Gratitude: For Michael, or Why I’ll Still Be Here a Week from Now

 

I’m grateful for my family.

Now, I can’t write the sort of post that some of you can, and perhaps will, about a close-knit family and a wonderfully stable upbringing with intimate family ties and regular family celebrations. A friend of mine grew up this way, and when we have lunch, as we do a couple of times a year, it seems there are always three or four more great-nieces and nephews, and someone else is getting married or having a baby, and she’s just attended a massive reunion somewhere on the East coast. My family wasn’t like that at all. We were far-flung at a time when communication, other than by what came to be known as ‘snail mail,’ was often impossible, and was always complicated, expensive, and slow.

What I cherish in my family, which is full of them, are the madcaps and eccentrics. Aunty Betty, who, once she became a centenarian, spent her declining years in a torrid love affair with her imaginary boyfriend, John, the King of China. Uncle Arthur, who, at the age of 90, made the most of his church raffle winnings by borrowing his friend, the Bishop of Worcester’s, helmet and leathers and living one of his dreams by taking off for a ride on the back of a Honda Gold Wing. My mother, whose spontaneous, inventive, and bawdy lyrics for popular songs I still can’t get out of my head, even now. Our very own Miss Chips, Aunty Pat (93, may she live forever), who still gets hundreds of letters and cards every year from the thousands of pupils she taught when they were six years old, who’ve never forgotten their first teacher, and who visit her whenever their travels take them through Birmingham.

I’m grateful for every single one of them.

And, of course, bestriding the world like the colossus he was, for my Dad. I’ve written about him often on Ricochet, and I’m grateful for the kindness in your comments about those posts.

Today, though, I’m going to once more ask your indulgence as I tell you the story of another family member, this one from the family I married into, a family with its own share of memorable and extraordinary characters.

This is Michael’s story.

tennis-shoes-2

Today is my stepson, Michael’s, forty-ninth birthday.

mzMichael was born in 1967, and although he didn’t know it until his younger sister was born two years later, he was destined to be the problematic, and often-overlooked, middle child.

But Michael would not be overlooked. Always a small child for his age, he was a mischievous imp, a sweet-faced little boy, an occasionally infuriating whirlwind of clockwise and counter-clockwise motion (sometimes simultaneously), and the little boy with thick glasses in the second-grade photo.

He was a very bright child, often making connections between his ideas and his reality that others could not see–he once convinced his younger sister to help him fill the Christmas tree base with his mother’s favorite cordial, Crème-de-Menthe, because he was sure that not only would it keep the tree green, but that it would make it smell nice too–sometimes confounding his teachers, his parents, and his stepmom, but always attacking life head on, full-steam ahead, and with a take-no-prisoners attitude that brooked no opposition.

On December 14, 1981, Michael’s life changed forever, when the bicycle he was riding was struck by a car, and he landed head first in the middle of the intersection of McAnulty and Brownsville Road in the Pittsburgh suburb of Whitehall. He was fourteen years old.

The Whitehall Police Chief got there before anyone else. The ambulance arrived moments later, having been summoned by a witness who worked as an EMT, and who realized the stakes, even then. The trip to Mercy Hospital, in Pittsburgh, eleven miles away, took less than ten minutes, in heavy traffic.

The hospital CEO, a Catholic Sister of Mercy, although a classmate and old friend of Michael’s father, had no idea who this boy was. But without thinking, she signed the papers for treatment of the “John Doe” juvenile who had been brought, so terribly damaged, to the Emergency Department, and Mercy Hospital went into action.

The family gathered. The Whitehall Police Chief came, and cried with them. The entire university next door, where Michael’s father taught, pitched in, and a Spiritan Father was on duty in the ICU waiting room almost constantly. Prayer and help were the order of the day. Meals appeared, unbidden, for Michael’s mom, dad, brother, sister, and stepmother. Christmas was made, somehow, by friends, when Christmas seemed impossible. Whatever was needed. From friends, from neighbors, from strangers, and from well-wishers across the country, and even around the world.

Michael was expected to die. In fact, medically, he did die, a few times. But he refused to give up. And while the doctors were ambivalent, the nurses refused to give up too. Michael’s father put it this way: “The nurses said, ‘He’s ours. You can’t have him,’” and they worked and worked to keep him here.

Against the odds, with the grace of God, and after some groundbreaking medical procedures, Michael did survive.

Months later, Michael was transferred to the Rehabilitation Institute of Pittsburgh, where he began a full year of torturous rehabilitation. Learning to move again. Learning to speak again. Learning to tie his shoes again. Learning to walk again. Learning to think again. Learning to live again.

mz8Finally, Michael graduated, with honors, from high school, in his younger sister’s class. By this time, his recovery was as complete as it could be. He received an award for persistence in the face of overwhelming odds, and his family celebrated this incredible milestone with him.

His neurological deficits were evident. His speech was permanently slurred. His gait was permanently rolling. His one ear was permanently deaf. His one eye was legally blind. His mind did not work as fast as it once had.

But the mischievous imp of perversity was still there. He signed up at the local community college, for an associate’s degree in the photography program. In typical Michael fashion, he declared, “For photography, you only need one good eye!” He excelled. He graduated, with honors. He got a job at the local supermarket, stocking the shelves, and rounding up the carts in the parking lot. He loved it, and his co-workers loved him.

And, although he handily passed the test on his second try, and although he was careful and kept a clean record, to his family’s everlasting anxiety, but in the determined furtherance of his own bid for independence, he got a driver’s license.

May 2, 2002 did not start well for those I love. My dear friend, who lives about ½ mile away from me, and whose husband works at the same hospital I did before I retired, phoned me at about 7AM, and said, “You probably shouldn’t drive past our house this morning on the way to work.”

Since this was my normal way of getting to work, I said, “Why not, Shirley? Has something happened?”

Shirley is a countrywoman of few words and great generosity of spirit, and she does not make much fuss about anything. So she simply responded, in a very matter-of-fact way, “Our house burned down last night.” And it had, all the way to the ground. The people, and the pets, were safe. Everything else was gone.

When I finally got to work, having stopped to see Shirley and her husband, and taken her the only thing she said she really needed—a pair of shoes–it was to console my boss, whose wife (a critical-care nurse) had been called to their neighbor’s house very late the night before, for help with a frightening situation involving a father with a weak heart, an emotionally disturbed adult son, a confrontation, and an eventual death. At the end of the work day, I left, saying to my boss, “What a horrible day for everyone. I don’t see how it could get any worse.”

It got worse.

On the way home, I heard on the car radio that there had been a fatal car accident on Curry Hollow Road, in the Pittsburgh suburb of Baldwin. Knowing that the supermarket where Michael worked was on Curry Hollow Road, and as I always did, when I heard on the news about car accidents in that area, I said a quick prayer along the lines, of “Oh, Lord, please don’t let it be Michael.” And, then, hearing no more, I forgot about it.

But May 2, 2002 did not end well for those I love. At about 10:00 that evening, Michael’s sister phoned.

It was Michael.

The car he was driving home from work had been broadsided by a pickup truck. Michael was the only casualty. He was thirty-four years old.

The Whitehall Police Chief who had been first on the scene in 1981 was first on the scene in 2002, and identified Michael’s body. For the second, and last time, we cried together.

Michael’s funeral was devastating. We knew we were there to celebrate Michael’s life. But the entire congregation, including the several priests who were celebrating the mass, wept throughout.

When the service ended, and with the parish priest’s enthusiastic permission, I spoke.

And this is what I said:

Thank you, friends, for being here today to say goodbye to Michael.

As many of you know, some of Mike’s most devoted and loyal companions couldn’t come today. So, on behalf of all of them, I’d like to say “Goodbye, Mike,” from: Larry and Cece, Penny and Tip, Harry, Cinnamon and Duke (Note: Michael’s cats, the neighborhood dogs he walked every day, and our dogs on the farm).

mz-geyserWhen a man has as many friends as Michael, it’s difficult to single out one or another as special. However, there are two people I would like to thank for their extraordinary friendship with Michael. Those two friends were so special that Mike carried their picture with him at all times. I’d like to thank Tom, his most loyal, closest, and best friend for 20 years, and Kimberly, who met Mike on a mountain in Wyoming several years ago, and who became a fast friend and hiking partner with Mike and his dad.

Two years ago, we gathered here at another devastating time: the passing of Mike’s mom. While everyone’s thoughts were with the entire family at that time, all of us held Mike especially close in our prayers.

All of us wanted Mike to know that we were here for him.

How astonishing it was, when, at the close of that powerful and moving service, Michael got up, and, his heart broken, read us the words that he had written about his mom, his life, and how he intended to go forward wearing his new tennis shoes—the ones that his mom had bought as his Easter gift, and which he discovered, all wrapped up for him, after she died.

At that point, we heard Mike saying, “I’m OK. I’m going to make it. Don’t worry about me. Be happy.”

Suddenly, instead of our being here for him, he was here for us, and he made us all feel better.

I’d like to read you a few more of Mike’s words. They come from a letter which we discovered after his death. A letter he wrote to a man he admired, at another tragic time. I hope that if we listen to Michael speak, one more time, in his own words, he’ll make us all feel better, and maybe the miracle that was, and is, Michael will continue.

Here is his letter:

September 14, 2001

Dear President Bush,

This morning I got up and flipped on the TV to see the temperature. I also saw that you wanted us to sing “God Bless America” at one o’clock. It made me proud you wanted me to be a patriotic American. Songs like “God Bless America,” “America the Beautiful,” and “Stars and Stripes Forever” started playing in my head. (Note: Heaven only knows what this must have sounded like. In later years, Mike was a much-loved minor celebrity at local karaoke bar, for his terribly off-key, but really enthusiastic, renditions of songs like “You are My Sunshine” and “God Bless America.”)

I went for the usual morning walk with my neighbor’s dog, Penny, at 7:15AM. When we went past the elementary school, I put my hand over my heart and said the Pledge of Allegiance. We went home. I fed my cats, Larry and Cece, then I flue (sic) to work.

I work at a supermarket in customer service. Still at work songs kept occupying my mind. Then a song from “Little Orphan Annie” came on.

A few months ago I was privileged to go to a high school musical of that show. It was a huge success!

I see in my head Little Orphan Annie singing to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She’s singing:

tomorrow4

May God bless you, and may God bless America.

Sincerely,

Mike Z

*©1977, Strouse & Charnin

tennis-shoes-3

mz4That was Michael. Three days after 9/11, with much of the nation still reeling from shock, he was doing what he could to lift the spirits of, and comfort, the leader of the free world.

I’m so grateful for Michael’s life. And for the lessons he taught me—lessons of persistence, grit, honor, humor, and faith. Particularly faith, not only in his God, but also in the sure knowledge that tomorrow will come, and with it, the sun. Michael had as much reason as anyone I’ve ever known to question, doubt, and lose, that faith. But he never did.

For Michael, I’m keeping that faith too. On November 9, no matter who wins the election, no matter what happens in the Senate and the House, no matter how horrible the outcome, no matter how much I’d rather crawl back under the covers with a bottle of Knob Creek Rye for company, I’m going to get up, put the dogs out, feed the sheep (I’ve always understood this is particularly important), go about the daily business of life with a smile on my face, and do my best for my friends and family.

Which, for better or worse, my eccentric, madcap, and far-flung Ricochetti, also includes you. I know some of you will be gone for a while. I understand. I hope you come back soon, and until you do, I’ll do my best to keep the seat warm. For those who say you won’t return, ever, I’m not going to try to change your minds, and I wish you the best, always.

Between now and next Tuesday, be well.

Because, stay or go; right or wrong; win, lose, or draw; whatever the future of Ricochet; I’m grateful for every single one of you.

And I’ll be here. When the sun comes up.

bunbun3


Originally published Nov. 4, 2016.

There are 56 comments.

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  1. MLH Member
    MLH
    @MLH

    Wow. Just, wow.

    • #1
  2. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    You’ve a great, heartbreaking story! Can I condole with you & thank you at the same time?

    • #2
  3. AUMom Member
    AUMom
    @AUMom

    Oh, my. She, that has to be the most heart-warming post I have read it ages. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    We will continue to move forward for all the Michaels in our world.

    • #3
  4. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    You are a member that any family would be proud to have.

    Well done, She.

    • #4
  5. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama Toad
    @CBToderakaMamaToad

    Thanks for this beautiful essay, She, and thank you Michael for giving us this lesson. I’ll be here too on Wednesday, ready to laugh or cry with you and the rest of R.

    • #5
  6. Sandy Member
    Sandy
    @Sandy

    I loved every word.  And we do need to stick around.

    • #6
  7. JustmeinAZ Member
    JustmeinAZ
    @JustmeinAZ

    What I beautiful story and affirmation of gratitude. Sometimes we forget.

    • #7
  8. M1919A4 Member
    M1919A4
    @M1919A4

    Thank you, Ma’am.  That is a beautiful story beautifully written and you have shared an idea that is a marker for us all, even those of us who truly believe that, if things go wrong Tuesday, there will be no “tomorrow”, at least for the republic.

    Again, thank you.

    • #8
  9. Trink Coolidge
    Trink
    @Trink

    She: go about the daily business of life with a smile on my face, and do my best for my friends and family.

    I wasn’t prepared for my reaction to this post.   I’m between bawling and applauding.  Honey!  This was more beautiful than the autumn color outside my window.   It doesn’t just glow – it throbs with warmth and love.

    Thank you.   So glad you’re here among us.

    • #9
  10. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    crazy

    • #10
  11. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    Thank you for your beautiful story.  The tragic parts I don’t know how people get through, but by the grace of God and the good in others. Your family is special – sometimes I read Facebook or hear about others lives and think they have the perfect family, but I know better. It’s a struggle, sometimes even on the best days. This boy was blessed – even in the worst circumstances.  Thank you for the pictures also.

    • #11
  12. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Thank you for sharing this and your step-son with us.

    • #12
  13. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Percival:crazy

    Wait, why did you invite me out here on the porch and hand me this drink, then?

    • #13
  14. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Thank you, all.

    • #14
  15. DocJay Member
    DocJay
    @DocJay

    I haven’t had that kind of cry in a long time.  So much wonder in life.   Thank you.

    • #15
  16. Spin Coolidge
    Spin
    @Spin

    I don’t like you, She.  Because you’ve made me cry.  At work.  And I don’t like to cry.  Because I’m a man, and men don’t cry.  But I have.

    Every person in American should read this, especially Mr. Bush.  I call upon @peterrobinson to make sure that happens.

     

    • #16
  17. Phil Turmel Coolidge
    Phil Turmel
    @PhilTurmel

    Thank you, She.  Though this trying time has sometimes made me want to bail out, stories like this arrest me.  I’ll help you keep the seat warm.

    • #17
  18. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Thank you for telling us about Michael.

    It is a great story, beautifully and perfectly told.

     

    • #18
  19. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    She: On November 9, no matter who wins the election, no matter what happens in the Senate and the House, no matter how horrible the outcome, no matter how much I’d rather crawl back under the covers with a bottle of Knob Creek Rye for company, I’m going to get up, put the dogs out, feed the sheep (I’ve always understood this is particularly important), go about the daily business of life with a smile on my face, and do my best for my friends and family.

    This, dear She.  Me too. Now Michael has had the chance to touch all of our lives. What a gift he was, is. And what a loss. Your resilience in the face of all those challenges is so touching . . . I’m glad you’re my Ricochetti pal.

    • #19
  20. TKC1101 Member
    TKC1101
    @TKC1101

    Words fail me. Thank you for your words that did not fail you.

    • #20
  21. barbara lydick Member
    barbara lydick
    @barbaralydick

    Beautiful, just beautiful.  Thank you for sharing Michael with us.  Your story is a wonderful reminder to all of us to treasure everyone in our families and each crazy, wondrous, even sorrowful moment life brings our way.

    • #21
  22. Ned Vaughn Member
    Ned Vaughn
    @NedVaughn

    Thank you so much. Your sharing is a tremendous gift to all of us, and I’m sure Michael is smiling even now over the lives he continues to touch. Bless you.

    • #22
  23. Pugshot Member
    Pugshot
    @Pugshot

    Well, there it is. You’ve gone and done it! You’ve made me cry – at work! I can barely make out the computer screen now! So much for the rest of the afternoon! Thank you for sharing your story; thank you for your sentiment; and thank you for being a fellow Ricochetti – both now and after Nov 8. God bless you and yours.

    • #23
  24. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Spin:I don’t like you, She. Because you’ve made me cry. At work. And I don’t like to cry. Because I’m a man, and men don’t cry. But I have.

    Every person in American should read this, especially Mr. Bush. I call upon @peterrobinson to make sure that happens.

    I too wish someone could send this to President George W. Bush. I imagine if someone sent an e-mail with this post in it to the Bush Library–send it as the body of the e-mail rather than as a scary attachment that no one can open these days without fear of a virus infection–it would reach GW eventually.

    • #24
  25. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    MarciN: I too wish someone could send this to President George W. Bush. I imagine if someone sent an e-mail with this post in it to the Bush Library–send it as the body of the e-mail rather than as a scary attachment that no one can open these days without fear of a virus infection–it would reach GW eventually.

    Wasn’t @troysenik one of his speechwriters?

    • #25
  26. Patrickb63 Coolidge
    Patrickb63
    @Patrickb63

    Oh She.  I cannot imagine the pain, and loss and heartbreak.  Nor can I imagine being able to see the light shining while in that darkness.  And to remember it and share it.  Thank you for the gift.  Thank you for making me cry.  Thanks be to God that people such as Michael, and you, are here.

    • #26
  27. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    You folks are the best.  Thank you again.

    • #27
  28. Ann Member
    Ann
    @Ann

    Thank you @she for sharing your beautiful story. It certainly helps us all put things in a better perspective about what is really important and not.

    • #28
  29. Richard Finlay Member
    Richard Finlay
    @RichardFinlay

    TKC1101:Words fail me. Thank you for your words that did not fail you.

    Ditto

    • #29
  30. Snirtler Member
    Snirtler
    @Snirtler

    @she

    Your post is exactly the balm we need.

    Mean-spiritedness, cynicism, censoriousness, and condescension happens by accretion. This loving memorial of your stepson Michael helps to remove a few of those barnacles from our souls.

    • #30

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