By Don Millard
Homeward Bound, again? Not really.
When I got back to Connecticut I had a place to stay. I stayed with an old high school friend of mine and his wife, who was expecting. I’d stayed with them and paid them rent during the last two months before Christmas after my crazy landlady, I kid you not, accused me of stealing some of her diarrhea pills one Sunday night. Apparently, her diarrhea pills were highly sought after and had a street value I didn’t know about. Brown market?
Shortly after I began staying with my friend again, he and his wife left for Florida for vacation. I took advantage of this solitude to work on the final draft of the sarcastic novella I’d written the summer my Mom died in 1986. My little novel is called ‘REBEL WITH A CAUSE: The Shocking Story Of A Young Man Who Gave Humanity The Finger!’ It’s the story of a young guy who vents his spleen to a psychiatrist about what pisses him off about people and life. I know this may come as a shock, but the book is a wee bit autobiographical.
Amy and I had kept in touch by phone since I’d come back to Connecticut and about a month later she called to tell me that she’d met someone and they were moving in together in a week. Although this kind of stunned and hurt me, I pretended like it didn’t bother me a bit and said I was still her friend, blah, blah, blah.
It was during all of this that I made one of the hardest decisions of my life. I say that because it was a decision I knew I couldn’t go back on if I didn’t like the results. Consequently, it was a decision I’d wrestled with for the last few years, but now the time seemed right. So, I decided once and for all, to try to find my birth mother, the woman who’d given birth to me on March 14th, 1965 in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Since I hadn’t been able to solve my medical mystery, I would now try to solve the ultimate mystery of my life: my adoption.
Once I made up my mind to find my Mother, I wrote this poem the same night:
Though I lived within you
I have lived without you
How I wish you knew
What a loving home I was brought into
You gave me life
You gave me breath
You chose life over death
And no matter what you went through
I am still part of you
Do you sometimes wonder where I am
Where I’ve been
What I’ve seen
And everything in between?
For I am a tree without roots
A ship without an anchor
Few can fathom the fickle hand of fate
How I hope I’m not too late
If you’re out there, say a prayer
How I hope you’re still there
For ours is a bond you can never smother
I will find you, Mother
I wrote The Children’s Home Society of Virginia, the agency that had handled my adoption, and asked them to give me what they called “non-identifying information.” There was such a void, and I was hungry for even the tiniest detail; Was she kind? Was she funny? Was she smart? Was she an artist? Was she pretty? Who was she? Who was I?
The adoption agency would later send me my “heritage summary”, which I poured over and tried to make meaning out of the most mundane of details. This is what they had to say about my birth mother at the time of my adoption:
“Your birth mother was 5’2″ tall and weighed 105 pounds. She had good taste in clothes and preferred soft colors. She had a medium olive complexion, brown hair and brown eyes. She was described as attractive, withdrawn, and someone who kept her problems to herself.”
One thing I didn’t tell the adoption agency was that I knew my birth name and had known it ever since the fall of 1988. Just before moving to Florida, my Dad and I had come across a letter in a safety deposit box from the lawyer who handled my adoption. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read the first sentence of the letter, which said: “I represent Mr. and Mrs. Donald Bruce Millard who adopted a male infant named Terry Lee Wichael who they named Donald Bruce Millard, Jr.”
Terry Lee Wichael? I can’t really express how strange it was to see this name and realize that was once ME. I hate to say it, but my first reaction to seeing my birth name was that it made me sound like a serial killer. “Terry Lee Wichael is set to be executed tonight.” When I saw my name, I couldn’t help but think that if not for a simple twist of fate, I’d probably be driving a pick up truck with a gun rack. Hell, I probably would’ve even chewed tobacco! Oh, wait.
When we moved into our new house in Florida, I put this stunning document in a drawer all by itself. I told myself that when the time was right and I felt I was ready, I’d act on this. Well, the time felt right and I was ready.
Wichael? What kind of a name was that, anyway? I’d certainly never seen or heard it before and wondered if it was a rare name. I was sure glad it wasn’t Smith. I enlisted a good friend of mine who lived in New Haven to go to the Yale Library and see just how rare this Wichael name might be. At the time, the Yale Library housed pretty much every phone book from every major American city.
A few days later my friend reported back to me that he hadn’t been able to find even ONE Wichael listed in ANY city in America! Any city, that is, except for the Harrisonburg, Virginia area where I was born! He xeroxed that page of the Virginia phone book and when he gave it to me he said I was probably related to every one of those people listed. As I held the piece of paper in my trembling hands, I too realized that the 8 Wichaels listed there were probably all related to me. Me, an adoptee and an only child who never felt connected to anything and who always wondered if he looked like another soul on this Earth. As far as we could tell, these 8 Wichaels listed were the only ones listed in the entire country, and that was a heady thought!
I must have stared at this page of the phone book every day for a month. Part of me just wanted to pick up the phone and start dialing, while another part of me was afraid of what I might find. Had my adoption been a secret? How many Wichaels even knew about it? Was I a child of rape? Would this ruin my mother’s present day life? If she was married, did her husband know that she’d given me away? These kinds of questions haunted me and gave me pause every time I was tempted to pick up the phone. After all, the adoption agency had told me that my birth parents had been very young and weren’t married at the time of my adoption. But, for all I knew, that was probably the same story they tell every adoptee who requests what they call “non-identifying information.”
In July I left Connecticut to visit a kindred spirit in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Pete Duchesne had been one of my best friends since we met as pimply freshmen in college in 1983. We had kept in touch off and on ever since and I trusted his judgement over just about any one’s. When I told Pete about my dilemma, he said: “Don, I know you always want to do everything the right way, but I’d just call.”
That was good enough for me.
So, one warm Friday evening, fortified by a stiff drink or three, I decided to do just that.
I chose to call the very first Wichael listed, a woman. I might even be calling my Mom, I thought. As a reluctant telemarketer, I’d done some cold calling in my day, but this was ridiculous.
My whole body started shaking when I heard a woman’s voice say hello on the other end of the line. Trying my best to keep my voice steady, I attempted to explain my situation as succinctly as I could. The woman was very nice and sympathetic to my cause, but explained that she wasn’t really a Wichael; she’d been married to one but was divorced now. She said she was sorry she couldn’t help me and wished me luck with my search.
Well, shit! I’ve got one more call left in me, I thought, as I looked down at the remaining unsuspecting Wichaels on my page.
As I looked down at the candidates for the thousandth time, I kept coming back to one name in particular, the name my gut had told me to call in the first place. I can’t explain it, but something told me that “H Frank Wichael” was the man to call about this.
Working up my courage one last time, I dialed the number (and yes, it was a dial phone). Even though his name was listed as “H Frank” I was pretty sure he went by Frank. I certainly wasn’t going to say “May I speak with H, please?” Sure enough, a woman answered this phone, too, and I did my very best to sound as casual as I could while nearly having a heart attack at the same time when I said: “May I speak with Frank, please?”
To my utter relief, this woman didn’t say, “Who’s calling, please?” What would I have said to that? Terry Lee Wichael?
“Just a minute, please,” she said pleasantly.
While I waited for “H” to come to the phone, I thought I’d go insane. Or maybe I was already?
“Hello?” said a warm, friendly sounding Southern voice and I felt comfortable instantly.
I told Frank my situation; of how I’d been adopted; of how my original birth name had been Terry Lee Wichael and that I’d been born in 1965 in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
“Where are you calling me from?” he asked.
“New Hampshire,” I replied.
“New Hampshire?” he said incredulously. “You’re in the wrong part of the country, boy,” he said, laughing.
“I know,” I replied.
I couldn’t believe how well the call was going or how much I was already enjoying talking to this H. Frank Wichael. He told me very quickly that I was pronouncing Wichael wrong. He explained to me that it was pronounced like “Michael” but with a W. After learning how to pronounce my last night properly, I wondered if there was anybody named Michael Wichael.
Frank asked me all sorts of questions and seemed genuinely intrigued. When I told him I had blue eyes, he sounded shocked and said:
“BLUE EYES? All the Wichaels have brown eyes!”
All my life I was glad that I had blue eyes, but now I kind of wished I had brown eyes, since this was such a Wichael trait, apparently.
I bet I talked to H Frank Wichael for about an hour that night. When I mentioned that I was likely to be returning to Florida soon and would be passing through Virginia, he said: “Stop by.”
Stop by? Um, okay.
I was floored by his warmth, humor and hospitality in the span of just this phone call. I sure hoped I was related to HIM.
In preparation for my return to Florida, I stayed in New Hampshire with my college buddy Pete and picked up a temporary job working the graveyard shift in a factory. The only thing I remember about it now is that we had to pack glue sticks in a box while trying not to fall asleep.
About a month later, I drove back to Connecticut, gathered up my Van Gogh’s and headed South toward Florida by way of the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, the land of my birth as well as the scene of the original mystery of my life. Who was I, anyway? Twenty eight years later, it was time for Don Millard to meet Terry Lee Wichael.
As the miles rolled by, my nervousness and excitement grew every time I saw a sign that told me I was getting closer and closer to Harrisonburg, the city of my birth. I had been adopted and lived in Virginia for the few years of my life, but I had no memory of Virginia because my parents moved back to Connecticut before I was even in kindergarten. We’d lived in northern Virginia, far from Harrisonburg, so this was the first time I was really back in this area since, well, since I’d been given up for adoption. In a way, I was going back from whence I came.
As I thought about it all, I had a good feeling about H. Frank Wichael. Though I’d only spoken with him on the phone, something told me he was going to help me in my quest to find my mother. I was already a confirmed agnostic by this time, but in this one tiny corner of my life I had faith that it would all work out.
The landscape got even prettier as I entered the Shenandoah Valley, that gorgeous and fertile region that stretches for 200 miles across the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains in western Virginia and two counties in West Virginia. The rolling hills and panoramic vistas even reminded me a little bit of Ireland. Hillbillies get all the pretty country.
During our study of the Civil War in high school, I defended the South in my AP history class. I defended the South by pointing out that if the North’s economy had been based on agriculture, THEY would’ve been the ones with slaves. Upon hearing this, one of my Yankee classmates asked me:
“What? Were you born in the South?”
“Actually, I was,” I told him with a smile. Loving history the way I do, I’ve always been proud to have been born in such a beautiful and historic state. Still am.
When I got into the city of Harrisonburg, I wondered how close I was to Rockingham Memorial Hospital, the hospital where I’d come into this world. I was hungry from the long drive and didn’t want to confront my past on an empty stomach, so I stopped at a Pizza Hut. I also stopped here because I needed a little bit of time to collect my thoughts, take a deep breath, and try to relax for a moment before I called Frank Wichael to let him know good ol’ Terry Lee was in town.
While I sat there eating one of their custom shitty pizzas, I thought about how this might be my last supper as an adoptee who didn’t know anything about his birth family and how I couldn’t undo any of this now if I didn’t like what I found here. It was a heady thought.
As I left Pizza Hut, I seem to remember that it was one of those rare occasions where I passed the men’s room without having to immediately extrude the pizza I’d just eaten.
You are now about half way through Part 8. Please take this time to stretch your legs, go to the bathroom or visit the Snack Bar.
It was time to find a pay phone and call Frank Wichael. Finding a pay phone in 1993 wasn’t very hard, as back then they were as plentiful as satellite dishes in West Virginia. Come to think of it, I believe the state flower of West Virginia is a satellite dish. Or maybe it’s a gun now.
Speaking of guns, they were just about the first things I saw when I walked into the local supermarket in Frank’s little town of Bridgewater before called him. Just one step in this store and you knew were South of the Mason-Dixon line. The rifles were hanging on the wall just as matter of factly as tomatoes in the produce aisle. Talk about guns and butter. Yeah, I’m going to blend in here, I thought. Growing up, I’d done a little bit of fishing here and there, but that was about it. I’m no hunter. The only thing I’ve ever hunted is the remote. Maybe I should have mounted that.
I called Frank from the pay phone at the local Guns & Ammo IGA and told him where I was. He already knew I was supposed to be getting into the area sometime that day, a Saturday. I figured the weekend was the best time to pester him about the mystery of my birth and adoption. Frank told me I wasn’t very far from his house, but gave me directions to meet him in the parking lot of an old general store nearby as it would be easier to find for a city slicker unfamiliar with the area. Hanging up the phone, I repeated Frank’s directions over and over in my head as I got back into my car.
As I drove to meet Frank, I was nervous and excited and wondered if this all was really real. This seemed like something out of movie rather than real life. But right now my biggest fear was getting lost and that’s exactly what happened. When it comes to getting lost, I’m an expert. Christopher Columbus ain’t got nothing on me. Sure enough, I saw no sign of the old store that Frank had talked about as I went down one country road after another. I was so close and yet I might as well have been in Cincinnati. Frustrated, I finally admitted defeat and drove back to town. I promptly called Frank from a different pay phone on Main Street. I felt like an idiot. Frank’s wife answered the phone when I called, and said Frank had just got back to the house.
“He thought you chickened out,” she said.
“No!” I replied. “I got lost. I’m still here!”
This time, she gave me directions and said Frank would stay at the store until I showed up. Her directions must have been better than her husband’s because I found the old store with no trouble on this go around. As soon as I pulled into the dirt parking lot, a beat up greenish blue pick up truck appeared from behind the abandoned store and pulled up next to me. We both got out of our vehicles. Frank looked to be about in early fifties. He had the complexion of someone who spent a lot of time outside and had a full head of gray hair. “Just because there’s snow on the mountain top doesn’t mean there ain’t a fire in the furnace,” I’d hear him say later.
“Frank Wichael,” he said with a smile, putting out his hand.
“Don Millard,” I said, shaking his hand.
“Just follow me back to the house,” he said, as he got back in his truck.
As I followed Frank Wichael that late afternoon, I couldn’t help but notice the irony of it all. Here I was–the quintessential Connecticut Yankee–following a Southern man in a beat up old pick up truck down a country road to find my roots. I felt like I was leaving the present behind and passing through a time portal to my past. It was like I was entering a different dimension of time and space with Rod Serling riding shotgun.
We couldn’t have driven but a mile or two when suddenly we were pulling into a long gravel driveway. My little car suddenly shook as it went over something I’d find out later was a cattle guard. I didn’t know what the hell it was when I drove over it and it startled me. Frank had a handsome brick house, a sprawling yard, and a giant satellite dish. I parked near the house on the grass near the wooden fence. When I got out of my car, I made sure to leave my cigarettes in the car because I didn’t want Frank to know I was addicted to nicotine.
Frank showed me around his house very briefly. He seemed to be the only one home now. Then, putting on a sweatshirt, he said:
“I’m goin’ to a cookout. There’s gonna be a lot of Wichaels there. You wanna go?”
“Okay,” I said.
“Let’s go,” he said.
So, just a few minutes later, I climbed into Frank’s truck and off we went. As we were driving, I
wanted to ask him right then and there if he knew who my mother was, but I held my tongue. I trusted Frank and was waiting for him to tell me what he knew about it all. Already, just based on Frank, I was hoping it was my Mother who was a Wichael.
On the short drive over to the cookout, Frank told me that the Wichael name was quite rare and that there wasn’t many of us around. He said the only Wichaels he knew of were all from this pocket of the Shenandoah Valley.
Almost right after he finished telling me this, we pulled into a driveway full of cars. This must be the cookout, I thought. As we got out and walked toward everyone gathered in the front yard of yet another handsome brick house, I was nervous as well as curious as to how Frank would introduce me, or even explain me.
There was a crowd of people in the front yard; some were standing around and talking while others were already seated at picnic table. I felt like all eyes were on me as I waited for Frank to say something. Frank introduced me to the group by saying my name was Don. He didn’t mention anything about my adoption. But then he said three words that changed my life by adding: “He’s a Wichael.”
I almost burst into tears when he said this. He said it so matter of factly, as if it was as undeniable a truth as gravity.
It’s very hard to describe just how much this meant to me. To never know you, really, who you were growing up and never anyone who was actually related to you; to be adopted and an only child wondering if you even looked like someone else; to never know if you had your mother’s eyes or your father’s chin. Life is hard enough without having to go through it not knowing who you really are. To not know any of this all your life and then suddenly be introduced with the words “He’s a Wichael” changed all of that forever. Even though I didn’t know anything more than that at this moment, it was already enough. Everything was different now. I had found my anchor. I was a Wichael.
As the sun was setting, I could see the Blue Ridge mountains one side of me and the Allegheny mountains on the other. I was glad to have been born in such a beautiful spot, nestled in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley.
As I looked around at the younger faces of those at this cookout, I noticed that some of them looked like me and I got a bit paranoid. I started to worry that maybe everyone knew who was my mother was except me. I also wondered how many of these people I was related to. But again, I trusted Frank. That being said, I still didn’t mingle too much, however, because I was afraid somebody would ask me questions I couldn’t answer. You know, questions like “Who’s your mother?”
Although I chose to remain somewhat aloof, most everyone there seemed to accept Frank’s introduction at face value and looked at me as just another Wichael. Frank also personally introduced me to his two brothers, James and Paul. Paul, the oldest of the three, had a full white beard, but underneath his face looked very red. As if he could tell what I was thinking, Frank said to me quietly “He was in a fire.”
Another memorable moment came for me when Frank’s wife, Sharon, said to a group of people: “You know, we’ve always said that Brandon was the first Wichael to have blue eyes,” she said, pointing to young man who looked about 20 and who resembled me. “We can’t saw that anymore.” And then, looking at me, she said, “You’re the first Wichael to have blue eyes.”
Man, I thought, Frank wasn’t kidding about that whole “all the Wichaels have brown eyes” thing!
So, I was not only a Wichael, I was the first Wichael to have blue eyes. This was MY heritage and no one else’s! I felt my blue eyes getting moist again.
After the cookout I rode back with Frank back to the house of Wichael. Since it was starting to get late, I told him I’d see again tomorrow before I left for Florida.
“Have you got a place to stay?” Frank asked as I was walking out the door and into the Southern night.
“Yeah,” I lied.
I didn’t have a place to stay, but I didn’t want Frank to know that. I didn’t want him to know that I was trying to save every dollar I could for the remaining drive back to Florida. I also didn’t want Frank to think I was trying to lay claim to anything except my heritage and finding my mother.
So, I said good night to Frank Wichael…
I ended up spending most of the night driving around the Harrisonburg area and smoking. I wanted to tell everyone I ran into that I was a Wichael. Even if I’d had a place to stay that night, I doubt I would’ve got much sleep, anyway, while I tried to take in what I had seen and heard. Still, I was happy
when the dawn came. I knew country people usually get up pretty early, so I had no qualms about showing up again at Frank’s door bright and early on a Sunday morning. When I pulled into Frank’s driveway that morning, I made sure to leave my cigarettes in the car once again. Looking back on it, it was kind of silly of me not to want Frank to know I smoked. After what I had been through, it was a miracle I wasn’t on heroin.
I arrived at Frank’s just in time for a hearty country breakfast that would clog an artery.
Frank and I talked some more after breakfast. He had a good sense of humor and a lot of fun about him, even in the morning. His wife, Sharon, was a Literature professor at the local college. When I asked him how he and his met, he said, “Drunk.” When I asked him if there were any Wichaels who drew or painted, he said he didn’t know of any, but then mentioned that his sister had gone to the Peabody School of Music in Baltimore on a piano scholarship. That was good enough for me. Still, I longed to just break down and just ask him if he knew who was my mother. I felt that if he didn’t know, he had a pretty good idea, but was saying anything because there may have been some delicate variables involved. Again, my greatest fear was that he was going to tell me that my mother was dead. Anything, anything but that, I prayed.
Frank and his wife had two children, Craig, and a daughter, Shay, both of whom were in college. I didn’t get a really good look at Craig at the cookout the night before but now when I saw his face in the light of day, I was stunned. Stunned, because he looked just like me when I was in high school! It was uncanny and a little unsettling. It was like looking at the ghost of myself from high school past. This was getting heavy.
I told Frank I had something to show him and walked back out to my car to retrieve an old photo album that held, among other things, some pictures of me when I was a kid. As I was showing a picture of me sitting on a sofa at around age 3 or 4, Frank looked at this photo especially close. Then he said to me,
“I’ve got something to show you.”
He promptly went back into another room and came back with a photo album of his own. He flipped through it until he found the page he was looking for. “Look at that,” he said, handing he his photo album. I looked and saw a picture of his son Craig sitting on the couch. He couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 himself. The photo was nearly identical to the one I’d just showed him! Right down to even the facial expression. Frank laughed heartily as he saw how blown away I was by this. I was speechless. In the photos Craig and I not only looked liked brothers, but twins. We had to be, at the very least, cousins. But, again, I didn’t press Frank for the details.
“You can have that,” Frank told me, taking the photo of his son out of the album and handing it to me.
When I was talking to Sharon, she told me: “Frank and Craig love history. They always answer all the history questions on Jeopardy.”
“So do I,” I replied.
I would find out later that Sharon thought Frank was my father because, she said, we had the same personality and humor. Right after I left that Sunday afternoon, I would also find out, she came up to Frank and said, “I think you have some explaining to do.”
I had picked up a disposable camera the day before at the Guns & Ammo IGA with the hopes that things would go well and I’d want to take pictures. Well, I certainly did now. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon and I asked Frank if we could get a few shots of us together. Here are two pictures taken on that amazing day:
When we were taking pictures, I noticed a red and black 1965 Ford Mustang convertible in a special garage nearby. It was Craig’s. This was so weird because I’d owned a yellow and black 1965 Ford mustang convertible myself when I first lived in Florida. I loved the car but had to sell after I got sick. It was yet another casualty of horrible illness.
It was now afternoon and time to say my goodbyes to the Wichaels. As I was doing so, Frank looked at my photos again and picked a large black and white photo of me when I was about 5.
“Is it okay if I hold on to this for now?” he asked.
“Sure,” I replied.
I was excited that he wanted to keep one of my photos for now because I took this to confirm my belief that he knew or had a pretty good idea who my mother was. He told me to be patient and that he’d be in touch soon. This, too, was good enough for me, except for the patient part.
As I drove away from Frank’s house that memorable Sunday afternoon, I felt like I finally knew who I was for the first time in my life. I felt like I’d found a piece of myself that had always been missing. I finally had a name and a heritage of my own to take pride in. For the first time in my 28 years, I finally felt like I was connected to something. I who so loved history finally had a history.
I was also happy that the Wichael name was so rare. It made me feel special, like I was part of a select club that had only a few members. Club Wichael.
I took the drive back to Florida nice and easy, even stopping at motels for the night. When I got back into the Cape Coral area, I drove straight to the Edison Mall in Ft. Myers to my pictures developed in an hour. It was one of the longest hours of my life. I was half expecting them to tell me that the camera had malfunctioned. It was my first experience with a disposable camera, so I had nothing to go by. When they handed me the photos, I was happy with the way they came out and still couldn’t get over the resemblances.
I went back to have some enlargements made of two pictures in particular at a different store the very next day. As I told the woman behind the counter what shots I wanted to enlarge, she glanced at one of the photos and said, “Looks like you had a reunion.”
A few weeks after getting back to Florida, I decided to try and get my medical records from the hospital I was born at in Harrisonburg. I knew my birth name and that I was a Wichael, but I still didn’t have any medical history. Considering my medical nightmare, this seemed almost criminal. My family thought this was a good idea as well. All of that was true, but the real reason I was writing for my medical records was because I had this crazy idea that somehow, someway my mother’s name would be revealed on one of those pages by accident or some other such miracle. It had been nearly a month since I’d visited the Wichaels and I hadn’t heard a peep out of Frank.
Therefore, I sent a letter to Rockingham Memorial Hospital and asked for my medical records. I had to give them all the necessary information, such as the exact time and date of my birth and well as get it notarized. I took it a step further and even put my birth name on there. I wanted them to see that I knew my birth name in the hopes that they might think there was no point in hiding my mother’s identity anymore, even though they had to by law. That was my theory, anyway.
About two weeks later an envelope arrived for me from Rockingham Memorial Hospital.
I tore the envelope open like I was Charlie Bucket looking for a golden ticket. My hopes faded very quickly, however, as I scanned the 11 pages and saw that something was blacked out on nearly every page. My birth records looked like a CIA file or George W. Bush’s military record. I also noticed that I’d been delivered with forceps. I was brought into this world by an instrument that looks like it belongs on a salad bar.
Disappointed, I scrutinized every page once again, as if doing so would make my Mother’s name magically appear. Well, I thought, it had been worth a try, but I’d been foolish to think I’d discover my mother’s identity from these redacted records.
And then I saw something.
I looked again at the front page of my records and saw that the hospital had made a copy of my original letter of request. I hadn’t really looked at it first because I recognized that it was my cover letter. But now, suddenly, I noticed that there appeared to be something handwritten in upper right hand corner that trailed off the page. I knew this wasn’t my writing, as my letter was typewritten. Excited, I brought the paper closer to my eyes and looked closely at what was written. I couldn’t believe what I saw. It read:
‘Junelle Anne Wichael Moth.’
So there it was! My Mother’s name! Obviously, the ‘M-o-t-h’ that trailed off the page spelled MOTHER. It looked as though, for whatever reason, someone had written down my Mother’s maiden name on a piece of paper, not realizing that it transferred onto my request letter! What were the odds of this happening??
Just as I had hoped, my Mother was a Wichael.
Junelle Anne Wichael.
As I looked at it over and over again, I thought it was just about the most beautiful name I’d ever heard.
Junelle Anne Wichael.
As I stood there stunned and happy, I was hit with a sobering thought. Was she still alive? And, if so, would she want to know me?
By Don Millard
So, this was Christmas… Another year over, and a new one just begun. My present had come early in the form of Amy. This was one gift I never imagined I’d get to unwrap again. I couldn’t help but wonder, though, if I’d see her again or if this had been a one time thing. Either way, it beat getting socks or cologne.
By Don Millard
A few days after I drove back to Connecticut, a letter from Helena arrived. She’d written it on the plane. In the letter she told me I touched a part of her life that no one else had and thanked me for helping her to be honest with herself. Needless to say, I wrote back. Her next letter told me that she’d been in a relationship for the past 8 years and had been living with the guy for the last 4 years. She said he was a great guy, but she’d known for a long time he wasn’t the one for her, but she’d been putting things off until she met me. We had now also managed to talk on the phone a time or two. I didn’t pressure her, as I figured if it was meant to be, it would happen.
Even so, I wanted to give her something to mark and honor the time we’d shared in Florida, whether we saw each other again or not. So I found an engraver and told him what I had in mind. I explained to him that I wanted a calendar made of just the month of January on a small block of walnut. On the left hand side would go Helena’s full initials and on the right would go mine. The 8 or 9 days we’d spent together in Florida would be in red, while all the other days of that month would be in black. The engraver did a great job, and when it was done I sent it to Helena.
She loved it and said it was something only I would think of. Actually, truth be told, the original idea belonged to JFK. Just a week or two after the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy commissioned Tiffanys to make a calender for the month of October and to engrave those incredibly tense 13 days of October much deeper than all the rest of October, just as they’d been etched deeply in the minds of his closest advisers. JFK then had his and the recipients’ initials in the corners. President Kennedy gave these out to about 12 or 13 people, including Jackie.
Thinking about that calender now, I wonder if Helena kept it, or if it’s quietly rotting in a landfill somewhere with a dirty diaper on top of it.
Near the end of January the sun came to shine on my life as I got a new letter from Helena telling me that she’d broken up with her boyfriend and wanted to come see me for a long weekend as soon as she could.
I was starting to feel good about myself again. Even though my sickness had robbed me of so much, I was still me. Discovering that I could still draw had helped a great deal, of course, but so had Helena. After all, none of my friends who were single had a sexy girl from another country flying in to see them. It was also good to find out that my illness hadn’t completely ruined my looks. Still, I would’ve gladly given up all of this and more in return for my health.
Just a few weeks later, I picked up Helena at the airport and our adventure began. We stayed at The Bee & Thistle Inn, one of those great bed & breakfast places that dot the New England landscape. This lodging was especially sweet for me, as I’d been staying with various people when I could ever since Pete’s folks and brother had returned to the shoebox in late January. I even spent a few wintry nights at a local truck stop. That was fun. I’d start the car and then turn the heat on full blast until my car was roughly the same temperature as the Equator. After I turned the car off, the trick was to fall asleep before the car got cold again. It’d been very hard to find a place to live in Connecticut on my own as the rent was and still is TOO DAMN HIGH. I had no real family left up here who would take me in, but I was willing to do anything to stay rather than go back to Florida, even sleep in my car in January.
I took Helena to New York City for the day and we had a great time. We took a lot of pictures and had someone take a picture of us near the skating rink at Rockefeller Center. It was great to be able to show her around the city, especially Greenwich Village, my old haunt from my acting school days. She lived in a small town in Canada, but was only about a half hour from Toronto. We ended our tour of New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, paying special attention the Van Gogh paintings we saw there. It was great to be with a girl who was fun AND smart. For me, intelligence is the ultimate aphrodisiac. If there’s a meeting of the minds, the body will follow. Of course she has to be cute, too. Don’t want you all to think I’m any less superficial than the rest of us.
I took Helena back to the airport on Monday and as we kissed goodbye, I hoped that she’d had as good a time in and out of bed as I had. She wrote soon to tell me that the our weekend had been perfect and that she loved me. Our main form of communication was by letter and she was a great letter writer, with beautiful handwriting. I still have some of those letters she wrote me tucked away in my little box of memories I’ve kept ever since I got sick. Every now and then, in my darkest hours, I go through this box to remind myself that, in spite of this horrible illness, there have been brief, shining moments in time when I’ve been loved and wanted.
Being in a long distance relationship was something new for both of us. It was exhilarating and deflating at the same time. The hardest part was not being able to see each other any time we wanted to, as well as sometimes wondering if the other person was on the same romantic page. Remember, this was during those prehistoric days before cell phones. Our goal, for now, was to try to see each other at least once a month.
At the end of February, I managed to find a place of my own in the beautiful, historic town of Old Saybrook, just two towns over from my hometown of Clinton. Although it was just a room for rent, it was really a large family room with a bed.There was also a tiny table in the corner of the room with a kids chair that made an ideal art table for the my Van Gogh drawings.There was a washer and dryer in the next room so I could do laundry here as well. There’s nothing sadder than having to go to the laundromat. It was in a great area, too–just a road away from Long Island Sound. I could also walk down to a private local beach. It was only about a mile from that little community of houses on the ocean known as “Fenwick,” whose most famous resident at the time was Katherine Hepburn. It was perfect. Except for my crazy landlady.
Just a few weeks later, in March, Helena made the 10 hour drive from Canada to Connecticut to spend nearly a week with me for my birthday. We basically lived in a hotel for a week and took full advantage of it. On my birthday, she gave me a set of oil pants, even though I was still only drawing at the time. “For when you’re ready,” she said.
Since returning to Connecticut, I’d thrown myself back into my Van Gogh drawings. I seemed to really hit my stride one evening when I sketched Vincent’s “CafeTerrace At Night” in one sitting without having to erase one single mark. It was the strangest experience, as if Van Gogh himself was guiding my hand that night. I was also reading Irving Stone’s “Lust For Life” at the time and in many ways I felt like Van Gogh.
I’d would end up doing 20 versions of Vincent’s paintings and called my collection “Impressions of Van Gogh.” One of the most interesting challenges in doing these was to try to get the same effect with colored pencils that Vincent got with oils. I brought a couple of my best drawings to a local little gallery just down the road from where I now lived and showed them to gallery owner. She couldn’t believe they were colored pencil drawings and told me if I ever wanted a show with them, I could have one here.
In April, for Easter, Helena sent me a plane ticket so we could spend it together. She was now living in her parents’ home and we’d have a few days all to ourselves before her folks returned from Florida. It was great getting to see Toronto as well. Toronto looked like a clean version of an American city. I don’t remember seeing even a burger wrapper or cigarette butt on the sidewalks. It was also cool to see the Hard Rock Cafe that was basically in right field of Blue Jay Stadium and to go up in the CN Tower. I never thought I’d ever get to see Canada after I got sick.
One thing I never did was tell Helena that I was sick or what had really happened to me in 1989. What was I supposed to do? Announce it at Easter dinner with her parents? “Just want you both to know that my intentions toward your daughter are honorable. Oh, by the way, I also have a horrific mystery disease that’s never happened to another human being in the history of recorded time and I can never have a normal life because of it. Pass the potatoes.” To which, I’m sure, her parents would say, “Oh, wow, he’d make a GREAT son-in-law!” Yeah, best to just talk about the weather.
But, seriously, how could I even begin to think about marrying someone and not tell them what really happened to me? But if I did, would they still want to be with me? Would they run away? Would they think I was crazy and not believe me like the doctors did? Since my illness, all the women in my life either die or go away.
So, a long distance relationship, full of travel and adventure, was perfect for me. It was like a romance with all the dull bits cut out.
Helena and I took advantage of another opportunity to be together about a month later, even if it was only for a night and a half. She was pitching in a fast pitch softball tournament in Buffalo, and our plan was to meet up at the tournament in Buffalo and then drive to Niagara Falls after the game. It took me about 9 hours to get there, but I made it, pulling into the ball field as Helena was on the mound, pitching. The game was soon over, and it was on to Niagara Falls for “Bunny” & “Bugs”, the goofy pet names we’d given each other.
We got to the hotel in the evening, and I remember our room had a hot tub in it. This sure beat sleeping at the truck stop. We went down to the Falls the next day and gazed out at that awesome display of nature’s raw power from the Canadian side, of course. Heh… In looking through my little cardboard box of memories just now, I came across a receipt from the DENNY’S in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Looks like we had two Molson’s apiece, sandwiches, and mozzarella sticks. It’s dated May 25, 1992. I should probably throw this out, huh? Sick or well, I guess I’ve always been a sentimental fool.
We looked at out the Falls for one last time later that afternoon. Our time was up, as it was Sunday and we had to both go back to work on Monday. We kissed goodbye, then got in our separate cars, and drove away in separate directions. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be the last time I’d ever see Helena in Canada.
You know, I bet if I went over Niagara Falls in a barrel I’d LIVE.
Helena had planned to come down to see me and rent a cottage on the water in Old Saybrook in the summer, but her mother, who had been battling cancer off and on for a few years, took a turn for the worse. Once again, the cold water of reality had been splashed in our faces.
It was around this same time when my landlady hollered down the stairs at me, “Don, phone call!”
As I walked over to pick up the phone on the wall, I figured it was either my Dad or Pete, as only a few people had my number and I didn’t encourage phone calls because it was actually my landlady’s number. When I picked up the phone and said hello, I was surprised to hear a female voice on the other end of the line.
It was Amy.
To say that I was surprised would be an understatement. She had tracked me down through my Dad and she wanted to talk–about everything. She was able to talk, she said, because her boyfriend was at work and wouldn’t be back for a few hours. So we starting talking and talking and talking. She told me that she didn’t even go on a date for nearly a year after we broke up. She wanted to know what I was up to and how I was doing. I told her that I was in a long distance relationship with a girl from Canada.
“I still have a lot of guilt about you,” she said, her voice cracking.
“Don’t,” I said. “This was just something no one could have foreseen. It was a nightmare no other couple had to deal with.”
“Too many people got to me,” she said.
We talked for a very long time and it was, I think, a very healing conversation for both of us. I know it was for me. I’d written her a long letter in 1990, but she’d never replied so I figured the letter had meant anything to her. But she brought it up and said: “It was a beautiful letter, and I’ll probably keep it for the rest of my life.” She said she’d been living with her boyfriend now for about a year, but it wasn’t working out.
“I’m not happy,” she said. “And you’re the first person I’ve told.”
Our conversation about everything ended only when Amy’s boyfriend came home.
“He just pulled in the driveway. I gotta go,” she said, hanging up. I just stood there with the phone in my hand for a while, trying to take it all in.
The next evening after I came home from work, my landlady came downstairs and said to me: “You were on the phone for 3 hours last night. I’m taking the phone out of your room.”
Less than a week later a card from Amy showed up. Inside the card was a photo of her kissing “Elvis”, her cockatiel that she’d trained to whistle the theme from the Andy Griffith Show. Also included was a photo of me holding “Sophie” the Basset Hound puppy I’d gotten Amy for her birthday that her Mom made her get rid of. She’d written a few paragraphs in the card as well, including these lines:
“There are so many things I want to say, but I’m better in person. I could never express my feelings well on paper. One thing I do know is that I wish I was your older, more mature girlfriend. I miss you very much! I miss you every day.” It was signed, “Love Always, Amy.”
Summer turned into Fall and sometime during that transition, Helena’s mother died. It was frustrating for me not to be able to be there for her in person. After this event, our letters to each other dried up and there was no more talk about us getting together as the weather turned cold. Amy and I, meanwhile, had started talking on the phone as Christmas drew nearer. She’d broken up with her musician boyfriend and had moved into her own little apartment in Tampa.
Once again, I planned to come down to Florida for the holidays. Helena would also be down there and we’d agreed to meet up at some point to “talk about things.”
Just a few days before Christmas, as I was leaving for Florida, Amy gave me directions to her apartment. She wanted me to stop by before I got to Cape Coral. Cape Coral could wait.
This time there was no heroic drive straight through to Florida. I spent the night somewhere in the Carolinas. By late afternoon the next day, I was closing in on Tampa. It just didn’t seem real that I was on my way to see Amy, but it was. It’d been quite a year. When I was only about a half hour away, I called Amy from a rest stop pay phone and told her I’d see her soon.
“Cool!” she said.
It was now dark when I pulled into her apartment complex. At that moment, even with this illness, I wouldn’t have traded places with anyone. When I knocked on her door, it was almost immediately flung open and Amy threw her arms around me and hugged me tight.
Her apartment was tiny but cute. She was already cooking dinner and opened the refrigerator to show me she’d picked up a six pack of out favorite beer, RED STRIPE. After dinner, since it was Friday night, it was time to watch a new show Amy had been telling me about: MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. It was like they had designed a television show just for us. We laughed and laughed. That night we made love and I got the best night’s sleep of my life since this medical nightmare began.
When I awoke in the morning, I was alone. Then I looked over and saw that Amy was sitting in a little chair by the bed, smiling.
“You slept so good,” she said. “I’ve just been sitting here watching you sleep.”
Christmas had come early, as it were.
By Don Millard
because my vehicle was only slightly more roadworthy than the one John Candy was driving near the end of ‘Planes, Trains & Automobiles.’ The hood was held down by a coat hanger, and the windshield was smashed, but hey, the radio worked great. It was just the kind of a vehicle you’d want for a 1300 mile journey.
drawing turned out pretty well. I now knew that this evil disease hadn’t also taken my artistic talent from me! I can’t express what a victory that was to me. Also, and just as important, the act of drawing had freed me from my body for a few glorious hours and I felt like I was me again. Thank you, Vincent.
By Don Millard
There is no prosthesis for a broken heart.
As the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay observed, “A heart once broken is a heart no more.” T.E. Kalem noted that “the heart is the only broken instrument
that works.” I now wished with all my heart that my heart had stopped beating in the emergency room in September 1989. At least I would’ve died with my love at my side. There would’ve been no tearful, heartbreaking goodbye in the driveway almost a year later. It would have been better for everyone involved, especially me.
Amy didn’t break my heart. Life did. My heart had been broken by the very thing that had broken my body. It was a twofer. That’s what made it so hard to even try to pick up the pieces and go on. After all, what had come between Amy and me would also doom any future relationship with a girl. How do you move on from that? How could I expect any other girl to put up with this medical nightmare when Amy couldn’t? This disease had changed the whole trajectory of my life. Maybe Amy and I would’ve married and been very happy, or maybe we would’ve killed each other over meatloaf. Who knows? The point is we never got the chance to find out.
That’s what broke my heart.
When all you’re doing is suffering, how is that living, anyway? I simply didn’t have a clue how to proceed in the next few months that followed and couldn’t really find any reasons why I should. I especially enjoyed getting helpful advice from healthy people on how to deal with a chronic illness that had robbed me of my life. The same people uttering these platitudes, telling me to keep my chin up had absolutely no idea of the extent of my suffering and this just made it worse. But, fortunately, life had come up with a sly way of making me forget about my own mortality: my father was diagnosed with throat cancer. This disease was definitely from tobacco. He had been a heavy smoker all his life. Growing up, we always had to go to the Drive-In if we wanted to see a movie so my Dad could smoke. Trying to watch the double feature through our nicotine windshield was always a challenge.
As I’ve said, my father had quit smoking in 1984, but started up again the day before my Mom died in 1986. When we moved to Florida in late 1988, he vowed to quit once and for all. But by the fall of 1990 he was still smoking and chewing nicotine gum.
As we awaited the results of his biopsy, my Dad said, “It’s probably cancer. I’ve lived about as long as I want to, anyway.”
It was cancer, of course. Luckily, the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Institute, one of the top cancer centers in America, was only two and a half hours away in Tampa. It was here that my father underwent surgery, as a total laryngectomy was required to remove the tumor. After the lengthy operation, when he was awake and in the recovery room, I was allowed to see him. He was pale and had obviously been through hell. As I walked over to him, he was writing something on a yellow legal pad. The words read: “I Love You.”
My Dad would stay in the hospital for 10 days and they gave him a prosthesis that allowed him to speak again. He was very brave. Still is.
I was still keeping in touch with Amy’s mom, as she’d become like a second mother to me despite the nightmare and all that had happened. When I told her of my Dad’s cancer and operation, she said: “Why didn’t you tell us? We would’ve went up there with you.”
It was nearly Christmas when I heard about an amateur comedy contest that was to be held at the top comedy club in town. This was the very same club that I dreamed of working in when I first moved to Florida. It was one of the main reasons I had come to Florida. I had told my friends up North that I was going to work in that club one day. This club was an “A” club that booked some of the biggest names in stand-up comedy and they had never before opened their club up to amateurs. I had dropped off a cassette tape of my comedy to the owner a month or two before I got sick, but he had never gotten back to me about it. Me doing comedy in this club was the dream Amy and I shared. After I got sick, this was just another dream that got shattered.
I hadn’t done any stand-up comedy since my frantic trip to the emergency room, but I decided to try it again and see what happened. I had nothing to lose, since I had lost everything already. There were about 20 contestants. When it was my turn to go up, I did the best I could. My delivery was off and my mind was foggy, but I did get some laughs and even applause at the end. When the winners were announced, I came in second place. First place was the only prize in that the winning amateur got to be the opening comedian for a week. But afterward, however, the owner of the club, who had also been one of the judges, came up tome and said he thought I should have won. He then offered me the job of being the house MC for the club on the spot. The working week would be every night except Monday, when the club was closed. Monday was the day the comics usually arrived and were put up a local condo near the club.
So there it was… The dream I’d shared with Amy was now just handed to me like that. The dream job that I couldn’t enjoy now or half do properly was all mine. Life always seems to take away something from you before allowing something good to happen. It’s a very bad exchange rate if you ask me.
But I decided to take the job anyway and try to make the best of it. I began right before the new year and got to meet and work with comics such as Paula Poundstone, Rita Rudner, Steve Harvey, Billy Gardell, Ben Creed, Tim Allen, and the greatest comedian you may have never heard of: Frankie Bastille. Sick and all, it was still inspiring to meet and hang out with creative people. My kind of people. It was also a good way to meet girls, and I even had a few flings that just made me lonelier. It was here that I learned that if I treated a girl like crap, I couldn’t get rid of her. As Bill Hicks sang, chicks dig jerks. I even had some fun as well as some crazy adventures, including leaving a then unknown Jon Stewart stranded at the airport after Tim Allen told me I shouldn’t have to pick up the comics since I was part of the show. Rather than picking Stewart up at the airport, I partied with my friend at ‘Fridays.’ The next day, right before the show, Jon Stewart came up to me and said, “Hey, where were you yesterday? I was at the airport for an hour before I took a cab to the condo.” I remember being at ‘Perkins’ with Tim Allen and him telling us all about the new show he was going to have and how he was going to have a next door neighbor but you would never see his face.
On Valentine’s Day, of all days, Amy’s mom came to see me and the show, bringing with her a whole table of nurses. When she first saw me, she said “Amy says hi.” Amy had moved to Tampa a few months before I became the MC at the club. I was glad that she had come, but I wished she would’ve picked a different day. Any other day.
During each show, we always had a shot special that I had to promote before bringing up the headlining comedian. Since it was Valentine’s Day, I proposed a toast as I got back on stage:
“To the ladies: May they live as long as we do.”
This got a good laugh, and it was the funniest thing I’d said in more than a year.
After the show, I could see and hear Amy’s mom talking with the opening comedian, Billy Gardell (now Mike in CBS’ “Mike & Molly”). “Isn’t he a nice young man?” she was saying. “Him and my daughter used to date.”
“Yeah, I know,” replied Gardell. “I could hear the heartbreak in his voice.”
It was now 1991 and I had stumbled onto a book about a mysterious new illness called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.This is one of the most poorly named diseases of all time, as it just makes people think that you just suffer from being tired. It’s also usually followed by someone who isn’t stricken with it to exclaim, “I’m tired all the time, too!” I’d first became aware of this malady about two years ago. Amy had called me one morning about a month into my illness and told me to write down the name of this disease because this is what she thought I had. This was, of course, before the shrinking and the strange skin sensations began. Still, as I discovered in this book, there were a number of other striking similarities between this malady and what had attacked me.
So, armed with this book, I went back to my family doctor and told of him of the similarities between my illness and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. He did a blood test for the Epstein-Barr virus and it came back positive.This is the same virus that causes mono. At the time, this was thought to be the diagnostic test for CFS, but this is no longer the case. There is no one test for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. My doctor informed me that I did in fact have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. He told me not to run to the health food store and buy a bunch of herbs, but to just take a multi-vitamin once a day.
“Sorry we took so long,” he told me.
Sorry we took so long? That’s all you have to say? Sorry we took so long? This coming from the same guy who told me and everyone around me how I was delusional about my health and body?
I felt like punching him in the mouth and still wish I had. Maybe next time don’t be so quick to disbelieve someone when they say they’re sick, asshole. I hope that someday some thing’s wrong with him and no one believes him.
I knew that this diagnosis wasn’t really the answer by any means, but it was enough to show that this wasn’t a delusion. It was enough for me to hang onto and to go about clearing my name.
A few days after my diagnosis, I stopped in to see Amy’s mom and told her the news. While I was talking to her, I noticed that she still had a picture of me in a frame among the photographs in her living room.
“God, you were right, sweetheart,” she said. “You should be a doctor.”
This took away a little bit of the emotional trauma of not being believed about being sick. I felt like I’d been falsely accused of a crime for nearly 3 years and had finally been proven innocent. But I still knew that I was dealing with something much more horrific and apparently unprecedented in the annals of medicine. I also still worried that I had caused it, somehow. God, how this thought still haunted me.
I had now been working at the club for nearly eight months and it had been a great experience, despite my health situation. My foggy brain kept me from really developing any new material and that was very frustrating to say the least. There were also some strange doings afoot in the club itself. These strange circumstances corresponded seemed to begin when the owner of the club took on a new business partner, the Greek guy who owned a restaurant in the same plaza. He was a gruff, nasty little man whose gold chains around his neck weighed more than he did. He viewed this once great club as a restaurant rather than a comedy club and treated the comics like dirt. He was the only dirt there that I saw. Some of the checks to the comics were bouncing and it seemed like they were purposely trying to go out of business.
It was right about at this time that a totally unexpected and welcome offer came my way out of the blue. My best friend in Connecticut, Pete, called me one night to tell me he had gotten a DUI and was going to lose his driver’s license for 90 days. Believe it or not, just a few months before, his parents and older brother had bought a house and moved to the very same town in Florida that we had moved to. My friend didn’t want his parents to know that he had got busted and was about to lose his license (I would later learn I didn’t have a license, either, but that’s another story). He also knew how much I had come to detest Florida. Florida is an old Spanish word that means tee shirt shop. Pete wanted to know if I’d be interested in coming back to Connecticut to drive him back and forth to work. In return, I could live rent free with him in the shoebox mobile home him and his folks and older brother had grown up in. Would I be interested in doing something like that? Why, YES! Sounded good to me!
I was going home, at least for a while.
By Don Millard
It was also during this dark hour that I began to worry that maybe I was somehow to blame for this health nightmare.
I say this even though I was a pretty clean cut guy. I hadn’t ever done any real drugs. Hell, I hardly even drank until I went off to college where I learned to do that pretty well. I never worked with any hazardous chemicals, and I didn’t live near a nuclear reactor.
But I did have one bad habit and that was chewing tobacco. My friends and I in the neighborhood had picked up the habit as a way to emulate major league baseball players while we played Wiffle Ball. Or maybe it was just because we were boys and boys like to spit. This was also a time when smokeless tobacco was a being marketed as a safe alternative to cigarettes. Although cigarette advertising had been banned from television since 1970, ads for snuff were all over the airwaves. I remember there was Walt Garrison extolling the virtues of ‘Skoal’ while Carlton Fisk sang the praises of ‘Copenhagen.’ US Tobacco, the company that made these lethal products, was even an official sponsor of the 1980 Winter Olympics! Their ads ran incessantly during the games.
Out of all of the kids in the neighborhood, however, I’m pretty sure I was the only one stupid enough to carry this addiction into adulthood. What Jack London wrote about alcohol in ‘John Barleycorn’ could just as easily apply to tobacco: “The palate never ceases to rebel, and the palate can be trusted to know what is good for the body. But men do not knowingly drink for the effect alcohol produces on the body. What they drink for is the brain-effect; and if it must come through the body, so much worse for the body.”
It is only through repeated use that smoking or chewing tobacco becomes pleasurable and tastes good. As anyone who’s ever been addicted to tobacco knows, nicotine seems like your best friend when in reality it’s your worst enemy. I had quit this foul habit more than a few times after I became addicted. I thought I had it beat once and for all, but started up again when we moved to Florida in November of 1988. The town we moved to was kind of a retirement community and the average age was dead. My Dad, meanwhile, had amazingly quit his 2 to 3 pack a day smoking habit in 1984, but started back up again the day before my Mom died from cancer in June of 1986. He would be diagnosed with throat cancer in 1990 and have to have his voice box removed.
Anyhow, I began to fear that perhaps my tobacco use had in some way poisoned my system or my skin and had caused my body to undergo some type of meltdown. I started to think this way because I couldn’t believe that life could be this rotten to someone my age without it having to be some kind of self-inflicted wound. Then again, I didn’t see how my habit could have done this to my entire body. After all, if it really was from this, why hadn’t it happened to anybody else? I don’t remember the warning label saying “Too much of this stuff will cause your body to shrink and doctors won’t believe you when it happens.” Still, this thought haunted me deeply and weighed heavily on my mind.
When I told Amy about my fear that it was from chewing tobacco, she said that if it was somehow from that, there was no way I could have known that such a thing would happen to me. When I told the doctors about my tobacco use, they scoffed and dismissed this outright as well. This wasn’t very reassuring, however, because these were the same geniuses who were telling me nothing had even happened to my body.
These were also the same crack doctors who were now telling me that what I really needed to do was see a psychiatrist. I cannot express how infuriating this was. At first I had foolishly thought that the doctors would all want to have a crack at me in order to unravel this medical enigma. Nope, they all just told me I was delusional instead. They were now treating me like some drooling idiot who couldn’t even tie his own shoes because their paint-by-numbers blood tests now came back normal. They were telling me I was delusional about my body and health, as well as extremely depressed.
What in the world did I possibly have to gain by telling this tale to the doctors? Nothing. What did I have to lose? Everything. I knew very well that by saying my body had shrunk I’d be leaving myself wide open to be dismissed and labeled a crackpot by the medical community. But I was simply telling the bone truth. This was how the malady had manifested itself.
I had gone to the library and researched every known disease there was, but couldn’t find anything even close to matching what had stricken me. How could I have something that never happened to a person before? WTF? This made me feel like the lonliest person on Earth. I felt estranged from the whole human race and that I had become a Thing. Also, since I had been adopted, my medical history was a blank as well.
But the only thing more horrifying than my illness was not being believed. This was especially true when it came to my girlfriend’s family and my father.
“He thinks he knows more than the doctors,” was my father’s refrain.
Well, I DID know more than the doctors in this case because I was the only one living in my body and knew it better than anyone else. Before the doctors shuffled me off to psychiatrists, I begged them to do a test on my skin, but they acted like such a test didn’t exist. How I wished my doubting doctors could inhabit my body for just 24 hours and then tell me this was all in my fucking head! I would’ve loved to hear their advice then on how to put up with this agony. But this was real life, not ‘Annie Hall.’
The first psychiatrist I was sent to wasted no time in telling me I was a hypochondriac. I just stared at him in disbelief as he read the definition from a textbook as if I didn’t know what a hypochondriac was, even though I supposedly was one now. I asked him what kind of a hypochondriac made a lifestyle out of chewing tobacco or hitchiked around Britain and Ireland with a tiny napsack. I just sat there and listened to his psycho-babble and thought this had to be some kind of practical joke. At any moment, I half-expected Allen Funt from ‘Candid Camera’ to jump out from behind the couch and say, “Boy, Don, we really had you going, pretending that this was all in your head, huh?” But Allen Funt never showed up, either; instead, the psychiatrist prescribed medicine that he said I should take every day unless my liver quit or I started growing a third arm in the middle of my back.
To say that my mood was low at this point would be like saying that the universe is kind of a big place. I’m reminded of something Lincoln said, that if his unhappiness could be evenly distrubuted among the world, there wouldn’t be a single happy person on Earth. But this was due to the way I felt physically. I would be the first person to admit that I had some bouts with depression, especially when my Mom died when I was 21. But at no time during these phases did I complain of being sick or of strange things happening to my body.
Now the doctors as well as the people around me were suggesting that I seek treatment in the local mental health facility. I was stunned at how quickly they had come to the conclusion that I had suddenly gone off the deep end. I had graduated high school with honors as well as with an award in History and English. I had already written a short novel, two screenplays, and had collaborated on a parody of a bad romance novel. I had recently studied acting in New York City with William Hickey. This hurt me beyond words. My girlfriend was the only one who said I didn’t belong in such a place. “If there’s anyone who can figure this out, it’s you,” my girlfriend said. Then Amy told me she wanted to show me something. “This is something I’ve kept with me since I met you.” She reached into her wallet and pulled out a little folded piece of paper, on which this was written:
funny, but very intelligent
In desperation, I signed myself into this mental health facility to prove once and for all that my illness was physical, not mental. My Kafkaesque nightmare from which there was no waking was taking on a new dimension.
I wasn’t prepared for how drab and shabby this mental health place was. It was run by the county, so it was like the ‘Big Lots’ of mental health facilities. I also wasn’t prepared for the parade of unfortunate souls in this place being tortured by their own brains and body chemistry. I hadn’t been there 10 minutes when the staff had to tackle some guy, wrestle him to the ground, and restrain him while he screamed at them. Most of the other patients, however, were moving a lot slower, shuffling along like zombies. One poor girl in particular caught my attention. She was sticking out her tongue, which was blue and swollen, and moaning. I remember thinking, jeez, don’t give me whatever the fuck you gave her… This is treatment? Just a few months ago I was sharing a stage with ‘Carrot Top’ and now I was in The Snake Pit. Just a few months ago I had let my girlfriend read the two screenplays I’d written before moving to Florida. After reading them, she took me out to dinner to tell me how good she thought they were and said to me: “I’m proud to be your girlfriend.” Now everyone was telling her that her boyfriend was nuts just thought he was physically ill. Could life be any worse?
I didn’t come across any other patient in this menagerie who was claiming to be physically ill. I feared for my own safety and tried to separate myself from the crowd by talking to the counselors about anything, the weather, the news, etc. They were the only ones there I could have a conversation with. As I talked to one of the counselors, I glanced down at his clipboard and noticed that he was looking at my name on his chart. Beside my name, this directive was written: “Do not acknowledge shrinking statements.”
This all can’t be real, I thought. What have I done to deserve this? All my life I thought that one of the worst things in the world would be to be falsely accused of something. It was kind of a phobia of mine that I had become acutely aware of as I became a fan of Alfred Hitchcock movies. I had told the truth about what physically happened to me and I was being treated like I was psychotic. If that isn’t torture, I don’t know what is.
I was told that the psychiatrist wouldn’t be in until the next day, which meant that I’d have to spend the night in this little shop of horrors. I spent the worst night of my life in this jail tossing and turning, trying to sleep with one eye open, praying for the dawn. Just get me out of this place, I thought. When morning finally came, things looked a little better and I was relieved when it was my time to see the psychiatrist.
The psychiatrist looked like he was about 90 years old. I told him I was physically sick, not mentally ill. He said that my medical tests showed that there was nothing physically wrong with me. We argued and argued and I told him that since I had signed myself in, I was signing myself out. I wasn’t going to sit there and have my intelligence insulted. I signed myself out and left that Snake Pit with Amy waiting for me.
So began my battle with psychiatrists about my illness. The more I held my ground, the more delusional they said I was. I tried all their different medicines in the hope that it might help my mood, but all those pills ever did was make me feel physically worse. I was having to turn into Perry Mason in order to prove that I was physically ill. I had become the most miserable soul on the planet. Who has to prove they’re sick?
So many times I felt like just giving up, but I couldn’t because of a promise I had made to my dying mother. Just a day or two before she died, she told everyone in her hospital room that she wanted to talk to me alone. When we were alone, she turned to me and said: “You have to promise me that you’re a survivor. You have to promise me that you’ll survive this. Will you promise me that?”
“Yes,” I told her, never knowing how hard it was going to be to keep that promise just 3 short years later.
I knew that if my mother had been still alive, she would’ve NEVER questioned me being sick. Just knowing this made her loss that much more heartbreaking in my time of crisis. When my mother died, I lost a kindred spirit, a best friend, and a loving mother all at the same time. So many people who knew my mother told me that she was the greatest person they ever knew. I’ve said the same thing.
Needless to say, I was no longer doing stand-up comedy. Any semblence of my former life was now gone. All I could do was suffer and be disbelieved. It was hard to be funny when what had happened to me was the most unfunny thing in the world. I qualified for disability as I was in no shape to work, although I’m sure my disability was considered a mental one now that all the doctors were convinced I was in a grand delusion. I never bothered to find out why I qualified for disability because I knew it would’ve just infuriated me and made being misdiagnosed that much more insulting and infuriating. Once again, the joke was on me. It seemed as though someone up there didn’t like me.
What would have been the best Christmas of my adult life was now turned into the worst Christmas of my entire life. I thought of my first Christmas in Florida just the year before; of how my Dad had gotten mad when I brought home a tree to try to make it at least a little bit festive at our house. Ever since my Mom died, he’d said, “I don’t have any more Christmases.” We had just moved to Florida and didn’t really know anyone in the area, but I was healthy. Now, a year later, I was with a girl I loved and I couldn’t even enjoy it because I was sick. Life seemed very cruel indeed. And, I was still haunted by the possibility that I was somehow to blame for it all. I began telling Amy that she needed to be with someone who was healthy; someone who wasn’t trapped in a mysterious medical nightmare from which there seemed to be not only no answer, but no escape and no end as well.
And so winter (2 degrees cooler than summer) turned into spring and 1989 turned into 1990. The 80s were gone and so was my health, without the least bit of an explanation. Amy hung in there as long as she could, but came to my door in tears one May afternoon to tell me we were through. I couldn’t handle what had happened to me, so how could I expect anyone else to be able to deal with it? Still, it hurt so bad because I knew that she still loved me, but couldn’t deal with my situation any longer. I was a ghost of my former self and now trapped in a living death. Another piece of me died that day as I watched her walk back to her car, sobbing. She would later tell me that I was the only guy she ever cried over. Thankfully, although I didn’t know it at the time, this would not be the last time I saw or spoke with Amy.
It was 1990, I was 25, and this disease had claimed another victim: my relationship with Amy. I still couldn’t fathom how an illness that could utterly devastate my body and rob me of my life didn’t at least have the decency to kill me.
By Don Millard
So, now the doctors were telling me I was just fine, completely ignoring that this crisis all began with a dramatic trip to the ER and multiple test
abnormalities that had nothing to do with my mind. Despite my now normal blood test results, I still felt sick and knew something was terribly wrong. But nothing, NOTHING could have prepared me for what life had whipped up for me next in this medical nightmare. If it hadn’t happened to me personally, I probably wouldn’t have believed it, either. For me, what happened next was the ultimate example of truth being stranger than fiction.
As I was trying to describe how sick I felt to the doctor, he asked my girlfriend:
“What have you noticed?”
“His color is just awful. It’s not the same as when I first met him.”
“Hmm…” replied the doctor.
It was around this same time that my medical doctors started telling me I should maybe see a psychiatrist. WTF? I was 24, with a girlfriend and a budding career. A psychiatrist? Did my thoughts cause me to have blood in my stool? A low-grade fever? A high white blood cell count? The last thing in the world I wanted to do was go to a damn doctor. Yes, doc, instead of making love to my girlfriend or doing comedy, I’d much rather drag her here with me to go to see doctors who tell me I’m not even sick! Isn’t that every 24 year old guy’s idea of a good time?
The doctors were telling me I seemed depressed. Ya think? What other mood should I have been in? How would YOU react if you knew you were sick and you were being told it was all in your head? Would you dance a jig? Raise the roof? Have a block party?
The doctors didn’t know me before I was sick. They didn’t know my personality–all they knew about me was me in my present sick and miserable form.
Meanwhile, my girlfriend’s Mom, the nurse, told me that if I really was sick, my illness would reveal itself sooner or later.
She was right.
Are you sitting down?
And then it happened… To my absolute horror and disbelief, my entire body started SHRINKING. Yes, SHRINKING. I couldn’t believe it, either. I would’ve never, never believed that such a thing could happen to a person, much less that it would happen to me! But, as far-fetched as this sounds, if YOUR body started shrinking, wouldn’t YOU notice? We are all experts on our own body because we’re the only ones living in it. You don’t have to have an advanced degree in medicine or be a Mensa member to notice this.
Now I was sure I was dying.
Every day, for about a week, my body, both bone and tissue, shrank. To say this was terrifying is the understatement of the century. During this horrible time, my girlfriend said: “Your face is getting thinner and your butt’s going away.” Was this all in her head, too?
Other than myself, Amy knew my body better than anyone else–including the damn doctors who’d never known me before this catastrophe.
Panicked, I tried to eat even more than usual, thinking that maybe this would stave off the shrinking. It didn’t.
As horrifying as this was, the true torture was what was happening to my skin. It was as if I was losing all normal sensation and feeling in my skin–not numbness, but a major change, especially in my face. It was like my skin was dying, leaving my soul or spirit trapped inside a dead body. There are really no words to describe how terrifying this was. I felt like I was just a pair of eyes and that I was suspended between life and death; too sick to have a life but not sick enough to die. It was like my own private Purgatory.
It was also around this time that I had the most vivid dream of my life. In my dream I was in St. Mary’s Church in Clinton, Connecticut, the church my Mom and I had attended, or rather, the church my Mom dragged me to. My Mother had died of cancer in 1986 at the age of 56. But in this dream she was very much alive and was walking in the aisle away from the altar with her hand outstretched. I was walking down the aisle toward her with my hand outstretched as well. It all seemed to be in slow motion as we came closer and closer to one another, and, just as our hands were about to touch, I woke up. This didn’t have the feel of an ordinary dream to put it mildly. I took some comfort from the dream, even though I’m agnostic.
“What is happening to me?” I screamed, as Amy tried to comfort me.
And then, after about a week, the shrinking stopped just as suddenly and mysteriously as it had begun, leaving me a shell of my former self in more ways than one and effectively killing me at the age of 24. Twenty four. The same age as James Dean when he died. Dean died in September and my illness had struck me in September.
I couldn’t believe that this sickness could ravage my body so completely and yet leave what was left of me to suffer on and in mourning for the body and life I’d now lost. I knew right then and there that I’d never have another normal day in my life.
It had been only roughly a month since my frantic ride to the ER and now it was all this.
The only good thing–if you can call it that–was that I now knew with absolute certainty that my illness was a physical one and not the product of a fevered brain or a figment of my imagination. No, it was all too horrible and all too real.
To demonstrate to my girlfriend what had happened to me, I put on a pair of pants she had got for me before I was sick. They had fit perfectly when I first wore them a few months before. Now when I put them on, they were noticeably too long and came down over my feet. So, either I had shrunk or my pants grew. I’ll let you decide.
If my body had just shrunk and nothing else, it wouldn’t have been so bad. Bizarre and upsetting, yes, but I could have dealt with it. It was, however, the accompanying changes to my skin that made my condition so agonizing and intolerable. My skin has always been my number one complaint since my body shrank. It’s like being entombed within your own body.
Now I REALLY have something to tell the doctors about, I thought. But what happened next was, for me, just as unbelievable as what had just transpired within my body.
When I went back to the doctors and told them how my body had shrunk, they simply and categorically said that this could not occur. They looked at me like I was saying the Earth was being overrun by giant pink elephants. They all told me that such a thing was impossible and that I was just imagining it all! I knew that this would make me sound crazy, but I was simply reporting what had taken place within my body. It would’ve never occurred to me to say this happened to me unless it truly had. I was in a state of stunned disbelief myself. Just because something hasn’t happened doesn’t mean it CAN’T happen. Forty years ago AIDS couldn’t happen, either. I wanted to strangle these doctors. A scant two months before I was getting laughs and applause from an audience; now I was being treated like a basket case who didn’t know his own body; instead of cracking people up, I was being told I was cracking up. It was all like a dark cosmic joke–and the joke was on me.
If all of this was just in my head, I would’ve never been rushed to the ER to start with. In the beginning, there was no doubt that there was a physical disturbance going in my BODY. All my life people had told me how intelligent and perceptive I was. Now, suddenly, I was delusional in the eyes of my doctors; even my girlfriend’s family and my own father started to treat me like I didn’t know what I was talking about. It’s impossible to describe how much this hurt.
I even brought pictures with me; pictures of myself from just a year ago when I healthy and wasn’t complaining of being sick or strange things happening to my body. The doctors would take a very quick glance at the photos and then say, “It looks like you’ve lost some weight.”
When I told them that my weight was the same as it had been when I was healthy, they just stared at me and said nothing.
I felt like I had crossed over into The Twilight Zone and that there was no way in hell that this could be reality. But Rod Serling never showed up to explain it all to me.
No one wants to be sick. At 24, who says they’re sick unless they’re sick? Not only was I having to cope with being sick in a strange and terrifying way, I was also having to cope with not being believed. This is a hell I would not wish on my worst enemy. Except for maybe Glenn Beck.
This is awful to say, but I started to envy people in wheelchairs–not because I thought I had it worse than they did–but because no one was questioning their plight or the severity of their condition. No one was telling them to “snap out of it” or that it was all in their head. No one was questioning their character.
But the worst part about this whole nightmare was my girlfriend saying, “Don’t I make you happy?” This cut me to the core because even one tenth of what she was doing for me would’ve made me happy under normal circumstances. I would have to invent a new language to even remotely express how much this broke my heart.