Old Wounds and Family Scars
Five years ago, Arron Apperson didn't talk to his father much.
The two argued more than they ever agreed. Whenever Arron's dad, Curt, would tell him something, he'd shut himself off or pick a fight with the old man. It never seemed to matter what it was -- hanging a screen door, cutting the lawn, fixing the car or discussing politics -- they always ended up on opposite sides.
Arron's stepmom, Diane, laughs a little when the subject comes up. "Those two are so alike, but for the longest time, Arron didn't want to admit that he's just like his father," she says. "Both are so interested in the sciences that once they apply themselves to learning about something, they develop an encyclopedic knowledge about it. They love to debate and are both athletic and very competitive."
Arron played soccer while he was growing up, and his father coached his team. Diane says Arron "would demand that Curt treat him no differently than any other kid. He called him 'Curt' whenever they were on the field."
At home, Curt would ride his son about improving his grades and not wasting his intelligence and time. Arron would tell his old man to blow it out his ass, then go off to smoke a joint, hang out with friends, read a book, or do anything else to prove his independence. "I'm like my dad in one respect," Arron says. "We both have to be right."
When Arron was in second grade, he rode the bus from a stop at East Colfax Avenue and Monaco Street to his parents' framing shop on Colfax and Peoria in Aurora every day after school. One time he forgot his two quarters, and the bus driver wouldn't let him on. So Arron walked the three miles to the shop by himself, making his way through the area's pimps and prostitutes without any sense of urgency.
"It felt kind of good," he recalls. "It was something different. I was alone, and I saw everything from a different perspective. Things were slowed down because I was walking instead of passing in a car."
This sense of independence led Arron down a path much different from that of his father. By the time Curt was 49, he had owned two businesses, one in Aurora the other in Chicago; he had worked as an engineer for Hughes Aircraft in Los Angeles and Denver; and he had designed security systems for nuclear-power plants in Florida. He was a workaholic and an athlete.
As for Arron, after graduating from high school, he bounced around the country working various jobs and trying to escape reality and his family. "There were times that I just didn't want to deal with my dad," he says. He spent his time skiing, avoiding college and learning about communism. All he really needed was a decent set of skis and some good green bud.
So when Arron picked up his phone one afternoon around Christmastime in 1995 -- he was 24 and living in San Francisco at the time -- he wasn't expecting to hear his father's voice. Social calls, holiday wishes and even birthday greetings weren't standard at that time, nor were they expected. When one of them did call the other, the conversation usually ended up in an argument. But Arron's father wasn't calling to pester him, tell him to quit his cab-driving job and go back to school or ask him what he wanted to do with his life.
This time Curt was calling to ask for one of his son's kidneys.
A lifelong diabetic, Curt had already had one kidney transplant, but it had failed miserably and almost killed him. Now he made it clear that he needed help from someone in his family, someone whose organs would match his own. If this operation wasn't successful, Curt would have to rely on a kidney dialysis machine to keep him alive.
"When he called, there was no hesitation on my part," Arron says. "I found myself saying yes without a question in my mind. I felt that if giving my dad a kidney was going to help him, then that's what I was going to do, and I threw all of my life force into preparing my kidney to be given to my father," Arron says.
"Now I feel that I don't owe him anything and he doesn't owe me anything. We're even."
Curt Apperson has a smile like an upturned crescent moon. He's only 54, but he carries himself with a cautious gait, and his shoulders look as though they have been bowed by a thousand pounds of weight. Although he walks slowly, he looks like he could take off at a moment's notice. He has a scar that stretches from the center of his chest to his pubic hair, and his arms are ready to reach out and balance himself or protect his tender body, as if he expects someone to bump or push him.
He likes to talk at length about problem-solving and science. His wife, Diane, says, "he's always been into science. I swear, he's so good at research."
That thirst for knowledge served him well when he had to make decisions about his health. After he found out that his kidneys were functioning at 50 percent in 1987, he dove into medical journals, textbooks and anything else he could get his hands on. It was then that he realized he'd been receiving substandard treatment for the better part of his life. "The fact is that no one really knew all that much about diabetes when I was growing up," he says.
In 1955, when Curt was first diagnosed with the disease, current procedures for diabetics -- a carefully controlled diet, scheduled administration of insulin and accurate testing of blood-sugar levels -- weren't necessarily standard. At the time, his doctor recommended that his parents just change his diet a bit. Within two years, Curt was a scrawny boy in poor health.
Although another doctor later put him on insulin, over time the diabetes caused high blood pressure and vision problems and led to the eventual deterioration of his kidneys. But for many years, these things were the furthest thing from his mind. He was a young man with girls, cars, sports, education and employment on the brain.
Curt was born on April 4, 1946, in Omaha, Nebraska. His father, Willy, and mother, Delilah, eventually moved the family to Lawndale, California, a small suburb west of Los Angeles, where Curt took a job at Pittsburgh Glass and Steel. In December 1948, Curt's sister Sabra was born.
Curt was an active kid who didn't let his diabetes slow him down. He was a natural athlete who played baseball, football, basketball -- you name it. By the time he was in high school, he was a popular kid and had a couple of girlfriends, one of whom became his sweetheart. He was also a starting halfback and defensive back on the football team, an avid grease monkey with a hot rod, and a hell of a math student.
But during his senior year, he began to have vision problems. He went to the Jewel-Stein Center at UCLA for evaluation and treatment; doctors there discovered he had diabetic retinopathy, a condition found in diabetics and the elderly in which blood vessels behind the eye grow in uncontrolled patterns. Eventually the vessels can thicken, become brittle, grow through the retina and cause blindness.
In 1964, the only treatment for diabetic retinopathy was an experimental laser procedure called photocoagulation, which was used to cauterize blood vessels in the eyes. Although the process is no longer used on eyes, doctors still use it to destroy blood vessels entering a cancerous tumor to deprive it of nourishment. Curt underwent the procedure, which saved his vision, but he was left with tiny blind spots that Diane jokingly says cause him to be a crappy driver.
Curt attended El Camino Junior College for two years and finished a math degree at Humboldt State College, a small school about a hundred miles south of the Oregon border. In 1968 he was accepted for graduate studies at Syracuse University on a full-ride academic scholarship.
Within six months, however, he had broken up with his girlfriend of five years, left school and moved back to Humboldt to regroup and find a sense of direction. But he had student loans to pay, so he took a job as an aerospace engineer with Hughes Aircraft in late 1969 and moved back to Los Angeles.
For the next eighteen years, Curt did not experience any more major diabetes-related problems, but a long and difficult road still lay ahead.
Autumn Apperson has a picture of her biological mother that she reveals only to people very close to her. It shows her mother in a field in a sundress. With her face tilted downward, her hands holding her tummy, and her hair blown by the breeze, she's very beautiful. She has the very facial features that she would pass on to the daughter in her belly. "I don't remember my mother, except for feelings," says Autumn, who is Arron's younger sister.
Their father remembers much more. The first time he saw her, Curt says, "she was sitting by the pool in an orange bikini." He was smitten.
Her name was Kathie Houseman, and she was an eighteen-year-old Continental Airlines stewardess from Dallas, Texas, who had graduated from high school at sixteen. They met by the pool of the apartment building where she lived -- Curt was looking to rent a room there -- and began dating six months later. Their relationship was rocky at first, and at one point, Curt was transferred by Hughes to Denver and Kathie moved back to Texas. "We were talking on the phone a lot," Curt says. "We then decided we should have gotten married." They eloped in Colorado in the winter of 1970.
They found a small house on 13th Avenue and Magnolia Street, and on October 4, 1971, Kathie gave birth to their first child, Arron. They moved to a second house, on Parker Road near the High Line Canal, and on March 4, 1974, Autumn, was born.
July 11 of that same year was an especially rainy day. Curt was at work, and Kathie decided to visit some friends. The rain turned into a thunderstorm while she was driving home on a four-lane section of Parker Road near I-225. She had both kids with her, Arron in the backseat and Autumn in her car seat.
Ahead of her in the oncoming lane, a flatbed semi began to jackknife across the highway.
She never knew what hit her.
The truck went into the driver's compartment and sent Kathie's Subaru into a utility pole, sandwiching the little car. Kathie died later of massive internal injuries at Fitzsimons Hospital.
Curt's landlord was the cop on the scene and had driven in from out of his area when he heard the report over the radio. He identified Kathie's body and recommended that Curt not go to the morgue to see his wife. Curt took his advice. Ever since, he has had an uneasy feeling that maybe it was not really his wife in that room. "Your mind does weird things to you sometimes," he says. "I never got the closure I needed."
Arron was only two at the time of the accident, but "he remembered things from the accident that only someone who had been there could remember," Curt says. He received only a couple of bruises, but he had to endure numerous X-rays following the accident. "If you saw him, you would never have known he had just been in an accident," Curt recalls. "But all those X-ray machines and the poking and prodding afterward -- that wasn't good for a two-year-old."
After the accident, Autumn, who was cut across the face and still bears scars, went to stay with her Grandma Delilah and her Aunt Sabra in California while Curt took Arron camping at Bass Lake in Southern California for a couple of weeks. Curt finally returned to work, but now he had a three-year-old son and a six-month-old breast-feeding daughter to take care of by himself.
Arron would talk about the accident whenever he and Curt parked near a telephone pole or passed by places that reminded him of Kathie. "We would sit and talk about whatever was on his mind," Curt says. "I didn't know what happened during the accident, so mostly I would just listen to him. I was living in Denver by myself. My job was to raise the kids and get them back in the flow of living. I tried to get them to not forget what happened, but push it back. I felt what was required was a sense of normalcy for the kids."
Despite the trauma, Curt's health remained strong. He was taking insulin on a daily basis and, according to his doctor, was doing fine. But since the practice in the 1970s was to have diabetics fast for a day before their blood-sugar levels were tested, his doctor wasn't getting accurate readings, Curt says.
In addition, Curt was fudging the readings himself by eating well only for the days leading up to the tests. "It was a test, and I wanted to pass it," he says. After the test, Curt would go back to his regular eating habits.
Neither Curt nor his doctor had any idea how serious his diabetes was.
In 1976, while Curt was in Los Angeles on a business trip, he ran into a striking blonde on the beach with her six-year-old nephew. Diane Bower was a 33-year-old divorcée who was getting ready to become the assistant superintendent of education at Federal Prison Butner in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.
"[Curt] looked like he was nineteen," Diane remembers. "But he was thirty."
At the end of that summer, Diane quit her job and moved to Colorado to be with Curt. They were married in Fairplay on February 5, 1977, in a church smaller than the living room of their current home. In their wedding picture, Arron looks sad. Curt says it's because Arron had accidentally dropped Diane's wedding ring into the snow. But on further examination, the kid simply looks disoriented and confused by what's going on around him.
Curt and Diane bought a store in Aurora called the Art Clinic in an effort to be their own bosses, and for the next four years, it would be their second home. Money was tight, and nights would find them catching up on orders while the kids slept under workbenches or played in a back room of the shop.
Diane, who was 34, got pregnant with the only child they would have together, but when Travis was born, he had horrible digestive problems and severe Down's syndrome. The doctor said that a major operation could possibly save Travis's life, but there were no guarantees; the baby might still die or live a miserable life. "It was an emotional time," Curt explains. "I met with the doctors and my personal physician, and [Diane] and I made the decision when we weighed the effects of a child with those complications, the business and the high risk of the child even living."
They met with a judge, their lawyer, the hospitals lawyers and hospital representatives in the halls of Children's Hospital and made a decision right then and there not to go ahead with the operation. Two days later, Travis died. "We argued about whether to have more kids," Diane remembers. "In the end, my age was a concern, we already had kids at home, we were in business together and the timing was bad. I had also had miscarriages before Travis was conceived."
Curt went back to work for Hughes for a time after the couple's savings were depleted, and the weight of the business fell on Diane. Eventually they became disillusioned with the shop and wanted out. In 1981 they sold off all their stock in the business to pay off investors instead of filing for bankruptcy.
Arron was coming of age during this time, and he wasn't happy with what he saw. Although his father had taken coaching clinics so he could be involved with Arron's soccer teams, he was also working nonstop. "The only time I saw my dad was when he coached my soccer teams," Arron remembers. "[Curt] was always working, and I felt like I was left alone a lot of the time. I felt like from the age of two that I was responsible for taking care of my sister."
Diane legally adopted the kids in 1981, but Arron and Autumn had trouble accepting her as their mom. "She's always liked me a lot, loved me, but I don't know why," Arron says. "She really cares about me, so that means something, but for years, she was not 'Mom.'"
"There was a long time where my attitude was 'You're not my mom,'" Autumn adds. "It was not until my dad got sick that I finally accepted that she really did love us."
As result of this friction, the kids fell back on one another. "Arron was always protective of me," Autumn remembers. "My brother had taken on a father role with me. He always took care of me, especially in high school."
Other times, Arron would simply cover for his sister if she was in trouble. "I kept my eyes open and stood up for her when our folks would get on her. You know, if she 'lost' her report card, I would cover for her. It was so natural to stick up for her."
But Arron was vulnerable, too. When he was in fifth grade, one of his former teachers was murdered, and later his babysitter was killed in a skydiving accident. Three people in his life who had been close to him were dead before he even turned twelve. It was around then that Curt and Diane put him into therapy. "Arron was avoiding personal relationships with people," Diane says. "He was always very sweet with people, but he was afraid that people would leave him."
By the mid-'80s, Curt had moved the family around a lot -- to Florida, Japan and then to Libertyville, Illinois, an affluent semi-rural suburb north of Chicago, where he started up an engineering consulting business. The kids, feeling displaced, began fighting constantly with Curt, who was working twelve-hour days, and Diane.
But more than anything, they were still carrying feelings of abandonment and loss left over from their mother's death. "I resent him for not being there for us when we were kids," Arron explains. "I understand that that was what he had to do to deal with things, but what about us? I know he had to work and make a living, but we needed him, too."
The consulting firm was doing very well. In the late '80s, Curt's staff peaked at around 35 employees, and his client list included Abbott Labs, Motorola and Kraft Foods. But with the economic downturn during the Bush administration and the subsequent consolidation of major corporations, Curt soon found himself in a precarious position. Within a few years, his assets went from some three-quarters of a million dollars to nothing.
Curt and Arron's relationship was falling apart as well.
One incident revolved around a truck that Curt bought for his son. "Arron was not a real fastidious kid," Curt says, and he didn't take very good care of the truck. He spun a bearing in the engine while racing it, necessitating a complete rebuild job. Curt was willing to work on it, but he wanted Arron to help. "It was a job that should have taken a couple of weekends," Curt says. "But it took us months because Arron would not focus on the job at hand."
What bothered Curt the most was that Arron didn't take his studies seriously. "He was intelligent enough to be in the top-notch classes, but he had a for-shit work ethic," he says.
"My dad was always a pain in the ass," Arron says. "He means well, but we always argued over how we were going to do something. He has his way of doing things, and I have mine. He always wanted certain things from me, but I just didn't know what I wanted, and the pushing didn't help."
In 1987, Curt found out that he had a more serious problem, however -- his kidneys were functioning at 50 percent of their normal capacity, and it was likely he would eventually need a transplant. Always a fitness freak, he began to exercise even more and to rigorously watch his diet and cut out red meat. The idea was to lower his protein levels and take some strain off of his kidneys.
The doctors failed to control his high blood pressure, though, which helped speed the deterioration of his kidneys, as did the stress from his health, business and family troubles.
Arron bailed out in 1990, made a brief stop in Iowa and settled in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to ski and camp. "I was an eighteen- or nineteen-year old boy, and right before I left, Mom had lied about something that I had supposedly done," Arron recalls. "Well, [Curt] took her side, and I was like, 'Fuck you.'" In Arron's eyes, to see his father take the side of someone who was not even related to his kids was galling.
The consulting business finally failed in 1991. Curt and Diane waited until Autumn took off for Greeley to attend the University of Northern Colorado and then sold their home in Libertyville to pay off their business debts and moved into a small duplex in Waukegan, some 45 miles from downtown Chicago.
Curt was physically down and mentally depressed. He and Diane were being supported by her accounting job at a machine shop.
In 1992 they decided to move back to Colorado, where they could live more affordably and where Curt could get the medical help he needed. A friend of the family had a duplex open, so the couple moved in, and Curt made an appointment at the University of Colorado Medical Center to have his kidneys looked at.
"[The doctors] looked at me and said, 'Jesus Christ, your kidneys are not in good shape, but we need to take care of the blood pressure and your diet first,'" Curt remembers.
They also told him he would need a transplant in the next few years or face kidney dialysis treatment -- a procedure that filters the blood, a job that the kidneys are supposed to do -- and an early death.
The doctors were concerned about the amount of creatine Curt's body was producing. In diabetics, creatine signals how the kidneys are functioning: A creatine count of one is considered normal, two means that the kidneys are functioning at 50 percent, and ten means that the kidneys have completely failed. Diabetics usually begin dialysis treatment when the count reaches eight. Curt's creatine count was 6.5.
Curt had to drastically change his diet, and for the first time in his life, his doctors began to tell him exactly what was happening to his body. Now, after following medical journals and studying textbooks, Curt seems to know as much about diabetes and kidney failure as some medical students. "For me, it was a way to cope with what was happening; to be able to look at this from a scientific standpoint allowed me to separate from it somewhat."
A life-threatening condition became a calculus problem. Curt felt that if he was going to have to make a decision, it had better be an informed one.
Curt couldn't escape from the situation, in spite of his mathematical approach, but Arron, who had already lost one parent, backed away as far as possible.
"We would not hear from Arron for months," Diane remembers.
Autumn says, "[Arron] told me that he just could not handle what was happening."
Both kids were afraid that they would lose their father within the next two years.
In September 1994, a possible donor came up -- a young man who had been killed in a motorcycle accident -- but his kidneys were not a very good match. For an organ match to work, there are six basic proteins in the DNA strand that are compared. A match of four is considered good; Curt and his donor had a match of two.
Curt met with his doctor, Mark Stegal -- now practicing at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota -- and decided to give it a try anyway. When a transplant is performed, the recipient is given immunosuppressive drugs and steroids for the rest of his life to prevent the body from rejecting the organ and to speed the healing process. Curt and his doctors felt those drugs had advanced to a point where they could overcome rejection and that aggressive aftercare treatment would do the trick.
Curt would also be able to get a new pancreas from the donor; if his body accepted it, he would no longer be a diabetic. It was a big gamble, but he felt the risk was worth it.
On September 9, Stegal performed a pancreatic and double kidney transplant.
At first Curt felt fine, and he was discharged from the hospital after two weeks in satisfactory condition. But soon after, his body began to reject the organs in spite of the immunosuppressive drugs. He then contracted a bacterial and fungal infection in his body cavity and suffered a heart attack. For the next two months, Curt was in the hospital more than he was out of it. If it wasn't complications from the infection, it was more heart problems.
Since both kids were living out of state, it was easy for Diane to keep the specifics from them. "Sometimes you don't want [the kids] to know everything," she says. "Autumn was a bundle of nerves, and I didn't know how much to tell. It wasn't fair to them in both ways, and I cut off a lot of people because I did not want them to know how bad [Curt] was. On such short notice, you can't prepare for something like this. I spent all of my time thinking about [Curt]."
When Autumn came home for Thanksgiving in 1994, she found out the whole story and became furious with Diane. "I was so shocked when I got there," she says. "I thought, 'You fucking bitch -- you didn't tell me he was that sick.'" She decided to move back to Colorado to be close to the family. "I wanted to know what was going on," she says.
Curt had dropped from 150 pounds to 115 and was spending eight hours a day with an IV stuck either in his arm or near his collarbone. His surgery incision was a nightmare in itself. The doctors felt it would be best for the wound to heal from the inside out, so once Curt came home from the hospital, Diane had to irrigate it several times a day.
By Christmas, he was in worse shape than he was at Thanksgiving and underwent an angioplasty to relieve a blockage in his coronary artery.
Because of the medication, he was throwing up all the time and couldn't keep food down. He was becoming more and more depressed. "There were times he would rant and rave about the drugs he had to take, how he could not exercise anymore, and how he couldn't work," Diane says. "I couldn't do anything. I felt so out of control. But you become a real advocate for the patient as a result."
Diane began dealing with his doctors more often and handled his insurance work. She simply took care of the man while he was touch-and-go for the better part of two years. She worked, cooked, cleaned, did everything -- and as a result, the kids began to take a much softer approach to their mom.
Curt slowly began to regain his health, and by the end of January 1995, he was home. His new kidneys had had to be removed after the rejection, and so in March, he began kidney dialysis. By the fall, he had worked himself back into shape by riding his bike everywhere he went. And he set about waiting for another donor.
His best chance at finding a match was if someone in his own family gave him one, however, and his sister Sabra volunteered so that neither Autumn nor Arron would have to jeopardize their own health. Sabra's family was against her decision, but as Diane, who is not a profane woman, puts it, "Sabra told [her husband] to go fuck himself."
But just before the transplant was to take place, around Christmas, another problem came up: Sometime during the transplant and the subsequent infections, Curt's body chemistry had changed; Sabra was no longer a match for him.
"Curt said, 'I'm gonna ask Arron," Diane says. "He was not going to let Autumn do it, because if she ever wanted to have kids, having one kidney would put her in jeopardy. But Arron, he immediately came to mind."
"I'm not a fan of Western medicine," Arron says. "But this was what my dad wanted. It was what he felt would make his life better, and I felt like, who am I to say no to him? Especially since he honestly felt it would prolong his life."
Arron dove headlong into the transplant process by carefully watching his diet, giving up smoking pot and taking great care of his body. "I decided early on that I was going to do everything I could to prepare my kidney for this," Arron says.
Curt and Arron then went through physical and psychological tests, Arron at the University of California at San Francisco and Curt at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver. As it turned out, they matched on four of the critical proteins.
The Denver hospital reviewed, then approved the case, and, on March 6, 1996, the chief of transplant surgery, Dr. Igal Kam, took the kidney out of Arron's left side with the organ's blood vessels intact and handed it off to Dr. Segal, who put it in Curt's body and attached the blood vessels to vessels running into his leg.
When he woke up, Curt says, he "hadn't felt so good in ten years. There was a stunning difference." He was released from the hospital four days later.
Arron didn't feel so good. The doctors had had to cut through a lot of muscle on his left side to get to his kidney, leaving a twelve-inch scar. When he awoke, he was tired and "felt like a piece of me was missing."
Both men recovered, but in the aftermath, everyone in the family had a lot of changes to face.
Curt had been an invalid for the better part of four years, completely dependent on Diane. It took a huge emotional toll on the couple and changed the complexion of their relationship. "No longer were we husband and wife," Curt explains. "It was more like mother and son or nurse and patient. And it's hard to get back to where we were." They are now in marriage counseling.
Arron and Autumn have gone their separate ways again. After graduating from the University of Colorado at Boulder with an anthropology degree, Autumn went to France as an exchange student. She returned to the States and took a job as a ski instructor in Silverthorne before moving on to Jackson Hole and eventually settling in Portland, Oregon, where she started working at the zoo. "I needed to get away for a while," Autumn says. "Mom and Dad had to figure things out for themselves after all they had been through, and I just wanted to have fun for a while."
Arron returned to San Francisco and enrolled in the wastewater management program at Humboldt State, his dad's alma mater. He now works at Biosphere 2, in the Arizona desert. "I decided to do something with myself," he says. "I decided that I want to make a difference in the world, and where I can do that is by learning about how water works and helping people in the Third World clean their water."
Arron's body is functioning fine, and Dr. Kam says he shouldn't be at risk for any complications for at least another fifty years.
Arron says he still has trouble letting himself get close to his father. "Every day, I feel like I'm closer to becoming an orphan. I have a tendency to not get too close to people, because I'm afraid they'll leave me. So when I look at my father, I think, 'I'm not getting too close to you. You could be dead any day now.'"
The two men get along better, though, and have agreed to disagree. "We still get on each other's nerves," Arron says. "We were putting up a screen door, and I got so pissed at him because he tried to correct everything I did even though things were working fine. But now, instead of yelling at him, I just kind of laugh and get on with it."
Recently, Curt and Diane went to visit Arron down at the Biosphere, and his father could not have been more proud of him. "From a very early age, Arron was always the champion of the little guy on the playground," Curt says. "His first fight was over another kid getting bullied at school. He has always identified with people who are being taken advantage of."
At age 54, Curt has been out of the workforce for almost six years and hasn't had to apply for a job since he first worked for Hughes in 1969. He substitute teaches at some private schools in Denver and coaches youth soccer teams. Diane is a librarian. They have a modest lifestyle, but they're thankful that they have at least made it this far.
"Curt's pretty damned lucky," Diane says. "He thought it was going to work out. We tried to be real positive.
"You know, it's like I keep telling Arron, bad shit happens, but it doesn't happen forever."
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