By Rob Bick
It has been almost five years since my beloved wife, Ann Marie, passed away. It feels like five seconds ago that I was holding her when she took her last breath. It feels like 50 years since I have looked into those piercing blue eyes. It is September 7th as I sit down to quantify some thoughts on the passage of time and the evolution of grief and assimilation to a different reality. The date “the 7th” holds special meaning to me. We met on a 7th day, we were married on the 7th day and she died on the 7th day, so doing this today is appropriate.
Many of you know Ann Marie’s story. A former model, an owner of modeling and talent agency, a champion of many causes, a public speaker and a cancer survivor from the age of 39. She was witty, smart, hardworking and beautiful. She was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, a terminal diagnosis, in 2013. I had met her 5 months earlier. She lived five and a half years, not the 24 to 36 months originally projected. She did extraordinarily well for four of those years. The last year and a half … a nightmare.
I firmly believe that at the moment of her diagnosis I started to grieve. I believe this is called “anticipatory grief.” I had lost both my parents to cancer. My father, the Marine, was diagnosed in 2000 at the age of 62. He looked 50. When he died in 2005 he looked 90. A big guy completely depleted by cancer. My mother died in 2008 after a six-week battle with a Stage 4 glioblastoma. She didn’t even know what hit her. No one had time to prepare. She was never sick a day in her life, and we thought she would live to be 100.
So yes, while I knew Ann Marie was sick. She didn’t look it, act it or live like it. “Live like you’re living” as opposed to “Live like you are dying,” was her creed. I figured that I was heartily battle tested in the trenches of cancer warfare, and we would find our way through this. What I didn’t realize at the time was with the endless financial problems left behind by my parents and an estate with years of loose ends, I had not spent the time necessary to properly grieve the loss of them. I struggled mightily, but silently, with Ann Marie’s illness, and I was operating out of character for a time.
Dealing with existing unattended grief and fresh new grief was challenging, to say the least. As someone who does not drink or do any drugs (besides Advil after a morning in the gym), I don’t self-medicate. Thus, I faced the grief and its complications head on, as I do now, knowing that some days I will blink and some days grief will cower in the shadows because I won’t blink. I did make mistakes, but realized that if you don’t face it, you will not make it. Simple concept, yet a complicated process. One can dance with the five stages of grief in a brief five minutes, so the methodical nature of that clinically outlined process seems more psychobabble than reality. It will be different for everyone.
The surreal process of grieving is unique to each individual. Like raising children, no manual is issued. It is not easy to return to an empty house at the end of the day, one that was filled with joy and life. To coin an old phrase: The silence is deafening. I think I slept in a recliner for three months, not wanting to go back upstairs to the master bedroom. All her belongings, clothes, decorations in the house, etc. were an endless painful reminder that this is all I had left of this amazing person. At least that is what you feel in the moment, and it is very real and very suffocating. To be harsh, I felt like I was left with a fist full of ashes. The question that kept slapping my skull like a boomerang was: Did I do enough? What else could I have done?
Thankfully I had Ann Marie’s family dog Coco, the really old Shih-tzu. He was my best friend for a year. I took him everywhere with me. No doubt he was feeling the loss as well. He passed away quietly in his bed in the sunroom the very day that my lawyer handed me the letter that officially closed Ann Marie’s estate. I guess she needed him more than I did. Talk about irony, right! Big guys and Shih-Tzus could be a reality show, just like Pit Bulls and Parolees.
Along with surreal process of grieving, you can add the complicated process of dealing with a deceased individual’s estate, a severe encumbrance to meaningful grieving due to the U-Hauls full of paperwork that come your way for various and sometimes sundry purposes. Every time you have to mail out a death certificate, it seems feels like adding insult to injury. “How can this be real” is a common utterance, as well as some other choice and meaningful words. I went through it with my parents’ estate for years, so I thought I was ready for the tribulations to come. Yet losing your wife is a completely different animal.
As mentioned earlier, Ann Marie started and owned a very successful business, AMS Models and Talent. Two days before she died, our attorney had to come to the hospital to have the business officially signed over to me for purposes of continuation. A very sad moment in my mind. At that time, I think she knew her days were limited. She had tried to sell it but had no legitimate offers.
This was quite the challenge for me, to say the least. I had to get up to speed on the business process. She had people working the day-to-day aspect of it, and I felt an obligation to keep it going for a year at least to ease any type of transition for the two employees and for her good name. This is where some of the issues began. Prior to her passing she had $120,000 hacked from her business accounts at a certain national bank. The bank returned $100,000, but failed to make good on their fiduciary responsibility to reimburse the remaining $20,000. She filed a complaint with the bank, and passed away before it was resolved. I had to get a lawyer and the media involved and like magic, the money re-appeared in the business account. It wasn’t that easy. I thought I would spare the details.
I also had to retain an attorney to dance with another bank’s home office, a bank that had business funds they would not allow me, the corporation owner, to transfer to new business account, even with a death certificate and the documentation that I now owned the business. They lost as well. I firmly believe that after this, after all the media accounts of the wrongdoings of large banking corporations nationwide and the accompanying tens of billions of dollars of fines, that “Big Banks are Domestic Terrorism.” I dare you to prove me wrong.
Then there was dealing with her leased car. In short, this manufacturer should have hired a better lawyer to write their lease rather than spewing requirements that were not written in the lease. Maybe they ought to read their own paperwork on occasion. I know, too much work … just don’t question it and give us money! That deserves an “lol”.
Bottom line, most people will help you. However, some say they want to help you, but don’t believe it. You will learn who they are. They want the revenue, plain and simple, and will torture you to get it. Be strong, fight back, beat them like you would beat a dirty rug on the clothesline. They deserve it. Victories aid the grieving process, though it is a shame one must go through it to begin with.
I still own the AMS Models and Talent business, though it has not booked new work since early 2020. I have had issues with an agency started by one of her employees, who has repeatedly used AMS facebook pages and other AMS references, and essentially retitled the AMS webpage and continues to use it. This is not appropriate, so believe when I say … this business is not AMS Models and Talent.
I am grateful for so many things. One of those is health insurance. We would have been living in a tent if not for that. It was a struggle to get her on the policy originally. When she moved in as a domestic partner, the state law and the insurance company allowed her to be on the policy. My employer did not allow it. They did not have a written policy and made an arbitrary decision to not allow her to be added, most likely due to her cancer. It cost us $17,000 in the six months prior to our marriage, when they had no choice but to put her on the policy. On the other hand, I was given all the time I needed for doctor’s visits, hospital stays, etc. What can I say except that government in general is “behavioral irrationality” at its’ best.
All this was very challenging throughout her illness and continued to be challenging after her passing. We had an amazing relationship, and that made the insurmountable mountain of cancer and the aftermath a bit less daunting to navigate. Not much, but a bit. Ann Marie would marvel at the fact that we were two alphas that could co-exist and thrive under one roof. I was the quiet one. She? Those who knew here know the answer to that one. It was an honor to know her and a privilege to be the one chosen to guide her through the most difficult part of her life. We learned a lot from each other and enjoyed every moment together. She loved the family compound in the Adirondacks. I wish I could say the same about fashion shows. She learned about winter sports, design, government, the mountains and football, I learned about Christian Louboutins, the modeling business, raising good kids, mystery novels and dealing with a razor-sharp wit. Most important … I learned what it was like to have a joy of life in the face of severe adversity. The best lesson of all.
In the October, 2014 issue of this very publication, there was an article about Ann Marie and her dear friend (and mine) Frieda Weeks and their experiences with illness, loss and grief. After reading the article again years later and after Ann Marie’s passing, there was statement that struck me: “For the Weeks family it caused friends to abandon them when they needed the most support.”
The bottom line there is that you lose people along the way after someone passes. Hard times will reveal who is for real, and who will walk away. After all of this, I believe that those with character check in when the camera isn’t rolling, when they are not using it as a facebook post and when they are not required to do so as a courtesy. Those that regularly go out of their way are the ones to be cherished. They have the big hearts and the concern for others. They become family. I must thank all these people for having the character and decency to look after someone who is grieving. Their support was priceless. They know who they are. The ones that disappeared also know. Cancer is the modern-day plague. Even though the caregiver is very aware that the person with cancer is suffering 1,000 times more, we need a boost on occasion too, especially at the end of the caregiver journey.
Good health care in the face of adversity is also imperative. The good people at Hematology/Oncology were great and did all they could. The cancer floor at St. Joseph’s Hospital was outstanding and took care of both of us during our lengthy stays. Excellence should never be taken for granted. I wish I didn’t know them, for obvious reasons, but I am eternally grateful for their work.
In the end, the best advice I can give is not mine, but belongs to Oren Lyons, the legendary Onondaga Nation Faith keeper, who said: I thank the Creator every morning when I get up. I give thanks for this day, another day. Then you roll up your sleeves and get out there.
All of our personal life stories have to be re-written at some point. If you don’t have a life, you don’t have a history. Take advantage of the time you are given and make some more history! I survived what I call the “Bermuda Triangle” of cancer, watching three amazing people suffer unmentionable sufferings and not survive. I have found an increasing degree of compassion for those in need, and a greater level disdain for those that perpetually cry wolf and the nonsense peddlers of the world. (My full-time profession is in government, so I roll my eyes … a lot.)
Editor’s note: Rob Bick, Ann Marie’s husband, believes in community service. He is on the board of directors of the Erie Canal Museum, the town of Cicero Zoning Board of Appeals, and V.P of the NYS Assessors Association. He has served as board president of the Northern Onondaga Public Library system and has served on the boards of: CNY Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the Adirondack Architectural Heritage Foundation, the Midstate Youth Hockey Association and did Search and Rescue work in the Adirondacks for 15 years. He has won awards in four different professions, and simply wants to live a quiet and productive life working, climbing mountains, giving back and playing in the snow (if it ever snows again.)