May 30, 2016
The following is the eulogy I gave for Michelle both in Portland and in Connecticut for the dual memorial services, adapted here for print. I hope you find as much inspiration in reading it as I did in writing and delivering it.
Michelle was undoubtedly a giver. Even I, being close to her, took this for granted. When I was reflecting on what to write for her obituary, that central theme came time and time again in her actions and her interests. But not everyone has the privilege to be able to volunteer their time or their money, or the luxury of headroom on top of their daily responsibilities.
So for today, I pulled a few other threads from Michelle’s life story that I’d like to talk about instead. These are things that try to paint a portrait of Michelle. They are things that she can again give us that are more intangible, things to take home and think about. I don’t think Michelle took a lot of time to think about her life in those terms, about her own qualities and applying them in their own right; she just knew innately what mattered, whether or not she liked it, and whether the people around her who she loved felt better as a result.
Ahead of those threads, I want to paint a brief picture of when I first knew Michelle. It would have been about 1998, in college, amongst a friend group in and around the overlap of two schools and an a cappella singing group that I was in. Michelle was always the person leading the charge for adventure, be it going to see a community marionette show or just shopping for groceries for a family-style dinner.
Michelle was a butt-kicker, and I mean that literally. She’d say “I’ll kick your butt”, then she’d pivot and side-kick you in the butt, or she’d slug you in the arm. Even in recent years, she was prone to slapping you on the arm while she was talking out of excitement for future plans or great news.
Michelle was the person who you couldn’t stop from jumping up and down in anticipation. When it was my birthday or Christmas, I used to get presents in the mail, and then just to prod her, I’d say, “Oh, we can open those tomorrow” and I’d set them on the shelf right in full view. It used to drive her crazy—she was the immediate opener of packages, the first person out of the car at the destination, and the person literally jumping on your bed at the start of a vacation.
The Michelle of the past few years is not much different from those days. But as a mature adult, she combined that youthful energy with so many other admirable qualities that I’d like to talk about.
Michelle kept things in perspective. She was fond of simple pleasures—having a beer in the sun, or a picnic, or watching the ocean waves. There were so many things to be in wonder of, and so many things to humble you and remind you of your place in the world. Every day for as long as I can remember, Michelle would have us do “highs and lows”, where we would pick one thing that was our high and one that was the low from the day and talk about them. When she got ill, we dropped the lows. At some of the hardest times, sometimes she said that she couldn’t come up with highs—I told her that was the point, to seek them out and put things into frame. I turned her own trick around on her and made her try. But even years ago, plotting those highs and lows gave her a navigational chart with which to reflect on her life and moments. Life is a scatter plot and Michelle was expert at coming up with the bounding box for it to help understand and appreciate it. Perspective.
Michelle loved play. I dare to you to come up with a person, a fully grown adult who was good at being an adult, who loved play and fantasy as much as Michelle did. Whether it was playing board games, or her lifelong love of puppetry and stuffed animals and the Muppets (she was the Order Muppet in the relationship, by the way), or Halloween and costumes.
Don’t get me wrong, Michelle kept things on the rails when it was needed. Last Halloween, she was seeking a near life-sized skeleton for our front porch, as you do. She got so picky about it, because the number of ribs was inaccurate, or she didn’t like the detail in the jaw—this was the Physical Therapist in her—while still keeping it all on budget—before she finally found one and it showed up on our porch from Amazon. But still, to my point—it was a skeleton, and it wasn’t for her work as a Physical Therapist... though that also involved skeletons. Anyway, she wanted to play with a skeleton and that was that. It wasn’t really a topic for debate. That’s how Michelle operated.
Michelle’s spirit animal, and one of the ones that she visualized as a healing force during her illness, was the river otter. I challenge you to go and watch a river otter in the water or at the zoo sometime and try not to think of Michelle. Play.
Michelle valued self-improvement. Her running career was brief but legendary. She wasn’t a world record-setter or an ultra-athlete. But one day she decided to take that first step and just put one foot in front of the other. Then go a little further tomorrow. For years she said she hated running and it hurt and she’d never do it. It seemed like overnight that she was running half marathons. In Portland. In Nashville. In Cape Cod. At Disney World. But it wasn’t overnight—Michelle applied herself, on rainy days as well as the sunny ones. Sometimes it annoyed me that she had to go to bed early so that she could run before it got light out. This was mostly to keep our dog Ronny from being able to see squirrels and bark at them. She also knew she needed to run first thing in the morning or it wouldn’t happen.
But she was committed to improving herself. Michelle had a Bachelors, a Masters, and was a Doctor of Physical Therapy. She really pushed for that last one, completing it online in the evenings while working at a top hospital in a job that in itself was demanding. I used to like to joke that between the two of us, we had three college degrees. Do the math, I’ll wait.
Michelle also wanted to keep learning about the wild animals that she loved, so she bought, read, and regularly used the Encyclopedia of Animals—you may have seen this if you were ever at our house. It’s a 900+ page hardcover volume that weighs more than most of the animals it describes, and she consulted it regularly. Michelle would never stop challenging herself. Self-improvement.
Michelle had fun. I mention this even separately from play, because there were ways to have fun even when being passive, ways to seed your life for later, to brighten your own day or someone else’s. For every anatomy textbook, there was a pirate accessory. For every grocery list, there was a box of Abe Lincoln or monkey band-aids. Seriously, it was very difficult to cover a cut or scrape in our house and not call attention to it because you were wearing a four-inch monkey on your hand. For every utility bill, there was a pair of tickets to the ballet or to a show, hung right where you could see and plan for the future.
With fun often comes risk, and Michelle realized this. Life for her was not about “what if I do”, but “what if I don’t”. Especially during her illness, she tried to get good at the concept of “no what if’s”—sure, it’s important to weigh risks, but there is no use in building out elaborate hypotheses for scenarios that haven’t even taken their first step yet. Focus on the first step, and take the fork in the road that leads to fun, even for the little things like what kind of band-aids you put in your medicine cabinet. Fun.
Michelle was and respected those who were elegant. She wasn’t elegant in the traditional sense—I think that would have come decades later if she had had the chance to grow old. But she adored Audrey Hepburn as well as her Grandma Peri who were elegant in the traditional sense, and Michelle loved and wore Art Deco jewelry and she loved beautiful dresses and classical performance venues. Michelle’s elegance, however, was in simplicity and directness but stopping short of saying too much. She was that rare person who was extremely talkative and social, but didn’t feel the need to fill moments of silence with noise, to appreciate them in their own right as giving balance and grace to our days. There was a quiet peace to her life even with all of the rambunctiousness. Elegance.
Lastly, Michelle was compassionate. She cared for friends and family, she cared for wildlife and pets, and she cared for strangers. Even in the darkest of times, she put others first. When Michelle got ill, many people said that it was ok to be angry. “Get angry at the cancer,” they said. Michelle could never do that. But what she did do? One time she apologized to me. She said that she was sorry to put our family through this, me, our dog, our cat. Even then she was thinking of others. When she was diagnosed, I couldn’t control my shaking hands. Michelle grabbed my hand and comforted me, even as I tried to be a comforter to her and a caregiver for her.
Michelle was a listener. Even now, most every time something happens or I see something, my reflex is to share it with Michelle. Sure, part of that is that I seek attention. But it’s a two-way street, and Michelle could have and would have told me to can it. But she didn’t; she listened and she cared. This extended to the animal kingdom as well, and especially to those most intelligent of our neighbors, the primates like chimpanzees, gorillas, and especially orangutans. Her driving interest in them was in their beautiful and expressive eyes and what they were feeling and thinking. Compassion.
These threads show just a slice of who Michelle was, but I hope they give you something to think about beyond today, and some more ways to remember her. Like all of you, I am missing her daily. As well as being beset with sadness, with loneliness, with shock, and even with trauma from the past few months of fighting her illness, I find myself in a crisis of identity. Michelle was the focal point of my life and my best friend for nearly fifteen years. We met the world as a team, back to back, ready to face anything. I now find myself making new routines and having new experiences, all the while remembering her and how she changed me forever.
For these reasons, it is all the more important that while we think of Michelle today and going forward, we move through our sadness into remembering how she did in past, and how she can in future, inspire us to be better versions of ourselves. Like I said at the start, I don’t think Michelle thought of her life in these terms, of being an inspiration or even thinking of herself as all that special, even though she certainly was. This humility in itself is a lesson. I will be taking that lesson and many more with me into the future and remembering Michelle as a true bright light of passion and kindness.
Thank you all for being here to share in today.
In Portland, instead of the conclusion above, I introduced the photo slideshow as a closing.
I made a slideshow of some moments from Michelle’s life. I tried to include some with family, with friends, with me, but really, what matters is showing her just living life, because that’s what she was in the middle of doing, every day. I set the slideshow to music, and I want to say a few words about the song. Michelle and I both adored James Taylor. We saw him perform many times, both here in Portland and far away. I’ll never forget the first time I heard this song—we were at Tanglewood, a beautiful outdoors venue near James Taylor’s home in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. On a warm July night years ago, we lay in the grass with Michelle’s head on my chest and this song was JT’s second encore. It’s a lullaby, a song of quiet and of things concluding, but also of hope for the future and for keeping memories of the past with you forever. I think Michelle would have appreciated that.