Despite brain surgery, Burt Farbman pursues life with love and resolve

Back in the 1970s, Burton and Suzy enjoyed a cookout on the beach in Northern Michigan.

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Hemingway defined courage as “grace under pressure.”   I’ve witnessed such grace first hand for the past 6 months since an MRI showed cancer and treatment couldn’t eliminate all of it.

I‘ve witnessed patience, optimism, humor and determination to enjoy each day he’s given.  I haven’t seen Burton shed a tear.

I’ve cried enough to water a farm field.

Sons Andy (left) and David with Burton in Florida.

Memories flood back.
Our first date seeing “Dr. Zhivago.”
Our honeymoon in Acapulco—the sunburn, Montezuma’s Revenge.
The first year of marriage when we existed on my journalism salary while Burton found his footing in real estate.
The caramel-leather Eames chair I bought with the commission from a fashion consulting job.
The births of our sons, both during a move to a new home.
Burton’s first Cadillac at 29, despite my protests that he was too young for such a fancy car.
The terror of flying with Burton as a new pilot.
Trips to Europe, India, Thailand, South America and more.
Purchasing farmland up north. The farm became our favorite place on earth.
Campfires at Carpenter Lake.
Burton’s starting his own real estate firm.
His masterminding the Wayne County Building restoration—establishing Detroit’s first public/private partnership. (He was the first suburban developer to venture back into the D in many years.)
His developing the 3rd Riverfront Towers apartment building downtown and his crazy idea to have Detroit Tigers star Cecil Fielder hit baseballs off the roof to a target on the Detroit River.
Our sleepless nights during several Detroit downturns.
His devoted advocating for my cancer treatment.
Seven grandbabies.
Burton’s support of my writing.
Winters in Florida; golf games played.
Awards Burton won.
People we met.
Boards Burton chaired.

So much to be grateful for.

Farbman and Lazerson families celebrate Alexis Farbman’s bat Mitzvah in 2017

Burton said to me recently, “We’ve had our day in the sun.”

I said, “We’ve had lots of them.”

These days victory for my fearless warrior consists of standing, pivoting and moving from a wheelchair to a bed or an armchair. He works tirelessly in PT. Victory is also, for a left-handed athlete whose left side shut down, opening a Molson Canadian with his right hand.

Most amazing: he doesn’t complain. He says, “You do the best you can with what you’ve got.”

Grace under pressure. I’ll say.

This once real estate titan and civic leader is willing to be seen in all his vulnerability. He welcomes visits from old friends. He gladly accompanies me to the country club where his picture as a young man hangs on the wall—a reminder of the year when he, at 40, served as one of the youngest presidents ever.

The psychologist I’ve been seeing since this challenge began helped me recognize the extent to which Burton has made me, our whole family, feel protected. Burton/Dad/Grandpa has protected all of us. He’s also been our provider. Thanks to his hard work, and that of our sons and capable colleagues at Farbman Group—our second family—we now protect and provide for our patriarch. Our old Eames chair currently serves as a bed for our nighttime aide, Angela, aka Angel.

In his own way, Burton still protects and provides. He asks if I’ve gained weight. (I lost 10 lbs. at the start of this crisis.) He worries about how I sleep. He insists on keeping cash with him. At first I protested—sensibly objecting there were so many different people in and out of the house. He insisted. I gave in. It’s who and what he is—caring, loving, generous. A protector and provider.

Farbman family and Suzy’s sister Anne Towbes dine at Phoenicia in Birmingham to celebrate Suzy’s birthday this May.

I chalked up a significant birthday this May. Not feeling festive, I decided to ignore it. My sister Anne, my shrink and my husband all insisted otherwise. Burton and I, David and Andy, Amy and Nadine and Anne savored dinner at Phoenicia in Birmingham, MI. Burton, our sons and their wives presented me with a ring—actually 3 rings linked together, symbolizing the linking of our 3 generations. The ring first presented was a model of the ring to come, once the size was determined.

Burton presented me with my actual ring when it arrived a few days ago. With his right hand, he slipped it on my finger. Realizing the implications of this moment, possibilities too painful to mention, I started to sob. One of Burton’s more endearing qualities is that despite his hard shell, inside he’s a softie. There in David and Nadine’s kitchen, tears unshed for himself fell from Burton’s eyes as well.

When my first book came out, Burton graciously agreed to participate in some talks with me. We became sought-after experts on relationships, until Burton requested we stop speaking out on the subject. But as a once-sought-after expert, I share with you an observation I believe is incontestable: Relationships are complicated.

Dinosaurs in our musical taste, we’re fans of the late John Denver. Our kids and grandkids roll their eyes when we ask Eric, our longtime farm manager and talented musician, to sing a song like “Country Roads.”  We ask anyway.  Lately the soundtrack to the experience playing in our lives is a song John Denver wrote and sang with Placido Domingo, “Perhaps Love.”

Perhaps love is like the ocean
Full of conflict, full of pain
Like a fire when it’s cold outside
Or thunder when it rains
If I should live forever
And all my dreams come true
My memories of love will be of you. 

We’ve lived our joys and our sorrows out loud—as hundreds of friends, thousands of readers and millions of Oprah viewers know. But over 52 years there have been way more good times than bad. Plenty of days in the sun.

Thank you, my dear husband, for modeling grace under pressure.
For being an amazing protector, provider and partner.
My hero, my champion, my friend.

Thank you for showing me what love is.
You’re the love of my life.

Derek Black changes his mind about white nationalism

For several years, Burton and I spent winters in a congenial golf course community in Sarasota. I often ventured into town to stay a tad culturally connected. So  I was recently surprised to learn a significant social/humanitarian event had occurred almost under my nose and I’d known nothing about it.

Derek Black

Derek Black

Now in Detroit, I attended a program at the Holocaust Memorial Center.  News anchor Cynthia Canty interviewed Derek Black, a young man whose godfather is White Supremacist David Duke.  Derek grew up sold on the White Nationalist agenda.

As a youth, he started his own website for “proud white children.”  His dad, Don Black, founded the internet’s largest hate site, Stormfront.org.  His godfather was David Duke, a former KKK Grand Wizard.  Derek joined his dad on a radio program and organized his own White Supremacist conference.  He was deemed “the crown prince” of the movement.

In his 20s, Derek recanted his beliefs.  He now espouses diversity and inclusion.

Say what???

This bright, mild mannered young man wowed a mostly liberal audience of about 500.   I was so taken with him that I bought the book Rising Out of Hatred, by Washington Post journalist Eli Saslow.  It tells the story of Derek’s struggle and is a page turner. (Amazon currently sells the hardcover, but the paperback will be released by September.)

A good student from Palm Beach County on Florida’s east coast, Derek chose to attend Sarasota’s New College, Florida’s honors college, attended by 800 mostly liberal students.  His first friend on campus was Juan, a Puerto Rican.  His second was Matthew, a Jewish student who hosted Friday night Shabbat dinners in his dorm room.  His girlfriend, for a while, was Rose, also Jewish.

These relationships posed conflict for Derek.  Saslow writes that white nationalists were trying to save whites from “inevitable genocide by mass immigration and forced assimilation.”  In Derek’s words, before his change of heart: “We are Europeans.  We have a right to exist.  We will not be replaced in our own country.’”

At New College, Derek initially revealed none of his beliefs.  Among student friends, he’d excuse himself for a few minutes at a time to join his father on the radio.   Saslow describes Derek’s bifurcated life: “breakfast at New College with Rose and one of her transgender friends and then Thanksgiving dinner with Don, Chloe, and a few former skinheads in West Palm Beach.”

Leading a double life became increasingly uncomfortable.

Eventually, a New College grad student, Tom McKay was writing his senior thesis on U.S. paramilitary groups.  He came across Derek on the Internet and posted his findings on the school’s inter-student forum.   Word spread.  Most students ostracized Derek.  Matthew, the only Orthodox Jew on campus, thought his friend might someday change his mind.  He continued hosting Derek at Shabbat dinners.  His roommate, Allison, was so incensed she kept her door closed when Derek was around.

In time, Allison opened her door.  She and Derek began enjoying adventures together, kayaking in Sarasota Bay or strolling St. Armand’s Key.  They both avoided discussing Derek’s philosophy.  As they grew fonder of each other, Allison began asking him about, and later arguing against, his beliefs.

When Derek finally recognized the harm his opinions could cause people he cared about, he wrote a powerful apology.  He sent it to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization  critical of his former ideology.  He asked them to publish his apology in full.

Saslow writes of the anguish Derek felt in betraying his parents’ beliefs.  The author spent hours talking to Don Black.  Though impaired from a stroke, Derek’s dad has resumed a relationship with his son.  Derek’s mother and step sisters are less forgiving.

Interviewer Canty said there are at least 1000 identified hate groups in the US and that Michigan has the 4th highest number of hate crimes.  In light of recent attacks on synagogues, I was intrigued by Derek’s response to a question about anti-Semitism.  In 2008, Derek had written on Stormfront, “Jews are the cause of all the world’s strife and misery.”

Derek no longer sees Jews as behind a “conspiracy theory,” or what Saslow calls a “plot to weaken the white race by promoting multiculturalism.”

Derek is currently working toward a PhD in the history of the Middle Ages at the University of Chicago.  He received his master’s at Western Michigan University.

I can’t imagine how hard this young man’s journey has been.  The shame he’s felt; the courage he’s shown.  Thanks, Derek, for sharing your story.  And for blazing a trail of forgiveness.

Fayez Hammoud is a Motown fan, a good story teller and fine caregiver

In the midst of a health crisis, real friends show up in many ways.  When brain surgery shut down Burton’s left side, he could no longer walk.  My nurse friend Karen (you may enjoy some of my earlier columns about her) warned that hospitals are busy places, and that at night the nurse/patient ratio drops.  We wanted someone with Burton 24/7.

Girlfriend Lynne to the rescue.  She’s married to champion amateur golfer, Michael.  When Michael broke his leg, Lynne hired an aide to help him move around.  Michael is—shall we say—particular about his associates.

Fayez celebrating his 35th birthday.

He liked his caregiver Fayez.   Lynne recommended him.

Sounds Muslim, I thought.  How’s that going to work?  But it turns out Fayez has worked for a few  Jewish patients.  We’re crazy about him.

Fayez changes tubes and bags, supervises meds, practices PT and OT with Burton, and seldom sits still.  He speeds back and forth from our library, now infirmary, to the kitchen or laundry room organizing, cleaning, checking, dispensing.  And he’s cheerful.  He and our nighttime angel Angela and new weekend aide Abdula are silver linings.

Fayez accompanied Burton and me to the hospital for a procedure.  Hospitals are all about hurry up and wait.  Waiting for Interventional Radiology (IR to medical cognoscenti), I discovered Fayez’s passion for music.

Fayez on stage with Diana Ross.

Fayez is an avid Motown fan.  Growing up in Dearborn, MI, he inherited his passion from his mom.  She  named his older sister Diana; his younger, Summer, after singer Donna Summer.  Fayez has seen Diana Ross perform live 30 times.  Diana once invited him on stage to dance with her to “Upside Down.”   Fayez has also seen Aretha, Cher, Tina Turner and Patti Labelle. Both times the latter pointed to him, signaling him to come onstage and sing.  Fayez owns up to a lousy voice.  Instead, he danced.   He says, “I’ve got rhythm and 3 moves.”

A CNA (certified nursing aide), Fayez first worked for a retired music teacher who’d suffered a stroke, had dementia and was blind.  All day Fayez’s patient waved his arms in the air conducting imaginary tunes.  After, he landed a job with singer/actor Elaine Stritch.  The late Broadway star moved to Birmingham, MI, in 2013 to be closer to family.  Born in Detroit, Stritch complained she was  “sick of the broads” who’d been her caregivers.  She demanded a male aide who was young, good looking (i.e. arm candy) and diabetic. (Stritch was diabetic and wanted someone to monitor her blood sugar.)

Fayez had all 3 qualifications.  When he told his prospective employer about his previous patient, she stood up and said, “That’s fabulous!”  Stritch’s most famous role was playing an alcoholic in the musical “Company” in 1970.  Her best known song: “The Ladies Who Lunch.”  Stritch received 4 Tony nominations, a Tony in 2002 for her one-woman show “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” and many other awards.

Fayez with Elaine Stritch.

Fayez recalls Stritch telling him about her friendship with Judy Garland.  In their 80s, after Garland’s 2  week run at the Palace Theater in NY, both divas stayed up drinking all night in Garland’s hotel room.  “Early in the morning, Judy rose up in her big beautiful gown and said, ‘I can’t believe I’m saying this, but good night.’”  Garland died soon after.

For starstruck Fayez, his time with Stritch was full of excitement.  Bernadette Peters came to Birmingham to spend a weekend with her friend.  Fayez fielded calls from Alec Baldwin (Stritch played his mother on “30 Rock”), John Turturro, Nathan Lane, Elton John and more.

At the time, Fayez’ boss was the subject of a new documentary.  Fayez accompanied Stritch on a tour of cities where the film debuted.   Fayez recalls, “She wanted to be seen stepping out of a limo with a young man.”   Fayez accompanied Stritch to cities including Traverse City, MI and Milwaukee, WI., promoting the film.  “Elaine was always singing,” Fayez recalls.  “In the car on the way to Milwaukee, she made up a song, ‘Potty Chair Blues,’ and sang it the whole way.”

Fayez was Stritch’s caregiver the last year of her life.  She died in July, 2014.  The night before, Fayez had gone out for a drink with a friend.  The next day, he slept late.  “My phone was in the kitchen.  I didn’t hear it ring.  When I checked it in the morning, I found 32 missed calls.”  Fayez’s sister Diana had spent the night with the famed songstress.  Fayez rushed to Birmingham to see his patient.  “She waited ‘til I got there to say goodbye.”

A tribute celebration of Stritch’s life was held in fall of 2014.  Bernadette Peters, Nathan Lane and Stephen Sondheim all spoke, as did the actress Holland Taylor.  In her remarks, Holland thanked Fayez for enabling her last conversation with Stritch.

Elaine Stritch had been married to an heir of the Bays English Muffins family.  Between her inheritance from her late husband and the money she’d saved from her own career, she left $100,000 each to Fayez, her other staff and family members.

Elyse Foltyn gains courage and inspiration remembering her late father and friend

Elyse and David Foltyn are both children of Holocaust survivors.  Together they have 7 children, including 2 sets of twins, all named for relatives lost in the war.

Elyse Foltyn

“Our backgrounds affect us every day,” Elyse says.  “On vacation, in parenting, making decisions, I feel an unconscious need to compensate.”

David’s mother, Ella, dyed her black hair blonde.  By day, as a nanny to a Bulgarian ambassador, she overheard Nazi secrets.  At night she distributed fake passports.  “Women made the best couriers,” Elyse says.  “The Nazis were looking for Jews involved in the underground.  The easiest ones to spot were circumcised men.  My mother-in-law, along with her brother, saved hundreds.”

Elyse and David named their youngest twin, Evan, after her father’s younger brother, Ephriam, who died at 9.  Elyse’s father, Steven, left his parents and brother at 18.  He took his younger sister on what Elyse called a “survival journey.”  His mother forbade him to take his little brother, thinking him too young and fearing the loss of all 3.  Steven and his sister Hannah traveled through Europe to escape the Nazis.  They hid in barns, forests and under wagons.

Because he had fair hair and spoke 11 languages, Steven traveled without being recognized as a Jew. Steven worked as a leader in the underground, helping Jews to leave Europe.

Elyse with her parents at their Oak Park, Michigan, home in 1976.

As a little girl, Elyse asked her dad why her friends had aunts, uncles and grandparents while she didn’t.  He told her, simply, “They died in the war.”  Or “in the Holocaust.”

She didn’t know what that meant.

Almost 25 years ago, Steven suffered a near fatal heart attack. Under anesthesia and during a nearly monthlong coma, he had a vision of his mother, surrounded by light. “I’m coming to be with you soon,” he said.  His mother replied, “It’s not your time yet. You haven’t shared our story.”

Elyse with her parents at their 50th wedding anniversary celebration in 1999.

Once recovered, Steven took his mother’s advice. He shared his experiences on tape with Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation and The Pillars of Honor at the Holocaust Memorial Center.  He became a docent at the West Bloomfield, MI, Holocaust Center and started speaking at schools. He began hosting meetings at his home in Oak Park, MI.

When Elyse was 7, she recalls, “Strangers started showing up at our house. Their hair styles and clothes were dated; they had numbers on their arms. They spoke Yiddish or broken English.  They met in our little den. Through the louvered doors I heard moaning or crying—uncontrolled emotions. I didn’t understand what they were saying, but I knew those times were powerful. I learned how important it was to remember those who’d passed.”

Elyse grew up to major in journalism. She got a job with the Southfield, MI, Eccentric, writing obituaries about “ordinary people—schoolteachers, farmers, bus drivers.  It felt like saying Kaddish (the Jewish prayer of mourning). Someday a child or grandchild might read what I’d written about their ancestor. It was important to get it right.”

Elyse with her husband David Foltyn.

Elyse thought her early experiences with Holocaust survivors and, later, losing both her parents had conditioned her to cope with death. “But,” she said, “nothing prepared me for the death of a dear young friend.”

About her friend, she said, “Hers was the first text in the morning and the last one at night.” They were introduced by a mutual friend when both were pregnant with twins. They took frequent walks and rewarded themselves with Mexican lunches together.

Elyse says her friend “fought really hard for 2½ years. She was so brave and had the best medical care possible.” Dying of cancer, her friend chose not to be surrounded by nurses but by close friends who took caregiving shifts, 2 at a time. Elyse was honored to be among them. “As my friend grew sallow and her voice weakened, I wondered how to respond.  Should I sing?  Read her the news? Talk about death?” But mostly, she said, she massaged her friend’s head and fed her breakfast—“the right ratio of honey to blueberries.” She told her how much she meant to her.

Her friend always spread joy, Elyse said.  “She loved making others happy.”  Before she was sick, her friend had visited an old, decaying car factory. She knelt down to scrape swirls of paint from the floor. “She thought they were so beautiful she had them made into rings for close friends.”  She held up her hand to display a circle of many colors set in silver. When sick, her friend wore a red heart-shaped fur vest to the hospital. She let her doctor wear it all day to bring a smile to his patients.

When Elyse got the call that her friend had passed, she returned to her house and lay down beside her. In death, she says, her friend “challenged me to be more alive. I realized now I, too, was a survivor. Sooner or later, every one walks through pain. The point is not to come out empty-handed. My friend challenged me to develop a greater appreciation of life. She helped me to become more empathetic and kind.”

Elyse shared her story with an audience at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township, MI. She said losing her dear friend, whose name she omitted, brought her closer to her late father. After he came to America, Steven had no word about the family he left behind. Many years later, a yellow postcard came in the mail. It read: “‘You might want to know what happened to your parents. I lived in the shtetel next to them. I saw your father and mother and young brother dig their own grave and get shot into it.’”

Elyse said, “My father hadn’t been able to say Kaddish for his parents all those years.” (Kaddish, a way to honor the dead, represents an affirmation of God’s power and goodness even in the face of death.)

“I realized I’d had the luxury of supporting my friend. Not only was I able to say Kaddish for her, but she challenged me to think more deeply, to be more hopeful. She was my guiding light.”  Elyse’s friend got her involved with MOCAD, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. She currently chairs MOCAD, a dynamic center which shows and supports the arts and has been pivotal in Detroit’s resurgence.

Thanks for sharing such a powerful story, Elyse. May the memory of your father and friend forever be a blessing.

Silver Linings of a Caregiver: Real-life angels, hard-earned lessons and time with family

Our whole clan accompanied Burton (in the dark green shirt) and me (just above him to the right) to Detroit’s landmark American Coney Island.

When health and other crises strike, look for silver linings

My husband’s brain surgery last fall led to complications. But 50+ years ago, we said “I do” in sickness and in health.

Looking at married life from both sides now, I confess: the health part’s more fun. As my medical advocate 14+ years ago when I suffered stage 4 cancer, Burton agrees.

Other caregivers will understand this: We’ve physically adapted our home in many ways. But we all enjoy maintaining traditions and family customs. Here Burton and I are celebrating cousin Judie’s birthday.

I’ve been busy making/attending appointments, researching resources, preparing meals (okay, picking up meals), checking on details, buying supplies, enjoying visitors. Thankfully, our aides have been good to great. But I’ve rarely had the time or heart to write more than medical notes.

Being a caregiver has silver linings. A big one is the angels who show up on the journey. Like Roger, who comes over many afternoons to play checkers with his old buddy Burt. And Judie, Burton’s first cousin, who joins us for frequent dinners and entertains us with funny stories.

Another silver lining: the things you learn.

Joanne Cruz, a social worker sent by a health-care company, mentioned a term I hadn’t heard. It applies to our current situation: Radical Acceptance.

“It’s about accepting what you can’t change or control,” Joanne said. “Change pushes us in one direction. Our gut wants to pull back. We feel powerless. We grieve what was and fear the future. We make up bad stories about what’s ahead when the truth is none of us knows. We’re all vulnerable.”

Burton seems to have come to Radical Acceptance before I have. He works hard at PT every day just to pull himself to a standing position and get his feet to move an inch or two. His positive attitude and determination are remarkable.

Joanne asked how he feels about having his left side largely shut down. (He’s left handed.) And about challenges with speech, memory and logic.

This is a man who came back from our honeymoon with 13 cents in his pocket, built a company that’s afforded us more than comfortable lives, chaired well over a dozen boards of directors. A man who excelled at golf, was a crack shot with a rifle, flew airplanes, spent hours fly fishing and who, like many Detroit born boys, adored driving. This is a grandfather who took grandkids on frequent adventures, who planned a treasure hunt at our farm up north and financed two in-ground trampolines and a sport court.

This is a man who lost his father when he was 11 and became the father and grandfather he wished he’d had.

And yet…

In light of his current health issues, Joanne asked Burton how he was feeling. Given the same situation, I’d be crying and carrying on nonstop. My resilient husband said, “I’ve got work to do, but emotionally I’m pretty good with it.”

“How far in the future do you look?” Joanne asked.

“I’m not looking at the future at this point,” he said. “This Rehab is just something I have to do. When I finish, I’ll be better.”

Talk about Radical Acceptance. The traits with which Burton built his career and ran organizations are the traits he’s still applying. I’ve often said Burton has a vocabulary deficiency. He doesn’t understand the meaning of the word: No.

Another major silver lining: time with our sons.

David lives nearby but with a new baby, 3 more sons and a career that demands travel, we didn’t seem him often. Now he comes over more to visit his dad and check in with me. Andy flies in from Chicago and spends 2 days a week with us. Bonus: several times he’s taken me out to dinner. He researched wheelchair capable vans and accompanied me to rent one.

Andy, Amy and our granddaughters visited on a recent Sunday. Our grandkids love getting together. Thanks to our nifty van, we were able to accommodate Burton’s chair. Along with 2 more vehicles, we all drove downtown for Coney Islands.

50+ years ago, Burton and I often ended dates with hotdogs from Lafayette Coney Island. On this occasion, American Coney Island next door proved more accessible. They didn’t even object when our Chicago gang brought along their new Doodle Mac.

It was Burton’s first real outing in months (not counting trips to hospitals or doctors). Some of you know about our Thanksgiving Day Slide Ride (see blog post). Burton, who started the tradition, couldn’t make it last fall. Our family trip to Coney Island helped compensate. Thanks to my cell phone camera, we immortalized the memory.

Making memories can take effort. But they’re worth it. Wishing you and yours good health, silver linings and magical memories.

Even as we enjoy each day we have together, now, we love to recall fond family memories we’ve shared. Our sons surprised Burton for his 75th birthday by traveling down to Florida to see us—and, of course, they had to go fishing.

Love and loss and the price we pay for friendship

Having friends enriches our lives, but it comes with a cost

I’ve been thinking about love and loss and the price we pay for friendship. I try not to dwell, but sometimes my heart will catch on something the way a sleeve catches on a sliver of wood.

Marj Jackson Levin had a long career as a Detroit journalist, writer and activist for equal rights for women. Click on her photo to read her bio in the Jewish Women’s Archives.

It happened earlier this week. Driving home from the dentist, I turned down a side street, then found myself in front of the house where my late friend Marj lived. Marj was a journalist who also alienated a few subjects in her day. She wrote for the Free Detroit Free Press; I, for the competing Detroit News. We attended writers’ conferences together and toasted sunsets on Lake Michigan up north. Dying, she continued to host cocktail hours in her bedroom. In her memory, I still savor vodka with Clamato juice.

There’ve been so many more fabulous dames. Cancer took most of them down, way too soon.

There was Jackie, a sculptor who gave up her practice to open a gallery in the Fisher Building because she thought artists working around the Cass Corridor area of Wayne State U. deserved decent representation. That led to the blockbuster Kick Out the Jams exhibition at the DIA and to greater recognition of talented Detroit creators. Jackie was determined to attend my 40th birthday party, and she did. Her last outing.

There was Bobbye, my first friend, who had an impeccable sense of design, and whose husband, David, I spotted on the same day she did. Bobbye brought me an eyebrow color compact while I was in treatment. Thankfully, my eyebrows returned but I still use the compact. I thank Bobbye whenever I do.

Suzy with Gertrude Kasle. Click the photo to read Suzy’s earlier column about her friend Gertrude.

And Gertrude, a visionary who brought to Detroit artists who became international stars. She lured them to flyover country with a promise to sell at least one painting per show. Often, she sold that one painting to herself. From Gertrude I learned to buy art for love, not investment—an attitude that runs contrary to much of today’s art market.

And Marji, a fashion editor for the Detroit Free Press. When I returned to the D to live, I had trouble finding a job. Marji heard Fairchild Publications was looking for “a man with experience.” She recommended me anyway. I got the position.

And Tavy, wildly creative fashion editor for the Detroit News. She wrote one of my all time favorite bits of fashion commentary on the 1970s fashion trend called “Hot Pants.”

She penned a poem that concluded:
“Unless your legs are perfect joys
Short little pants are for short little boys.”

And Marilyn, a wisecracking, wise friend for all seasons. We watched foreign movies together and, after, shared lettuce cups at the bar of PF Chang. Marilyn and sister Sharon celebrated one New Year’s Eve with us on a snowy hay ride to the new pavilion at our farm.

And another Marjie, hostess and storyteller without peer. She told me the legendary Robert Frost and Ogden Nash joke and patiently went through it with me again while I wrote it down. It remains my best routine.

And Julie—upbeat, farsighted. She saw and fostered Detroit’s cool factor and helped found MOCAD. Her hard work and enthusiasm influenced artists to move to the D.

And Claire and Virginia, brilliant retailers who mentored me when I started writing about fashion.

And, and, and. By myself on a ski slope several years ago, I dedicated each run to a different girlfriend. I ran out of legs before I ran out of friends. As soon as I send this column, a dozen more names will occur. Each time I lose a friend, another hole opens in my heart, which feels like a hunk of Jarlsberg.

Still, considering the laughs and insight, the support, fun and memories—the joy my girlfriends bring me, I’m willing to pay the price.

The Mi Shebeirach, or Jewish prayer of healing, includes this line: “Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing.” My girlfriends have been and are a blessing to me. I’m honored to know, and have known, them.

Alfred Lord Tennyson was right. Better to have loved and lost than never loved at all.

I just wish it didn’t hurt so much.

Though breast cancer interrupted young mom Ali Weitz’s best laid plans, she survives and thrives

The Weitz family after the birth of the girls.

With shiny, long blonde hair and a seemingly blessed life, Ali Weitz was a golden girl.  At 30, she lived in the tony suburb of Bloomfield Hills, MI, happily married to a young man to whom she was introduced by his mother and hers.   She and Andrew, her husband of 4 years, had an adorable baby boy, Wyatt.   Ali and Andrew were ready to get pregnant again.

Ali Weitz wears a cool cap during chemo, accompanied by her husband Andrew.

When Ali was 1, her sister Amanda, 15, died of leukemia.  Ali says, “Even though I really didn’t get the chance to know Amanda, I grew up with an intuitive drive to make it all count.”

Earlier, Ali had felt a lump in her breast.  A doctor had performed a biopsy and lumpectomy but was “confident” it was benign.  No one in her family had a history of breast cancer or of the BRCA jean.  So Ali wasn’t worried.

Wyatt was about to turn 2.  Ali was busy arranging playdates and checking off lists,  planning a future nursery and “focusing on the ‘normal’ things 30 year old women think about.”  She sat holding her cell phone scrolling through Pinterest for ideas on Mickey Mouse themed parties.

On September 9, 2015, the phone rang.  Breast cancer.

Ali says, “My life came to a screeching halt.”

Thus began what Ali calls her “life altering journey.”  She discovered what we who’ve faced a similar challenge discover: the first days of uncertainty are torture.

Suddenly Ali found herself meeting with surgeons and specialists.  Dr. Jeffrey Margolis, a respected oncologist at Royal Oak’s Beaumont Hospital, became Ali’s “quarterback.”  She says, “My cheer leading squad of loving family and friends put me in touch with the best of the best.  I was used to planning out everything.  I needed a plan.”

Her team developed that plan.  Step 1: Immediate fertility treatment before chemo disrupted her reproductive system.  Step 2: Double mastectomy.  Step 3: 6 aggressive chemo treatments.  “It would be a tough year,” Ali says.  “But at least we had a plan.”

Ali shared her story of survival with members of Detroit’s Temple Beth El on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.  My heart ached for her.  She was so young.  When I faced my cancer battle, I was twice her age.  And I thought I was young.

Cancer has no respect for age.

While initiating her plan, 3 years to the very day she spoke at Temple Beth El, Ali received a another call.  Her fertility specialist, doing blood work to prepare for Ali’s egg retrieval,  discovered his patient was 4 weeks pregnant.  “I was already mourning the loss of my so-called perfect life,” Ali says.  “I felt robbed of my innocence, and now I’d have to lose my baby and face the reality I might never carry a baby again.  I didn’t think life could get any worse.  But I put a smile on my face that night and suffered in secret.”

Ali’s pregnancy was terminated.  A double mastectomy followed.  3 days later, still hooked up to drains, Ali was wheeled into the fertility office to complete the egg retrieval for which she’d prepared.

Before starting chemo, this determined young woman flew to California for her sister-in-law Jamie’s wedding.    “While I was in pain, insecure and terrified, the thought of missing an event we’d planned for months made me sadder than staying home in the comfort of my post-surgery chair.”

Ali put on a pretty dress and walked down the aisle.  “I was scared, insecure, uncomfortable and half the person I thought I was.  To this day, when I look at photographs from that night, I don’t know how I did it.  I’m proud of the woman who found the strength to walk down that aisle with her head held high and celebrate the good.”

Ali returned home “to a cold, dark winter with nothing to look forward to.”  She had a port implanted in her left arm and underwent 6 rounds of chemo.  Her mom, her “head cheerleader,” encouraged her to wear a cool cap during chemo treatments.  “With all the physical changes my body was going through, she thought keeping my hair would help me feel more like myself,” Ali said.  (According to the ACS, cooling constricts blood vessels in the scalp, minimizing the toxic chemicals that penetrate hair follicles.  The cap stays on for 12 hours.)  Ali remained a beautiful blonde throughout.

“For me, the worst part of the ordeal was being so disconnected.  The fast-paced world was moving past me.  I had to put my life on pause for a year.”

Ali discovered the remarkable concern of others.  “People I barely knew stepped up to help.  My friends organized dinners.  One drove Wyatt to school every day.  Close friends took me to chemo.  When the going gets tough, you learn who’s there for you.  On my last chemo treatment, many friends and family members stopped by to keep me company and cheer me on to the finish line.  While everyone applauded as the 12 hour chemo and cold cap process ended, I burst into tears.

“The hardest part was just beginning. I felt lost.  I didn’t know who I was or how to become the person I used to be.  For the first few months post-chemo, I was too depressed to even respond to text messages or attend social gatherings.  I had ‘survivor’s guilt,’ having gotten to know many others suffering from cancers for which there was no cure.”  (Ali’s was HER2 + stage 1.)  One of those others was her dear friend Lindsay Finsilver, her “pillar of strength and light,” who since died.

After a few months, Ali says, “I was ready to find the old me.  The problem was I couldn’t just resume life as that person.  I had to apply the old me to my new self.”

Ali spent time working at Steve’s (her mother’s deli and Burton’s and my go-to for corned beef sandwiches).  A few months later, she began “making up for time I’d missed and being Wyatt’s mom.”  As she continued to feel better, she started helping others who’d been diagnosed, encouraging them to wear cool caps.

“Counseling others, I began finding the gift in my experience.   Being a source of strength for others,  letting them know I walked in their shoes, I found a new version of myself and my purpose.  While I still like to plan, I realize things don’t always work out as planned, and that’s okay, too.

“Today, 3 years after I received the second worst phone call of my life, I am here, proud to say I somehow got my fast-paced life back.  But I make an effort to slow down and appreciate the little things.”

The day Ali spoke, 3 of those little things waited for her in the foyer: her rambunctious son, Wyatt, and 2 rosy-cheeked infants, swathed in pink in a double stroller.  Lolita Amelia is named for Ali’s friend Lindsay and sister Amanda; Simone Faye, for Ali and Andrew’s grandmothers.  The couple’s biological twins were born with the help of a gestational carrier.

When Ali finished speaking, Rabbi Mark Miller joined her.  He marveled that throughout her trials, she’d managed to smile on.  Ali said, “I tried to keep my worries somewhat private but to show up for others with a smile on my face.”  Ali wears a smiley face gold ring, a gift from a dear family friend.  When she was being wheeled in for surgery, a nurse asked her to take off the ring.  “I can’t,” she said.  And didn’t.

Brava, Ali, for your courage and compassion.  Thanks for sharing such a powerful story.  Smile on.

Family surrounds Ali Weitz after she tells her story.