There is more than one Mike that formed my career. The second one was during Medical School. This was the first one well before college.
Mike was a year older than I in High School. We attended the same church, same school. He was, as I remember, one of the cool kids. A tough guy. I didn’t know him well and, frankly, was a little intimidated by him.
His mom, Virginia, was a gem. A music educator who ran in lofty musiceducation circles in the state and nationally (something I only realized later) and directed our church youth music productions, in which I had prominent roles.
I think it was during football practice that Mike got a bruise on his knee. But it didn’t go away. It turned into a mass. Diagnosed as bone cancer…. osteosarcoma.
It was a death sentence. He lost his leg. Went through rounds of chemotherapy and other debilitating treatments. He wasted away.
Our youth group went on a beach retreat. I was President of the MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship) and acknowledged leader of the group. Mike wanted to go on that last beach retreat before the end. He could not leave the motel room but he wanted to be near the group.
As the group was gathering one evening to go out to the Arcade and other activities for the evening, Virginia pulled me aside and asked, “Would you mind staying with Mike for the evening?”
How could I say, “No”?
So, for two or three hours I sat with him in his motel room. We talked. Played cards. Passed what seemed to be an eternity of time for me. I knew it was the right thing to do. I hated it. He was so frail. So skeletal. He reeked of the chemotherapy that coursed through his veins. I think my nose and eyes burned from the fumes of it.
Virginia returned. The night was mercifully over.
Mike died soon after. For years thereafter his mom thanked me for that night. How much it meant to Mike… and to her. I didn’t let on that I felt guilty for not wanting to be there. I never confided in her how difficult it was. And how I had been so uncomfortable the whole time.
But unlike the last time, I had charged the enemy positions, taken the hill, and held my ground in spite of my loathing.
I was sixteen. And I don’t think I’ve backed down because of that fear again.