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Dignity in dying

click to enlarge Maxine and Arnie Ringelheim have been married for 36 - years. - RICH TOSCHES
  • Rich Tosches
  • Maxine and Arnie Ringelheim have been married for 36 years.

Maxine and Arnie Ringelheim came west in the spring of 1974, a Jewish couple from Manhattan, to the land of the mountains and dazzling blue skies and they wondered, right off the bat, what the heck they were doing in a place like this.

"The first week we were here I bought some bagels and the kid at the check-out stand said, 'Oh, these are good. My mother cuts them up and uses them for croutons.' And I wondered what I'd gotten myself into," said Maxine.

She smiled then, remembering the start of a new life in Colorado Springs with her beloved Arnie all those years ago. And then she glanced across the kitchen table at the love of her life and a tear rolled down her face.

"Some days are so good," she said, "that I can't believe he's going to die."

One morning in 1988, while he was shaving, Arnie felt a lump on the side of his neck. It was small. He didn't give it much thought. A few months later, though, the lump was larger. He went to a doctor. He was diagnosed with cancer. Hodgkin's. Six months of chemotherapy followed. The cancer, he was told, was gone. Arnie thought he'd won.

The lump came back in 1990. This time Arnie suffered through 20 days of intense radiation treatments. And the cancer retreated again. It gave Arnie and Maxine eight more years. Eight years to laugh and cry and hold each other and even to travel a bit. Last year, it gave them their first grandchild.

But the relentless disease came back. In 1998 Arnie found another lump. Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, he was told. More chemotherapy. This time, the cancer showed no mercy. Arnie had more chemotherapy in 1999 and a stem cell transplant operation later that year. In all, Maxine said, Arnie has undergone 20 cancer operations and then Arnie smiles and says this:

"It's 19, but who's counting?"

Six weeks ago, Arnie, 71, went to his doctor for another checkup. He felt fine. Blood tests showed that he wasn't fine at all. He was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. It was likely caused, they told him, by the previous rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.

Radical chemotherapy, he was told, had roughly a 20 percent chance of helping him. But the chemotherapy might kill him.

Arnie and Maxine decided that enough was enough.

The doctors told him he might have a few months to live. Or a few weeks.

"The doctors said this cancer was very rare," Arnie said. "I can't win the lottery, but I win this. They say it's getting better and it's not getting worse. Right now it's just inside of me, smoldering."

Maxine, 61, glances away. And she cries again.

"We've been married for 36 years," she said. "He's my husband and he's my best buddy. He does things for me. I'm not sure I can do it without him."

Arnie is a printer by trade. He came to Colorado on the job trail and worked at several print shops in town. Maxine, 61, who has a degree in early childhood development from New York City College, spent nearly 13 years as a correctional officer at the old territorial prison in Cañon City. They have two sons. Joel, 35, lives in Littleton with his wife and young son. David, 33, lives in Canada.

Today, Arnie still works out at a gym three days a week. Most of the time, he says, he can't believe what is happening to him. But then he visits the oncologist again -- once a week -- and the realization comes with a thud.

"I tell her how much I love her," he said, his eyes filled with tears, "and I feel like I'm leaving her in the lurch because she relies on me for things."

Maxine tries to smile, but it comes hard.

"In the winter," she said, "when it's cold outside, he goes out early to start the car for me so it will be warm when I get in."

"We probably have a lot more love between us," Arnie said, "than a lot of people we know."

A few weeks ago, the couple journeyed back to New York to tell their families and friends about Arnie's condition. They stayed with Arnie's cousins and they got out to see the neighborhoods where they grew up. They even saw a couple of Broadway shows.

"I think," said Arnie, "that what I was really doing was saying goodbye to New York. I want to be wrong about this. I feel good. I don't feel sick. I keep thinking that I should feel sick because they told me I'm dying. I still think maybe they were wrong. I keep imagining that I go back to the doctor, they take some more tests and they tell me that I'm OK.

"But I don't want to fool myself, either. I know the doctors are right."

And then Arnie pauses. He wipes an eye and straightens up in the kitchen chair.

"The thing is," he said, "is that I'm not afraid of dying. But I don't know how to talk to my wife and my kids about it."

Maxine sheds another tear.

"It's the little things," she said. "He goes out in the cold to start my car so I'll be warm. I'm not sure how I'll live when I don't have that anymore."

-- richt@csindy.com

  • Dignity in dying

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