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In Life . . . and in Death

October 29, 2000|BONNIE HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He was ready to take his son to school, but on that spring morning, Gene Mansfield couldn't remember what time first grade started.

Puzzled, he looked around for a clue. The kitchen counter was covered with doctors' notes, cancer literature and a container to dispose of used needles. The refrigerator was decorated with prescription slips and treatment reminders, special menus and chemotherapy checklists--the clutter of a man whose wife was dying upstairs.

"What time does Cody's school start?" he asked his sister-in-law, who had been watching him all morning. He had spilled coffee on himself but didn't seem to notice--even as it dripped down his arm. He searched for his keys, found them, lost them again. He'd gone upstairs to kiss his wife goodbye three times already.

And now, he was asking Karen Dugan for the sixth--maybe seventh time in 30 minutes--when school started. When he finally left the house, Dugan sat with her dying sister. The cancer, which had made a brief retreat, was back now, rooting itself in Kathy Mansfield's kidneys, liver, lungs and brain. The 41-year-old patient sat in bed with a flowered scarf tied around her scalp, watching as her younger sister fluffed her pillows.

"I don't know what's wrong with Gene," Dugan said. "He just asked me six times what time Cody's school started."

Kathy froze. He'd asked her the same thing all morning. It was odd behavior for a conscientious dad who kept track of his son's sports schedules and never forgot a birthday. He ate right and ran marathons at age 42, took 100-mile-long bike rides just for fun. He didn't drink, never smoked. People called him "Clean Gene."

To this family--which had for years been watching a relative try bravely to beat the cancer--a little absent-mindedness hadn't alarmed anyone. But he kept acting strangely all night, banging into walls when he walked and dragging his foot.

When Kathy's dad took him to the emergency room the next day, no one--least of all Gene--was prepared for what the doctors would say: There was a "giant aneurysm," a blood-filled vessel expanding like a sac on his brain stem. He'd been living with the warning signs for weeks, popping up to 14 aspirins a day to mask the pain so he could take care of his wife and their two boys.

He was the family's crutch--and now medical experts were saying he might not make it through the night. Suddenly, a family that had so tightly wrapped itself around one dying relative was having to make room for another.

"It was Kathy who was supposed to be sick, not Gene," recalled her father, Win Fingerson. "I mean, how cruel would that be?"

Yet, there it was: The caregiver himself was facing death, and the future of their two young sons hung in the balance. The decisions he would make from that day--about how to live, even with loss, how to help the dying and care for those who survived--would become the outline of a new family portrait, colored with vivid memories and tinged with the blessing of a second chance.

"You always hear how it takes a tragedy to make people realize the importance of life and love and how it changes them forever," Gene would say later. "I already knew the importance of life and love with Kathy. We didn't need this tragedy, this lesson. But there it was, and it was up to me what to do with it."

*

Gene Mansfield and Kathy Fingerson were married in the backyard of his childhood home in Utah four months after they met. It was 1973. They went to the movies the night he proposed, and she held her hand in the air for most of the show, admiring how the small diamond ring sparkled in the light.

He was 20, playing drums in a band and stocking grocery store shelves. She was also 20, studying business administration at Brigham Young University. He adored her so unabashedly that his affection became a running joke, with her mom and sisters teasing him for kissing her so much. He was the sort of guy who said "thank you" when it wasn't necessary, apologized when he didn't have to, and meant it when he said either one. "Gene has always put everyone else first," said Kathy's youngest sister, Hope Alcone.

Her family was thrilled when Kathy wanted to move back to Huntington Beach. Gene and Kathy later bought a new house, one of the first built in Irvine's Northwood neighborhood.

A bright student with her father's knack for numbers, Kathy found a job at Hughes Aircraft and soon became a finance and accounting manager. Gene earned his cosmetology license at Golden West College and started cutting hair at an upscale salon in Hollywood. A few years later, he started cutting lawns too.

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