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Sean Kirst: To the end, Michael Feldman sticks with the plan

I got into Syracuse late the other night, right around midnight. That timing left me sure I had missed my chance to see Michael Feldman, who had gone into hospice care a day or two earlier. His fiancée, Lindsay Feraco, told me earlier in the day that he was in almost unbearable pain, and that he was going to undergo "palliative sedation," the use of powerful sedatives to reduce his suffering.

Michael, she said, was up for a conversation. But in her typically gentle way, Lindsay was saying:

If you are going to come, now is the time.

Part of me was amazed at that resilience, but then again, this was Michael. Lindsay and their dog Duncan greeted me at their apartment door, the border collie clearly anxious, sensing something altered in their routine.

In his bedroom, Michael had a pillow pulled against his chest to break the pain while he half-watched "Rick and Morty" cartoons on television. We shook hands and he closed his eyes for an instant, willing himself to full awareness, before he asked if I was tired after the ride.

"Dude, that's a drive!" he said in the awestruck way that was so typical, worried more about a friend's everyday tedium at the wheel than about the threshold he had reached himself.

Michael Feldman, wearing pajamas for pajama day, reads "Dragons Love Tacos" to his sister Christina's classroom at the Hughes Latin School in Syracuse. His pet bearded dragon, Cleopatra, is on his lap. (Family image)

Michael, 25, was matter-of-fact about that situation. He hurt everywhere. His liver, he and Lindsay explained, had essentially stopped working. Then Michael asked about a mutual friend of ours, a young guy who had lost his own dad to cancer, a young guy whose girlfriend, Michael had learned, is going to have a baby.

"That's awesome," he said, smiling in full, which in the shadows of that room felt and looked like a sunrise.

I have followed the Feldman story, in all its grace and pain, for a few years. Michael's father, Bernie, is a retired zookeeper from Akron, a guy whose dad worked at the Westinghouse plant in Cheektowaga.

In the 1980s, the doctors told Bernie and his wife Nancy their oldest daughter, Laura, needed treatment for leukemia.

They lost her to the disease before Michael, their youngest, was even born. The couple found solace in each other and in their faith. A few years later, they learned another daughter, Christina, also had leukemia. By that time they had moved to Syracuse, where Christina - now a schoolteacher - spent much of her childhood in treatment, and eventually recovered.

That would seem to be more than enough grief for any family. Yet in 2011, another daughter, Sarah, was struggling with a seemingly routine bug and took cold medicine. The doctors believe it reacted catastrophically with some prescription drugs. Sarah, during an everyday nap, died in her sleep.

Four years later, Nancy Feldman – Michael's mother – learned she had fast-moving colon cancer. She died, at 57, in October 2015.

Bernie somehow continued to live out the lesson he had taught his children since they were small: Even amid suffering, choose to be happy. As for Michael, he had his mother's last words to him, "You'll be OK," tattooed onto his arm. That January, he was 22 and working at the zoo when he developed a nagging cough he thought must be bronchitis.

He went in for some tests, and he was surprised when the doctor called him at work, and asked to see him at the office.

Michael had a massive tumor wrapped around his heart, his breast bone and his spine, the result of a cancer known as Ewing's sarcoma. They told him he had maybe six months to live, and there was a chance – a significant chance – he could wake up some morning paralyzed if the cancer invaded his spine.

If his illness was heartbreaking, his response was the lasting story. Michael lived for another 29 months, about five times longer than his doctors expected. He celebrated two birthdays he was told he might never see, and he proposed to Lindsay on a boulder in the woods, high above a valley.

All told, he confronted his cancer with a kind of selfless, awestruck, look-out-for-everyone-else philosophy that quickly turned him into a quiet legend.

Unbearable loss, a painful trial, a decision for Thanksgiving

In the way these things sometimes go, our initial interview evolved into a friendship. Before long, with his skull-emblazoned ski mask, he routinely joined a bunch of us who often showed up at a nearby field, a group of folks who let our dogs run themselves into exhaustion, even on subzero mornings.

Michael and Lindsay were often there. He used to smoke legal medicinal marijuana, which helped him tolerate the pain, while discussing dog care with an off-duty police officer who was another regular. His sheer joy made it easy to forget that his life was at risk. Everything amazed him, a hawk in the sky or fresh snow on the grass, and his eyes often flashed wide-open as he told his stories, always with a touch of astonishment.

He summed up his world view in a tale he once shared about an incident in traffic, how another guy cursed at him at a red light, giving Michael what he saw as the great choice of our time: If he wanted, he could take in that rage and carry it toward the next person he saw.

Or he could raise his hand and smile, and let it go.

“If you put hate out there, or you put love out there, it’s just that much more hate or love to dip into,” Michael said.

In day-to-day life, his focus was spending time with Lindsay and his dad, with his sister Christina and her husband D.J., with his young nieces and nephew, Elizabeth, Danny and Chloe. He sometimes made a point of visiting Christina's classroom – on the school's "pajama day," he wore red "footie" pajamas – to read to the children before he made a stop at chemotherapy.

Michael took care of a few dreams. He went cross-country with a buddy, Kevin Metzger. He had the chance to marvel at a bison, one of his favorite animals, in Yellowstone Park, and he and Kevin wept when they first saw the Grand Canyon.

He and Lindsay, also a teacher, took a trip to Europe that Michael always spoke of with awe, and they sent out invitations for a wedding that would have happened about a month from now. He loved social media, often posting  Instagram photos built around the notion of the beauty in each day, often accompanied by one hashtagged profanity about cancer.

Michael was a "force of nature," as Paul Sexton, one of our dog park friends, explained it.

Michael Feldman's family: Christina Feldman Wiegand, who survived childhood leukemia; Bernie Feldman, Christina’s father, holding his granddaughter, Elizabeth Whewell, whose mother – Sarah Feldman – died in her sleep in 2011; and Nancy Feldman holding her grandson, Christina’s son, Danny Wiegand. Nancy died in 2015, about five months after learning she had colon cancer. (Photo courtesy of the Feldman family.)

Even in nature, great events begin and end.

A few days ago, Michael went into hospice care in his apartment, where he and Lindsay welcomed family and a quiet stream of friends. When I arrived, after midnight, I was the last visitor of the day. It was just Michael and Lindsay and Duncan, the dog Michael bought from an Amish farmer in the North Country, a dog who climbed on a couch to stay as close to Michael as he could.

We talked about a lot of everyday things, but there was that feeling of the sacred in the air, and I did not want to overstay the moment. Before I left, we shook hands and I kissed him on the head, and I told him he changed the way I see and approach the world, that I was a better person in every imaginable way for knowing him.

He smiled that crazy smile, even then filled with surprise and awe.

"Dude," Michael said. "It goes on."

A morning later, in keeping with that plan, he joined the sunrise.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Michael Feldman's funeral service will be at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Most Holy Rosary church in Syracuse. Email Kirst at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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