Thursday, June 19, 2014

Death Comes Calling

Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot
Dylan Thomas, "And Death shall Have No Dominion"

I met Michael three years ago on Facebook.  It was a meeting of minds over the political issues of the day.  He was an Australian, not that much my junior, with a long career in the theatre back home.  In Thailand he was a teacher, a connoisseur of art, and a lover of elephants.  Even before we met I was captivated by his way with words, the comments he made, the exchange of messages with me.  Here was someone for whom life was no guilty pleasure but an adventure to be savoured.

We finally met at an art exhibit in a school near the flower market. He was one of the organizers and had little time to talk between posing for photos with some of Thailand's notable artists, all of them his friends.  But he introduced me to his longtime friend Susan, the guru of laughter yoga in Bangkok, and we too became Facebook friends and co-admirers of the marvelous Michael.  Over the next few years, Mikhun (as his Thai friends called him) and I continued to commune on Facebook and occasionally to meet for a meal or coffee. A big man, he used his body to punctuate his many stories, particular his eyes which sparkled with enthusiasm and joy.  Not long into our friendship, he moved to Chiang Mai to help with elephants who had been found to animate children with autism.  Elephants were one of his many passions and kids another.  After that, he moved on to Yangoon to be a school administrator and then a teacher. When his internet was working, we stayed in touch on Facebook.

With Susan and Banlu
Michael would return to Bangkok on visa runs and medical checkups and his cheap guest house of choice was in a backpacker alley not far from the river (during the flood of 2011 he messaged me frequently to hear about the rising waters). Earlier this year he left Burma for good and was recuperating following treatment for swollen ankles.  We kept in touch during Songkran when he was unable to go outside because of the water play.  At the end of the holiday I took him some books to read and we drank beer in the guest house restaurant close by a fan which blew the smoke away from his ever-present cigarette.

With Susan at our last dinner
Michael was obviously very seriously ill; the sparkle in his eyes dimmed. Where are all you friends, I asked?  Most of them are yellow shirts, he said, and don't like my politics now.  He tried to explain his departure from the school in Yangoon but it seemed a bit mystifying.  Now, he told me, he wanted to heal first and then return to Australia where he would have to live for two years to qualify for retirement before he could return to Southeast Asia.  Susan and I took him away from the guest house for a sidewalk dinner around the corner.  It was painful to see him walk so slowly with his cane.

Not long ago, Michael tripped and fell, and he lay two days in his guest house bed before the ambulance was called.  At Phramongkutklao Hospital the doctors examined a painful lump in his leg (that he'd been complaining about for weeks) and discovered a mass in his lung.  They diagnosed him with pneumonia and perhaps TB, maybe cancer.  I visited him in the 17th floor intensive care unit and saw the bruise on his head from the fall. His long-time partner Unn was with him when his heart stopped for several minutes.  And his sister in Australia was contacted and came to supervise treatment.  A feeding tube prohibited conversation and the last contact Michael had was through his eyes which could be quite expressive.  He died with a friend by his side who was playing recorded music for him. Before the day was out, his account on Facebook was filled to the brim with messages of sadness and love from his many friends in Thailand, Australia and Burma.

I didn't know Michael for long or very well and I regret that now very much.  It's not often you find a conversation partner so sympatico, even on Facebook.  No one has yet written his obituary (better yet, eulogy) so there is much that I do not know about his life. The many messages on Facebook speak of adventures going back years, of his love for food and drink, and, as I noticed so soon after we encountered one another, his passion for life.  He didn't speak all that much about his illness and I suspect was unaware of the prognosis.  In other words, he was the opposite of a hypochondriac. Our last conversations were about books.  Confined to the guest house by his swollen legs, he worried most about running out of something to read.

With Susan and his partner Unn
When Susan mentioned Unn to me I didn't recognize the name and thought it a friend from Yangoon.  When I brought Michael a couple of cartons of juice that he requested to the hospital, I asked who Unn was.  He turned to me, his face lit up with the biggest smile I'd seen from him in months, and said: "He's my partner!" When I was unable to help, Unn spent a day renewing Michael's visa with a letter from the doctors.  He was there when his friend's heart stopped.  Tonight is the third and last night of chanting at Wat Apai Tharam (Wat Makok), the temple behind the hospital where Michael died, and the cremation will be there on Saturday afternoon.

The death of a friend is always unsettling because it reminds us of our own mortality.  Next month I will celebrate my 75th birthday and am thankful for every day I've outrun the Grim Reaper.  My parents are gone, my son Luke, and Peter, my oldest friend, long dead from the same cancer I've now survived for a dozen years. I think about my young wife and worry that she will grieve for too long after I go.  But present worry about an uncertain future situation does little besides stir up unpleasant juices.  The present joy I take in living each day is no doubt related to its tenuousness.  Dr. Holly's death in Bangkok a few years ago helped me to sense that exquisite connection between life and death.  Without death, life would lose its ecstatic edge.  Death, even from those heartbreaking tragedies that so absorbed Dostoevsky's sleep, is not only the great equalizer but the finalizing event that animates life.  


Richard Tulloch said...

Thanks very much for this, Dr Will.

Richard Tulloch said...

Thanks very much for this, Dr Will. Michael was one of my inspirations when we worked together in theatre in Melbourne in the 1970s.

We connected again through Facebook about two years ago, which was great, though I knew very little of his years in between. So it's very good to get all this information.

Thank you to you and his friends in Bangkok who obviously cared so well for him and supported him during his last days.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Will. So many people loved Michael, but I'm sure none of us ever knew him completely, he was larger than any given context, present, lively and interested but still always mysterious ... it's so good to know that friends and family were with him in his last days. Those of us in Melbourne will get a chance to pay our respects on Sunday through another of Michael's more recent friends, Athinard.May his soul find peace.

วิภาส ศรีทอง said...

Lovely Will. Thanks. Like you, for me Michael was someone I really connected with and we had many long conversations by the machine machine at our condo. hmmm most of the suds we shared were detergent and not beers! I will miss him a lot. But I didn't think that he lay waiting to be found for 2 days. Michael told me he slipped over in the lobby and I understood he was taken the the hospital straight away. The guesthouse staff have been lovely and visited him quite a few times in hospital and called me for updates. I hope that's the true story, otherwise too sad.....

Anonymous said...

Movingly written. Brought me close to death in the most humanistic way