I think I am supposed to feel, or know, or understand that death is natural. Clearly, it is part of life, and I will lose people, continually, for the rest of my own life. Apparently it is natural.
But this is my first experience in losing a friend. Let alone a friend who was also a mentor and like a big brother. A guy whom I would not hesitate to call a hero.
He stretched the elastic of pure goodness so far, and the scope at which his goodness pulled was so deep and penetrating into my life (our lives!) that his absence feels like an UN-natural release of tension. A snapping away from the world, so extreme, that the sting is acutely painful.
I hurt so badly from his sudden absence and I resent the fact that he is now regulated to the part of my brain that holds memories. I don’t get to see him, I don’t get to learn from him, I don’t get to share him with the rest of my family, I don’t get to include him in my future plans. If you have met him, you know why this seems like such a big deal. The dude is goodness personified. That simply isn’t something I want ripped away from my life.
I don’t want him to be a memory. But for all my crying, I am able to smile, now, at the incredible goodness of my memories of him.
When I was a child, and into my late teens, I lived on the edge of a forest in a large valley amidst the foothills of the Olympic Mountains. There, I played alone in the woods almost exclusively. I knew the forest well. I had a very distinct stomping ground. I kept my exploration to a very specific area of the forest. I knew that area as well as any person could. As you can imagine, my fondness for the trees, the gulley, the stream, and the many forts I had built up in that space was immense. So was my knowledge of the area.
I clocked in many, many hours, exploring and playing and enjoying the space. I made plans. “One day, I will camp on that mossy spot.” “One day I will show my wife this great patch of wild flowers that bloom and grow in that sunny spot each year.” I always wanted to show people my rope swings, my footbridge, the old fallen down log that crossed the ravine and was covered in moss. There was an old stump I always used to shoot bottles with my pellet gun. My plans for the area were as rich as my knowledge and memory of its space. It was a big space. And it was mine.
When I left home to work for the puppet company in Texas in 1997, I left my forest. I was 19 years old. During that first year away, the State leased some land to a logging company. While I was away from that place I know and love so well, each and every tree I was familiar with, every location, everything, was logged entirely in one sweeping clear-cut.
To this day, I wake up from time to time with a quickly diminishing smile as I realize that I was only dreaming when I was walking through my woods again. I really, really, really, want to go back to that place. But it simply isn’t possible. To make it sting even worse, the logging company only logged EXACTLY in the space that was my stomping ground. Nothing else was touched, by sheer coincidence, the land lease was a specific, direct, and precise ripping away of only that space that I held dear on that mountain. 19 years of knowing it well, and now I must live the remainder of my life never knowing it again.
I went back there last year. My older sister purchased our old house. I went for a walk. It wasn’t easy. The clear cut process leaves a huge mess. The new saplings are all deciduous and much more intrusive on the landscape than the old tall evergreens. The paths, trails, and routes I used to take are gone. Tractors and trucks have dug up the landscape, and uprooted stumps and eratic underbrush litter the landscape. There is no shade, and erosion has destroyed whatever charm might have been left. It’s a sad ugly place now.
Oddly enough though, one part of my forest does remain. You see, you cannot legally log around the banks of the mountain streams. The flow of water cannot be obstructed. And indeed, the only thing I could recognize in the wake of that destruction was the small, steady stream that flows all year long. The water was still rushing, just as it ever did. Out from inside my old forest, into the valley, through the pastures, and down the mountain into the Pacific Ocean. The water is still there.
Losing Mickey feels very much like losing my forest. I grit my teeth and furrow my brow at the frustration of knowing he, like my forest, is something I will never experience again.
And so far, in this week since his death, I have wrestled with this feeling of loss. However, I was given a very significant tidbit of inspiration from a friend. He used two sentences to say it. In regards to Mickey’s death and its impact on my life he said: “Now you get to (have to!) be Mickey’s legacy. That’s how it works.”
It’s just a fact. And it is true for everyone else who knew him too.
The water is still flowing folks. It’s not going to stop. Mickey and my forest are now memories, but when you go to Cambodia to try to relive Mickey’s memory, or if you stop by where my old forest is, what you will still find is water. And while I have no idea how to carry on the legacy of my old forest, I do know that to carry on Mickey’s legacy we only need to look at what his life’s work was. Providing WATER OF LIFE to as many people as he possibly could. Selflessly, diligently, and creatively. And with enthusiasm, kindness, and an unstoppable sense of purpose. Mickey’s death, to me, is an ugly, awful, and destructive act of violence. But, it is simply a fact that his legacy will continue to flow. How sublime is it that someone who touched us so much, someone who has so completely earned our trust and someone who has inspired us to desire to continue his legacy, spent his life providing pure water to those who need it most?
I guess a lot of parallels or metaphors or whatever can be drawn, and writing this is more or less a kind of therapy for my own self. But I will say a few more things.
He loved his family, he loved his Cambodia, and he loved people.
He was a joy to work with, a joy to work for, and will always be a joy to remember.
He is the one person in my life whom I honestly can say I wanted EVERYONE I know to meet. He was such an inspiration that if you do NOT know him, you have to know this:. No one is exaggerating. He was really that much of an amazing person. As a result, the sting of his absence is sure to be a nearly unbearable pain to those who were near to him, his wonderful wife, his warm and kindhearted family in Kentucky, his terrific and hilarious kids, his Cambodian family, the village he lived in, and on and on and on it flows.
So I will be unable to make it to the memorial service in Cambodia this weekend, but I would like to propose a toast. Grab a cup of clean water, and drink to the unstoppable legacy we have inherited. To life, and an abundant one at that!
Thank you for being my friend, Mickey.
PS: But, “to be honest with you” , Mickey, I’m getting a little weary of my eyes watering and my throat tightening every time I see crap from the Russian Market around my house.
I have a lot more writing to do, and I have already written a lot more of my memories down. Another kind friend told me “This is the sort of thing you work through, not around.” And then told me to start writing memories. It’s been nice.