For the past 3 1/2 years, Bill Morrisette's wife and five children lived with the knowledge that his brain tumor would probably someday kill him. But when he worsened dramatically, Aug. 29, his wife Geri talked to their children frankly.
"We realized there was nothing we could do and that the end was near," she said. "I told the children he's probably not going to get better — he's probably not going to come home."
Morrisette, 47, of Centreville's Virginia Run community, died Sept. 6 at Inova Fairfax Hospital. Besides his wife, he's survived by their children, twins Patrick and Stacy, 12; daughter Lisa, 11; and twins Kevin and Scott, 7.
The Morrisettes lived nearly 10 years in Virginia Run, and Bill was a contracts director with Northrop Grumman. After being diagnosed with a brain tumor in January 1999, he underwent operations, chemotherapy and radiation.
"He did great for 1 1/2 years, and then he started having seizures," said Geri. "About six months after they started, he had to quit work." The radiation had damaged his brain tissue, causing neurological problems. He had difficulty walking and cognitive-memory problems.
"The tumor was on the right side of his brain, so he had weakness on his left side," said Geri. "He'd have trouble holding things in his left hand, and his left leg would get tired. In the last two years, there was a slow deterioration."
In August, the Morrisettes attended a family wedding in Alabama, visiting old friends and neighbors. "Bill saw all his five siblings and his parents, so that was wonderful," said Geri. But when they returned, Thursday, Aug. 29, Bill's movements had slowed greatly.
"By Friday night, I realized I needed to get him to the hospital, and it was downhill from there," said his wife. "He wasn't in pain until the last afternoon, but [his death] was definitely a blessing because it wasn't long and drawn out."
He faced his illness bravely, although it saddened him when he no longer had the stamina to do the things he loved — play ball with his kids, go to their SYA games, garden or even drive. But the Morrisettes kept life as normal as possible for the children, and neighbors helped where needed. Geri's mother, Molly Collins, was also "an incredible source of help," said her daughter. "She shuttled the kids around, took Bill to appointments and did housework."
Although devastated, Geri said she and the children will get through it all somehow. "They're pretty strong," she said. "It's been a long, gradual loss of their father."
She and Bill met at Loyola Marymount college in California. "I wanted to take a ballroom dance class, and I asked if he'd take it with me," said Geri. "He said yes and by the end of class, we were dating."
She has many happy memories, especially of their vacations. "We enjoyed doing things together and experiencing new and different things," she said. "We'd go to new restaurants, new destinations, and we made the best of everything."
Besides his immediate family, Morrisette leaves his parents, Joseph and Lois Morrisette of West Covina, Calif., and five siblings, Jim Morrisette of Dothan, Ala.; and Mary Bolton, John Morrisette, Cathy Coe and Maggie Morrisette, all of California.
"We're a very close family," said Bolton. "When I was 10 and Bill was 2, every afternoon, I'd sit in a rocking swing outside, sing songs to him and rock him to sleep, under a big avocado tree. Then my mom would come and put him to bed." Years later, when she taught at his high school, he'd come by her class every morning to say hi and chat.
His death leaves a deep void, but Bolton accepts it. "He's been sick for so long, we all kind of knew he was on borrowed time," she said. "I'm glad he went peacefully and didn't suffer at the end. He was my hero because he handled his whole ordeal so well. He remained positive and never complained."
She said Bill always made the family laugh. "He was the life of the party," she said. "The other night at dinner, I told everyone, 'We need Bill here to tell a joke.'"
Virginia Run's Shelly O'Neill recalled impromptu dinners her family and the Morrisettes once enjoyed, and just hanging out together in the neighborhood. During Bill's hospital stays, she helped with childcare; now she organizes lists of neighbors to help the Morrisettes with yardwork, meals and babysitting.
"Losing a father, for any child, is bad," said O'Neill. "But they've been going through it for so many years that [actually] they've been mourning him for almost four years."
Another longtime friend, Kristin Chambers of Confederate Ridge, met Geri through the Fairfax County Mothers of Multiples. "We did things together with our twins and then as couples," she said. "My husband and I became good friends with them."
Despite his illness, she said Bill was always at his children's school and sports functions. "He was a great family man, always involved with his kids," said Chambers. "It's very sad — he'll be missed by many people."
Also feeling the loss is Virginia Run's Jeff Nolan, who's known Bill since 1990. He met him through work, and they became good friends. In Nolan's eulogy at the funeral, he said, "We lost Bill too early, but his legacy is enormous — in his faith alone, made larger by his conduct, his compassion, his concern and his living of his faith, every day."
On the job, said Nolan, Bill had "integrity beyond reproach," and was "a tremendous boss and a tremendous friend." His illness progressed, but their friendship remained strong. The men went to Orioles games, movies, dinner, plus nurseries because of Bill's love of flowers and plants. "He was a fun guy to be around," said Nolan. "We spent a lot of time laughing."
But what impressed Nolan most was his buddy's optimism. "Bill never doubted his faith and that there'd be a cure — and he'd be the one to beat it," he said. "He had a tremendous will to go on and to live life in a normal way. He felt lucky and blessed to have the family that he did. He was the best of the best — I'm going to miss him terribly."
A Morrisette Children's Fund has been established at First Virginia Bank. Contributions, payable to Geraldine Morrisette, may be mailed to: Kristin Chambers, 14708 Pickets Post Road, Centreville, VA 20121.