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Monday, August 20, 2012

Both Sides Now

I first met Michael on FaceBook.

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.

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.
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?

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."

I liked him the minute he walked through the door. He had a kind, gentle face, lined with hints and rumors of some difficult road traveled in the past. He was quiet and unassuming and set immediately about the task of getting the 'wireless' function of my printer to work.

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.

And then, he left. As quietly and unassumingly as he had entered.

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 wolves
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.
 That seemed an apt description for Michael.

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.

But, that's just 'the crazy' part of me talking now. Selfish, too. I think crazy and selfish are perfectly normal grief reactions.

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 strange
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.
I'm also crazy enough to believe that I will meet Michael again, one day, in that great by-and-by.

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.


Ann said...

So sad for his family and those who loved him. No peace for them for now -- but hopefully some day.

James said...

Thank you, Elizabeth, for this tribute. Michael was truly a remarkable person and as the bible says, we entertained an angle, unaware of the fact.

June Butler said...

What a lovely tribute, Elizabeth. When I saw from a post on Facebook by our friend Ann that Michael had died, I clicked on his page and saw that he followed my public posts. He left a comment on my FB page from time to time. I'm sorry he's not still with us, and I'm sorry I did not get to know him better on Facebook. I pray Michael is at peace. I pray for comfort, consolation, and peace for all who love Michael.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Ann - I think we all knew it was possible. Still, when it happens, it's a shock. Maybe someday, there will be peace for them.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

James - Thank you. I'm still so very sad. I'm sure we all will be for a long time.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Mimi. I guess it is a tribute. I was really just working out my grief. Whatever peace we find after Michael's death will be more than Michael ever knew in this life.

Mark Harris said...

Working out your grief...also working out your love and honor of Michael. Grief is inside out love sometimes, and a great tribute to someone you write about with a tenderness that is, well, wonderful.

Keep the tender comin' we are all going to need it some day.

Wonderful revelation post.

JCF said...


Thought I had last night, upon hearing of the suicide of director Tony Scott: we may think about the (bad) state of our mental health services, when someone goes violently nuts, like the Aurora CO shooter.

But suicide is like a slow-motion massacre, day after day after day. No headlines (unless the victim, like Scott, is famous). But the numbers add up, even more than murder.

And people aren't numbers, anyway.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Mark. This grief stuff is hard work. "Inside-out-love" is right. My heart is very tender tonight. Thank you for your kindness.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF - No, no headlines, mercifully. And, thankfully, we've changed our theology about suicide. Michael is at peace. Thanks be to God.

Genette said...

It sounds as if your friend would want us all to really think about what his death means whether it was a suicide or an accident while he walked alone beside the sea. Since those of you who knew him "knew it was possible", I wonder if part of the grief is the frustration that there didn't seem to be anything to do about it, any solution possible to the inevitable return of that cloud. Of course, each person's set of "vapors" is different and complicated and, let's be honest, wildly time consuming and often we feel that "we" have no skills or expertise or knowledge that will actually help ... but a note from one who's been there: the root of despair is disconnection, from feeling that no amount of effort or doing will ever be enough to feel valued, really worth the time and effort and love of others in "return" for whatever we have to offer. Yup, drugs may help with the faulty brain chemistry part of the equation, but what really helps is the friend who calls, shows up, holds that shaking hand - doesn't just say,"it will get better" but stays to make it better with presence, with not letting the loneliness of it all win, presence that says, "I get it, you're in a fragile place and since you are precious to me, I'll be here to protect you, to be the strong one for as long as it takes." If you know someone prone to these fragile phases, call them today, go visit, wrap all of you around all of them and be the presence that matters. That is what being "the body of Christ on earth" means - being there - the alternative is one last walk to be with one's God when the pain is too much to bear alone.

textjunkie said...

Oh I am so sorry. It is such a tragedy when someone loses that struggle, and so hard on the family and friends they leave behind, no matter how strongly they struggled together to try to make a difference. May God grant them all peace.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Genette - I think the thing that is most surprising is that Michael was so well connected. Church. Family. Very, very active on FaceBook. In fact, I think I counted 6 or seven posts and lots of conversation on the day he went missing.

I suspect he had had enough. He just got tired of the struggle. I understand. I don't like it one bit, but I understand.

Thanks for your comments. I so appreciate your honesty and insight.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

textjunkie - thanks for your kind words. I think it's going to take us all a long time to recover.

Genette said...

EK - sometimes the loneliest people are in the middle of the crowd, using every ounce of strenth and faith and energy in the effort to feel, find, know sustaining connection ... and still they go unseen in the way they actually need ... oh, if only they would glow or something, give us a hint ... if only.

RENZ said...

Yes, Elizabeth (to your post) My cyber friendships keep me going.

I have suffered disconnectedness while appearing connected. However, in my experience healthy or not helpful comments from friends aren't enough to blast through the thick indifference I am feeling. For me, nothing has value when I am in that fog. I am reluctant, therefore, to suggest that there is some responsibility on the part of others to recognize my despair and comment correctly. It is the loving kindness that my friends gift to me over time that boosts me through the bleak periods. And just like Public Radio, every "dollar" counts. Sometimes it is a comment from one of the least of my cyber connections, that puts a smile on my face. Peace.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Genette - Your words are words of wisdom born of experience. I'm thankful you left them here for others to read

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

RENZ - We'll keep putting that "money" into the "bank". Not to worry. The rest, as they say, is up to you.

RENZ said...

Lots of lines from movies stick with me for any number of reasons. From The Big Chill, the characters are struggling to understand why their friend had committed suicide. William Hurt's character says, "Maybe it isn't about ' Why' - maybe it's when you run out of reasons ' why not.'"

I know deep down that I have surrounded myself with my rescued animals because they are my strongest Why Not's."

I've thanked some of my cyber friends for being my Why Not's.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, RENZ. I think that's the place where Michael was that Tuesday not. He had run out of why not's.