Heidi & Michael Fronheiser
(aka Fritzy & Misha)
August 28, 1999
Eight years ago tomorrow (August 28), I married my husband Mike Fronheiser. Not that I’m asking for any sympathy cards here. Part of dealing with uncomfortable situations in life is confronting them head-on. By acknowledging this day publicly, I know that I’m unfairly subjecting people to the unwanted reminder of mortality. A lot of people don’t like this. It’s too “in your face”; they’d prefer not to think about it; they’d prefer I didn’t bring it up. But not talking about it — not being socially allowed to talk about it — is what caused my prolonged period of grief. I was hurting, but polite company did not accept me discussing it openly. I shoved it beneath the surface, where it boiled and stirred within me, and occasionally surfaced to bark angrily at friends and family (the people who understood) or to send me into a crippling bout of depression.
I’m done hiding. This is who I am — a widow, a pained soul trying as best as she can to recover. Like me or don’t deal with me. I am not going to hide the details of my life to protect your hang-ups about life and death. The only good avoidance does is make you less capable of dealing with these events when they do occur. If you’re avoiding the facts now, then it’s going to hit you harder when Death gate-crashes your party. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
I reject society telling me how I should behave when it comes to death. I reject the notion of any subject being untouchable — sex, alcohol, drugs. Maybe if we talked about these things more, there wouldn’t be such a problem with obsessive or abusive behaviors. Keeping quiet about uncomfortable subjects is a sure path to irrational behavior. As my favorite Baz Luhrman song urges you, “Do one thing every day that scares you.”
Are you scared of death? Good. We all are. Embrace the fear for a moment, and then open your heart to someone who has had to deal with some hardships. I’m not saying me — I’m doing pretty good now (probably could have used some help about six years ago, but that’s long gone now). I urge you to reach out to a friend who has felt pain, is currently experiencing the rough ride of grief, or just call someone you have meant to talk to for awhile. Kiss your wife, hug your kids, call your estranged brother… Life is too short for regret. I’ve lived with regret and I never want to feel like that again. I know it’s hard to give people time when we’re so wrapped up in our own busy life, but there are some moments you can never take back once you’ve let them pass.
Not that I’m perfect. I’m human, I get wrapped up in myself all the time. I often go up to a month without calling my mom. I don’t pay attention to my cats every day, and often get annoyed at them for crowding around me in the evenings when I’m trying to do things in the little time I have left in the day. I forget to call my husband’s grandfather. I neglect to visit my beloved grandma Herrmann because her current state of dementia makes me uncomfortable. (Where is the grandma with whom I could talk about anything?)
But it’s these “anniversary dates” — our wedding, Mike’s birthday, the day Mike died — that remind me of all the things I neglect to do for the people I love. My love for Mike, in a lot of ways, taught me how to love myself and other people. When he was alive, he always stressed the importance of letting others know you care and he strove to bridge those gaps where he thought he failed. I learned from his example.
Every year, I try to forget about these dates in an effort to not get all worked up about them in my head. But I can’t help it. You simply cannot forget monumental dates, even when you’re trying your hardest. They are permanent reference points in your head, like your own birthday or a holiday.
In the spirit of not hiding my past, I’m going to try something a little different this year. Instead of trying to forget the events that took place eight years ago in my life, I’m going to remember them and the man I loved with a few short snippets from our life together:
The first thing I noticed about Michael Fronheiser was his legs. We were playing volleyball at a party called Woodchuck (the famous party hosted by Chuck Hess, G-Bash regular). I leaned down to pick up the volleyball to return it to the server, when in the background of my field of view, I caught a glimpse of a sexy, muscular pair of legs. As I rose, my eyes followed the legs to the waist, firm chest, and to the youthful face (he had a baseball hat on so I could not see that he was balding on top). His eyes, looking right back at me, held an air of mischief that matched his crooked half-smile. I was intrigued by the intensity of his gaze. I vowed at that moment that some how, some way, I’d try to get his attention.
We fell in love over foosball. Well, that’s the story we liked to tell. In reality, we verbally sparred each other over a heated game of foosball at Woodchuck. In attendance at the famed foosball match were myself, five eligible guys and my cousin, Gary. It was a night to remember as I viciously flirted with all of the guys (I wasn’t related to). But Mike was my target.
Mike told me the reason he took notice of me at the foosball match was that I was “the only girl he’d met who could keep up with [him].” Apparently, not a lot of girls got his sense of humor. He thought I was right on with the give and take of snide remarks.
On our third date, Mike asked me to go to the Virgin Islands with him. And, yes, I was reasonably freaked out. But I was also twenty-four and reckless. We had hit it off on our first two dates and there was something about him that I wanted to trust. Yeah, I could have been one step away from a Lifetime channel perfect-boyfriend-turned-evil-controlling-eventually-murderous movie. I was more afraid of telling my parents. So I had to make up a story about there being a group of people going, when in fact, it was just me and Mike and another couple. Oops! (Sorry, Mom!)
Mike asked me to marry him on December 24, 1998 in my grandma Herrmann’s driveway (this is where my whole extended family used to have our Christmas party). He paused before getting out of the car, reached into his pocket, and slurred, “Will you have me?” as he shoved the ring at me.
Shocked, but not miffed by this strange proposal, I replied, “Yes!” and hugged him.
Then, I proceeded to enter the party with him. I didn’t tell anyone about the engagement for about two hours. My first excuse was waiting for my mom to arrive. Once my mom did arrive, I was still afraid to say something. Annoyed, Mike left the room in a huff. I then held up my hand towards my mom. “Look what Mike gave me,” I said, lamely.
My mom squinted. “Is that an engagement ring?”
My relatives rightly reamed me for keeping this news under my hat for so long. I won’t even go into how tongue-tied I was about telling my dad the next day. Why was I such a coward? I still felt like my parents’ little girl. I was afraid they’d try to talk me out of it. I don’t know why.
Mike had a love of physics and law. He wanted to get a graduate degree in either physics or law. Both of them fascinated him. He didn’t want to be a lawyer — he just wanted to study law. As for physics, he tried to get me to read “Paradigms Lost,” but it bored me tears (and it was supposed to be a “physics for amateurs” thing). Physics and law were both passions which I did not share with Mike. But I loved watching Mike try to explain them to me, excitement in his eyes.
Mike was a pole vaulter. He was the star pole vaulter at Westlake High School. He claimed he was like Tigger the Tiger — “Tiggers always bounce,” he’d tell me sincerely. It was a metaphor for his life — bouncing back up when others might have fallen and stayed down. He was the strongest person I knew and, as I’m told from family and friends, it was his success at pole vaulting that taught him strength.
He had hoped to one day coach pole vaulting at a local high school.
I was enthralled by Mike’s confidence, sense of humor, and intense appreciation of every moment of life. By the time I met Mike, he was at a place of peace and balance in his life. He’d made a lot of the mistakes of youth — overworking, partying, depression, anger over his past. He used to tell me that if I’d met him only a few years earlier, I might not have liked him (which is hard to believe!). He knew who he was and what he wanted out of life. For a young twenty-four year old fresh out of college, this was a welcome relief because I was anything BUT peaceful and balanced. He helped me find direction in my life.
He had a great sense of humor. He used to play with my gullibility by trying to get me to believe his outlandish stories. I learned to tell he was lying when he made what I called his “duck lips” — he’d purse his lips out and scrunch his face slightly. It sounds weird, but I always thought it was cute.
He had a beautiful smile. The trace of it is etched into my brain.
We had nicknames for each other: Fritzy and Misha. I was Fritzy; he was Misha (pronounced: Mee-sha). For some reason, he liked that name — it’s Russian from some book he read. The origin of Fritzy? Don’t ask.
Wedding Day Jitters: A look from Mike washed them away. As I am sure is the case for everyone about to enter into the serious commitment of marriage, I had a moment of doubt while walking from my dressing room to the yard in which the ceremony was being held.
“Is this the right guy?” I asked myself over and over again. “Can I trust my judgment? Maybe I picked wrong!”
Then, as the music began, I caught Mike’s eyes gazing at me with a pure affection. Unconditional love. A confident calm fell over me. Yes, this was right. It was the most right thing I’ve ever done in my life. As I stepped forward with my mom and dad at each arm, I did not look back.
“To boldly go where no other couple has gone before,” I stated in my (obviously self-written) vows. I dreamed of a life filled with the sort of adventures we’d had in our short time together — skydiving, skiing, backpacking, cycling, the Virgin Island. We wanted children. We even named them — Sabine (pronounced: Sah-been-ah) Patrice and Korbin Michael. We had plans to move to Colorado, trips around the world.
As they say, “The best laid plans of mice and men are doomed to fail.” (Who said that?)
When Mike stumbled in his (self-written) vows and couldn’t remember how he’d worded the next sentence, he just ended them at that moment with “and… I love you.” He looked me right in my eyes when he said it. It was quieter than the rest of his vows. His voice was breathy, passionate. The moment was so unlike Mike, who usually did not stumble with his words in front of an audience. But I imagine that he was overcome with emotion at that moment. It warms my heart to remember it.
Our last trip together was Holiday Valley in February 2001 (the weekend after Valentine’s Day). We skied from open to close for two days. We stayed in a beautiful bed and breakfast outside of Ellicotville. I always remember that trip because we were at our most beautiful. After the craziness of the first year of marriage, we’d settled into a state of happy contentedness. We skied together all day (despite my urging that he could go do something more challenging). We’d wait for each other at the bottom of the slope, kiss each other on the lips in the lift line. Yeah, we were a pretty disgusting couple. But you would be too, if you met the “yin to your yang” as I always called him.
We formed a dream that weekend of moving to Colorado and buying a time share at a condo in the mountains so that we could ski like that all winter. We envisioned weekends of skiing and nights in front of a fireplace. We would teach our kids to ski. We would have lots of skiing friends.
Unfortunately, that beautiful four-day weekend was brought to a sad end when we returned home to find out that my grandma Emhoff had died AND we had missed the wake and funeral completely. Not wanting to be disturbed, we had turned off our cell phones for the weekend and we hadn’t left any emergency numbers with anyone. I was very upset and started blaming myself for not being there for my family.
Mike put his arm around my shoulder and said what has come to sound prophetic to me, “It’s not your fault, sweetie. Sometimes these things happen when you least expect it.”
To this day, in light of what happened to Mike, I think it was a mixed blessing that our weekend was not interrupted since it was the last vacation we would have together. I am sure my grandma Emhoff would understand. (I still feel guilty, though.)
Remembering Michael Russell Fronheiser (09/22/1968 – 04/14/2001)
In July 2001, I, members of Mike’s family, and my brother delivered the ash remains of Mike’s earthly body to the top of Mt. Elbert, the highest point in Colorado. It was his last highpoint to attain and I carried his ashes in my waist-pack the entire 5 miles up the mountain. They were heavy, but I refused to let anyone else carry them. I wanted to carry him as he’d carried me a few times during our short, but supportive relationship.
When I think of Mike anymore, I imagine him wandering those mountains through every season of the year. He no longer feels the cold of winter, the heat of summer, the lack of atmosphere; he doesn’t have to fear the thunderstorms that have twice chased me down that mountain in my own visits. He gets to eternally enjoy the indescribible beauty of this untouched, natural world. I want to think of him as the spirit of that mountain.
I’ve climbed the mountain myself three times. Each time, I have left him a card in the spot where I laid his ashes. In my next trip (probably next summer), I will bring the ashes of his beloved cat, Tanya, who died on his birthday last year. Our cats were precious to us, our adopted children we used to call them. I imagine them now, master and cat, walking together in the serenity of a setting sun as seen from the top of that mountain (which is a view I can recall vividly now). That cat always loved him best. She was never the same after he died. Now they are together again.
Call me a hopeless romantic, a nostalgic, a completely irrational flake. But this image gives me comfort. A part of showing appreciation for life is by paying homage to those you love who you have lost. Even if you don’t know for sure they can really hear you.
Happy Anniversary, my Misha.