So much has gone on the past two weeks, I don’t know quite know how to get into it. It’s going to have to be several entries, starting with the loss of Michael. To tell you about him, I have to go back to where it began, and that was a long time ago: September of 1989, or thereabout. I was hanging out in a lounge at Macalester when my friend Rachel came in, bursting with excitement over a band she’d seen, Gallowglass, at something called a Renaissance Festival? Apparently they were awesome and the lead singer was HOT and we HAD to go see them. If you know me now, you’ll know what a pivotal moment this was in my life; I didn’t even know what a Renaissance fair was, until Rachel made me go to one. I didn’t know any Irish tunes, to sing them–I recognized “Danny Boy” and a couple of others when they went by me, but that was it. The following weekend, or perhaps the one after that, I went, I saw, I fell in love. The lead singer, Lojo, was hot–and she had two really cute guys with her, too!
If I could peel away all that’s happened since then, I would probably remember that I found Michael the more magnetic of the two men in the band. He had dark hair and deep, soulful brown eyes; he was a beautiful man. Ken, fairer and with piercing blue eyes, was sharply funny and had the most charming giggle. I fell for the band as an entity, and spent the next few summers slavishly following them around Fest whenever I could get out there for a day. I bought their tapes, learned their tunes, and carried their music with me everywhere–and this was back in the days of cassette tapes and Sony Walkmans!
The shifting patterns of life brought Ken and me into friendship, and then into the romantic partnership we have now. This made Michael and Lojo my siblings-in-law, in effect, as Gallowglass was very much a little family. They certainly laughed and argued and got on each other’s nerves and loved each other like a sister and brothers. We saw them at reunion shows that were very much like family reunions (lauging, arguing, annoying, loving), and sometimes met up with one or the other at Fest. Any two of the three together meant the instruments would come out, and friends would be drawn from across the fair by their music. (I can’t count the number of times people ran up to them, shouting, “I knew that was you just by the sound!”)
And that’s how it was, for a few years more. We saw Michael and Lojo now and then on visits, and there was always the specter of another Gallowglass reunion somewhere down the road. Until two years ago, when Michael was diagnosed with bladder cancer–an aggressive form, rare in someone so young. Almost immediately, he started a blog, The Unintentional Expert, partly to keep distant friends and family updated, partly to work through the emotions he was going through. That’s when I felt I really got to know Michael; if he was angry, sad, or frightened, he wrote about it. The blog could be hard to read at times, it was so personal. The naked emotion could be scouring, but hearing what he had to say felt like one small thing we could do for him. If we couldn’t help, or fix, or comfort, we could at least witness.
There were joyful entries, too–days of good results; adventures with Jen, his girlfriend; and sweet, peaceful times with his greyhounds, Kaia and Boo. During the months of remission, we all had reason to hope. Being decades younger than the usual patient with bladder cancer, Michael had more strength to draw on in recovery. He visited Portland and we got to spend some time with him during this hopeful, healthful period. He took several trips with Jen and made the most of being well.
Toward the end of July 2011, we got the bad news that the cancer had returned. Michael waded back into the fray with his customary determination: “I’m still angry about this entire thing, but it is manageable, doable and survivable,” he wrote on July 29, 2011. He gave the fight his all, even as the cancer spread and more organs became compromised. When Ken and I decided to attend CONvergence in Minneapolis this July, plans got underway for a Gallowglass reunion concert. We knew it might be too much to hope that Michael would be strong enough to play the show, but we thought he might at least be able to be there. We couldn’t do anything but hope, so that’s what we did.
Michael spent most of May in the hospital, and updates to his blog were increasingly made by his devoted brother, Kevin. On Friday, June 8th, Kevin posted a brief announcement that they were planning to move Michael to hospice care. That started a weekend of tears that seemed to never let up; Saturday, Michael moved into the hospice, and friends were invited to visit, to say goodbye. Some of them did, and others were making plans to and even on their way to see him Sunday morning when the news that Michael had passed on came out. It was so sudden and shocking; on Friday, Ken had looked up the average hospice stay and we cried to learn it was only 17 days. Little did we know then that 17 days would have been a gift.
The rest of that day and the next, I watched the news ripple through my social circles, an ever-expanding shockwave. People commented on posts and pictures, re-posted the news, and began to share their stories of how Michael had touched their lives. Everything made me cry–funny stories, cute pictures, expressions of sympathy and grief; it was all too much to take in. It was amazing to see how many people Michael had impacted, and how deeply they felt his loss. The thought kept returning to me that if you can judge a man’s life by the breadth and depth of the grief his passing inspires, then Michael was a great man, and he lived a great life.
In my eulogy to my father, I said that as long as his students remembered him and passed on what they’d learned from him, he could never truly be dead; he lived on in the minds of everyone he taught. I believe this is true of Michael, too, that he lives on not only with all who loved him and mourn him personally, but also with everyone who was touched by his music.
Kevin announced they would hold a memorial service for Michael the following Saturday, June 16th, and we started making plans to get Ken to Minneapolis. What happened en route is the next part of the story, for a later post.