I have a lot of dead friends. I have friends who have died in their 80s and in their 20s. I have friends who have died from suicide, drug overdoses, and because they were murdered. Sudden deaths and slow deaths. Deaths that shocked me, and deaths that gave me hope that there was a force on the planet that had enough wisdom and compassion to halt suffering.
My friend Mike died this morning, and he’s the first friend of mine who died from cancer.
Mike was born the same year that I was, at least as far as I know. We met in 1995, in Cork, Ireland. He was a student at Colby College in Maine, and I was joining one of their study abroad programs. I don’t remember first meeting him but that’s obviously going to be the case when you meet 15 new people all at once in the Boston airport and then more when you arrive and find a dozen other students had already spent a semester learning the ropes. Mike started in the fall; I arrived in January. We lived in almost contiguous cinder block three floor townhouses that University College, Cork offered to international students.
Mike didn’t live with us, but I can count on one hand the number of times I woke up or went to sleep and Mike wasn’t in our apartment. We became close friends quickly; Will, Mike, Johnny Ryan, Ann, our truly certifiably insane Swiss roommate Thomas, and local friends including Paddy. We went to so few classes I barely remember the inside of any of the lecture halls, and instead have a crystal clear memory of the college bar. We walked down to An Brog if Thomas wasn’t willing to squeeze us into the former Swiss postal vehicle he was using as a car. We had the bright idea one night to walk over to the grassy hill next to my apartment and spike empty whiskey bottles into the black night by hitting them with a golf club we found. There were injuries. I don’t remember eating food that semester except for a few special nights that Thomas would cook pasta with gorgonzola cheese sauce at 3am after coming home from the bar. I mostly ate chocolate bars from the little store at the mouth of the housing complex. I lost a lot of weight that semester.
Mike was a musician: a pianist and a very good one. He was obsessed that semester with the movie Easy Rider (or maybe it just was his favorite of the few films we had in the house) and loved the song “If you want to be a bird” by The Holy Modal Rounders. He’d dance to it by crouching, bending, and bowing, while slowly moving his arms up-and-down, like birds’ wings. It was hilarious.
I don’t know when Mike and I started to write letters, but I think it might have been 1997 when he sent his first collage. He had taken a camping and hiking trip somewhere and compiled photos from his trip with bits of text into a flimsy paper three-ring binder. It arrived without explanation, in the mail. We probably sent each other hundreds of letters between the late-1990s and this week. Depending upon whether you think your 20s were the most consequential, exciting, and important decade of your life, or the most self-absorbed and cowardly years, our correspondence is either irritating or fascinating.
I think this is another letter to him.
I’ve tried to send at least one each week since Mike was first diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. I tried to stay on neutral topics, mostly rambling about whatever nonsense was going on in my life–a new job, a new apartment, friends, family. He went through a few good periods, when the chemo seemed to be working and the cancer abated, but more of them were bad. Once he turned toward experimental treatments, I started to write about our shared experiences more. Last week, I found a bunch of photographs from Cork–mostly from the Strauss Ball we attended–photocopied them, annotated the pictures, and sent them off in a flimsy paper envelope. I sent him two letters on Monday, each with an inspirational verse I’d found in my files while setting up a new work computer. I don’t think they arrived in time.
It doesn’t matter, though. Mike, more than anyone I’ve ever met, accepted you as you were. He saw the best in people. He never wanted more from them than what they offered.
Most of his post-college life he spent in service: first in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, then with anti-war and anti-death penalty movement organizations. He went to a peace demonstration in a wheelchair, this last week of his life, with his 3 year old daughter, wife, and friends.
He spent some time in jail, related to this protest work. He mentioned it once in a note from last February, thanking me for the birthday card I had sent him. Mike wrote: “As per your twirly card, it was received on the same day as another (altered birthday) card offering to spin and based on your first name’s first letter, find out your (Johnny Depp derived) first name. [Ed: from Pirates of the Caribbean, this was.] Mine is Chum Brinybottom. Yours is Booty Tanglebeard. In the Big House there was a dude known as Spoty. And he had an almost-always visible tattoo to prove it which read ‘Spoty.'”
That same letter closed with this list: “Do you Momofuku? Do you Poisson Rouge? Do you send BeDazzles?” In a letter from May, he informed me that he “learned a fun new marching chant this week, ‘Potato, Tomato, No More Nato.’ Cute, huh?”
He wrote about his daughter in every note, after she was born three years ago. Most notes, at least at first, included pictures. He was excited about her, and the girl she was becoming. He felt the same way about his family, and his friends. A group of his buddies, including Will and Johnny Ryan, went to visit him last fall. He sent me a picture of the alphabet doughnuts they bought to celebrate, which spelled out DUDEPOCALYPSE. What hilarious nonsense. Another handmade card, written from his hospital bed during one of many stays, has an illustration of what look like mother and children potatoes cooking over a flowerpot inside an igloo and a newspaper clipping pasted next to it with only the following: “‘The true leisure is to be at home among manageable things,’ said George Santayana.”
I am not gifted enough to describe a person that I know really well, and love. Mike is a part of my heart, and so many peoples’ hearts, and he was a good and kind man. It’s a terrible thing that he’s the one who had to get cancer, and had to die at 38 years old, but we can’t stop terrible things from happening, not even to the best of us.