Sunday, May 11, 2008

Big Death in a Small Town

Mike Breen 1953 - 2008

I can’t believe I just wrote the line above, your name and those dates. Yet every day, every moment, it becomes more real. You spent nearly 30 years in Big Sur. During this time you loved and helped your neighbors, married your beloved, and built a business. You created your dream homes, one a three story redwood wine barrel nest in the cypress trees, the other a Hobbit-style magical cabin in the forest on Palo Colorado road. People said you had nine lives—rolling cars, crashing bikes, loving wildly. To die quickly while sitting on your couch last Sunday evening feels both ironic and appropriate. Just way, way, too soon, my friend.

You gleefully embraced your honorific, "Mr. Mike" when your young nephew christened you more than two decades ago. You were a life-long member of an underground organization I’ve observed for years: The International Brotherhood of Sexy Short Guys. Just a few inches taller than me, you packed a lot of dynamic, intelligent male energy into your physical being. Members of the IBSSG support each other in many ways, primarily through their mutual understanding. They have a secret handshake, and sometimes have more than a passing interest in a certain 18th century French politician.

We spent the past work-week in the emotionally pummeling process of preparing your Irish Wake, attended by a few hundred of your friends as well as your family, at the Post Ranch Inn. All those phone calls were worth it, bringing in some of your long lost comrades out of the hills. People told stories, laughed and cried. Your altar held your ashes, photos, candles, and red roses, with your boots, motorcycle “skidlet”, and Harley-Davidson leather jacket nearby. I added the x-rated fortune cookies I bought you in Chinatown last Monday.

We got word of your death
from a brain aneurysm via cell phone in a Chinese restaurant, adding to the surreal quality of the news. One of life's rogue waves, it took me under for several long moments, and I emerged into the fluorescent lights feeling like a gasping fish, about to be tossed into the cook-pot.

Your tribute was a real Irish Wake, Big Sur style. It began with the ringing of shamanic fairy bells in each of the four directions, (some of us heard erections, not directions, you must have been playing with us) included a powerful crooning rendition of Danny Boy, and a traditionally costumed bag-pipe player outside on the hill. At the end, we all sang Amazing Grace along with your talented niece, who reminded us of the song's appropriateness for your life, and for each of our lives as well.

Your beautiful wife Mary spoke eloquently and proudly of you, a miracle in itself since she’d spent the days after your sudden death in crippling grief. Fifteen years of love, learning, travels and joy. Mary had clearly passed through the initial fire of your loss, and dispensed advice, “Don’t wait to enjoy each other, to travel and be together, don’t wait!” and humor, quoting the words on a ceramic mug made especially for them: “Mr. Mike rides a bike. Mrs. Mike holds on tight.” Since we all get to experience profound loss in our lives, let’s be sure to have heaps of joy and love as well. It helps. So does a community ritual which sets the tone for healing. Facing grief with grace, if done from the heart, can put a positive spin on the whole process.

Mr. Mike, my Zen master of the workplace, your joy and kindness brightened my life for nearly a decade. Two weeks ago I admired you zipping down the hill in your asphalt gray Lotus Elise sports car, and driving home last night I burst into tears as a Harley motorcycle rider rounded a corner in the opposite lane. I teased you the last time I caught you washing your cherry red Harley, on company time.

I imagine I’ll keep expecting you to saunter past my office window at 9:10 each morning, that we’ll greet each other with our beginning-of-the-day hug, a prophylactic against the stress to come. How could I know that the last time you ticked me off at work would be the last time, ever? Your gentle face turning mulish, whether to get my goat or because you really had a point was always in question, you stinker. Even when powerfully annoyed, I would say, “Sheesh, Mr. Mike, it’s a good thing I love you!” And I did, so much.

It’s unbelievable to me that I don’t get to hug you again, or smile back into your twinkling hazel eyes. That I won’t see you read the paper in the sunshine, with your ginger cat Sasha in your lap, that you won't be building enormous boxes to ship art across the world, or hiding any more plastic snakes in my office…

Now, when we laugh together, I will see you only in my imagination. But I choose to believe that my dream of you is you, too. I’m so very, very glad I told you that I loved you, Mr. Mike. Your smiling Irish eyes are still with me, and with us all.

Somewhere out there
Is a workshop that needs some help
It’s dusty and messy
And nothing is right or in the right place
It’s beyond the help of mere mortal men
Who on earth could make it clean?
Don’t panic, don’t worry – it’ll be under control
Mr. Mike is on the way

Somewhere out there
There’s a house half-built
Timbers all strewn about
And no one knows what’s what
Beams and girders, joists, brackets
Pipes, lagbolts, and tiles
All in a hellbent pile.
Hey don’t worry
Mr. Mike is on the way

Somewhere out there
They’re shaking their heads
How in the hell do I do this?
How does that fit into that?
What’s the thingy called to make this work?
Tempers are lost, things are thrown
Look, don’t worry
Mr. Mike is on his way

Somewhere out there
There’s a fleet of old Harleys
And beat up flatbed trucks
Sports cars that need some work
Idles to be checked
Plugs to be yanked.
But fear not
Mr. Mike is on the way

Somewhere out there
Someone needs some help
They need a guiding hand
Or perhaps just a good friend
Maybe they need some advice
Without being told what to do
With his knowledge and loving care
Mr. Mike is on the way

Somewhere out there
There are gathered some folks
Irish and other eyes are smiling
Laughter abounds and love resounds
Though there’s something that’s missing
Or was until now
Haven’t you heard?
Mr. Mike is on the way

Somewhere out there
There’s a door that’s opened
Shouts of joy spill out
And right in the middle
Surrounded by new friends
And being himself, what else?
Why did you ever worry?
Mr. Mike is now here.

—Toby Rowland-Jones

Photos: Breen family collection.
Photo of Mike in Bushmills hat by Linda Sonrisa


oakland heidi said...

There is a space that can never be filled.

So happy we have good memories and your beautiful words to keep them alive.

Love you. Lots.

Anonymous said...

Thank You Linda for your loving expressions...such a beautiful tribute to a wonderful Spirit.
I too will so miss Mr. Mike....his sparkly smile and fun Spirit!

Anonymous said...

We wish you both peace and solace.

Your generous words offered that gift to us all.

Thinking of you.

Brent Zoellner said...

I just wanted to say Toby that this is a beautiful article. It has been unbelievably almost three years now but it seems like yesterday. My uncle was such a special person and I still miss him dearly and I think of him regularly. With Christmas approaching i am saddened because I could always count on Uncle Mike sending me the goofiest but unique gifts anyone could think of. Uncle Mike I am so proud to be able to call you my Uncle and I miss you so very very much. I am sure in heaven you are making everyone laugh just like you did here! I love you dearly,
Your Nephew,