Note: I actually wrote this several years ago, but the interactions on the blog, some comments in class, and a personal encounter prompted me to share it here.
I strained to hear his voice over the din of traffic a few feet behind him. But, in reality, I already knew what he was saying, because I have heard ministers of various denominations say it before. We were down to the things that have to be said when there is nothing else left to be said. While a small group looked on, we buried Michael Saturday in the last row of the cemetery.
In a high school class that included an Olympic gold medallist and number one NBA draft choice, a Miss USA, and two long-time NFL players, Michael was the only “sure thing” I knew. Admired by every girl under five-foot-five, a polished communicator at seventeen, a scholar-athlete with a ready laugh, the world unfolded before him thirty years ago. He was headed to Notre Dame to make his mark and to follow his destiny. All of us who knew him were aware that great success was inevitable.
Because this was so clear to us, we spent that last year of high school consumed with jealousy. My buddy and I made it our mission to make sure that Michael remained humble, so we began referring to him as “Marvelous Mike,” a moniker that remained in people’s memories even as we said goodbye this weekend. We devised a series of glamorous dates that could be had with Michael and advertised ourselves as “Marvelous Mike’s Dating Service.” We set as our goal to embarrass Michael in ways that would keep him within reach of our mortality.
I moved on with my life, but my buddy turned out to be Michael’s most trusted friend through the years. Each was best man in the other’s wedding, and Ed made sure to keep close ties with Michael wherever he went.
Michael had many successes and some failures as well. The scorebook is perhaps not all that important to the story. He was about to start a great opportunity when they found him in his L. A. apartment, the victim of a heart attack. I do not know the whole story of his life, and I have no need to. I sensed a trace of sadness about it that pervaded the conversations of those more intimately acquainted with the details.
In fact, I felt welcome in the conversations because the days we spent together were actually days in his life pervaded with laughter. I could remember triple dating with Michael and his twin brother in a Volkswagen beetle (what were we thinking?). I recall flying across the grounds of an elementary school in that same Bug, and winning the city soccer championship. I was a co-conspirator in a boondoggle that allowed him to go on a French club trip, even though the required “two years of French” he had taken were in first and second grade. The hardest I ever saw Michael laugh was when I accidentally won a competition on that trip, despite the fact that I had answered the multiple choice test randomly before I ever heard the questions.
In some sense that accidental success characterizes my life. Who knew that I would find Christ and my wife within a year of each other, and that both would shape the track of my entire life? I have had heartache, but the blessings I have experienced have been so overwhelming as to defy logic.
As I listened this weekend, I sensed that the same could not be said about Michael. He had surely had blessings, but his search for peace was ongoing. It turned out that success and happiness in this life are never guaranteed.
Before I left the cemetery, I made sure that I had said “I love you” to two people who should have heard it long ago. And I said an “I’m sorry” that was almost thirty years overdue.
But there was nothing left to say to Michael. I could not tell him that the only “sure things” are on the other side of death, of a hope both sure and secure. I could not tell him that trials come with a purpose, to draw us toward the only One who guarantees real success. I could not even tell him that I loved him.
As I walked away into a gray November afternoon, the only thing I could say was goodbye to a sure thing.