The text message hit like cannon fire from close range. I crumbled to the ground, holding my stomach. It was an early morning winter in the kitchen of our Brooklyn apartment. My wife and two kids came running. “What’s wrong?” “What happened?” “What’s wrong?”
What happened? What was wrong? Mike O’Shea was going to die. And I’d be introduced to a grief that would cripple me for many years.
I like to think that Mike and I had been friends since before we were born. Not in some other life, but in the wombs of our mothers who were neighbors in a small New Jersey town, and both expecting in the summer of 1968. Our mothers had not been close prior to pregnancy — of different generations and ethnic backgrounds — but they bonded over pregnancy and both gave birth to boys in the first week of July.
The five days between our births were practically the only time Mike and I would be separated. We were even baptized together; the only two babies to take the water that day. My earliest memories include Mike and me as babies, in our mothers’ arms; waddling around front yards; playing together in backyards on our own.
Mike attended Catholic school and I went to the nearby public grammar, but we met nearly everyday after school — and first thing on weekends and all summer long — without ever making plans. We just showed up at the dead end in front of my house, connecting with each other first before joining the other neighborhood kids who ran riot in the 70s suburban paradise that surrounded us: school yards and fields, hills and gullies, train tracks, and a magical corridor of towering pines where we built tree houses and had rock fights. We’d go wild until the call of parents brought us home for dinner. In summer, we’d meet up again after dinner as the cicadas roared and lightning bugs blinked in the liquid night.
When I was 12, my family did what no other family in our neighborhood had: We moved. Upward mobility was not part of the program for those so firmly rooted in the middle class, but my father was ambitious, abandoning his career as a music teacher for the pursuit of opportunities in business. He would succeed, though his promotions often required relocation, and the next 10 years of my life would involve itinerancy and great periods of displacement. Mike was there for me throughout.
We didn’t write letters and only occasionally spoke on the phone, but I’d stay with Mike each summer when my family visited the New York area from our midwestern locale. And when we moved back to the Northeast, my first year of high school, Mike and I practically split the summer between my new house and his old home. And when I attended a boarding school in western New Jersey for senior year, it was Mike who appeared early and often to fetch me for weekends of football games and house parties.
There was great comfort in all these visits. A semblance of normalcy and camaraderie during an often lonely adolescence. I eventually made friends everywhere we moved, but it took years, and even after arriving socially, so to speak, it wasn’t the same. I might have been liked but I wasn’t really known. With Mike, I was both, and that was a type of validation I needed during those difficult years.
What made Mike’s unconditional friendship even more rewarding was that he’d grown into a figure of extraordinary status, one that transcended the tag of popular. Cute as a kid — sandy hair and fair eyes, a shy smile — Mike had morphed into handsome, in a rugged and shining Irish way. He had a movie star elan about him. And he had grown massive, pumping tons of iron, buttressed by a black belt in Shodokan.
All of this was accompanied by a life-of-the-party personality informed by the civic obligation of the good cop his father was and that Mike desired to be. The baby brother of two sisters and two brothers had Mike comfortable socially with both genders: The girls adored him; the boys wanted to be his friend. And Mike did not disappoint.
Mike and I married two of the town’s most beautiful girls: I stood in his wedding party; he was my best man. My wife and I lived in the city; Mike and his wife lived near our hometown. We spent much time together as couples, drinking and eating and traveling. Mike and I went to Italy alone to celebrate our 40th birthdays. Our kids looked like us, and the nostalgia of watching them play was nearly overwhelming.
A few thousand people showed up at Mike’s wake. His funeral was an orgy of grief. The figure he became in high school continued through the college years and into the adulthood. Other than a stint in the LAPD, Mike remained in the area in various forms of law enforcement, expanding his legendary status. He’d become larger than life and was a truly a celebrity — a benevolent protector with a heart of gold and a love of life. A full police escort led his body from the church to cemetery.
I had more buckled than cried when the cannonball hit me with the news of Mike’s death. But at the cemetery, in a brutal January freeze, under a sheet of ice-blue sky, I lost it for real as I faced Mike’s casket and, like the hundreds in front of me and the hundreds behind, was supposed to touch the wood and say goodbye to the figure inside. I tried. As I wandered off without direction, the cruel air froze much of the tears before they could fall, though I knew the emotional surge was like something I’d never felt. And I knew that I was in trouble.
My beloved mother had died two years earlier. I understood the grieving process and what mourning feels like and what the “new normal” is all about. I didn’t do such a great job with all that, unable to reconcile the jargon with the reality of loss, but, even though I missed my mother very much, I carried on in much of the manner I had before with a sense of self still intact. Mike’s death blew all that up.
I didn’t know what to do. Or what to call how I felt. Despite my challenges growing up, I’d never felt any real emotional instability; in fact, I prided myself on being able to handle whatever life had thrown at me (and it had thrown a lot). But this was different. The sorrow would not let me be, interrupting moments of normalcy, dousing moments of joy, crushing me at times like the cannon fire that began this war with suffering.
This is when I should have sought help. I knew it was bigger than me, but I just wasn’t convinced that I was worthy. Mike’s widow and their kids were seeing someone; some of Mike’s siblings were also in counseling. But I wasn’t Mike’s wife or sibling or child. I was just a kid who grew up with him and had no business associating my loss with those who shared his last name, with those whose lives would — today and tomorrow and forever — be directly affected by his death.
I couldn’t talk about it to my wife or anyone else. I felt ashamed. And selfish.Was I actually more waylaid by the death of a friend than the death of my own mother? How could I possibly admit this?
I scrambled to cope.
I prescribed a steady dose of medicinal martinis, which really did help in the moment — a numbing succor and immediate emotional uplift — though the effect was short lived and, well, booze is, after all, a depressant and not a solution.
A serendipitous game of basketball delivered physical exertion as a form of emotional relief. I started working out regularly, and it helped. A lot. I imagined Mike with me, pushing me beyond normal limits. This was certainly more effective than the medicinal martinis, but still not enough.
I wrote about Mike fairly often. He had always praised my storytelling skills, and when I first dabbled in narratives, as a college student, it was stories about our childhood that emerged. And when I announced in my early 30s that I was abandoning my successful career in sales to pursue writing, Mike was my biggest champion, acknowledging my courage and expressing faith in my talent. Having him in the audience at readings made those moments extra special. The memory of a bright-eyed Mike at my first book release party, as many copies as he could carry under each arm, is the highlight of my writing life. After his death, a handful of articles about him brought some relief, but it wasn’t enough.
A few years after Mike’s death, I started crying in my sleep. I didn’t know if it was out loud or not. My wife never mentioned it, so I assumed it was happening silently, though that didn’t make it any less real.
And then the tears began when I was awake. Random moments when I’d simply feel overwhelmed. I never cried in movies; now I did. Certain songs had to be avoided. I cried on the subway and once in a classroom. Visiting Mike’s wife and kids often involved a trip to the bathroom for a bawl as watching our kids play together no longer inspired nostalgia but agony. And then there was the watershed episode brought on by a random thought.
In June of 2016, I was driving home from Boston after an indulgent night celebrating the birthday of a cousin with his sister. The three of us had the kind of night we’d talk about forever, and I recalled the fantastic events as I raced down the Mass Pike toward some family engagements back in New York. Of course, my dear cousins knew Mike O’Shea. Everybody who knew me knew Mike O’Shea. And as soon as I finished constructing the narrative in my head, had the story straight, properly embellished and selectively edited, I thought: Can’t wait to tell Mike.
The tears surprised me at first with their presence and then with their volume. I heaved and coughed and cried as an onslaught of anguish came up from my chest and down from my eyes and out of my blubbering mouth. “I miss my friend,” I said out loud. I was physically sick from suffering and had to pull over at a rest stop. I collected myself and got back on the road. And then it happened again, an hour or so later. “I miss my friend,” I said again. I got home four hours late; my wife was not happy. I never called to say I’d be late, and I never told her why.
It was that broken drive from Boston that started the reconciliation of my grief. Over a year later, I am able to somewhat understand why Mike’s death shuddered me with its news and then kept me emotionally addled for what will soon be five years: Mike knew me better than anyone else ever had or ever would. We spent so much time together growing up, so immersed in the magic of childhood, so engaged in the wonder of exploration and adventure, so connected by ritual and shared space and secrets, it was like our DNA had merged: spit and blood and sweat. Baptism water. Maybe it was also all the soda cans and candy bars and t-shirts and beds and back seats and bike seats and toilet seats we shared; the waters we swam in and the grass on which we fell; the trees we climbed and the balls we threw to each other and the asphalt that tore our knees. The times we just met by the dead end. The arms we threw naturally around each other’s shoulders.
And then Mike, the larger than life teenager, helped carry me through my itinerant adolescence and delivered me into adulthood with a sense of self and a sense of security in knowing that one of the most amazing human beings I’d ever known was more than my oldest friend, he was part of my identity. I could have easily applied this litmus test to anyone who would claim to really know me: Do you know Mike O’Shea?
He was part of me. And then he wasn’t.
I won’t detail the suffering and damage I created for myself and those around me during these years in denial about my grief. I also won’t claim to be through it yet; I needed and still need help making sense of my situation and finding a way to reconnect to my relationship with Mike, to make him part of me again and to move on with my life in a way that is healthy and complete.