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A Morning with Michael
Gar Smith

On April 10, a few minutes before 8AM, I picked up Michael on Bonita Street and we headed for North Berkeley BART. I parked at the pickup side of the BART station where commuters looking for rides link up with drivers looking to use the commuter lanes. As a middle-aged woman slipped into the back seat, Michael turns to ask: "Do you have a cold? Any illnesses?" Startled, the woman replied that, no, she was in fine shape. By way of explanation, Michael grinned and replied: "I just need to be assured that you aren't a Walking Vector of Death."

We zeroed in on the UCSF Medical School and spiraled down to the bottom of the hospital's parking structure. As we walked towards the underground entrance, Michael pulled out a white surgical mask and slipped it over his cheeks. "Hospitals!" he huffed, "Worst place you can be if you're sick and open to infection."

Upstairs, while Michael filled out the usual forms. My mind drifted back to a long-ago afternoon in Wheeler Hall. A crowd of students were debating a recent event when someone advanced a rather lame theory to explain the dynamics of the situation. Without missing a beat, Michael cackled back: "I would call that argument chicken-shit-and-foul-winged." What a marvelous construction, I thought. My fondness for this rare meld of madcap activist and flirtatious elf quickly deepened.

When the attendants arrived to draw blood samples, Michael learned that his doctor, Dr. Jeffery Wolf, was in and wanted to meet with him. Michael told me that Dr. Wolf used to be his downstairs tenant when Wolf was a student attending UC Berkeley. Now Dr. Wolf is in charge of managing Michael's mortal household.

While waiting for the Wolf to arrive at our door, Michael and I relived various drug experiments. Michael recommended some books that were well worth a read and suggested a half-dozen exotic consciousness-enhancing chemicals that might be worth an experiment, as well. He recalled gazing closely into the eyes of a friend until he could see the "face behind the face." And, beyond that, he smiled, "there's even another face."

When Dr. Wolf arrived, Michael opened a page covered with minutely drawn figures meticulously charting his cell count over the past months. He bantered with Wolf about the implications and the odds and finally asked the existential question:

"Realistically, what are my chances? I'd guess I have maybe eight weeks left."

Wolf fell silent and shifted uncomfortably before answering. "On the basis of what I see here," he said, referring to his own charts, "Realistically? I'd say it's probably more like six weeks."

Michael smiled and replied: "I feel vindicated. I actually made that prediction two weeks ago."

On the ride back to Berkeley, Michael was energized. "This is not sad!" he assured me. "This is all part of living. I'm enjoying the process! I've had a great life and I'm still having a great life."

He spoke proudly of his granddaughter and how she had asked him about a book he had written. "Then she asked: 'Would you like to see my book?'" Michael popped his eyes with delight at the recollection. "Well, sure!"

She lead him to a book she had created. Michael related how the pages were filled with a marvelous tale of a fictitious and fascinating family that she had raised in her own mind. Michael shook his head with wonder and sighed in awe.

Then she asked Michael about death and what it means when someone dies.

"It's like this," Michael said, "Watch!" He held his left hand horizontal and poked the fingers of his right hand over the top, like finger-puppets on a freckled stage. Slowly his index finger quivered, bent down and disappeared from sight.

"This may look like someone has gone away," Michael explained, "but see what happens when you look behind appearances." He slowly lowered his horizontal hand to show that his index finger was still there. And attached to it was his palm, which was attached to his wrist, which was attached to his arm, which….

"The truth is, we are all a part of something bigger,” he told his granddaughter. “And that never goes away."

We parked on Bonita and embraced. Michael looked me in the eye, leaned forward and planted a kiss on my lips. "I probably shouldn't have done that," he smiled. I smiled back: "Glad you did."

I watched him climb the steps and gave him shout to call whenever he needed a ride to the City. Two blocks later, I had to pull over when the tears came.

A well-lived life is like a seven-course meal. In Michael’s case, the memories are sweet dessert.

- Gar Smith    April, 2008


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