Family's joy is bittersweet while steeling for more grief

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 4, 2012 - 10:55 PM
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The loss of Tom Plotkin is still being felt by his aunt and uncle, who celebrated Saturday while preparing for more grief.

Jim Mickman and Sarai Brenner renewed their wedding vows Saturday at First Universalist Church in Minneapolis, surrounded by 300 relatives and friends, and the still-raw memory of one who was not there.

Many were in this church last November for the memorial service of Tom Plotkin, a Hopkins High School graduate who died at age 20 while hiking in India.

Plotkin was Mickman and Brenner's nephew, but the young man with an easy smile and big dreams was especially close to Mickman, whom he considered a second father.

So it's especially cruel that Mickman's own days are numbered. A brain tumor treated in 2008 has returned. Brenner is candid that her husband of 25 years is not likely to survive the year.

Mickman, a physician with HealthPartners for 20 years and the father of two young adult daughters, got down on one knee on Valentine's Day and asked Brenner to marry him all over again.

Although they have renewed their vows quietly every year, Mickman proposed that they do it in a big and boisterous way this time. They did, with a polka band and Greek food and a recitation of their original vows. The Rev. Justin Schroeder told emotional guests that this gathering was "a tender and sweet time, but let us also acknowledge the grief and sorrow that is woven tightly." Included was a reading of E.E. Cummings' "I Carry Your Heart," which was recited at Plotkin's memorial service.

It begins: "I carry your heart with me/ I carry it in my heart/ I am never without it."

"I wanted to feel Tom's presence there," Brenner said. "He would have had such fun."

Amazingly, fun is a concept this brave family still embraces.

"I want this celebration to be truly a celebration," said Brenner, who married Mickman on Aug. 8, 1987. A former Peace Corps volunteer, she stepped out of a doctoral program in epidemiology when her husband first got sick.

"I fully acknowledge the bittersweet aspect. But I feel fortunate to have married this man who is just such a great person. And what an incredible kid Tom was. I feel incredible gratitude."

Elizabeth Brenner, Tom's mother and Sarai's sister, feels grateful, too. She and Tom moved to the Twin Cities in 2006 after her divorce, sharing driving and nervousness about the unknown life they were about to create for themselves.

Tom grew up in San Diego in a big house 10 minutes from the ocean with two older brothers. Daniel, 25, lives in St. Paul, and Joseph, 31, lives with his family in New York City.

Their comfortable life "was gone like that," Elizabeth said. But Tom quickly found a sense of place and true happiness in the Twin Cities, thanks to welcoming students at Hopkins High, where he played hockey and lacrosse, and to his grandmother, Ardell. Elizabeth is especially thankful to Jim, Sarai and their girls, who took them in for a year and showered them with love, songs and family dinners.

Tom was drawn to Jim, who was so different than he was, Sarai said. "Jim cries easily. He loves to tell stories. He's the most anti-sports person I know. But Tom was like the son he never had. They'd end up having water fights together in the kitchen. And Tom would always make sure, even at the age when teenagers go away, that he spent the first part of the evening with family."

When Tom said goodbye to his uncle in August 2011, Elizabeth worried that her son would return from India "and Jim would be gone. How could I know," she wondered aloud, "that it would be Tom who's gone?"

She remembers driving her son to the airport. She had no sense of impending danger as Tom, a junior majoring in international business at the University of Iowa, prepared for his three-month adventure with the National Outdoor Leadership School based in Wyoming.

"Thomas never worried me as a mother," she said. "He was always very sweet. He loved family." Still, before he exited the car, she reached over to touch him and said, "There is a place in my heart where no one else has been and no one will ever be."

"I know, Mama," he said.

"Come back with stories," she said. "Have fun."

Leading a group of hikers on a rain-slicked trail above the Ganges River on Sept. 22, he fell 100 yards. An intense search was called off after several weeks.

Elizabeth, a nurse midwife who is pursuing a master's degree in writing at Hamline University, learned later from other students on the trip that, the night before the tragedy, the group was asked to list the most significant events in their lives.

"Tom said No. 1 was moving to the Twin Cities and No. 2 was moving into this really loving and wonderful community," she said.

That loving community came together Saturday as it always has, and will, in times of joy and sorrow, offering tremendous solace to two sisters.

"She's always been the Phoenix who rises," Sarai said of Elizabeth. "Not without singed wings, but she rises."

"Sarai's very strong," Elizabeth said. "We will be there for each other."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350

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