IT WAS SUCH A WEIRD DAY," SAYS Chris Landon, 16, remembering last April 5. "I was in such a good mood," he says, sitting in the cream-color sunken conversation pit of the vast four-bedroom Spanish-style house that his dad, television star-director-producer Michael Landon, and stepmom, Cindy, built on 10 rolling acres in Malibu in the late '80s. "It was the Friday before spring vacation. I'd gotten an A on my English exam."
Then his sisters told him the news: That same day, Michael had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer—the disease that was to kill him within three months, at age 54.
"I could feel every nerve in my body," says Chris, a junior at a Los Angeles high school, "like it was all lit up."
Landon's youngest daughter, Jennifer, 8, was in the living room when she was told. "Dad and Mom came downstairs with a nervous look on their faces," she says. "They told me." Crying, she covers her face with her hands. "It's OK, honey," whispers Cindy, 35, gently rocking her daughter.
Seven months after Michael's death, his widow and children are struggling to get on with their lives, and only now are they willing to publicly discuss their grief. To the world, of course, Michael Landon was Little Joe on Bonanza, Pa Ingalls on Little House, the angel Jonathan Smith of Highway to Heaven. To his family, he was also a fiercely devoted father who was fiercely loved in return.
Six of Michael's nine children are here this Sunday afternoon, seated on a long, semicircular sofa by a fireplace. (Absent are Michael's 32-year-old adopted son, Josh, from his first marriage, to Dodie Fraser; his son Michael Jr., 27, from his second marriage, to Lynn Noe; and Cheryl, 38, Lynn's daughter by a previous marriage.)
"We miss everything about Dad," says Leslie, 29, his daughter by Lynn, who is a family therapist. "There isn't a day goes by when I don't think of him."
In the first days after Michael's death, Cindy, nursing her grief while caring for Jennifer and 5-year-old Sean, was haunted by painful memories. "It was hard to get the images of when he was sick out of my mind," says the former makeup artist who wed Michael on Valentine's Day, 1983. "Then I had a dream not long ago that he was fine but had only two weeks, and he was leaving us again."
The course of Michael's illness had been as quick and heartbreaking as that dream. A battler by nature, he fought his cancer on as many fronts as he could. He underwent experimental chemotherapy and stuck to a "natural" regimen that included a mostly vegetarian diet and acupuncture. "Every time I would call him and say, 'Hi, Dad, how are you doing?' " Leslie recalls, "It was always, 'I'm great. Everything is fine.' " Then came the devastating news that the tumor in his pancreas had doubled in size in less than a month (the disease had already spread to his liver).
The signs of defeat became clear on Father's Day, June 16. "He had told me earlier that he knew he was dying," says Cindy. Then, that day, "he was in the family room, and he needed help just getting up the stairs with his portable oxygen tank," she says.
For the children too, Father's Day marked a turning point. "I'd usually go out and get him something for tennis or sports," says Leslie. But this year she bought him Gatorade and slippers with little basketballs on the toes. (At the time Michael had been watching the NBA play-offs.) Her sister Shawna, 20, a college sophomore gave him silk pajamas. Says Leslie: "It was like, 'What can I get him that he'll enjoy now?' "
For Chris the difference had the feel of a sea change. "I was the father and he was the son," he says. "I had to help him up the stairs. I am sad sometimes..." His voice breaks. "...sad sometimes when I think that I never said. 'Sorry.' "
Leslie clutches his hand. "It's OK," she says.
Crying, Chris continues, "I never looked at him and told him that I was sorry he was losing his life."
"In the last month and a half," says Leslie, "you started to take your time with him because you just knew. There was a longing in Dad's eyes when he was watching everyone." In a sense he even peered at the Landons yet to come. When daughter-in-law Sharee Landon, 27. Michael Jr.'s wife, was eight months into her pregnancy, "Dad used to put his hand on her tummy," says Leslie. "He would close his eyes and go, 'Aaaaaah,' as if he was loving the baby." Ashley Taylor Landon—Michael's fourth grandchild—was born Aug. 12, 42 days after Michael's death.
"I remember being with him at Jennifer and Sean's school." says Cindy. "It was PE time for Sean, and he came running over and said, 'Hey, Dad, watch me! I'm going to run my laps now.' And I remember Michael looking at him and shaking his head and starting to cry."
To prepare Jennifer and Sean for his death, Michael and Cindy would read them a children's book called Butterflies. "Dad would explain that when he died, his body would be like the cocoon," says Leslie, "and his spirit would be like the butterfly, looking down at his old existence."
"Dad always made us feel good about heaven," says Jennifer. "See, I like marshmallows, so he would say that I could eat as many as I want in heaven."
But Michael—who was, after all, a canny businessman who amassed a multimillion-dollar bonanza—had not neglected more worldly preparations either. After the illness was diagnosed, he called in his business staff and made a videotape explaining the main provisions of his will. And to forestall divisiveness over his fortune, any heir who contested the will would lose his or her share. "The kids respect his decision," says Cindy.
Apart from money, another potentially messy family matter surfaced soon after Landon became ill. Jason Smith, a 30-year-old grocery-store manager in Hattiesburg. Miss., came forward in press interviews to remind the world that he had once been a Landon too—an adopted son who was given to a Texas family just after Michael's marriage to Dodie Fraser broke up in 1962 [PEOPLE, Dec. 9, 1991]. Smith claimed he had sent Michael a letter but received no response. "The family thought he was trying to get money," says Cindy. She insists that no such letter ever reached them. And the family, she says, has never tried to get in touch with him. But even if Jason (who has stressed that he wasn't interested in money) had made contact, she says, Michael wouldn't have had the energy to speak with him. Michael was too burdened dealing with what was happening to him.
At the end of June, a visiting nurse warned that Landon—down 30 lbs. to a mere 135 and exhausted with pain—had at most a day to live. Cindy called the kids back to the ranch to make their goodbyes. They gathered in his bedroom and waited. "He was ready to go," says Leslie. "We told him, 'Let go, Dad.' "
"You could say a thousand goodbyes," says Chris, "and it would never be enough."
The older kids spent that night camping out on sofas. Sean came downstairs at 2 in the morning, remembers Leslie's husband, Brian Matthews, 31. "First he told me, 'My daddy isn't dead yet,' " Brian says. "Then, 'Daddy told me he could be anything he wants in heaven.' So I asked him what he wanted his daddy to be, and he said, 'I'd like him to be a crab, so he can cut through the clouds and drop back down and be with us.' "
Cindy was alone with Michael at the moment of death, in the early afternoon of Monday, July 1. His last words: "I love you." Cindy left remarkably calm. "I think it was watching him go through the whole process" that prepared her, she says.
"He really showed us how to handle death," says adopted son Mark, 43, a grocery clerk and aspiring actor. "I'd want to go with dignity, like he did."
That night. Cindy and Jennifer both slept with an article of Michael's clothing.
But, the Landons have learned, there's no real way to swaddle grief. "It comes in waves, and it will hit you when you don't expect it," says Leslie. "A picture, a song, a movie." Shawna will be driving her car and just start crying. Chris had to walk out of physiology class during a discussion on euthanasia.
As the youngest, Sean was slower than the others to understand the loss of his father, but now, says Cindy, "every night he comes and cries to me. He latches onto me because I'm everything to him now. He saw me put a Band-Aid on my toe this morning, and he started crying. He asks, 'Why can't Daddy come back?' "
To Cindy, there are moments when it seems he never left. She says, "I've been coming home for months now and seeing his car in the garage, and I want to say, 'Oh, Mike's home." He died? Not Michael."
Cindy has settled back into a daily routine. "I get up in the morning, and I take my kids to school. Sometime I go to the gym." To cope with the death. "I go to therapy once a week. My kids go to therapy.
Michael encouraged her to date and remarry, she says, "but I haven't dated. I've gone out with a friend, and he's only a friend. I'm not open to romance yet." (On her anniversary this Valentine's Day, she and another friend are going to a John Mellencamp concert.)
It helps, she says, that Landon left her "some beautiful letters in a little book. I read those quite often. They're about how to remain strong and solid." At least, she says. "I can sleep now without waking up staring at the ceiling, feeling alone."
She's not alone this afternoon. Whichever way Cindy looks, she can see Michael in his family. "There is so much of him in all of us," says Chris, turning to Leslie and suddenly grinning. "You can be raunchy, and so was he," he teases.
"Dad loved to bring in fantasy play and pretending, which is a lot of what we do with the little ones still," says Leslie. "There are games that I play with them that Dad taught Mike Jr. and me when we were little—like African safari in the pool."
But, ultimately, what Michael taught his family wasn't just about playtime but about a whole lifetime. "When Brian and I have kids," says Leslie, "there'll be so much that we'll teach them because of the love of my dad and our family. We're going to live life to the fullest, like Dad did."
After three hours of sharing stories about Michael, the family almost seems to have conjured him into their presence.
"I think he protects this house," says Cindy.
"Sometimes," says Leslie, "I will go up and sit in his closet among his clothes to feel closer to him."
"When I walk into the TV room." says Shawna, "that one chair that he always sat in reminds me of him. You can see that tuft of brown hair."
"And he'd always roll his toes," says Chris. "You can almost hear his toes cracking when you go in there."
He pauses. "When I used to think about death, I'd say, 'I don't want to die at all!' But now," he says, "I say the worst that's going to happen is that I'll see Dad again."
Leslie holds Chris's hand. "I know," she tells him, "we are all going to be together again."
KRISTINA JOHNSON and VICKI SHEFF in Los Angeles
- Kristina Johnson,
- Vicki Sheff.