Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Knight in Tattered Armor

Mickey's Bagel Bistro, Juneau Alaska
Mickey took great ride in his bagel stand, and
always thought of it was one of his finest achievements.

My older brother Mickey Pico died Sunday May 12 around 5 am while in hospice care at the Sutter Medical Center in Santa Rosa, 15 years after he was diagnosed with hepatitis C, less than a year after the doctors discovered he had liver cancer. He was 65 years old. His funeral will be Thursday, May 16, at 10 am, in the Garden of Tranquility at Oakmont Memorial Cemetery, 2099 Reliez Valley Road in Lafayette.  He is survived by his 12 year-old daughter Sasha, and his estranged wife Joni.

Mickey was never a home owner.  He loved to take road trips, and his belongings are scattered at friends' houses up and down the Pacific coast, where he deposited them over the past year.

The way Mickey lived his life is actually part of a Pico family tradition, exemplified by our dad, Charlie Pico, whose grave is just a few feet from where Mickey will be buried.

Similar to his dad, Mickey was a street vendor, and ran a popular bagel stand in Juneau Alaska for many years.  His appearance was striking.  He often would shave his head to show empathy for friends and family members going through chemotherapy and favored Bermuda shorts.  A different look that gave a message that went something like "The most important thing is to tune-in to the pain of others. You can always find a way to survive, and do that while conceding very little to convention."

Survive he did.  Mickey always had a job, but sometimes his living arrangements were Spartan.  There were times in Alaska -- Alaska! -- when he actually slept in storage space he rented, using the YMCA for a bathroom and shower.  The family thought in some ways that he was trying saying he could be as resilient as dad, and we got the point: Mickey was tough.

They were also similar in their generous spirits. One thing that everyone noticed about Mickey was that he never ignored a pan-handler, and he always gave them paper, not coins.

Mickey and Joni's marriage floundered after he was diagnosed with hepatitis C.  They separated, and Mickey started to put energy into taking care of mom.  It turned out that he had many qualities of an excellent caregiver.  He was always patient and accepting. while encouraging mom to try to do as much as possible for herself.  Best of all, he really loved her, and always gave her the sense that caring for her was exactly what he wanted to do with his life.

This arrangement was hard to maintain after mom became too sick to stay in her home.  Mickey slept on the floor beside her bed in the hospital, so she wouldn't be scared and alone if she woke up in the middle of the night. The result was back pain so severe he needed to be hospitalized at John Muir.  While he was there, he told a social worker he had not been getting enough to eat.  That was not something he shared with anybody in the family; I just found out when Sutter asked John Muir for his medical records.

Esther died in February 2012.  Mickey and I were co-trustees of her trust, and Mickey had the task of preparing the family house for sale. He did a good job and we ended up getting a good price.  Afterwards, Mickey immediately set about spending his share of the proceeds according to his principles, without consulting anyone.  He bought a gravestone for mom, and memorial plaques for her and her sister Lillian at Temple Isaiah.  He made a contribution to the Bay Area Brain Tumor Walk in honor of my wife Jean.  He gave a few thousand each to two women who had provided care and companionship for Esther.  He made a 40K undocumented cash loan to a woman he used to work with at Costco whom he felt sorry for because she was a breast cancer survivor..  By January of this year he had spent his inheritance.  Joni and Sasha were not entirely pleased.

But they were still the two people closest to him, and this April he decided he would drive down from Juneau to spend Mothers Day with them in Champagne, Illinois. He came through the Bay Area on his way, to check-in with family here.  On Friday, April 19 we had lunch together in Concord.  We had a pleasant chat, and although his voice was a bit faint he did not seem noticeable worse than before.  He told me he would be staying a few days at the Motel 6 before heading east.

On Friday May 3 Joni called to say Mickey was in the Sutter Medical Center in Santa Rosa, after being found walking around dazed near his car following a minor accident.  She and Sasha flew out to California on Sunday, and the three of us drove up to visit Mickey.  He was in the ICU, mostly unresponsive, but occasionally becoming agitated, pulling on his restraints and yelling "Let me out of here."  However, he became aware of Sasha's presence after she was in the room with him for a few hours, looked at her with recognition, and told his daughter that he loved her.

The Sutter doctors found that Mickey's liver function was almost completely gone, and as a result his kidneys had collapsed.  They were never entirely sure why his mental state had deteriorated. One theory was that it could be related to a possible stomach infection, and he was given antibiotics until the bacterial cultures came back negative.  Another was that it was caused by a buildup of protein bodies, a long-standing problem for which he took lactulose. Those protein body levels were high when Mickey entered the hospital, but he was no more alert after they administered lactulose and brought them down within normal range.  With those theories shot down, they decided that his mental condition was part of the systemic failure caused by the progression of his cancer.

In January Mickey had signed advanced directives saying he did not want to be resuscitated, that he wanted "comfort care" if the doctors decided that he was approaching the end.  Once antibiotics and lactulose proved ineffective, Sutter switched to comfort care, and he was disconnected from all his IVs.  If you've never seen anyone terminally ill, this approach can seem anything but comfortable.  It meant that Mickey received no fluids and nutrition, which according to common sense seems cruel.  But he was not dehydrated, fluids were accumulating in his extremities, and they could not feed him for fear that he would aspirate.  The major medication he received in his last days was morphine, to make his breathing easier.

On Saturday May 11 I cleaned out the Dodge Caravan that Mickey had been driving when he had his accident.  He had been sleeping in his car, not just at the Motel 6.  But he had been too proud to tell me about it, just like he wouldn't say he needed more food when he was caring for Esther at the hospital.  His last living circumstances had been harsh.

That evening in Mickey hospital room, one of the nurses brought Sasha a flute.  She gave us all a long concert while Joni and I sat in a meditative silence, and Mickey lay unresponsive.  Then Joni and Sasha went back to their hotel, and I sat and held Mickey's hand for several hours, telling him family news and appreciations that I doubt he understood.  Around 5 am two of the staff came to turn him on his back, and when I saw him open his eyes I started in again with what seemed to need to be said.  "Your vexing kid brother is here with you," I told him, "your beloved daughter Sasha has come to visit, and we all love you for being a free wheelin' travelin' man, crazy generous, living for principles, very, very good to mom."  I thought his eyes brows twitched, maybe this time it got through. Then he passed.  He had made it to Mothers Day.


  1. Beautiful and moving. I wish there were more like Mickey!



    1. Please accept my sympathies. Mickey sure liked you a lot. Joni

  3. Matt, studies have shown - and I personally know people myself who have experienced it - that those who have been seemingly comatose and unresponsive and returned to consciousness (even if only temporarily), attest to the fact that they can definitely hear what goes on during the time they are unresponsive. So I for one am sure that Mickey heard all of you during that time (and, I believe, also after he "left the body"). His soul was sitting right there. I hope this is comforting! Peace be to Mickey. And you.

    1. Dear Amy, I respect your every word and take comfort from your message. Since Mickey's death, I have woken up in the middle of the night worried about what he may or may not have heard. You see, Mickey was hard of hearing and his hearing aids were lost. Do you think that would have made much of a difference? Crazy the things one can lose sleep over. Sincerely, Joni Pico

  4. With all due respect, this is Joni writing to share that last week I discovered hundreds of thank you notes addressed to Mickey for favors done and contributions made to charitable causes over the past 45 years. Additionally, there were innumerable letters written by cohorts to Mickey over the same span of years conveying deep feelings of appreciation for his friendship.

    Mickey's generosity is not what took my breath away. Rather, it was his tidy bundling of all these words. Thousands, perhaps millions of them. It was characteristic of him to save papers in what did not always appear to be an organized way.

    I wondered at it all. I packed some of Mickey's mail into a box for Sasha, for when she is prepared to read them.

    I also wondered at Mickey and felt desperately sad. You see, in my 25 year relationship with him it often seemed that he really needed those outside affirmations to get by. As if deep within he (periodically) questioned his right to his own existence. Perhaps I was a lousy wife? If only I had demanded that he write an occasional thank you note to himself for all of his efforts to be a good person and guy. If only we had made more time for self-affirmation. Wherever he is, Mickey knows what I mean. We had a lot of good talks.

    Regarding his expenditures, well, yes, Sasha and I were disappointed. You see, we were talking about the purchase of a new flute for Sasha. The one she's been playing on for three years came from a thrift shop and time has come for a new one. A concrete gift from her dad as she moves forward with the intangible gift of music seemed reasonable, to us and to Mickey. Something to carry with her far into the future. I can only conclude that he made a mistake because he really did love the fact that Sasha was sticking so beautifully with her instrument.

    I may sound like Mickey now, but a little something left over to contribute toward a peaceful time in Hawaii would have been nice. We all talked about going together. Sasha wanted to hang out with Mickey in the sand, with me doing "mom" things in the background such as reading a book. One of these days we will make that trip and it will be one of Sasha's memorials to her dad.

    Sasha said, "my dad left me with love and there is nothing more important than that." Mickey and I did so well bringing our dear girl into this world. We will remember him.

    Rest in peace, Mickey. Rest in peace.

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  6. Actually, Mickey was a homeowner. We purchased a house together in Golden Valley, MN and lived together there with Sasha for a while. Our three bedroom home was across the street from a beautiful park where Mickey and Sasha loved hanging out. We were on a small hill, which challenged us when it came to mowing the lawn. Sasha had her own little purple mower, which she used to help her dad with upkeep of the yard. Our life was somewhat conventional for a time. We joined a local JCC and made tons of friends who we spent the summers swimming with after Mickey got off work. It was a very happy time. Members of the Pico family who visited us there included Esther, Glenn and Alicia. To the great pleasure of Esther, Sasha and Alicia played dress up and included their bubbie in the shenanigans! It was a great deal of fun!

  7. Joni again this time to share that the timing of Mickey's death was as perfect for him as any. His favorite month was May because Juneau's best weather was then. He said so and he would know. He worked outside for years in our rainforest, thus kept track of weather in ways uncommon to all.

    Also, Mickey loved early mornings. He may have had an inner alarm that never needed setting during spring and summer. Nearly everyday he woke in those moments just before the crack of the dawn. He called it the "half light" and he loved it. Passing away at 5:00 AM around the time of half light would have meaningful to him.

    It has been of interest to others that Mickey lived until Mother's Day. Folks have noted the significance of his passing away and joining Esther on that special day. I see that, but something else resonates with me, too. Mickey was bound and determined to spend Mother's Day with Sasha and myself, and it surprises me not in the least that he made it to that day.

    Spiritually, there is a sense of him bringing us close and saying "bye for now" on that meaningful morning. Not a bon voyage, but a vote of confidence in Sasha and me to move forward with our lives knowing that he'd be watching and helping from beyond with Bubbie and other loved ones. Rather than us having to let go of him, he needed to let go of us at a perfect moment. Mother's Day was it.

  8. Joni here. Mickey was diagnosed with Hepatitis C in 1998 when we were in Boston. Living there for a couple of years while I was a graduate student at Brandeis. Health care in MA was over the top fantastic especially in comparison to Juneau.

    We took advantage of it all. Western medicine and otherwise. We joined a liver disease support group. We ate properly. We rested. We took vacations. The situation was looking good, so we talked with doctors and with a therapist in Boston about the wisdom of having a baby. We received THE green light. Sasha was born two years later. Our marriage did not flounder. Rather, it thrived.

    Another few years went by. Mickey began to experience some medical complications. We went to Mayo Clinic where he received excellent care. But, then, he started to experience some confusion, mental fog he called in. Encephalopathy is what it actually was.

    Mickey took tremendous pride in his work and in being a father. Sadly, the confusion interfered with his ability to give his all to all. He made mistakes. There were accidents at work. All frustrating for him and very, very sad. Can you not just hear him? "Hey, what's happening here?" Being the middle aged dad of a little girl and being a sick guy didn't add up.

    Eight years later. What got us was that damn encephalopathy. So difficult to treat. We had to take a break.

    Estranged? We were legally separated and had our reasons for preventing a divorce. Esther Pico was known to say that folks should resist the impulse to get between married people. Yes, there were some chilly years, but we learned from them and Mickey knew he wouldn't die alone. He didn't know that there would be a stuffed animal that looked just like his dog, Mia, on his chest, but he trusted that what he referred to as his "little family" would be there for him.

    As Mickey came to understand the impact of encephalopathy on his relationships, we talked more and more. We were both sorry. We both did our best. Out of us came Sasha Pico. Estranged? I don't know. It certainly wasn't Norman Rockwell, but it was real.

  9. The "Knight" has attracted much interest, and not all comments have been published. If your comment was rejected, but you would like a response, please send email to 1853woodst@gmail.com

  10. Just a Wednesday night. Remembering Mickey.