Thursday, March 22, 2012

Motorcycles, scrambled eggs, and the ways we live forever

(Written via the "day job" blog)

An intangible benefit of writing the NewsCut blog and some other blogs I pen are the connections blogs can make between unrelated people.

I've already written, for example, about how the connections created by a tornado and the reach of the Internet helped a widow in a tornado-ravaged city in Indiana get a picture of her husband back from a man in a Cincinnati who found it on his lawn (that picture, by the way, was returned to Marta Righthouse Tuesday evening).

Then there's this post from 2009 about the first person killed in the first Gulf War. Every year on the anniversary of his death, it seems, I hear from a member of the family who discover the post via Google. The Internet and its search engines make it hard for people to be forgotten.

Today I was reminded again of the "connections" the Internet can give us.

My brother, Mike, died last week and I was asked to say a few words at his graveside service. So I told the story of Everett Ek (left) of Rochester, whose obituary appeared in the Star Tribune last week (you can also find it in the Rochester Post Bulletin). I'm a big reader of obituaries, especially the ones that capture the personality of the individual, rather than follow the boilerplate copy that renders most obits sounding like the one before.

Everett Ek's wasn't like that:

Everett enjoyed his final days. He shared a visit with Kellen, his great-grandson, on Saturday. “Papa” made scrambled eggs for his granddaughters, Alahn and Korah, Sunday morning after their stay over. Monday, he went cruising on his Harley and cleaned out his man cave, aka the garage. Tuesday morning found him savoring a Grain Belt in his man cave with Bob, a morning coffee klutch buddy. Later, when he went out to work in the yard on that beautiful day, he fell to the ground and was gone. Everett and his dad each lived their lives to the fullest, 72 years and 48 days.


Because I told Mr. Ek's story to a group of people 1,200 miles away, many of them also shared the stories of my brother -- the motorcycle rides he made and his habit of showing up for camping trips with 10 pounds of pork chops and only 10 pounds of pork chops. None of it was headline material; all of it provided a much more valuable snapshot of his life, more than any company he worked at or award he received.


Everett Ek died this week after making scrambled eggs for his granddaughters and because he did, you know that he once was on this earth and mattered. A woman loved purple, another loved her fax machine, and my brother just got his last ride from some other good and decent people.


I posted my remarks on one of my personal blogs. The phone rang in the NewsCut cubicle today. "This is Mrs. Everett Ek," she said, and I knew immediately who she was. A relative had also found the post via Google and called her to say, "you won't believe it."

She said she didn't want the obituary to be like all the others so she told it to a friend who wrote it. Today, I learned that Mr. Ek, who apparently always wanted to ride a motorcycle, finally did so at age 69 at his wife's urging. He was the oldest person in the motorcycle safety class at the community college, a class that called him "Papa."

They had a nice funeral, she told me, especially when they opened the doors of the church to hear the person outside revving up the engine on the motorcycle. It was a Catholic mass with the usual amount of standing, sitting, and kneeling. A faithful family dog attended and sat and stood as custom dictated.

None of these things is "headline material," and yet these are the threads that connect us. Because a man in Rochester made eggs for his granddaughters, a man who loved pork chops died in Massachusetts, and some guy in Saint Paul writes a blog for a living, we are never really forgotten.

How I love you so, Internet.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

On Michael Lee Collins, 1948-2012

These are some words I've written for my brother's funeral on Saturday:

I’m a big fan of reading obits in the newspaper. There’s a newspaper out in Sioux Falls that used to publish neat headlines on obits. I remember one that announced a woman’s death and said, “her favorite color was purple.” Another said, “she loved her fax machine.”

In my youth, I thought, “what a shame that at the end of someone’s life, the headline is: she loved a fax machine.

In the paper in Minneapolis this week, I noticed a guy named Everett Ek died. Here’s what his obituary said:

Ek, Everett Enjoyed his final days. He shared a visit with Kellen, his great-grandson, on Saturday. "Papa" made scrambled eggs for his granddaughters, Alahn and Korah, Sunday morning after their stay over. Monday, he went cruising on his Harley and cleaned out his man cave, aka the garage. Tuesday morning found him savoring a Grain Belt in his man cave with Bob, a morning coffee klutch buddy. Later, when he went out to work in the yard on that beautiful day, he fell to the ground and was gone.

I counted 50 obituaries in Thursday’s paper. Many of the people I read about worked for a company for many years, but I can't remember what company. They won several awards, but I can't remember one of them. They had names, but I couldn't tell you what they are. But I'll always remember Everett Ek’s, just as I've remembered the person with the fax machine and the one about the person who loved purple, even though I read those almost 20 years ago.

Most obituaries start with where someone worked, and how long he/she worked there and what honors he/she accumulated.. They’re written by someone else, usually, someone who hasn’t quite realized that the barometers of our lives aren’t the jobs we do or the honor we accumulated. It’s how we value the experiences we have.

There’s a picture of all of us kids when we were young. It’s snowing, and we’re all lined up at the picket fence at our house looking at something. And one of us, I’m pretty sure it’s Mike, has a big smile on his face. And he’s waving. He was waving at the snowplow driver and at that moment, he was in the moment and enjoying an experience for what it was.

There’s another picture – I just put it on Facebook this week – of all of us sitting around my mother who’s lighting the candles on a cake. And in the back is Mike, sitting high to see, the only one with an expression that something great was about to happen, and it wasn’t his birthday.



And another picture of us all sitting by a window for a family picture of the kids. And again, it’s Mike who’s most engaged with what’s about to happen.

My brother had a hard life, and it’s tempting to lament that life and be disappointed that he wasn’t able to accomplish the things that a lot of people do. I never heard him complain about it. Mike had a quiet decency about him and what mattered to him, I think was the moment and not where he was in his life measured by someone else’s yardstick. For him, the right now wasn’t a step on the way to somewhere else.

The other day I was sitting at a stoplight and a guy on touring motorcycle pulled up next to me and I thought, “wouldn’t it be great to live in the moment and just ride and see what’s out there to see purely for the joy of the ride.”

My brother did that a lot. He’d ride across Nebraska, and down through Colorado and New Mexico and Arizona, stop along the way to visit some friends and camp at the Grand Canyon, just because he could. He’d ride out to upstate New York and sit and visit and tell stories in a way that made you want to reach into his throat and pull the ending out, he took so long to tell it.

I think Mike lived his life in a way a lot of us wish we could. I think he was comfortable in the here and now. If the here-and-now was a Bruins game, fine. If the here-and-now was a ride, great. If the here and now was getting greasy under a car, all the better. If it was sitting and reading the comics at my grandmother’s trailer because she saved them for him, wonderful. If it was all of us skating up on the pond, swimming up at Helki’s or playing a game of baseball in the park behind our house, that was a better life than you’d ever find in the newspaper’s obituary section, and my brother lived that life.

Everett Ek died this week after making scrambled eggs for his granddaughters and because he did, you know that he once was on this earth and mattered. A woman loved purple, another loved her fax machine, and my brother just got his last ride from some other good and decent people. Their lives were well lived, and I’ll think of Mike whenever the Bruins score a goal, a motorcycle pulls up at the stoplight, or a plow drives past my house.

Update: Here's a neat story about what happened when Mr. Ek's family read this post.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

My brother, Mike


My brother, Michael Lee Collins, passed away Friday night. His life was a testament to the luck of birth and something the "I made my own breaks" crowd should consider once in awhile. Born in 1948, he lived in an era where medical technology wasn't as advanced as it is today. In the '60s, he had back surgery that might be done on an outpatient basis now, but, instead, his surgery left him somewhat crippled.

He attended a full year of high school while lying in a bed in our house, communicating only through some fancy -- for those days -- intercom system. He missed out on a lot.

He went to UMass in Amherst for a semester -- he wanted to be an engineer. Then he became a linotype operator at Colonial Press in Clinton. He loved his motorcycles, he always wanted to restore old cars, but wasn't particularly good at it.

In later years, emphysema (he didn't smoke) and diabetes took its toll, but mental illness made him disappear. We'd talk on the phone once a year if he answered it and even then we'd mostly jut talk about the Bruins.

He was a great hockey fan and loved playing it too when he could. The Bobby Orr era of the Boston Bruins will long be associated with my brother. We slept out on the sidewalk of Sears a number of times to be the first in line to get Bruins tickets. During the winter, we played hockey on the pond every afternoon.

He raised chickens as a kid. I raised chicken as a kid. He loved hockey. I loved hockey. He was a Cleveland Indians fan long before I was.

He was a better big brother than I was a little brother.

Here's his obit, written by my sister, Cheryl, who was also the best friend he ever had.

Michael Lee Collins, age 63, of Shirley, Massachusetts passed away after many years of declining health on March 9, 2012 at Leominster Health Alliance Hospital. He was born Dec, 3, 1948 in Goffstown , NH and was the son of Fred and Ruth Eileen(McFarland) Collins of West Fitchburg. He was an avid baseball and hockey player and wanted to play football in junior high had he not developed scoliosis. So he maintained an avid fan interest in Boston Bruins hockey and Patriots football all his life. He enjoyed history,bowling, and could not be beaten at Trivial Pursuit, especially if the category was “old movies”. He was quite the fisherman and loved being at Plum Island

While growing up he was a member of the Rollstone 4-H Club and raised chickens and rabbits .He especially enjoyed the Worcester County 4-H activities. His later passion became motorcycles and he was a lifetime member of the Massachusetts British Iron Association . He wrote their newsletter for many years and always signed his articles with the expression “Ride Safe” Once he rode his BMW all the way to the west coast and back.

His work included many years as a linotype operator at Colonial Press in Clinton, MA and was employed at Lockwood Plastics and also Value Pharmacy in West Boylston. He also was a partner in Paul’s CZ Cycle Sales and went to Hallmark School of Photography.
He was predeceased by his father, Fred and a niece, Jennifer.
Besides his mother, Ruth, of Fitchburg he leaves sisters, Cheryl Collins of Stow, Maine and Wendy Collins of Brattleboro, VT, and brothers, William Collins of Princeton and Robert Collins of Woodbury, Minnesota and their families which include nine nieces and nephews .

The family wishes to thank especially his neighbor, Sandy, and his special nurse and friend, Bernadette Oininen of Nashoba Nursing and all others who made it possible to remain independent for so long.
In lieu of flowers the family requests donations in Mike’s memory to go to either Nashoba Nursing and Hospice, 2 Shaker Rd. Suite D225, Shirley, MA 01464 or Montachusett Home Care, 680 Mechanic Street, Leominster, MA 01453.

Family and friends are encouraged to meet at Bosk Funeral Home ,85 Blossom St. Fitchburg at 10:30 am on Sat, March 17th to follow a motorcycle procession to Forest Hill Cemetery for an 11 am graveside service.

Here are the comments I wrote for his service.