I am beginning this letter to you at 3:00 AM on March 11, 2017, one month since you are physically gone from us. It may take me a while to complete it – our grief is still pretty raw. I have written a number of post-death letters over the years to family members and friends. This one to you is uniquely difficult but I feel compelled to write it. It’s difficult because kids are supposed to bury their parents, not the other way around – right?
When your mother and I were married on October 27, 1972, at the original SS. Peter and Paul Church in Saginaw, MI, we had no idea that our pledge of loyalty to each other “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health” would directly involve you, as it did with your 3 and a half-year battle against appendiceal (appendix) cancer, followed by your untimely death on February 11, 2017, at the Cartwright Hospice Care Center in Saginaw, MI. Sometimes life can be painfully unfair. With that though, we share the anguish of Mary, as she witnessed the untimely death of her own son, Jesus, when he was just in his early 30’s. We share that anguish with many other mothers and fathers – some in our own family and among our neighbors and friends – who have lost sons and daughters to untimely death.
Toward your final days, I came across a frank appraisal of sickness by an author named Marian Keyes – it’s from her novel, “The Mystery of Mercy Close.” I found it in a daily calendar for nurses. Here it is:
“People get sick and sometimes they get better and sometimes they don’t. And it doesn’t matter if the sickness is cancer or if it’s depression. Sometimes the drugs work and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the drugs work for a while and then they stop. Sometimes the alternative stuff works and sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes you wonder if no outside interference makes any difference at all; if an illness is like a storm, if it simply has to run its course, at the end of it you will be alive or you will be dead.”
Nik, you could have written that passage from your own experience with cancer, multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, and diet. You fought steadfastly and bravely. Who could ask for more?
With your passing on February 11th, I recall a message from Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest-psychologist: “The length of life is less important than the intensity and sincerity with which it is lived” and, Nik, you certainly made the most with the short time that you had on this earth. In a truly unbiased opinion, one word that would best describe you is ‘brilliant.’ We have always been amazed by your intellect, talent, and skillfulness that was reflected in the perfection of everything that you seemed to pursue. You were a writer, a storyteller, an artist, a cartoonist… You logged miles upon miles on both biking and hiking trails. There were Renaissance festivals, trips to historical sites all over Michigan, several Comic-Cons where you got to meet more than once your weight-lifting inspiration, Lou Ferrigno (TV’s “Incredible Hulk”), as well as cast members from your favorite movie, Superman (1970/80’s). You were a literary aficionado with an insatiable appetite for reading and an extensive collection of comics and books ranging from science fiction, paranormal, and horror to Native American culture and lore, mythology, religion, classic literature and SO much more! You were a Star Wars and Star Trek fan, an astronomer/star gazer, and an archeologist (It will take some time for the Oxbow Archeology group of the Chippewa Nature Center in Midland to find someone with your enthusiasm, keen eye and skilled hands to help with their digs and discoveries). Along with your books, you had an extensive collection of posters, movies, medieval weaponry, lifelike models built to scale, toys, and other collectible memorabilia – all of which you generously gifted to relatives and friends, as your terminal illness led you to choose dispossession.
Nik, as I recall, you were three times voted Employee of the Month, when you worked for the Loss Prevention Department of a major retail store for many years, only to be disappointed by being “let go” over a corporation decision to downsize its work force – their loss! You likewise were highly respected by your co-workers as an Officer in the Safety and Security Department, as well as by the teachers and students, at Saginaw Township’s alternative education high school, the Mackinaw Academy.
In addition to all of the above in your “resume of life,” you can list Superhero, as well. You were an inspiration to everyone around you, including friends, family, hospital staff, etc., as you battled cancer and “fought the good fight” (II Timothy 4:7).
Nik, we miss your humor and your razor sharp wit. I will personally miss the entertaining birthday cards you would send. We miss our Sunday get-togethers and pizza dinners and your indispensable assistance around the house with things such as assembling our bookcases, computer cabinet, my greenhouse, and other furniture items. You were always willing to lend a helping hand, even when it came to your sister’s million and one moves over the years.
We miss your independent spirit. Despite your characteristic bluntness, you had an introspective and empathetic side that would often be revealed with gifts that showed just how much you indeed listened and internalized all that we had said. Nik, you lived your life with honesty and integrity – no B.S.! You were truly a genuine human being and that is why you were liked and loved by everyone that you encountered.
I know, Nik, you were worried about your little sister, Katrina; not only was she losing her only sibling, but also her best friend. You two always had a “secret language” based on family history, pop culture and shared experiences. With your illness, your relationship actually grew closer as you began to text everyday throughout the day, “watch” TV together from different states while chatting back and forth throughout the evening, and made sure to say goodnight to each other every single night over the past 3 and a half years. On your 40th and final birthday, Katrina gave you a card on which she noted, “Dear Nik, There is so much more I want to say about how much you mean to me… how much of an influence you have had on my life… but Hallmark at least helped me get a start… Love from your sis, Katrina.” The card was as follows:
“For my Brother, my Friend. Having a brother like you means that when you need a friend, you never have to look further than your own family. When there’s someone in your life who’s made a difference, whose loyalty and friendship have been yours as long as you can remember, who’s shared good times and trying times and memories by the heartful with you, it’s a gift you really cherish. It’s the kind of gift that will make you smile and feel so lucky to have had such a great brother, such a wonderful friend.”
On February 27, 2017, your mother and I were able to be present for the birth of Katrina and Kevin’s son, Simon Nikolaus (Smolinski) Byl, in Wisconsin. We know how you longed to live to see him, too. He was purposely named to help keep your memory alive. Many have expressed how so-naming him is special and unique. By the way, in the Hebrew language, “Simon” means “the Lord has heard.”
Nik, permit me to preach a little before I close this rambling letter. I read that, at the time of a death, five things need to be said by all concerned. Let’s say them together: Forgive me; I forgive you; Thank you; I love you; Goodbye. Speaking of goodbye, in the late 1970’s, when you were just a couple of years old and I was visiting senior residents in the Freeland area as a Social Worker for Saginaw County’s Commission on Aging, I stopped at our home for lunch. Afterward, as I was heading out the front door to return to work, you stood at the entrance with your mother and said to me: “Bye, Dad, thanks for coming.” Well, I want to reverse that now and say: “Bye, Nik, thanks for coming.” And I would add: “We will see you again.”
On behalf of all your family and friends who know and love you,
LOVE, Dad (& Mom & Katrina)
May 15, 2017
P.S. We will make sure that your nephew Simon Nikolaus gets a copy of this letter.