In 2010 I was diagnosed with stage four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It was the most frightening moment of my life. I had just lost Charlie (my life-long companion of 28 years) to cancer, and this disease had already claimed my mother and brother. Now I was facing that same hard path … fighting for my life.
Here’s how it went by the numbers:
2 major surgeries
166 days in the hospital
7 trips to the emergency room
7 spinal taps
8 weeks of chemo
4 weeks of radiation.
There’s painful truth in the cancer cliché that the cure can be worse than the disease. My side effects included:
blood clots in the stomach
subdural hematoma (bleeding in the brain)
fevers spiking up to 104 degrees
surgery to cover the stomach cavity with mesh lining
left hip replacement.
I fought hard, and with the tremendous support of my close friends, I am alive today. I broke the statistics of what was to be expected….dying of cancer at an early age.
The Migraine Sisters
At the top of this page is the only piece of visual art I have ever created. While I was at Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center battling cancer, I took an art class (“Using the Right Side of Your Brain to Paint”). This colored charcoal was the result. I was suffering from migraines at the time, so I called it “The Migraine Sisters.”
In 2016, a friend of mine submitted my painting to a New York literary magazine. They chose it for the front cover.
It was my mother’s 60th birthday dinner. We were at our favorite Kenora restaurant … The Kenwood Steakhouse. They served the best steaks you ever tasted.
Charlie and I surprised my mother with one thing she had always wanted, a brilliant pair of diamond earrings. You are looking at the moment she opened the box and realized what it was. She sobbed with joy for hours. Surprising my mother was bittersweet.
You see, this turned out to be one of the last happy moments she enjoyed. A few days later, she was diagnosed with cancer. And, in 10 months, she died. So the memory of surprising my mother with the earrings will always be bittersweet. A tough moment in my life.
My Three Mothers
A black & white collage I created many years ago of my mother and her two closest friends, Sharon (Sookie) Katz and Celine Hanton. Celine is the only one living at this time. Sadly, Sookie succumbed to cancer in 2018.
Surprising My Mother…BittersweetMark Winkler2019-04-07T08:39:48-05:00
Back in 2004, a good friend of mine asked me if I would build a computer to give to his mother back home in Ohio as a Christmas present. So, I put a nice desktop together for her. When he gave it to her, she was thrilled.
But that’s just the beginning of the story.
About a week later, I received the most horrific voice message ever left to me. It was from my friend’s mother. She was with her daughter, and both of them wanted to know, in no uncertain terms, why I had dared to put porn in the download folder of the new computer. They were, shall we say, considerably less than pleased.
So here I was with two incredibly angry women making me feel like dirt for something I hadn’t done. I had no idea what was going on. The one thing I did know is that “straight porn” and “me” in the same sentence is ridiculous.
Thankfully, my friend got on the phone with his mother explained that there was no way I would’ve done that. And, with a little bit of investigation, he discovered what happened.
You should be gardening
You see, his mother kept the desktop in her kitchen, and one afternoon she went out shopping. The gardener came in for a drink of water. He saw the brand, new computer and was suddenly thirsty for more than Poland Spring. So, he decided to stream a couple of porn movies on his downtime between pruning the magnolias. Unfortunately, he was not aware that they were also being downloaded into her download folder.
When he finished…uh… drinking, he just closed the browser and thought nothing of it. But of course, when mom came home, she decided to explore all the folders on her new computer. And, when she went to the download folder, she was swept away by a tsunami of boy/girl boinking.
When mother and daughter were given a reality check, they felt horrible. But the damage had already been done. They had already left me the most horrific message you could ever imagine, resulting in many years after that of joking, ribbing and teasing from their entire family.
My Worst-Ever Voice Mail Message The Musical
Now let’s fast-forward to 2017. I had forgotten entirely about this voice message. But my friend had not. He kept a digital copy of the recording, and to my surprise, he gave me a special birthday present. My friend just happens to be an executive producer for a well-known reality TV series, and he gave this infamous voice message file to one of his audio guys who set it to music.
Ladies and Gentlemen
May I proudly present:
My Worst-Ever Voice Mail Message: The Musical
The best part of it all was that, after they ripped me a new one in the message, mother and daughter had the chutzpah to ask me to call them back because they were having trouble opening some other word files. I breathed heavily into the phone when I did.
Okay, I admit it. I stuck this one in just to add a bit of humor in what would have been a completely intolerable dark section of my website.
My Worst-Ever Voice Mail Message: The MusicalMark Winkler2019-01-23T16:57:18-05:00
My dear brother Jay was so alive and energetic during his life. He was never sick, never drank, smoked, or did drugs. But, at the age of 44, Jay, shockingly, died of bladder cancer. Of course, he will live forever in my memory. And because of Jay’s life and tragic death, I try to live each and every moment as if it may be my last.
Jay was a barefoot enthusiast who hated wearing shoes. He made sure to sign every email with the motto you see above. We incorporated a snippet of it, and his love of bare feet, into the design of his tombstone.
In 1999 Jay was interviewed on CBC Radio about being a barefoot enthusiast. When you click below to listen to that interview, you’ll see that Jay was a very funny man!
My father at the top and Jerry on the left side. Taken on Coney Island (circa mid ’50s).
One of my family’s closest friends, Jerry Litman, passed away on July 22nd, 2020.
He played a monumental role in my life and was a legend to anyone who knew him. Jerry spent most of his adult life in Kenora as a dentist and continued practicing when he moved to Winnipeg where he finally retired with his now-deceased wife, Riva.
As a child, I remember how he would calm me as I sat nervously in the chair in his office. He would have me think of a piece of music and tell me to sing it in my head. At the same time, he would ask me to lift the index finger of my right hand. I would get completely preoccupied and confused. This was his genius way of distracting me so that I would not be aware of the pain from the drill.
For my Bar Mitzvah, Jerry gave me a book entitled “Man’s Best Friend”. He wrote on the inside cover, “always be kind to dogs as they are defenseless against humans.” I never forgot that sentiment and it has become a guiding principle of my adult life.
Jerry was a man who put his strong values and unbelievable kindness into practice. He would regularly fly up to the Northwest Territories and Hudson Bay area to provide dentistry for the Inuit. Many could not afford this service, and Jerry never expected payment for the work. But, as a result of his kindness, he has one of the most extensive Inuit soapstone collections in Canada.
In later years, my trips to Kenora would never be complete until I made a last stop at Jerry’s house on Waterloo Street in Winnipeg for dinner. His daughter Shelley and her husband, Dennis, would arrive a few minutes before armed with pizzas or Chinese food, depending on Jerry’s mood. The food was fine but the company was what really mattered.
Jerry celebrated his 92nd birthday a few days before he passed away. He called me a few months ago to say that he had an infection in one of his heart’s valves. He said he didn’t want surgery and felt it was his time to move on. We tried to find humor in that conversation, and my final words to him were that I would be up there to visit him sometime soon. Sadly, I won’t be able to keep that appointment.
If you ever asked Jerry how he was, he would always say, “I’m fine, thank you. But, more importantly, how are you?” That just who he was — always thinking of the other person first. The epitaph he chose for his tombstone is, “I’m fine, thank you”. How apropos.
Dr. Jerry Litman was a friend, a mentor and a beautiful human being. I will miss him.
One of the Best Collections of Inuit Art in Canada
Below are three videos I created that highlight Dr. Litman’s Inuit Carvings from the Belcher Islands. The entire collection was given to him as gifts in exchange for the dental services he provided.
Charlie and his best friend Steven Quint when they were in college together. Steven and his son Paul (Charlie’s godson) were at the hospital with me a few hours before he died. To this day we all stare at each other in disbelief that Charlie is no longer with us.
Charlie, 28, with his godson Paul. Paul is now 29 years old and attended Charlie’s funeral. To this day I keep in contact with him. In fact…
The Godson – All Grown Up
In 2013, Paul purchased Charlie’s old apartment from me. Paul wanted Charlie’s apartment since he knew his Godfather took great care of the property. Paul now lives there with his wife, Yuen. This picture was taken at their wedding in July 2015.
Oh, and One More Little Moment About Charlie: A Short Story
As I previously mentioned in the section entitled “An Artist’s Moment,” I’ve only painted one picture in my entire life. To my surprise, it was chosen as the front cover for a literary magazine.
Well, you should also know that I don’t write very much or often. I find it very difficult to write, even a letter or an email. But, my assistant coaxed me into writing a story about how I met Charlie. Please note, as my painting, this is the one and the only short story that I will ever write. Surprisingly, it too turned out pretty well. It was published, one year later in the same literary magazine as my painting. Enjoy.
A Crazy Thing
By Mark Winkler
Love is a crazy thing
Love is a crazy thing. For a long time, I never thought I’d find it. I didn’t think I even knew how to recognize it. And when I did see it, I didn’t know I had. I was so naïve that I almost missed what was going to become the greatest gift of my life.
It was 1985. I was going to a stranger’s house for a blind date. He lived in Brooklyn, Bensonhurst to be exact. His name was Charlie. When I got to his door, I noticed he had a mezuzah on the side of the entranceway. He was Jewish, that had to be a good sign.
Another good sign appeared when he opened the door. Charlie was one handsome hunk. He wore a tight-fitting black T-shirt, washed-out blue jeans, and a pair of Adidas. You know, the traditional ones with the blue stripes on the white background. It’s funny the little things you remember from so long ago.
First date with a hunk
Unfortunately, despite his good looks, it was an uncomfortable first date. We talked about mundane things, the weather, where are you from, what hobbies do you have. Part of me wanted to leave since I was kind of bored by the small talk. It’s just not me.
We did make out a bit, but it was awkward. I never did feel great about getting intimate with somebody on a first date. So, as I was leaving Charlie’s apartment, I thought I would never see him again. After all, our first encounter was hardly the sort of earth-shattering experience that would necessitate a second date.
Now I should tell you that I drove from Connecticut to Brooklyn for this date, and was living on a very tight budget at the time. I had exactly 35 cents in my pocket. Charlie had no way of knowing this. As I was leaving, he asked how much money I had on me. I told him the truth and made the excuse that I hate to carry cash, in case I get mugged.
A memorable act of kindness
He then did something that caught me totally off guard. He went to his bookshelf and pulled out a book. When he opened it, I was shocked to see that he had carved out a rectangle in the center of the book where he had stashed a wad of $20 bills. He handed me a twenty from the pack and said, “take this, you should know better than to have only 35 cents in your pocket. What would happen if you got into an accident?”
I was simultaneously put off that he was lecturing me, and touched that he cared about me. I thanked him, but, mostly because of my hidden embarrassment, blocked the entire exchange out of my mind. After all, I was never going to see him again.
On Wednesday of that week, Charlie called me at precisely 4:15 PM. Another one of those little details you never forget. He asked me if I wanted to go lampshade shopping with him the following Sunday on Delancey Street. I thought it was kind of a strange venue for a second date, but he extended the invitation and so I accepted.
Big mistakes lead to love
Big mistake! We spent six hours going door to door to every frickin’ lampshade store on Delancey Street. That’s two dozen stores if you’re counting. And don’t even try to count the number of individual lampshades we tried on. None of which — not one single one — was the right one for Charlie. Too tall, Too short, Too wide, Too skinny, Too beige, Too contemporary, Too declasse, Too louche. Charlie’s encyclopedic arsenal of rejection criteria completely obliterated the purchase possibility of any lampshade available for sale in the largest lampshade district in the largest city in North America. I now knew for sure I would never see him again. I wasn’t going to be driven out of my mind with his obsessive antics.
When I went to my therapist that week, I told him the story of my exasperating date with Charlie. His response was not what I expected. He said, “So let me get this right. You go on a first date with a stranger who gives you $20 because he’s concerned about you getting home safe. On the second date, you spend a whole day with this man who proves to be a very discerning person. He knows precisely what he wants. And this man, who’s good-looking, compassionate and very, very particular, shows initiative and interest and calls you for a second date. Are you blind, Mark? Do whatever you can to get a third date.”
Well, my therapist earned every one of his $125 for that session. Charlie turned out to be my soulmate for 25 years, the only person I could ever love. We had such a wonderful life together. My family adored him (being Jewish didn’t hurt). Charlie’s sweet simplicity was in stark contrast to my high-strung alpha dog directness. I cherished his calm nature, his ability to relax and not to let things get him down. I’d like to think that I also taught him a few things about being more outgoing and taking more risks in life. It was just a perfect combination.
The little things that count
Oh, and by the way, Charlie continued to call me on Wednesday’s at 4:15 PM every week for 25 years, no matter where I was, just to make sure I was okay. Our love was unconditional, and the years we spent together were the greatest times of my life. Since he passed away in 2010, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of Charlie.
As I said, love is a crazy thing. When it first comes your way, it may feel awkward and uncomfortable. But here’s what I learned. Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up. Keep your eyes open, keep your mind open and, most importantly, keep your heart open. You never know when love will give you the chance to turn your last 35 cents into the treasure of a lifetime.
Enjoying my website? Why not take a moment to sign theguestbook?
A Tribute to Charlie, 1953-2010Mark Winkler2021-03-21T11:57:01-05:00