modern lives are managed for us by experts in birthing, in exercise, in
nutrition, in education, in choosing a mate, in distribution of news,
entertainment, government and groceries. An army of experts is ready to
advise us how to eat, how much to sleep, what car to buy, how to
simplify our lives and lower our blood pressure. Nancy and I were not
experts on any of these things, much less on facing life’s
most difficult passage, death. This book is our experience, two
innocent novices, in dying, death and rebuilding one life where once
there had been two. It offers no advice, but simply a window into this
most personal, and at the same time universal, of human experiences.
Maybe growing up, as I
did, on a steady
diet of cartoons from my parents’ New Yorker subscriptions,
explains for me Nancy’s attraction to a certain population of
men, depicted in those black and white figures and their one line
captions as older, financially established members of exclusive,
politically incorrect clubs, to which they are delivered by their
drivers from the back seats of large, ecologically incorrect dark
colored sedans, to eat blood red in the center of steaks preceded only
by iceberg lettuce-wedge salads, drink Scotch or Bourbon, and smoke
cigars. Men who vote straight Republican and vacation without their
wives, with guides in Land Rovers, in Africa and South America, hunting
big game. Not that Nancy supported many of these vices, herself an
animal lover, Democrat to the core, insistent on vacationing with me,
generally bothered by even cigarette smoke, and when she drove at all,
it was in a VW Beetle. Nancy wouldn’t spend an hour in the
even to photograph an animal. Though she did appreciate an occasional
steak at Morton’s preceded by a peaty single malt and being a
guest in that smoky men’s club exclusivity she admired.
But these men, and they were all men, from the cynical board members of
New Yorker cartoons plotting their next corporate takeover to the
cigared denizens of summer hunting mansions with animal busts jutting
from raw-hewn walls, combined intelligence, power, and the freedom only
an excess of money can provide, with the self confidence to be and act
just as wrongly or rightly as they pleased. Working in the world of
finance for some of the United States’ major fine arts
institutions provided Nancy the perk of spending time in the company of
these people who in a previous era would have been labeled tycoons.
They were a surrogate for the self-confidence, freedom, and security
she simultaneously dared not even aspire to, and resented, because of
their excesses and their occasional indulgence in simple idleness.
Few of the real individuals she met of this ilk, the men who put money
into her arts institutions and whose wives put time into their
executive committees, whose names were at the top of the wall of golden
circle donors in the biggest type sizes, whose companies advertised in
the playbill, and whose pictures appeared in the Society section of the
Sunday Times, lived up to the New Yorker’s phantasies. They
human. Up close she saw they too had weaknesses, even if only that of
just trying too hard to be what they were. Most simply lacked that lack
of desire she so desired.
But if there were one epitome, to her it was Jim. I know only a little
about him. He was a self-made millionaire who then married into a much
bigger fortune, which he neither needed nor cared about, except to
complain about its burdens, which accrued more to his wife than to him
directly. Jim was 20 years older than Nancy, tall and lanky, or so she
said, since I never met him. He didn’t really run his banking
firm any more, delegating mostly to others, but he stayed somehow
involved, sat on boards, cared for an infirm adult daughter, belonged
to clubs, and invited Nancy to join him sometimes, I suppose on
evenings when women were permitted as guests of the members. He hunted
all over the world and had never met a Republican he didn’t
He and Nancy shared a love and a knack for finance. Nancy sometimes
would call Jim to help her break a financial logjam, or think through a
strategy to pull some financially devastated nonprofit from the brink.
Or just to argue about where the markets were going and which political
candidate was more certain to destroy the economy once and for all.
I think women instinctively understand that men, some men anyway, will
always have an eye for an attractive female. They wouldn’t
so, but they know it’s the sign of a healthy male psyche. And
considered Nancy’s attraction to self-made, uninhibited,
older men of the upper class to be similarly a sign of a healthy female
Whatever the underlying psychology, biology, anthropology, and
Darwinian logic, I encouraged her to enjoy these chances to spend time
with the upper crust of the other half, which isn’t really a
half, but an esoteric, infinitesimal fraction of a percent of the
world’s population. Being chief of the green eyeshade brigade
the guts of a huge performing arts center, spending twelve- and often
fourteen-hour days in windowless offices tucked up against the IBM mini
mainframe with its whirring hard drives, high speed printers, cooling
fans, and elevated flooring to accommodate all the power cords and
cables is otherwise sorely lacking in, to put it politely, je ne sais quoi.
A few of these men telephoned from their cars and offices to check on
Nancy during her illness. Many sent flowers regularly, or their wives
or secretaries did, and several came to visit. Jim was one of the
telephoners, and he was Nancy’s favorite. I knew she was
seriously ill when I took his call and she asked me to say
have to call back another time. That happened, I think, twice, and
after that, I don’t remember him calling again.
While writing this book, I took over one of Nancy’s old
computers, a Macintosh laptop she had custom-painted in metallic purple
with a contrasting white keyboard and track pad. This was her travel
machine for use on airliners, and it mainly saw duty as a DVD player.
As she got weaker, she used the laptop at home to watch DVDs from her
hospital-style bed because it was lighter and easier for her to manage.
Other than a few iTunes movies, there were no files on it, except for
two. The first was a journal article on her disease, vulvar cancer,
written by one of her doctors from Memorial Sloan-Kettering. I read it.
Clinical. Nancy had a disease that fewer than a tenth of one percent of
cancer patients get, and an even smaller fraction of that small group
“experience mortality” from it. She was, in yet
way, one in a million.
The other file was labeled Private Letter. I am guessing it was never
printed nor sent.
I have no idea why I’m writing this other than I’ve
been a bit emotional over the last two months. I so appreciate your
helps me to know you’re thinking about me. I’m
I’m scared I won’t make it and I don’t
know what that
means. I don’t know what happens after we die and
ready to leave this earth yet.
I try to keep positive but it’s difficult when I feel so
I’m enjoying the time off … I’ve been
I was seventeen … I enjoy having the time to read the NY
every day and The Economist cover to cover. The time passes;
not particularly bored, just apprehensive because I don’t
what’s happening next. All my life I’ve tried to do
right thing in order to prevent bad things from happening, and this
… this I don’t have control over.
Promise me one thing … that if it comes to it
Rick and Nancy Fleeter
and Nancy were both
professionals whose work took them all
the world. He founded and managed the aerospace engineering company
AeroAstro while Nancy managed arts organizations including American
Ballet Theater and the J.F. Kennedy Center. Rick also wrote books and
taught aerospace engineering as an Adjunct Professor, while Nancy
continued to practise and teach ballet. They lived at various times,
sometimes simultaneously, in suburban Washington, DC, Manhattan,
Charlestown, RI, Rome, Tokyo and Gold Coast Australia. In addition to
this book written with Nancy, Rick has written several books and book
chapters on the engineering and management of miniature spacecraft and
on cycling, triathalon and living nomadically for business and
writes and is a professor in Rome and Charlestown, teaching at The
University of Rome La Sapienza and Brown University.
Rick also blogs at: http://rfleeter.wordpress.com