Just five years ago, I would have laughed out loud at that statement. That's just crazy! How can you "meet" anyone in cyberspace?
I know better, now.
I met Michael face to face for the first time in my little third floor apartment in Cambridge, MA, while I was Proctor Scholar at the Episcopal Divinity School.
I just had "updated my status" on FaceBook by growling about the trouble I was having in setting up the "wireless" component of the new printer I had just bought. For the life of me, I just couldn't figure it out.
Not that I needed it, really. I mean, it was a small apartment. I had to walk less than ten steps from my desk to the printer. It's just that the service was there, and I couldn't figure out how to make it work.
Michael sent me a private message. Could he stop by and see if he could get it to work?
I immediately checked his personal information: Born in Wisconsin. Married. Seemed to have a good relationship with his wife. Lawyer. Lutheran pastor. Lived on a boat in Charlestown, MA., with his second wife. This is what he said about himself on his FaceBook page:
Just another white, middle-aged, left-wing Episcopalian wondering what to do when he grows up, and trying to figure out how to live in a country in which groups like the Tea Party can be taken seriously.Okay, I thought. Sounds like every other healthy neurotic clergy person I've ever known, including the one I see in the mirror every morning. It's 6 PM. I'm alone in this apartment but there are four other people living in the two apartments two floors below me. What could possibly go wrong?
I've been a printer's devil, a psychiatric aide, a clergy person, and a lawyer. Oh, yeah, and a student. I don't quite know what to try next.
Against everything my mother taught me, but intrigued and just a tad desperate to get this fancy-schmancy wireless printer working, I wrote him back and said, "Sure."
There were awkward moments, to be sure, moments when I thought he was, perhaps, just a bit too quiet. Moments when he felt uncomfortable with the awkward silence, as well.
I think we both began to let the situation sink in: We were both strangers. I had invited him into my apartment without knowing anything more than what he had written about himself on his FaceBook page. He had invited himself into my apartment not knowing anything more about me than what I'd written on my FaceBook page.
It was pretty crazy, when you think about it. Might even be dangerous.
When the awkwardness got too awkward, I did what I normally do. I started to laugh. Out loud. He looked up from the "owner's manual" that came with the printer and started laughing as well.
"This is pretty crazy, isn't it?" he said.
"Absolutely," I said.
We laughed and then he said that he had been reading my blog for a while and felt as if he knew me. He told me a bit of his own story and that he had struggled with depression most of his life. That explained the unmistakable gloomy cloud that hung over his head. He talked about his experiences as a lawyer and as a Lutheran pastor and we talked at length about a book I had reviewed on my blog, Dennis Maynard's "When Sheep Attack." He could relate.
He also told me that he had seen me at church - St. John's, Bowdoin Street - where he attended with his wife, but since I had been busy catching up with old friends, he was reluctant to intrude and introduce himself. We made a point to make certain to have coffee together that next Sunday.
We talked the whole time he puttered around with wires and the modum and the printer and then, suddenly, the printer was working. It all took a little more than an hour. He collected his stuff and said he would catch the bus from Harvard Square back to his boat in Charlestown. It was a cold evening and I offered to give him a lift to the Square which he gratefully accepted.
We had a few more conversations at church and online. I loved his sense of humor which ranged from wry to wacky to wicked. Just my cup of hilarity.
I met his wife and thought her a great person and a wonderful wife and mother. We shared a deeply meaningful Holy Week and glorious Easter Day together at St. John's.
At the end of June, I left Cambridge and came back to DE. We talked about he and his wife coming to visit us at Llangollen.
A week ago last Sunday, he and his wife had an argument and he left the boat where they lived. On Tuesday, he went missing. Concerned, his wife reported him as a missing person. A few days later, the police were able to track his cell phone to Lynn, MA, where his abandoned car was also found.
He was found in his car, behind an old abandoned building, facing the water.
I'm still in shock. I'm stunned. I'm deeply, deeply sad.
The world is diminished by the loss of this kind, gentle, very bright but unassuming man whose life was overshadowed by the cloud of gloom he couldn't seem to shake from his presence.
I keep remembering a line from a poem I read long, long ago, written by a former Jesuit priest named James Kavanaugh. "There are men too gentle to live among wolves."
There are men too gentle to live among wolvesThat seemed an apt description for Michael.
Who prey upon them with IBM eyes
And sell their hearts and guts for martinis at noon.
There are men too gentle for a savage world
Who dream instead of snow and children and Halloween
And wonder if the leaves will change their color soon.
I know a little of what was in that cloud and the vapors that had created it, and while that dark cloud was formidable, I never thought he wasn't strong enough to keep walking with it.
Odd, isn't it? That clouds can be that strong. I mean, they are just vapor and mist, after all. A strong wind can blow them all over the sky, chasing them away like hooligans who bully and threaten but have nothing but 'hot air' to bluster in their defense.
I should know better. I've certainly known enough people over the years whose lives were overtaken and swallowed up by dark clouds. I suppose I always feared that for Michael, but I suppose I thought this time....this one.....this man....his intelligence.....his humor.....his wit.....his faith......his wife....his love.....his family's love.....his church....his community.....his patience......his relentless struggle......
The bright hope of optimism is never a fair adversary of the dark clouds of depression. And yet, with all the research and treatment modalities which the disciple of psychiatric medicine has brought us, I think, ultimately, it was the optimism of his faith that allowed Michael to live as long as he did. Indeed, I think a lesser man would have been dead years ago.
About a year ago, I read "Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So: A Memoir" by Mark Vonnegut. Mark is Kurt's (Slaughterhouse-Five) son, who also happens to be a husband and a father and a successful pediatrician in Boston who struggles with bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia. He wrote:
"There are no people anywhere who don't have some mental illness. It all depends on where you set the bar and how hard you look. What is a myth is that we are mostly well most of the time."
"What so-called normal people are doing when they define diseases like manic-depressive or schizophrenia is reassuring themselves that they don't have a thought disorder or affective disorder, that their thoughts and feelings make perfect sense."
"Of course I'm trying to save the world. What else would a bipolar manic depressive hippie with a BA in religion practicing primary-care pediatrics be up to?"I think it's that part of my own mental illness that grieves most deeply - and is most frightened - by Michael's death. We're all, each in our own way, trying to shoo away the dark clouds that come to stay from time to time.
We're all trying to convince ourselves that we're "normal" and people like Michael aren't. Michael just lost the battle while the rest of us struggle on to appear "normal".
It all depends on where you set the bar and how hard you look.
I am struck by the fact that Michael's body was found in the water. Michael loved the water. He lived on the water. If you free yourself from illusions of what is "normal" then it seems absolutely right that Michael went "home" to the water.
I am strangely comforted by that small fact of his death.
My faith teaches me that Michael has now found the peace which was so elusive to him in this life. I wish that weren't so. I wish he could have found that here. With us. And, his family that he loved and who loved him.
If you don't, then I suggest you consider that you just may be selfish and crazy.
There's a dark cloud that's been chasing me all morning. It's a dark cloud of sadness and grief, but not despair.
You see, I'm crazy enough to believe that you can meet people and actually make friends in cyberspace. Of course, an actual face-to-face relationship furthers the relationship, but what I once thought impossible is now happening every day. I know. It happens to me all the time.
Pretty crazy, right? Life is like that.
I keep hearing Joni Mitchell's song "Both Sides Now".
Oh but now old friends are acting strangeI'm also crazy enough to believe that I will meet Michael again, one day, in that great by-and-by.
They shake their heads, they say I've changed
Well something's lost but something's gained
In living every day
I've looked at life from both sides now
From WIN and LOSE and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all.
But this time, instead of dark clouds following us around, we'll be standing on them.
Be at peace, dear Michael. Deep, lasting, eternal peace.
Given where I believe you are now, I know it's crazy to say this, but I just still wish you were here.