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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.
Today is my stepson, Michael’s, forty-ninth birthday.
Michael 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.
Finally, 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).
When 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:
May God bless you, and may God bless America.
*©1977, Strouse & Charnin
That 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.
Originally published Nov. 4, 2016.