Dick Van Dyke: Keep Moving : And Other Tips and Truths about Aging (Hardcover)(2015)

I Was Supposed to Go First

We spoke about it a handful of times, none that stand out for any particular reason. We did not dwell on it either. As far as I was concerned, I was being practical and preparing my longtime partner, Michelle, a woman of deep and wild dispositions, for what seemed inevitable: that I was likely to die first.

I did not want to die, obviously. But I was six years older than Michelle, and it made sense to me that I would go before her. Starting in childhood, we are programmed to believe the oldest ones are supposed to go first. It’s the natural order of things. It doesn’t always happen that way, of course. Many factors come into play, such as smoking, genetics, luck. But it’s a waste of time trying to cover all those variables. I focused on the statistics. I was older, and women generally outlive men. I think the average expectancy these days for women is eighty-one, compared to seventy-six for men. This is actually good news for survival of the species. In an evolutionary sense, women are more essential than men. In a practical sense, they make plans, write thank-you notes, and remember birthdays.

Bottom line: I was going before Michelle. Up the ladder to some unspecified rung, then . . . adios.

We were never maudlin about it. Saying “good-bye” when I left for work or ran out to the grocery store did not take on additional weight. In fact, we only had the conversation a few times before folding it up and putting it in the back of the underwear drawer. Things were understood. Beyond making sure she was provided for, I had only one concern about her quality of life without me, and I was very clear to her about it. I did not want my death to turn her into a professional widow. I didn’t want her to spend the rest of her life grieving. I didn’t even want her to mourn for a year, which is supposed to be the respectfully appropriate time to wait. I wanted her to fall in love again. I wanted this woman who was a rare force of passion and humor, a powerhouse of pure energy, to continue to live life to the fullest.

“Make sure you get on with your life,” I said.

Michelle worked as my agent’s assistant at the William Morris Agency when we met in the early 1970s. I would call to speak with him and found myself chatting with her until he was available. Pretty soon I was calling just to talk with her. At the time Michelle, a former singer and actress, was embroiled in a “palimony” lawsuit against her former companion, actor Lee Marvin, whom she met when she got a small part in his 1964 movie Ship of Fools. They lived together for six years.

After breaking up in 1970, he sent her a small monthly sum, reportedly to help get her back on her feet. But when those checks stopped, she filed suit for half of the money he had earned while they were together. Her lawyer called it palimony, and every media outlet in the country followed it. Although the lawsuit was a landmark case, it created a notoriety that overwhelmed Michelle. The legal battle also saddled her with significant additional expenses, as she employed a very expensive attorney, Marvin Mitchelson.

We started living together in 1978. A year later her lawsuit went to trial. Media coverage ran the gamut from the New York Times to the National Enquirer and prompted fierce debate on the obligations of men and women who enter into relationships without marrying. Michelle stood tall and strong throughout the public ordeal—not surprising to anyone who knew her. After ultimately losing the case, she famously told reporters, “If a man wants to leave his toothbrush at my house, he better bloody well marry me.”

And that’s what I wanted to do from the first day Michelle moved into my place in Marina del Rey. We got along perfectly. We ate and drank, took long walks, and went to movies and parties. She made me more social. In turn, I took her on adventures aboard my sailboat, which was like a second home. I was a confident skipper in those days, and she was an enthusiastic passenger who was quite clear that, with a cigarette in one hand and a cocktail in the other, she was more than occupied and not interested in learning the skills that would have elevated her to capable first mate.

Once, in one of our more memorable adventures, we flew to the British Virgin Islands, where I rented a forty-foot sailboat. We threw some groceries on it and took off for two weeks, sailing wherever our whims and the wind took us. Though I knew it was futile, I was still trying to teach her the basics of sailing, especially how to anchor. After all, we were on our own.

“Keep it into the wind while I drop anchor,” I remember saying.

She gave me one of those looks that said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Then one day we were out, and the wind was blowing hard, about forty knots. I was up front getting the anchor and lowering the sail while Michelle had hold of the steering wheel. In those conditions, though, I was having trouble, in part because of the wind but mostly because Michelle was steering us in circles.

“Starboard!” I yelled. “Starboard! Take us starboard!”

She looked directly at me, shaking her head. I wasn’t sure whether she couldn’t hear me or didn’t understand. I was focused on the tedious job at hand: the lines and sail were wrapped around the mast. I needed help. I issued another command, “Starboard!” and looked directly at my first mate to see whether she could hear me.

Michelle heard me all right. She snapped, “Don’t give me that Navy crap! Just say right or left!”

When we moved to Malibu from the Marina in 1990, I discovered something new and wonderful about Michelle. She had a green thumb. It wasn’t just green; it was the greenest thumb I had ever encountered. Whatever she planted in our backyard—a big, sloping hill—or in one of the many flower beds seemed to grow and bloom. Sometimes she tossed seeds willy-nilly or took cuttings from plants she saw along the road when we were walking, and they always grew.

She spent hours outside planting and pruning. The gardens she created were glorious, and they still are. The yard continues to bloom year-round. She left her green thumbprint everywhere. The animals and the insects, the birds and the bees appear to appreciate the plants and flowers as much as I do, if not more. It is a testimony to the impact we humans have on the earth—our little patch of dirt or the big blue orb itself. We can destroy it, or we can make it even better than we found it. Michelle definitely made it better.

She had a similarly positive effect with people. She was a strong, aggressive woman, and I liked her because of this. She was also a fiercely loyal friend. If she was your friend, you could count on her for anything, and people did. She knew everyone and introduced me to a world of new people, from Dick Martin and his wife, Dolly, to Barbara Sinatra and so many others who became my close friends. I was lucky she dragged me along. It was this large, closely knit social circle of hers that provided comfort whenever I thought about her going on without me.

“There will be no sitting around in the dark,” I said. “No wasting time. No waiting a year before resuming life—and hopefully love.”

She nodded, and I knew she would take care of things in my absence and that people would take care of her. I would have left her comfortable too. That was also paramount in my thoughts. Like a good Boy Scout, my campsite would be cleaned and tended to when I left, which was important to my peace of mind. My loved ones wouldn’t have to worry. In those private moments when I did my estate planning and thinking, and just thinking minus the estate planning, I wanted to know my exit would be on favorable terms.

I am not saying it wouldn’t be sad. But there would be no sense that I had dined and dashed. Maybe I wouldn’t have sung all the songs I wanted to sing, but I wouldn’t have missed many, and just as importantly, because life wasn’t all about me, the bills would be paid, my slippers put in their place, and everyone told they were loved.

The thing neither of us anticipated or even considered was that Michelle might go before me. We ignored that she didn’t take care of herself. She drank, smoked, and was overweight. She treated life as if it were a party. Sometimes she was the guest. Other times she was the hostess. And other times she was the headliner, belting out a couple of tunes. She enjoyed herself.

One afternoon, back when I was still shooting Diagnosis Murder, she was picking up some samples at a clothing manufacturer. She felt fine. On her way out, though with her arms full of clothes, she hopped over a low fence in an effort to get to her car quicker and felt a sharp pain in her chest, so sharp that she lost her breath. She didn’t know what was happening. She drove to the CBS studio where I was working on a new show and found me on the set.

I took one look at her—she had literally turned purple—knew she was in trouble, and got her to lie down in my dressing room while we called an ambulance. Within minutes, she was being rushed to the hospital, where doctors determined that she’d had a heart attack. Michelle understood, yet she still wanted to leave the hospital immediately, and she put up quite a fuss. It was just her personality. In the end, she listened to the doctors and stayed close to a week, and the most remarkable thing happened to her while she was there: she quit smoking.

None of us could believe it, including her. Michelle was a chain-smoker, one of the last and one of the worst. She used to smoke in the shower—that’s how bad her habit was. At one time I had been a heavy smoker, but I had quit and tried to get her to quit too. She never could until that stint in the hospital, after which she swore that the Jamaican nurse who took care of her did something to her—Michelle called it healing voodoo—because she checked out of the hospital and never wanted a cigarette again. I figured we had dodged a bullet. Even after the heart attack I still imagined myself leaving her a widow. She did too.

As Michelle bounced back, my first wife, Margie, was diagnosed with cancer. I made sure she had the best care, and in 2008, after a tough battle, she passed away.

By then Michelle was engaged in her own fight with the Big C. In the spring a nagging cough took her into the doctor, who found a spot on her lung. Long story short: they ended up taking out the whole upper half of her lung, followed by the usual unpleasant but necessary stuff, chemo and radiation.

As an unshakable optimist, I thought she was going to beat the disease. It wasn’t going to be easy, but Michelle had the best doctors in the city and a spirit that was like a buoy in the open sea. No matter how large a wave crashed down, she popped back up. Radiation treatments were five days a week. After that we went to chemo, where I kept her company while she was on the drip. I ate sandwiches they brought around and watched TV. We followed directions and prayed. But her cancer metastasized anyway.

Few words convey the sadness and helplessness of saying good-bye to someone you love, someone with whom you’ve shared every day for thirty-one years, as I had with Michelle. I remembered thinking back to the first time we met with her oncologist. Michelle asked, “Is there anything I can do?”

“Well, you ought to be on the safe side,” he said. “It’s probably a good idea to get your affairs in order.”

She never did get her affairs in order, nor did she ever marry me. How ironic is that? We had our own agreement, of course, but I wanted to get married for legal reasons and all the other reasons that kept us together for three decades.

“Let me count the ways,” as Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote. She knew it too, but she always put it off, with a throaty laugh. Then it was too late, and I found myself listening to her say the things I had always told her: “I don’t want you to go through the obligatory year of mourning. . . . Life is too short. . . . Don’t waste time. . . . I love you.”

I used to ask people, “Of all the things you enjoyed doing during your life and can’t do anymore, what do you miss most?” I had asked Michelle long before she got sick, and she said, “Having lunch with the girls.” Of course, she still could have had lunch with the girls, and she did go out with her friends, but I knew what she meant. She was talking about being young, twentysomething, when she went out with the girls, and all of life and its possibilities were still ahead of her. It’s a wonderful memory, a feeling that is worthy of a wistful smile and a faraway, dreamy look.

Attitude. So much of life is about attitude—or, more accurately, having a good attitude. In terms of the death of friends and loved ones, attitude takes a backseat to being practical, to opening your heart and being practical about the fact that everyone lives and dies, and although we don’t get to choose the way we die, we do have a big say in the way we live.

I also think belief is crucial. I believe in a Higher Power, whatever that means. It means something different to different people. I don’t think anyone can claim with absolute certainty to know what that means, only that there is a Higher Power, one we should respect.

In terms of life, death, and an afterlife, I am a great admirer of author Norman Cousins, who suggested that upon death or after death, your soul probably goes on, but not your physical body. That ceases to exist anymore, and eventually it decays and disappears. Only your spirit survives, and in that realm you don’t have any memory of having lived.

I think he’s pretty close there, as close as anybody has ever gotten to what happens, which makes the way you live even more important. It is the only time you have to recall and assess and account for those experiences, the connections you had with other people, the work you did, the words you said, and the friends and family you leave behind. So it’s worth making sure those scrapbooks are filled. Make sure you have fun. Make sure you smile and laugh. Make sure you live.

Here’s a final note about Michelle: she spent her last morning alive on the telephone, talking with her friends. At noon she went into a coma—and that was it. The last thing she ever said to me was, “You made me a better person.”

Then it was just me and our dog, Rocky, and all of Michelle’s things in the house, which suddenly felt very large and empty. It was October 2009, the day before Halloween, in fact. I remember going outside to put the finishing touches on my annual Halloween decorations, for which I was renowned in our neighborhood; I had contemplated taking the year off, but Michelle had insisted I go on with the show. I could hear her voice as I worked. The weather was still warm, and the yard was still green and the gardens in bloom. It was beautiful. It was all Michelle’s doing.

But I couldn’t help thinking that I was supposed to go first.

A Tribute to Old Friends*

I wrote this dittty one afternoon in 2008.

I would like to say a few words in tribute to a cricket who lives in my garden. Unlike the hundreds we had when we first moved here, he was the only one who showed up this year. He sings his little heart out, trying to make it sound like a summer night. It’s sad. My heart goes out to him, as it does to the Mariposa butterfly who flits madly around the flowers, trying to pretend it’s the annual invasion of former years. There is one dragonfly who has thrown in the towel, I think. He makes a couple of passes over the pool in the morning, but then we don’t see him anymore. We have three flies in the kitchen who do a pretty good job of pestering my wife.

I found a nice environmental CD of rain on the roof. We were using it to get to sleep at night, but the neighbors complained we were running our sprinklers too late.

We had a bee early in June. But he fell in the pool and drowned. Wouldn’t it be funny if next spring we weren’t here either?