Recently, I’ve given some thought to how lucky I am. I’m not sure if it’s because of
the friends that I’ve chosen or have chosen me. Or maybe I’m in some way blessed. But, I’ve been fortunate to have some really incredible people share the road with me on this journey through life.
A lot of philosophers and psychologists will disagree with me. I’ve always held the belief that people are inherently good. We can debate this another time; but, I’m happier thinking this than I would be if I didn’t. Because of my blind faith in people, I’m often disappointed. However; occasionally, fate will place someone in my path that completely restores my belief system.
Mike Justice was one of those people.
The first time I showed up at his home Mike didn’t have give me the time of day. He had met thousands of his niece’s boyfriends. (Note: Sonja hasn’t really had thousands of boyfriends. Occasionally, I will take advantage of creative license. This is when a writer will exaggerate; sometimes to get a laugh. I really needed a laugh today and that line worked for me. Although in a few hours it will most assuredly secure me a solid punch in the shoulder. I probably need one of those today, too.)
Back to our meeting. I remember my first conversation with Mike. Not the “this is my Uncle Mike, this is my boyfriend Mike” “Ha, another Mike” exchange. The real one that came shortly after that. We found ourselves outside on the deck together. In his deep, harmonious, gravelly, manly voice…you know, one of those voices that reminds you of a teacher or grandfather or someone in your life you once loved and will never forget the sound of them saying your name? One of those voices that resonates. That is sometimes too loud; but, is delightfully unashamed of its volume. A voice that sounds like a finely tuned engine. One of those voices that before you ever hear it share a song, you know exactly how it is going to sound when singing? In that voice he turned to me, smiled, and drawled, “So, you’re an Appalachian Football fan?” That was all it took. We became fast friends.
At the time I remember thinking, “this is nice. He’s trying to make a connection with me so I’ll feel included.” I’ve spent some time with his friends and family the past few days. I’ve heard stories about an incredible Husband, Brother, Father, Grandfather, Uncle, Brother-in-Law, and Friend. I saw an entire town line up outside of a funeral home. I’ve seen more tears that I can count. I’ve heard tales about golf and hunting and communication, or lack thereof, that resulted in laughter and then more tears. I’ve realized I was wrong. That conversation five years ago. The one that I sensed he was reaching out. He wasn’t trying to make a connection. He never had to try. That skill was effortless for him.
When I was outside cooking at the beach or on my back deck Mike would join me. I would always tell him that there was no need for both of us to be outside sweating. He would ignore me and proceed to tell a joke. He was hilarious. Many times, unintentionally. And when accidentally funny, he was a good enough sport to join in the laughter. I remember him sucking me into a 15 minute long joke. Maybe longer. As the anecdote seemed to be reaching it’s conclusion I realized that I couldn’t predict the punchline. Usually, I can figure out the inevitable ending to a funny story. I had no idea where this tale was going. Apparently, Mike didn’t either. He just stopped mid-sentence and looked at me. Then chuckled and said, “and then something about a bear. I don’t remember.” I laughed so hard it hurt. I have a hard time remembering jokes. I’ll never forget that missing punchline. Between jokes he would offer to help or we would discuss grilling techniques. Our conversations were organic. Guys cooking over fire. Talking about sports. Joking. Laughing. I’m going to miss that.
I’ve had a lot of discussions with friends and family about death and dying this week. Is it better to go quickly, without warning, or not? We haven’t been able to come up with any answers except, “we aren’t given a choice.” I’m incredibly thankful my friend didn’t suffer. But, I wish I had the chance to talk to him again. Although, I’m not really sure what I would say.
Maybe, thanks for not correcting me when I called you Uncle Mike. (And for not getting mad when I suggested we go by “Old Mike / Young Mike” or “Big Mike / Little Mike”)
Thanks for the birthday cards. They are all hilarious.
Thanks for providing an inspiring example to others of fatherhood, marriage, and friendship.
Thanks for world’s greatest koozie.
Thanks for being one of those people who I never heard speak poorly of anyone else. Ever.
Thanks for singing “Happy Birthday” in restaurants so loudly that other tables would join in and the birthday girl would crawl under the table.
Thanks for always being there for Sonja when she needed you.
Thank you for your friendship, the love, and the laughter.
Two days before he left us he was at my house for a Low Country Boil. Per our custom, he sat outside with me while I cooked. We talked about Appalachian Football. He asked me about our recent cruise (“Well…how many languages did you learn?”). He talked about his grandchildren. He told a couple jokes. I listened to him engage with a NASCAR enthusiast about racing, and a fellow golfer about the perils of golfing. Uncle Mike asked my golfing friend details about his catering business. Not making small talk. Because he was genuinely interested. Effortlessly building a friendship.
Two days later I sent my friend a text about Mike’s passing. His response: “Damn. I liked him.”
Me, too, Pal. I loved the guy.