Everything I needed to know about Mike, I learned on our first date. He took the train from Evanston for dinner at my apartment, a tiny studio on the worst corner in the worst neighborhood he’d ever set foot in. We’d been talking online for months, exchanging long letters about everything and nothing. We wrote constantly, sometimes two or three times a day. Each letter was hilarious, and taught me that the man was relentless.
He appeared in my doorway and my first impression was, “This guy is HUGE.” It wasn’t just that he was six foot four and built like a tank, he didn’t take up space in the boisterous, maniacal way of some large personalities. It’s that he was so present. Despite drawing so much attention, he made me feel like the most interesting person on Earth.
That he was there at all meant he was brave, open-minded, curious, and optimistic. He arrived with wine in hand on a date that was intended to be romantic, but never made a move to kiss me. He was respectful, innately aware of my level of comfort or unease. The caution he took in all things to be non-threatening, not only to small women but all people, all animals, all delicate pieces of furniture, taught me he was more humble and compassionate than any man I had ever met.
We had a great conversation, in which he proved he was more brilliant in person than his letters showed. The night ended abruptly when he realized he’d missed his last train home. Through his panic I learned Mike was not a planner. He frequently didn’t think ahead more than the next few steps. He had grand ideas, but lost a bit in execution. And I learned he could see his mistakes on his own, a rare quality if ever there was one. After a sleepless night on the couch, he snuck out before I woke up, without leaving a note. I learned he was terrible at goodbyes.
We continued writing to each other nearly every day for another year and a half before he agreed to a second date, by which time I had long known I was in love with him. “I knew that if I started dated you, that would be it,” he later said. He was not good at making the decision to make a commitment. Commitment itself he did wonderfully, but it took him almost a year to agree to buy a couch, the idea of dating the woman he’d marry of course took even longer.
When people die too young it’s easy to remember them only as young, but Mike did not think of himself that way. He was delighted to refer to himself as middle-aged. He was thrilled to achieve “over the hill.” Mike lived a full, adult life, which differed from anyone else’s in only a few significant ways.
Obviously, brain cancer. Diagnosed at 24, freshly engaged and hardly established at a dream job, he wasn’t much of an adult. But faced with the specter of death, we both grew up. To decide to live in those circumstances is not a childlike notion. It is an intentional act, taken with the full psychological and spiritual burden of the awareness of mortality. All the hallmarks of childhood innocence, gone. And what Mike taught me through our near-instantaneous process of growing up together was that adulthood was fun. We had so much fun, every day, even the worst days. Almost especially on the worst days.
Mike was not a child when he left the hospital in 2007, ready to face his life and his death. He was a man, and the best man I had ever known.
The only other ways in which his life differed from other people’s were these: He loved completely. He cared absolutely. He joked incessantly. He spent every day learning something, from the trivial to the profound. And he built a life, cancer be damned, as he was always going to do. And that life was too short.
Mike’s cancer didn’t change him in the slightest. I knew he was brave before he decided to go into treatment without knowing the odds. I knew he was compassionate before he made it his mission to ensure he left his kids as un-traumatized by his death as possible. I knew he was bad at planning before he ended up in a pandemic for the climax of his disease. I knew he was humble before he refused credit for his survival. I knew before he tried treatment after treatment, trial after trial, he was relentless. When every day he faced hardships that would break the strongest spirit, I already knew he was committed. And when each morning he woke up overflowing with love, for me and the girls, when he was so present, willing to stop everything at a request for an unmatchable hug, to comfort a friend, to tell me he loved me, it wasn’t a surprise, either.
The only surprise was his ability to say goodbye. So many people leave this world with things unsaid. But from the days after his last tumor surgery, he took so much time to reply to texts, make phone calls, reach out. His last words to his daughters, calling each of them by name, were, “I love you.” His last words to me, in response to a monologue about how grateful I was for his companionship, friendship, and partnership, in response to telling him I always tried to be my best self because I couldn’t believe I deserved of the love of someone so good, when I said I’d spend the rest of my life trying to be the person he believed I was but never asked me to be, he said, “You’re perfect.”
He died as he lived, unafraid, unfettered, caring always more for those around him than for himself.
I will spend the rest of my life missing him, but I know I have a life to live because he taught me so much. None of us know how much time we have, and in his honor we should live as our truest selves, follow our greatest happiness, and try to treat ourselves with his humor and grace.
You’re perfect, Mike. I love you.
You can watch the memorial service here:
You can donate to a GoFundMe for Mike’s end-of-life care here: Love for the Grover Family
You can read more about Mike’s last wishes here: On Mike Ending Treatment
Read my most recent post here: The End
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