A Birthday Eulogy
The somber part of living a long life is that you get the unenviable task of experiencing the all-too frequent passing of someone close, whether it be family or friend. But what compounds that loss is if their passing occurs while you and they are still in your delicate and impressionable years, and as life moves on, the sequences of time are piled upon you, and most of your life is lived without that individual you so cherished. This November would have been the sixty-fifth birthday of my long-since departed friend, Michael. The impact he had on my life will remain with me always.
Mike was a vital young man in life, as he is now forever in eternity, with that towering six-foot, three-inch hard, sinewy look about him, his jet-black hair hanging down over his long Greek face, and the whole package appearing awkward because of his huge hands. His eyes were dark and demanding, yet through it all was an infectious smile that belied his troubled young soul. Sadly, he never made it past his early twenties, but even by those tender years he was far more experienced than me in all the rough textures of living. All the things a man has to learn to do to survive it seemed he already knew and he shamed me by being only a year older but countless years wiser. It was Michael I called when I had car trouble, or needed a few dollars to get by, or a place to stay, or just needed a friend. How dare I look at him as an equal, which I did, and not until many years later did I realize I was only a small package in his bounty of worldly goods.
Mike was a mechanical magician and his wizardry with tools was more than admirable, especially those needed for his far-reaching automotive ambitions. He wore the proud greasepaint of the gas-station warrior, making it easy to surmise this young man was a mechanic if ever there was a mechanic. It was those workmen’s blues and unmistakable oily odor that emanated from his very being. Older, more hardened and experienced grease monkeys accepted him as one of their own, recognizing that this boy was a prodigy. There was nothing Michael could not build or repair, be it car, truck, or the 1970 Dodge van I owned that he customized single-handedly. What a beautiful job he did! Designed to carry the both of us across this great, wide land looking for new lives, new beginnings in that never-never place we hoped existed on the West Coast.
Only, Mike never made it. On a quick side-job he took driving a truck to Pennsylvania, he got careless, swallowed too many pills to stay awake, but that isn’t what they did for him. Instead, his body said no more, no matter what, and it rebelled, putting him into an unrecoverable stupor. The police report said he fell asleep at the wheel just before it veered off of that highway in Pennsylvania and tumbled down an eighty-five foot embankment, his poor head slamming unmercifully off the trucks’ cabin windows and walls. Michael hated to sleep, but swallowing more and more pills to stay awake caused a mutiny inside his tall, skinny frame, and this mutinous consequence put him into a sleep from which he never recovered.
The phone call came when I was in Vermont, because that was the place we arranged to meet as the starting point for our journey to the left coast in that summer of 1974: me and Michael on the highway to a new life.
“Mike’s been in an accident”, the voice through the wire said distantly, “we don’t know anything more yet, but we’ll call you”, it said.
When you are younger, there is more of a positive feeling after news of such kind (though I think unfamiliar is more like it), that the person you know will rally and it’s just a slight setback. It’s aging that usually tells you to prepare for the worst, to make plans, and any good news is icing on the cake. I think it becomes a defense, or a displacement of faith in life. Either case, I took the first call to simply mean we’d be leaving on our journey a bit later than we planned.
It was the second call that aged me, that made me despise the peculiarities of living, that made me breakdown in tears. Michael’s got brain damage, the voice said, there’s nothing that can be done, the voice said. You can go on with your trip or come back to Jersey…the choice is yours.
My choice was to cry, then, God forgive me, my choice was to leave. Even in retrospect of this supposedly wiser time, I don’t know why I made that decision. I still believed somewhere that he was going to survive, going to make it, and join me.
At least…I hope that’s what I chose to believe.
But Michael didn’t make it. He laid in a coma for a year, unresponsive and deteriorating, oblivious to the entire grand wide world he so appreciated. His masterfully crafted van carried me across the USA. It was a quiet and lonely trip.
One forgettable year later, when Mike was being mourned in a closed casket, I was stranded somewhere in a Nevada desert, trying to hitch a ride the remaining two-thousand miles back to NJ. The crafted-masterpiece of my departed friend long-since sold out of desperation; in its place was a used motorcycle, now with a quarter-sized hole in its piston and the nearest town twenty-six miles away. Michael could have fixed this, I thought, but I can’t and stuck out my thumb on a lonely stretch of Interstate 80 as his family and friends rallied together in mourning while Michael lay silently in his dark resting place. He was buried by the time I got home. I still don’t know where.
His most unbelievable ability was to let you know he was there and he was ready and he was capable for whatever a friend needed, as long as he knew you played the game straight. I didn’t play the game at all, not then. Did he, in his unresponsive condition, hear the gathering of his family and the coming together of his friends around him? If he did, he didn’t hear me. I’ll never know if he knew that I wasn’t there the whole time he lay quiet and unmoving in his hospital bed. Maybe somewhere in the recesses of his mind he listened for the voices of those he loved, except mine was absent, and when he slipped into eternity I wonder if he realized my voice was unheard by all except the Almighty.
I wonder if he knew how much pain was in my heart.
When they told me Michael had wilted away to a ghostly-thin seventy-five pounds, I said I’m sorry, there must be some mistake…his heart alone weighed five-times that much.
RjCook is the author of The Road Behind Me & Dream Lover and Other Tales. Click HERE for info.