"Old friends," Simon & Garfunkel sang in 1968. "Sat on their park bench like bookends.
"...Can you imagine us years from today
Sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange to be seventy."
Well. Mike didn’t quite make it to seventy, but it’s pretty darn strange to be sixty-seven. Or sixty-two, as I am.
Or fifty—as some of our former students are now.
Time, it turns out, is nothing at all like we thought it would be when we were young.
Who knew you could be—old—and still feel like a teenager inside?
Who knew that a song, a photograph, a smell, the sound of church bells or a motorcycle engine could send you backpedaling through time so that for one sometimes wonderful, sometimes sad or embarrassing or scary—always very disconcerting moment you are fully alive in a different time and place, some younger version of yourself, often in the company of younger versions of people you’ve loved for a long, long time?
Time is fluid. Life is—well, we don’t really know what life. Only that we have one shot at it and that it matters. Who we are, what we do has repercussions down through time long after we are no longer, physically here. Maybe forever.
Mike’s life mattered.
The work he chose: teaching. The nature of the relationships he had with the countless people who threaded their way through his life.
Mike was my first adult friend. He was my first male friend, which was no small thing when we met in 1974. We shared a family group in Learning Unlimited—and had tee shirts made, playing off of the Campbell soup commercial of the time: Cupp and Shoup: A Family Group in an Instant.
Mike and Pat were Steve’s and my first—and most enduring—couple friends. Also a kind of family group in an instant. I remember once, on a lark, going through a huge, beautiful double on Meridian Street, fantasizing about how cool it would be to buy it and have our own little commune.
As it was, we spent many happy times living together in our cozy chalet in Michigan-skiing in the winter; Steve, Mike and the kids out on their dirt bikes in the summer while Pat and I (and eventually Joan) took a walk through the woods or just stayed inside, reading.
In time, Joan’s husband Bill was added to the mix. Just a few days after Mike’s death, we gathered at their house for our annual Christmas Eve Brunch—a bittersweet event. But so good for all of us, still stunned and brokenhearted by the idea that Mike was no longer among us.
In a stroke of brilliance, Joan and Bill established what I hope will become a Christmas Eve Brunch tradition. Each of us drew a slip of paper with the name of a character from Dante on it; then Laney, Mike’s granddaughter, drew from a duplicate set of names for the winner. It was Virgil. Drew won—a gift certificate to Target.
Mike loved Dante; he loved Target. He was a complex guy.
The white index card in your program is there for you to write a favorite memory of Mike to share with his family. I know. That’s hard. There are so many. But pick one, write it down—and I guarantee that, for a moment, he will come alive in your mind, just as he always was.
I’ll cheat and tell you two—from early times.
In the first, I am embarrassed to say, we are heading (with cans of shaving cream in hand) for the sound booth where Mark Edelstein is broadcasting the daily Learning Unlimited news. It is our misbegotten plan to occupy it. We burst in, laughing, shoot Mark with the shaving cream, but it’s such a shock to him that he falls backward and hits the button on the console that causes the news of our occupation is broadcast to the whole school. The incident was written up in our files. Enough said.
In the other one, Mike and Pat give me my first blank book. Christmas Eve: 1975. It is green with gold stamping. Inside, in Pat’s beautiful handwriting, it says, “To Barb—A very special person with a great deal to say—here’s a place for it.” Just holding the book in my hand thrills and terrifies me. I see myself later, alone, after midnight, the house asleep around me…finally beginning to write.
It is good that we could all come together this afternoon to remember our friend, Mike. To celebrate the essence of him—
His intelligence; his sharp, irreverent wit; and that endearing goofiness
His passion for motorcycles and the Cubs and art
The beacon he was for thousands of students over the years, especially those who’d lost their way.
And, most of all, the beautiful simplicity with which he regarded love and friendship.
If Mike loved you, he loved you. That was that. And he loved every single person in the auditorium today.
For all of us, the world is a sadder, harder place for the fact that he is no longer in it.
To end, here is a poem by Lisel Mueller.
AFTER YOUR DEATH
The first time we said your name
you broke through the flat crust of your grave
and rose, a movable statue,
walking and talking among us.
Since then you’ve grown a little.
We keep you slightly larger
than life-size, reciting bits of your story,
our favorite odds and ends.
Of all your faces we’ve chosen one
for you to wear, a face wiped clean
of sadness. Now you have no other.
You’re in our power. Do we
terrify you, do you wish
for another face? Perhaps
you want to be left in darkness.
But you have no say in the matter.
As long as we live, we keep you
from dying your real death,
which is being forgotten. We say,
we don’t want to abandon you,
when we mean we can’t let you go.