"My Special Angel"
True Romance - January 01, 2005
By Steve Dimeo W orried because of my weight loss and severe depression after my first wife of ten years left me early in 1976, my parents couldn't have been happier when I met Nettie two months later. As a lesson for my divorce-acceptance class, I had to ask the first single person who walked into my office out on a date. Our assignment was just supposed to prove that we could get up enough courage to ask–it didn't matter if the person turned us down. Nettie, always late, happened to walk in early that fateful morning. Although she looked ten years younger then myself, I knew her to be near my age. Nettie was a bleached blonde with shoulder-length hair and oversized bangs. She looked like a more balanced version of Dolly Parton. That day, she wore an old-fashioned mid-calf floral-patterned dress. She looked so pretty. Not very good at the dating thing, I walked up to her and asked her for a date point-blank. Taken aback, she stammered that she'd have to think about it. An hour later, as I was on my way out, she almost tripped me when she backed up her secretarial chair and slipped me a note with her home phone number on it. "Sure, I'll go out with you, Steve," she whispered. "Call me later, okay?" I couldn't believe it. She had said yes! On our first date, we went to a movie that ended up winning the Oscar for Best Picture, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." We later joked that it set the tone for our relationship. Well, that was only partly true. At dinner one night with my folks, my mother dubbed Nettie my special angel because she had managed to rescue me from my deep depression. Nettie recognized my mother's reference right away–the origiÂ¬nal 1957 hit sung by country-western star Bobby Helms. From that point forward, I would forever link the song with her. Nettie had grown up lisÂ¬tening to country-western music, as had I–although I was a more reluctant convert. A pianist and accordion-player conversant with classical and 30's oldies, Nettie also liked Freddie Fender's "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" and Charlie Rich's "Behind Closed Doors." We appreciated their sentÂ¬ments, especially as they applied to our relationship. Such favorites also endeared her to my dad. In addition to Nettie's taste in music, my parents also approved of her other Midwestern priorities, embracing her not just as a godsend for my recovery, but also as a prospective daughter-in-law. Though Nettie relished her job as a receptionist, she also loved taking care of me and our house–from cleaning, doing the wash and ironing, to knitting both of us booties, acting as a much better handyÂ¬man than I ever was, and making special dishes like home-made biscuits. After our engagement in Octo- ber, Nettie eased effortlessly into calling my parents "Mom" and "Dad," an honor that pleased them. Although she was flexible much of the time, she sometimes displayed a mid-western spunk–a dedicated stubbornness when it came to spending time alone with each other. I resisted her a little in the beginning because I'd been hurt too much the first time, but over the years, I grew to share her values. Nettie also elevated the marriage itself–this may have been partly due to her religious fundamentalism. Like any couple, we sometimes had to labor to make things work, but we both felt that staying together was worth the fight. As she put it, invoking a famous cigarette TV commercial from our day, "I'd rather fight than switch." It helped that she loved giving even more than getting–something I came to prefer doing for her myself. To save our pensions from imminent state cuts, we both retired in 2003–earlier than planned. Nettie quit at the beginning of the summer to garÂ¬den. Two months later, she returned part-time to help out at the Area Agency on Aging, where she'd worked for thirteen years. I postponed my retirement until the end of November. Since Nettie had suffered a heart attack in 1998, she had gotten her weight back down to what it had been when we married. She looked healthier than ever. We had both maintained heart-healthy diets, but for the last two years, Nettie still complained of joint and muscle aches, fatigue, and insomnia. Our primary care physician disÂ¬missed this as polymyalgia–a malady that often disappeared after a couple of years as mysteriously as it came. Avoiding the only medications because of their side effects, Nettie figured she could "tough it out," and she relied only on over-the-counter painkillers. Then, at the advice of a contract nurse in her office, Nettie finally convinced our doctor to refer her to a rheumatoid-arthritis specialist early in November of 2003. That doctor ordered tests to confirm her diagnosis, beginÂ¬ning with a bone marrow sample. Two weeks prior to my scheduled retirement–and three days before our twenty-seventh anniversary–we learned the startling news: Nettie had Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML), one of the worst kinds of cancer. We couldn't believe it. The oncologists told us this–Nettie had contracted the disease two months earlier and wouldn't live to see her fifty-eighth birthday next March. Throughout December, Nettie began a mild chemotherapy. She avoided refined sugars, raw fruit, and vegetables, and she progressively improved. Her diet reduced her blood's cancerous leucoblasts substantially. When we found out these latest blood test results, Nettie said, "I can do this!" We celebrated our growing victory over this dire disease with a romantic dinner at our favorite restaurant on Swan Island, overlooking the Willamette River. We enjoyed the rest of the Christmas season shopping for each other. Nettie even made a traditional turkey dinner on Christmas Eve and then made homemade gnocchi on Christmas Day. Then, on Sunday, December twenty-eighth, she woke up with a sore throat that only worsened. A week later she couldn't swallow her own saliva. Hospitalized for four days, she grew stronger for a week but then began declining again. She gave up on chemo, believing that it only increased her chances of further infections. We opted instead for naturopathic remedies. Within two weeks, we knew they weren't working. We couldn't stop the cancer's advance. On one occasion, when I couldn't hold back the tears, Nettie told me, "I think I've got the easy part, honey. It's going to be harder for you." One morning, after listening to her hoarse breathing all night, I reluctantly called hospice care. The first two days, though increasingly weak, she got around the house on her own, conversing with our friends that were now stopping by. But at five in the morning on Wednesday, February eleventh, she had me help her to the bathroom. Her hospice bed was posiÂ¬tioned opposite our king-sized bed so we could see each other. When I laid her back down we kissed, and she said, "I love you, honey." Through the tears in my eyes, I said the same to her. Then, she lapsed into a sleep that deepened to a coma, while I continued to moisten her lips and administer liquid pain medicine. By mid-morning, the nurse had hooked her up to an oxygen machine to ease her breathing. Early that same afternoon, the hospice pastor, holding her hand, blessed her, telling her, “You can go now. Steve and Dad will be fine.” Dad and I, holding his hand, too, looked on, unable to say a thing. Less than an hour later, Nettie began to chuff softly. Her close friend and co-worker, who had joined me beside her bed, said, "I think that our angel will soon be joining the other angels." Then, we watched helplessly as Nettie lolled her head to the side of the pillow and gave out one last gentle breath. She was one month shy of turning fifty-eight. Afterwards, trying in vain to console me, my father said, "maybe her work here was done." I didn’t think so. Nettie had come into my life when I needed her most, helped us both tolerate government jobs that afforded us many wonderful times together, and then left much too soon. But maybe that's what angels do. T