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.


snyde043 said...

That's really beautiful writing, Bob.

Anonymous said...

Bob: Your writing is beautiful, but also heartfelt and plain spoken. Thank you, and I'm sorry for your loss.