My godfather Mike was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS) when I was young. I don’t know how old exactly, or how long he suffered before succumbing to the illness when I was nine.
He had given my parents strict orders that I was not to know he was sick. I think he recognized my anxiety issues and wanted to enjoy me being my usual precocious self, in his final years.
I had no idea that he was dying till he passed on the 4th of July, 1992. Gaining his independence from a body that could no longer contain such a bright soul.
The disease slowly robbed his muscles of their strength and during the last year of his life, he had be assisted full time to meet his daily needs.
All I knew was that he was sitting down more and we were spending a lot more weekends visiting him at his house in Los Gatos instead of the adventures and trips that normally occupied our Saturdays and Sundays.
For months his house was filled to the brim with friends, helping out with what they could or just being present for Mike.
I still remember clearly the last time I saw him. I didn’t know it would be the last day I would ever spend with him.
He had known it was.
It was becoming very difficult for him to speak. Soon it was going to be obvious that something was VERY wrong and he didn’t want me to see him like that. We spent to whole day watching videos of Cirque De Sole, something that I just adored.
He sat with me.
Eating fresh sliced tomatoes from his garden topped with garlic salt. I still remember my first bite of that simple pleasure, it was a revelation. The smell of the garlic wafting from the plate had me thinking I was going to hate this odd snack.
Mike just smiled and handed me one of the smaller deep red slices of fruit. “First try it, Em. Then decide.” The flavor exploded as I bit down, salty and sweet simultaneously smelling of savory garlic and fresh tomato.
I was hooked.
We happily snaked the afternoon away. We finished our day’s programing with Moby Dick starring Gregory Peck. My all-time favorite movie as a child.
I could not remember ever being allowed to watch so much T.V! I was oblivious to his rapidly deteriorating health. Just a kid enjoying the change in activities.
When I left that night I still had the smell of garlic in my nose as the screen door closed between us. Me looking back though it still waving to Mike on the couch.
He died about little over a month later surrounded by family, my parents, Team Squeam and all his friends from Apple. He passed over from a room filled with love for him and gratefulness to have been a part of his life.
He was not married and had no children. He had given my dad his power of attorney and made him the executor of his estate.
He was cremated and had left instructions for his ashes to be spread in Santa Cruz. The team chartered a 70 foot yacht called the Chardonnay II that did daily cruises from Santa Cruz Harbor out into the Monterey Bay.
I was the only kid at the scattering of his ashes, happily running around the deck- till I got sea sick and had to go lay down. The mood was not somber and looking back now I realize that all the adults had years to get used to the idea of Mike being gone.
It was their lack of sadness and grief that allowed me to see that death was not all depression and sorrow, it was a simple inevitability
All you could do is be kind to those around you, live well and try to pass with grace.
He was such a strong example of embracing mortality, making difficult choices and not feeling sorry for yourself at the end of your life. He had done the best he could with the time he had and it showed in the memories of the friends he left behind.
He didn’t burden people with his passing, he lifted them up with it.
We scattered his ashes at sunset far out in the bay. Accompanied by a bouquets of yellow roses and orange carnations, his favorite. The adults reminisced and I went back below deck not feeling well again, not at all. (Motion sickness has always been a big part of my life.)
The next day we were at T’n’A’s house on Delaware Avenue off West cliff. We decided to go cliff jumping in honor of Mike, something he loved to do when his body had still been able.
We all spent most of the afternoon happily plunging into the ocean and climbing back up the rocks, still thinking of Mike. After one of my jumps I hauled out on the beach to find my mom, Alyson and Sara all holding orange carnations exactly like the ones we had scattered with Mike’s ashes the day before.
I couldn’t believe it, we had been about 30 miles out in the bay and both bouquets had been tied at the stem. Of course, it is would not be a difficult or impossible thing for the ocean to disassemble a bouquets of flowers and carry them over long distances. But the fact that only three washed up, right at their feet as Sara played in the shore-break was a little harder to debunk.
The next day while Todd was surfing down at The Lane, his board dipped under a wave as he was paddling out and it came up with a single yellow rose on its nose.
Mike was the first person I knew and loved to die and it was not as bad as I thought it would be. I missed him very much and for years I kept a diary that I addressed to him. Everyday I would write him a letter about what had happened to me.
In his honor Team Squeam and his family bought him one of the memorial benches that line West Cliff Avenue.
It was in the best spot in all of Santa Cruz. Right outside the Santa Cruz light house Surfing Museum on the cliffs over looking Steamer Lane, the Municipal Wharf and the Boardwalk.
You could watch the sunset to your left as it colored the coast line with reds, oranges, yellow and golds all set off by the deep eternal blue of the ocean.
It was also in a perfect spot to see the the 4th of July fireworks set off from main beach.
It sat there for ten years until the cliff eroded away and it was moved.
Every 4th we would ride our beach cruisers from T n’ A’s down to the bench. We would decorate it with yellow roses and orange carnations and sit with Mike as the sky exploded in celebration.
It seemed apt, that we should remember him in this way. Not sadly or solemnly but with a ‘BANG.’ The bench let me feel there was a place I could go when I needed him to feel close again.
A place to visit and think back on all the happy memories we had, as the sky is set alight with loud colorful jubilation. Instead of visiting him in a cemetery surrounded by death- I got to sit watching the ocean and the hustle and bustle of the Lane and Lighthouse Field.
Remembering my Godfather the way he had lived, amidst the things he loved. In a magical place.
When I got older and I could drive down by myself would sit alone on that bench trying to recall color back into my now faded memories of a man I love very much. Trying to keep him alive in my heart but finding with each passing year the details escape me more and more. I could no longer remember the sound of his voice or way he smell when I hugged him.
The only clear memory I had was of that last day, the smell of garlic and a second in time when I can still see him through the screen waving goodbye to me, forever.
What I did find was that it was not the details that mattered, in the end I am left with the certain knowledge that a good man loved me very much. Even though he did not have a chance to watch me grow up, he was always there.
He was there because I kept him there, in my heart and mind.
Often when I sit on his bench and run my fingers along the now worn lettering of his name I don’t feel alone. Even when no one in this world is sitting next to me, the spot seems filled. Yet another place I belong where there is always a space saved for me.