August 11, 1986, was a busy day at the Wagner household in suburban Chicago. Brett, 25m was in the backyard cutting the grass. Five-year-old Brent was "helping" his father. Blair, Brett's three-year-old daughter, and Blaine, his two-year-old son, were splashing in a little plastic pool. Debbie Wagner was in the kitchen, cutting curtains for her daughter's room. Suddenly Brent burst in. "Mommy!" he screamed. "Daddy's shaking and turning blue!"
Debbie raced outside and found Brett thrashing in the ground. Running back into the house, she dialed 911 for an ambulance. Paramedics arrived moments later., and Brett was rushed to Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove VIllage, Illinois.
Over the next week, a number of tests were taken, including a CAT scan. The doctor who gave the results to Debbie was pale. "Mrs Wagner," he said, "I'm sorry." Brett had a tumor pressing on his brain and others in a lung. Her husband had only a few months to live.
Brett insisted on going home to be with his family. It would not be easy, but with the added help of the Alexian Brothers hospice team, and that of friends, it was possible.
Brett's tumors grew rapidly, affecting his balance, emotions and short-term memory. But he was determined to leave behind a testament of his love for his family, a little bit of himself for Debbie and the children to hold on to. Over the next several months, Brett marshaled the strength to record his thought on videotape. Speaking sometimes through tears, sometimes with laughter, he recorded glimpse of himself, myriad little details - shoe size, favorite cars, attitudes about work - "the kind of things," says Debbie. "that get lost with time."
Brett made four tapes in all, telling his children that "this will let you know a little about me, how I feel about things that are important." He sat at a table in front of the camera dressed in a sport shirt, sipping a soft drink. Sometimes he looked down at notes he had made. In the later tapes the pressure of the brain tumor, the strain and the medication had taken their toll. He tired quickly/ Still, he talked on.
Brent, Blair and Blaine, I want you to be able to understand what happened. I know
it will be hard. I'm 25, and I can't accept a lot of this myself.
Sometimes I feel as if we all got robbed, but certain things can't be changed, and
we have t accept that.
Just don't ever give up. Try to be concerned about other people's feelings. You
should always care, because there are people you can trust and believe in. Your
mother is one.
Brett and Debbie were only 15 years old when they met a Schaumburg High School. She was pretty, with wide green eyes. She first saw Brett walking another girl to class. He was muscular and broad-shouldered, with an infectious smile and curly hair. "Who is that?" she asked a friend. " I want to get to know him."
Debbie recall the exact moment of their first kiss, on April first, at ten to eleven morning in the downstairs hallway at Schaumburg. "I'm going to marry this guy" she said to herself afterward. Soon, they were inseparable.
Debbie and I have been together so much you can probably count on your two hands
the times that we were separated, But the first time, I realized I was in love was during
one of our fights We told each other, "Oh forget it. We're not going to stay together."
But when I left, I felt something in my chest, and I just knew I loved her.
Brett was the kind of kid who tinkered - lawn mowers, bicycles, anything he could get his hands on. He began working at age 12 and always had some kind of job. In high school, he worked afternoons and weekends for his father, Gil, and auto mechanic. After graduation, he worked with his father full time.
in 1978 Debbie graduated and became a cashier at a neghbourhood supermarket. She saved her money to but Brett his first tool kit. Just before Christmas, he proposed, on one knee, as she sat at his mother's kitchen table.
On November 30, 1979, in a candlelight service, Debbie and Brett were married. Each had just turned 19 years old, and they couldn't afford a honeymoon.
We did a fair amount of fighting on our early days. That's something everybody
does. But you have to work out the bugs. Marriage is almost like getting along with
your sisters or brothers. You've got to give a little, and they've got to give a little.I
always loved giving to your mother.
Brett and Debbie's social life consisted of television, pizza in the living room, an occasional movie. Brett was content. Then, two weeks before their anniversary, Debbie took a home-pregnancy test and, gleeful, left the results on a counter for Brett to find. "The nurturing instinct was born into that man," Debbie says. "Oh did he want that baby."
Brent, I was there to watch you being born. I was so nervous. That's part of being
human. You're going to get nervous about things, You're going to be scared. I want
you not to worry, because everything will work out.
Brent was born in August of 1981 - Blair cam along less than two years later. The family barely scraped by on Brett's commissions from repair work and Debbie's part-time income from the supermarket.
In October, a few months after their daughter was born, Brett had a vasectomy. The next week, Debbie learned that she was expecting again.
Blaine, you're special. You kind of snuck in there. And just like your brother and
sister, you were made with. That's what matters.
As far as taking care of you guys - changing diaper and fixing bottles - I did the night
shift a lot. You're half of my responsibility, because you're half of me. You're all so
much like me. Your Mom always said, "They all look like you. How come?" Well, she's
going to see me every morning when you wake up.
Then, in March 1985, Gil Wagner noticed that a facial mole Brett had had since childhood looked different. "You'd better have a doctor look at that." he told his son.
A week later Brett went into the hospital, where doctors removed some lymph nodes, small veins and an egg size piece of flesh around the mole. Test results, the doctor told Debbie and Brett on follow up visits, were negative.
When Brett recovered, he went back to work. Shortly thereafter, his dad decided to close the business and Brett decided to open his own.
I never really had much of a strategy after high school. Following in my dad's
footsteps, I ended up being a mechanic. I've been working on cars for seven-a-half
years. It's in my blood. Without those tools in my kit there would be no bread on our
table. I want my tools to go to Brent and Blaine. They will remind you of me.
Don't think your dad wants you to be a mechanic. The most important thing is to
work at something you enjoy, and to always do it right.
Brett rented an unheated garage behind a house. He worked hard ans was reliable, and several business started recommending him. Satisfied customers told others. Several months after Brett rented the garage, the house became available, and he decided to move his family in.
It was 11 days after they moved in that Brett had his seizure.
Your mother is going to need your hugs. Brent, you can help the most, because
you're the oldest. You're real smart. I want you to keep learning and growing and to
help your brother and sister. You're a big guy. You may not realize it, but you are.
Blair, I looked at some pictures of you this morning, and you're a cutie-pie, so free
and independent. You have always had a lot of joy in you. Keep that happiness.
Blaine, you're so small, everyone might try to push you around, but I know you're
going to be yourself. You're good little guy.
The longest tape and the most difficult was the one Debbie and Brett made together. Debbie, fighting tears, sat beside him and asked questions. What's your favorite magazine? What jobs do you like to do around the house? They faces the camera; under the table their feet were entwined. They talked for almost two hours. At the end, fatigue was evident on their faces.
I don't mind vacuuming or doing the dishes. I have to be kind of in the mood, though.
I'm really not a gung-ho cleaning person like your mother. She's always kept the
house real sharp.
Don't ever forget that your mother has always been a good partner and a good wife.
She's been right there with me. And I want you guys to help her our as much as you
can. Just remember that I love you.
On Halloween, he and Debbie took their children trick-or-treating. Four days later he was back to the hospital. H was deterioration was steady; but he still wanted to be with this family. "When am I going to go home?" he kept asking. "I want to go home."
Debbie fought aggressively, and after three weeks she convinced the staff that she could administer the necessary medication and care for him with Gil's help. So Brett went home.
My favorite time of year is probably autumn because everything is changing. My
favorite holiday? 'd say Thanksgiving because of the turkey and the family being
together. A big sit down dinner. That's what I like.
Debbie cooked for the entire family on Thanksgiving. November 30 was their seventh wedding anniversary. He pressed hard to rally, to talk with the kids, to keep connected but he was slipping away.
By the tenth of December, Brett was exhausted from the fight. Everyone, including Brett knew it was almost over. Gil was there, and Brent and Debbie and their friend Bill.
"We're here. Don't be afraid," Debbie said, laying her head on Brett's chest. "Goodbye my love," she whispered. "We love you."
I know you're fighters. I'm going to be watching over you, because I do believe there
is a God. I want you to know that I'll be somewhere, still thinking about you and loving
you and waiting for you.
Deb, the time has gone by so fast. I'm sorry it's got to be this way. I want you to be
I don't ever want to say good bye, ever. And I don't think I'm going to. Because I'm
going to see you again.
Brent, Blair and Blaine. When you feel like you should be holding me, hold your
mother. It will be like you're hugging me, because she's half of me. I just wish I could
hold you more.