Some people have all the luck.
I met him in the dorm cafeteria at Western Washington University in the fall of 1982. You could tell he was fun by how he held himself. Wearing a pinstriped, button up shirt with grey parachute pants and a matching fedora covering his curly brown hair, Mike had a nose that can only be described as a Karl Malden knockoff. (For those of you who are too young to know who Karl Malden is, click the link.) And he seemed so very comfortable in his own skin.
I went to college thanks to decent grades and a decent interest rate on student loans. Born of two high school dropouts, there wasn’t a lot of role- modeling or planning for a higher education.
Mike, on the other hand, seemed to ooze money. After we became friends, he was the first to offer to pay for pizza. Coffee? Mike bought a round for all of us. He must be loaded, I thought.
He explained it simply. “I was born with a lot of health problems, and no one expected me to live, so I’ve inherited a lot of money at different times.”
Score! All I could think was how great it must be to go on vacations. Buy a new car. Go to college perhaps debt-free. (I know none of this to be true about my friend, but these were my youthful assumptions.)
Of course, back then my young mind just processed Mike’s words in relation to what I’d never experienced. I didn’t give much thought to what it would be like to have a life that began with incurable and debilitating medical issues. That all became clear with time.
What I could see was that although Mike’s scoliosis made him look and walk differently, he was never self-conscious. Mike loved performing. He did air band at talent-shows (known as lip-syncing to other people’s music today). Every day, Mike happily escorted my roommate Erin and I to meals, studied with us, and showered us with attention. He went to church with us, and always impressed me with his abiding faith, which was much more about unconditional love and compassion than excluding others who were different or didn’t follow the rules.
When Mike inherited a caboodle of money two years after we met, he asked me to go to Switzerland with him (“I’ll pay!”) to visit a mutual friend attending college there. I said no. I thought he should invest his money for the future, and I wanted no part of the indebtedness I would feel if he gifted me with such a luxury.
Did he invest or save his money? Absolutely not. And within a year, it was all gone.
This worried me endlessly. Where would Mike live? What if he couldn’t work some day? What if bad opportunists took advantage of him? Mike seemed unconcerned, but I worried enough for the both of us.
Given that he was a few years older than me, Mike finished college sooner. We said our tearful goodbyes after I turned twenty, quit school, and found my real dad through a lawyer.I moved back to Alaska. Mike couldn’t find work with his degree in marine biology, and settle for one as an elevator man in Seattle while I married the first man who showed interest in me in Alaska and had two daughters in rapid succession.
It’s funny, the things that you remember later. Most of us in college felt we would definitely meet someone to love us and settle down with. Mike hoped for love, but had no air of entitlement about it. Love wasn’t a definite.
We stayed in sporadic contact. These were the pre-Facebook, pre-cell phone days, after all. The days when a husband bent on controlling his wife’s social interactions were made easy by the absence of technology.
After my husband tried to wring the air out of my neck, Mike let me and the girls stay with him for a few days in Seattle. And then the matters of life separated me from my buddy. I became consumed in legal matters, my daughters’ eventual abduction, and finishing college.
Mike’s issues were at least as critical. After serving as a missionary in Kenya, he landed a teaching job in the Dominican Republic. He suffered many health setbacks and professional disappointments, but he kept pushing forward.
When we communicated by written letter or occasional phone call, I tried not to ask whether or not he’d met a woman. Mike was at times discouraged, but always funny, and always sure of one thing. “I think God has a plan for me,” he would say with conviction. I couldn’t help but believe him.
It was New Years of 2012 when I last saw Mike during a long layover I had in Seattle. We’d connected through Facebook, and he was recently married at fifty years of age. Mike and his bride picked me up in his pick-up truck. One of the doors was smashed in his truck, forcing us to all cram in on one side. Mike was unemployed and looking for work. I would have been crushed at the setbacks. Mike never looked happier. And as always, he was making jokes about his job loss on Facebook.
A beloved teaching job would come after a forced move across the state. But love had arrived, and Mike and his wife lived out loud, recording their joy in their Facebook posts, taking endless selfies, and making the most of every opportunity to demonstrate love.
Mike passed away when I was out-of-town last weekend. Cancerous tumors had ravaged his already challenged body, but he didn’t die alone. Mike was surrounded by his loving wife, and honored by the many students whose lives he touched. And since he lived keenly aware of his vulnerabilities, Mike may be one of the few people I’ve ever known to celebrate each day, playing practical jokes, savoring a good cup of coffee, and generously offering love to his friends and family.
- Life is short, and we are all living on borrowed time, so be brave! Be uninhibited! And be thankful.
- Faith is an anchor. It should connect us to one another and to God. Not divide us or exclude.
- Love is a gift, not an entitlement. It is to be celebrated, and even shared.