I’ve always thought the essence of life is to love, laugh, and leave my corner of the world a better place than when I joined it. To this end, I live with urgency and the belief that longevity is not granted to everyone and is not guaranteed to me. Urgency—a motivator and a cross.
Maybe the true essence of life is greater than that. In fact, maybe it’s defined by those who come in and out of our lives, leaving their mark and making us better.
To pick up where I left off yesterday, the obituary of my friend Michael was what I expected. You see, Michael was a simple guy. I learned this in kindergarten. He reminded me somewhat of my Grandpa Curran, dressed simply but neatly, well mannered, and shy. They carried themselves similarly. For those of you who knew both men, you understand the analogy.
One of my earliest memories of Michael was in first grade when we would go to the library over in the big green schoolhouse. (Kindergarten and first grade were housed in a smaller building.) The library was on the second floor. Not to belittle the culture I grew up in, but we were mostly naïve country kids. Some of us had never seen stairs in real life. When we stood at the bottom of those stairs, Michael started crying. The amicable little boy who always had a smile on his face stood there, refusing to budge. We all stood behind him, single file, waiting for the teacher to do something—anything—to solve the problem. After all, she was the teacher, which put her just a step below God, right? We waited for what seemed like forever until she finally coaxed him up the stairs, and we followed along.
Unfortunately, we repeated the same ritual on the way back down. We eventually became seasoned veterans of those stairs, but it was an early sign that Michael wasn’t keen on what the world insisted he do or become. He did not want to be forced out of his comfort zone. But this was a little boy being raised by his grandmother because his parents were dead.
In third grade, Michael asked me to be his girlfriend. He was my friend, but I wanted no part of the whole girlfriend-boyfriend thing. After all, we were eight. I’m sure I hurt him, though he tried to be stoic about it.
The high school years saw most of us scattered into cliques to which kids tend to gravitate. With Newberry and Archer elementary merging into one, it was easy to get lost in the crowd. I often passed him in the hallway or outside, but we weren’t close friends. Our worlds had grown apart.
Fast forward almost 20 years. Engrossed in my own life of raising children and working, life was hectic. We had moved from Florida to North Carolina and I lost touch with many old friends. One day my mom called. She had Michael’s address. He wondered if I’d write him. (This is the point where I’d like to offer encouragement. When someone makes a simple request, take the time to fulfill it.) I sat down and wrote him a letter and within about a week, I had a reply. I pulled the single sheet of notebook paper out of the envelope, and Michael’s schoolboy handwriting greeted me. He seemed happy. I believe he said he was working in a Wal-Mart warehouse, though almost ten years later, I can’t remember specifically. I wrote again and sent a Christmas card for a couple of years, but then we lost contact again. I occasionally got updates from my mom who saw him in Publix supermarket from time to time. Having relocated to South Carolina, I’d lost his address. I found him on Facebook about a year ago, but his page seemed inactive. By that point, his health was so bad, I’m not sure how much he utilized it, anyway. I messaged him a couple of times but never got a reply.
I could share some other things, but I won’t. He wasn’t the same after his grandmother passed. I prefer to think of Michael as my childhood friend, smiling and happy—and not his final years.
You might be wondering—Who’s the other Michael I alluded to in the title? When I scanned over the obituary page, two things struck me. Success is measured by your ability to pay for accolades at the end of your life. There were two Michaels, both age 45, both Florida natives, who passed within a day of each other. One obituary, Newberry, FL – Michael Wayne Frier, age 45, maintenance, passed away on April 28, 2011. This took a half inch to print. The other obituary spanned a seven-inch column. Their lives played out very differently. Some may say our Michael grew up disadvantaged, raised by his grandmother in a small, rural town, and chose to stay there. But something about him captivated my heart from the beginning. In my opinion, success is the ability to leave a lasting impression on those you leave behind.
Which leads me to my second observation. No matter how the world measures our successes, we all leave this world alone. And then God takes measure of us.
Godspeed, my old friend.