chronicled our lives for six decades. Bette and I had many private talks about both the past and the future, mainly my future. Not once did she demonstrate, anger, self-pity or fear of death. She was content with the life she had led and often expressed the thought that she was ready for the inevitable. In fact, she once remarked that there was a degree of irony in her ability to put her dog to sleep when it was apparent its life was ending, but in our country the same relief was not available to a human.

Bette’s grip on life was manifest in what can best be described as a series of declining plateaus. The first was total loss of sight in her right eye, followed soon thereafter by a partial loss in her left eye. After two months she lost the use of her right arm and her right leg; in effect, her right side was paralyzed. With the passage of the third month came the cruelest blow of all; overnight she lost her ability to articulate words. Anyone who knew Bette can appreciate how devastating this was to her – but not once did she demonstrate anger or self-pity. She was totally cognizant of what was said to her, but her vocal response was a stream of unintelligible gibberish. In spite of so great an obstacle, those close to her were able to develop a rudimentary form of communication that ranged from squeezing hands to blinking eyes, nodding and shaking her head. I learned to appreciate the power of ones eyes as in making ones feelings known. In one sense those were some of the worst days of my life; in another, they were among the best. The closeness that the situation engendered for each of us is barely describable. But we both knew it was there.

The fourth and final stage was the increased number of hours she slept. It was as though nature was preparing her for the sleep from which there would be no awakening. The end came almost exactly six months after she was diagnosed. Some 24 hours before she succumbed, she had a seizure, the first in her long ordeal. She went into a coma from which she never gained consciousness. At five o’clock on the afternoon of September 16, she breathed her last breath. Our sons Mark and Scott, our housekeeper Nadia, one of her two nursing attendants and I were at her bedside.

Soon after she was diagnosed, Bette asked me if I had given any thought to a memorial service for her. Before I could respond, she told me “I’d rather have cheers than tears – no tears, please.” I told her my inclination was to celebrate the near sixty-three years of our marriage through the words of family members and close friends representing the diverse aspects of our lives. She offered the suggestion, “think about ending it with a Champagne toast.”

Admittedly, I miss her – especially when I am in our home alone. But whenever I tend to feel sorry for myself, I am reminded of her quiet wit and wry humor expressed just days before she lost her ability to talk. I was sitting at her bedside and, feeling her arm, remarked “you feel warm.” Her response was quick and to the point: “well, I’m not dead yet!”

Those words will stay with me to the end, my end.

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Harold Burson

October 20, 2010