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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Why Mike Matters

How much does one-man matter? What difference in the world populated by billions does one anonymous unremarkable man make? The father of a good friend recently passed away after a lengthy and grueling battle against cancer. Death came neither quickly nor peacefully. Mike was escorted to the brink of his release from his mortal shell by an honor guard comprised of his two daughters. However, he crossed the cosmic threshold on his own.

I met Mike on a Caribbean cruise. He was taking his daughters on what would be their last trip together. Mike’s oldest daughter, Leslie, is one of my wife’s closest friends. My wife and I booked the cruise independent of Mike and his daughters. When we discovered we would all be on the boat together we made requests to be in the same dining party.

I heard about Mike occasionally for several years before meeting him. Leslie clearly adored her father and even from casual conversation it was clear he was the most important person in her life. I knew everyone thought Mike was funny. I knew he had been in the navy. I knew that Mike had cancer.

I thought I had a great deal of empathy for Leslie and her sister Angie. I had seen both my parents fight cancer for years. My mother had drastic life altering surgery. My father went into remission several times, only to have virulent recurrences. He ended up with a bone morrow transplant that stopped the cancer from recurring, at least for now, but also fundamentally changed his life. I knew about the emotional gymnastics involved in watching a parent struggle with cancer.

Mike was not a large man. I would not say he was slight, but he was not physically imposing. He stood perfectly straight. He never slouched. His eyes were always active. His gaze was penetrating. He looked at you when you were speaking as if at any moment his very life would depend on understanding what you had just said. When not in conversation, his eyes were scanning the crowds or the horizon. He seemed very much a military man.

Mike was funny. He used his keen power of observation to find humor in almost any situation. He was not cruel with his humor. One night after poor event planning on the part of the staff had opened our plans Mike and his two daughters and my wife and I found our way to the ship’s library. The tiny room, about the size of a standard home dining room, had shelves of books nobody had ever read, nor would anybody likely want to read. We were the only ones in the room. Mike began a comedic routine that reduced all of us to tears. He was unstoppable. During the course of his performance, a couple of other passengers chanced into the library. They tried to ignore Mike, but smiles quickly swept across their faces as he kept at his antics.

All of us went on shore excursions together. When we made the foolish choice to eschew the cruise offered excursion and find our own way to the Atlantis Resort, Mike made instant friends with our cab driver and the two of them entered into a dialogue that still makes me smile. I also learned more about the Bahamas than I did from either Wikipedia or the guidebooks. Some of what I learned is probably true.

Mike was always watchful of his girls. He always inquired after their comfort and preferences. He really didn’t seem to take any care after himself. He was not patronizing. He treated them like adults, albeit, ones who could benefit a little from his military inspired punctuality. He never complained about waiting for them. He was always generous and sincere with his praise.

Mike had lived an interesting life. He never graduated high school. He joined the navy after and ill-conceived prank went wrong. After the military he was in the print business. During the course of the trip I learned a great deal about the differences between paper measurements in Europe and the United States. He never shared his knowledge without prompting and was never tedious in his explanations. He was a genius with people. He could be charming or firm, whichever the situation required.

Mike was not perfect. He never claimed he was. He was not famous. He made no great contributions to the knowledge or cultural storehouse of humanity. He would be difficult to pick out of a crowd. He was an honored veteran, but none of exploits can be found in history books or secret files. He seemed a lot like the rest of us, living his life everyday the best he could. Except, Mike wasn’t like most of us.

Mike was an extraordinary father. I saw his relationship with his daughters on quiet display every moment of the cruise. The respect his daughters showed him in their speech and in the way they looked and smiled at him showed a lifetime of trust affection. The way his eyes twinkled when they came down to the table for dinner, the easy way he made small genuine compliments about a dress or a necklace his daughters wore, demonstrated an acceptance of his children’s adulthood without an abandonment of his role as their father. These three clearly had a special bond, decades in the making. I also happen to know Mike saved the lives of these girls when they were quite young; he fought for them when they needed him most, when they could not fight for themselves.

I realized on the cruise that I could not empathize with how Angie and Leslie felt with Mike’s cancer because I could never be that close to my parents. There is not enough time to build up that much trust. Looking at Mike I recommitted myself to being the type of father he was. Among many things I hope to give my children is a great relationship with their father when they are adults.

It is not fair to say that Mike was unremarkable. He was a hero. He was extraordinary. He may only have been someone I knew on the periphery of my life, but I am better for that small connection. My wife’s report from the funeral seems too sacred to share in full. But, it is clear that even in death Mike watches out for his girls. He left a legacy of love that lives in their hearts. He lived an example of fatherhood that I cannot forget. 
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