After he was diagnosed with brain cancer at age 24, Mike Grover charged ahead with work and with life.
He married his fiancee, Lea, before 200 people in a rooftop ceremony in Chicago's Little Italy. He fit in a New Zealand honeymoon between rounds of chemotherapy.
He went back to work as a structural engineer.
He had three daughters: twins Sophia and Deborah, now 11, and Rivka, age 8.
"He never wanted his life to be defined by cancer," said Lea, who chronicled his 13-year battle with glioblastoma, the most aggressive form of brain cancer, on her blog, Becoming SuperMommy. "He wanted to be defined by the things in his life that he cared about and that mattered."
For Mike Grover, who died this month at his home in Cary, Ill., at age 38, those things were his family, his part in creating beautiful buildings, and his many, many friends. He was initially expect to live 12 to 18 months. Only seven in 1,000 people with glioblastoma survive for more than 10 years, according to a 2018 study. But Mike, who grew up in Shoreview, beat the odds again and again, and did so with a spirit that endeared him to friends and strangers.
"The specter [of cancer] was always there, but he just picked himself up, and led his life, and put so much love back into the world," said Alison Norman, 37, of Woodbury, a friend since preschool.
Followers of Lea Grover's blog, which is part cancer memoir, part love story, know him as a fiercely devoted father and husband.
The 6-foot-4 bear of a man played high school football, basketball and baseball. He was in band, jazz band, student council and the National Honor Society, according to his mother, Donelle Grover of Blaine.
He got in trouble in middle school for sticking drumsticks up his nose during band concerts and mugging for the audience, she said, but he was also one of the valedictorians of their high school class.
"He was just this giant contradiction of being totally the class clown, but also the smartest guy in the room," she said.
Mike graduated from Northwestern University in 2005 and stayed in Chicago. He met his wife on a dating website. The other tall, athletic young men on the site were showing off prom photos or workout photos; some went shirtless. Mike caught Lea's eye with a profile pic in which he was dressed as Super Grover from "Sesame Street," with a blue onesie and a big red cape.
It was a relationship marked by laughter. They cracked each other up in the hospital as he was waiting for his brain cancer diagnosis, she said, and as the years went on, so did the jokes.
"God, he loved a good dad joke. He loved puns. He was a giant nerd," said Lea, a writer.
On July 4, 2007, Mike and Lea got engaged. The next day, at a company softball game, he had a seizure that landed him in the emergency room. Within days, he had brain surgery and was diagnosed with glioblastoma.
His doctor told Lea that he was likely to live 12 to 18 months.
"Sometimes you see someone five years out, but don't expect it," Lea said the doctor said.
In 2012, while Mike was working at U.S. Steel, he got his master's degree in structural engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He would leave home at 4:30 in the morning for work, then go directly from work to night classes.
"His health was great. You never would have known" he had brain cancer, Lea said.
Meanwhile, the Grovers were building a family.
In 2012, Mike landed a job as a structural engineer, at Skidmore Owings & Merrill.
"He got to work on a skyscraper in Moscow with a glass roof, which was like the highlight of his professional life," his mother said.
After the cancer worsened in 2015, he started wearing an Optune device, which creates low-intensity electric fields that can slow or stop the division of tumor cells. His head was shaved so that patches that create electric fields could be attached to it. A big bundle of cords snaked down from the back of his head to a backpack holding a generator.
Mike wore it not only at work, but as he made the bus and train commute to his downtown office from their home in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago, Lea said.
And of course, he made friends in the process, she said. He had to warn people on his bus before going on vacation, or they would worry about him when he didn't show up for his ride to work, she said: "Everybody loved him."
The cancer worsened again in 2018, and while it was unclear whether Mike needed surgery, he volunteered to get it in 2019 through a new medical study.
During surgery, he had a stroke, losing much of the use of his left side, she said. After that, there were six months of difficult and painful recovery.
Mike had another brain surgery as Illinois headed into lockdown, on March 16, 2020, and a final surgery in June. About every two weeks from April until the end of August, he nearly died, Lea said, from a variety of problems, including pulmonary embolisms and bleeding in the brain.
In a December interview for WBEZ's StoryCorps Chicago, Mike and Lea recalled a death scare so serious that loved ones came into town from across the country to wave through a window in a socially distanced goodbye. Mike said he felt guilty to have brought people in unnecessarily, and ecstatic to be able to say goodbyes were premature.
"Not every death is a tragedy," he said. "I guess that's what I'm going for. I survived this thing for a lot longer than I was supposed to, and if I leave well-adjusted kids, then I think my death will be a victory."