Messy and Joyful: Michael's Story


Every semester I give my students lucky rocks at their final exam. This started years ago to mark the sudden passing of a student, and it’s become a class tradition that students look forward to.

 At the end of every semester, right before final exams, I go to the place and sort through the rocks and pick out the ones I know have (or represent) special blessings, in particular:
  • The one that helps you let go of ideas from your past that don’t serve you in the person you will come
  • The one that represents encouragement and support
  • The one that helps you see a pattern in chaos (insight and wisdom)
  • The one that represents freedom (freedom from AND freedom to)
  • The one that invites abundance and gratitude (wealth in many ways)
  • .....other ones not listed above because I need to move this story along

This is usually fun, but nope, not now. NOT TODAY.

I dont want to be here, I dont want to talk to anyone, I dont want to go anywhere, I just want to cry. No, not just cry, I want to throw a fit but I cant exactly figure out how.  This isnt like me, so forgive me.

Someone in my world, our world, has died. 
I cant figure out how to describe him to you.

His name was Michael.

He was a Veteran.   

He was a student at my college, and current president of the Student Veterans Association, an official group for which I try to act as advisor but mostly find they do best if I stay out of their way.

 Was he a homeless? Im not sure.  

He did have roof over his head at Veterans Village, a transitional living facility that serves the homeless. 

I pass on an answer there.

I have served dinner to the Veterans at Veterans Village for most of the last 60 Thursdays plus some Saturdays with my students, friends and colleagues. 

Of those dinners, I am quite sure I have eaten dinner with Michael 30 times, maybe 40. 

 Last year Thanksgiving (lol), Christmas Eve and New Years Eve all fell on Thursdays, so I know I spent the holidays with him. 

He always arrived late, always had bags thrown over his arms, always coming from somewhere and heading somewhere. 

He had a job AND he had job interviews. 

Michael was about to go where he was going to go, to where his entire life prepared him for.

I remember one night in March he arrived to dinner at Veterans Village very late. He stopped me and leaned in my car to tell me about a paint gun tournament, asking if I could recruit students to participate. 

Me: (laughing) You want me to ask me students to let Student Veterans literally actually really shoot at them?

Him: Yes, it will be fun.

Me:  How is this good for my students? How will they even stand a chance? Is this ethical? Are you going to use Geneva Convention POW thingy...?

Him: Ill spread the Veterans among the groups so its all fair.

Me: OK, email me the info.

(He does)
(Weeks pass)


Michael again, as usual, arrives at dinner at Veterans Village as we are cleaning up.

He is coming from work and is ridiculously happy. We stand on the balcony and talk for the better part of an hour.  

He came from a job interview in Texas and if he took the job he would be making more than I do.

HI say GO! I say TAKE THIS JOB!  

But he isnt sure.

He discusses how his new job will pay for a hotel for X amount, and a car for X amount but only X amount to move his stuff.  And after that they will pay for a car at X amount.

 I say thats great, thats ridiculously better than most people get.

Hes worried about where he will live after the hotel, how he will make friends.

 I tell him the universe has plans for him, how whatever got him HERE has plans to take him further. The universe is always growing. Expect the best, be part of the best.

He smiles and seems to like my words but he needs to know exactly what will happen when in another city. before he can leave here.

I tell him to jump, take the leap, trust the universe has plans for him.

He laughs and says he isnt sure, maybe he wont go to Austin, maybe theres something even better waiting.

He fills his plate with baked ziti, gets salad and cookies and other things my students have for Veterans at Veterans Village and goes off to his room.

The next time I see him, its on campus and Im doing my end-of-the-day RACE towards my car. 

I need to navigate between texting teens and make my way across the sidewalk,  dash off campus and get far across town in an impossibly tight window of time. 

Hey! Hey! He says to me, slowing my roll

 I shout What!

 I walk backwards as he talks to me. I don't even pretend to not be distracted.

Hes going to send me an email about an event. I say OK, good send it.

He tells me the date and time and I push back, reminding him that his event is during prime time classes on the last day of the semester.

He shrugs and smiles and tells me to check my email then off he goes.

I remember reading the email, but I didnt concentrate on his last name.

This past Thursday at dinner at Veterans Village I saw there was a note posted on the door of the community room saying there would be  a memorial for a person named Michael whose name looked vaguely familiar.

I let it go, I had to finish the dinner.

My mind is particularly full and just doesnt make room for this.

The next day as Im entering my office, one of my former student Veterans who is finishing his degree this semester was standing in the hall talking to another professor about a Student Veteran memorial we are having instead of a meeting this afternoon.

The person who passed away was the president of the student Vets

Now it all makes sense and it is 10:45 in the morning on the last day of classes and I dont even know what to do. 

I jump into their conversation, This is NOT sad! He was SO alive! He was going somewhere, doing things, having a good time!! I WILL NOT BE SAD

My student vet (who is my age) shook his head and said this was sad.

My colleague, a psychology professor, shook his head and said this was sad.

I go to my office and talk to the students who are waiting to see me in the last minutes of the last office hours of the last day of the semester.

My colleague, a psychology professor, comes to my office as Im locking up and says, again, this is very sad.

 I say NO and he goes off to do what he does while I went off to explain why the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.

After classes I have things do to, mostly mom stuff and a story I had to finish WRITING about a never-changing friendship plant.

It wasnt until after dinner, until after running, until the pocket of quiet engulfed me that I felt the tidal wave of sadness. Michael was almost leaving here, almost going somewhere better, almost cashing in on the experience he earned in the military.

This was so sad.  So freaking sad. I spent my Friday night crying and the better part of Saturday being angry but getting things done. 

These are stages of grief, and I dont fear them, but Id rather just not.

Sunday morning (today) I wok up late, long after dawn, and remember I have the most sacred errand of buying rocks today. A voice says f** it, so what if they dont get rocks? 

The idea of getting to the mall is overwhelming and I consider skipping a semester as the rock fairy. 

Three cups of coffee later and I find my kindness, or kindness finds me or whatever. I feel better and off I go.

At the special rock store in the special rock bin, I push my hand into the pile of rocks and let the lucky ones find me.

I need about 150 rocks, and I pick them one at a time with great intention and love.

Many slide through my fingers and slip away, a few stay.

This one calls to me, that one shines, this one glimmers, this one is perfection, and this one is peace.

There are new rocks that I havent seen before which I try to avoid but there are so many of them that I cant help myself from touching them.

A nice lady working at the place asks me if I need help.

I do. I cant explain why, but my hands are black, like Im covered in pencil lead. She offers some paper towels and gloves.

I tell her that I come here at the end of every semester and my hands havent ever turned black before.

Yes, its the peacock ore. The happiness and joy rock. It gets you dirty. Let me give you some gloves. (She does)

My gloves get dirty and I dont care. I understand Michaels lesson and I understand why I am here to day.

I have a story, now, for you and one to tell my students right before I hand them their final exams: 
These rocks are pieces of bigger rocks, and all the rocks are part of earth, and you are part of earth and so you have always been connected to your lucky rock.  Just like you found your rock, you will find every blessing intended for you.  I hope your lucky rock and every rock you find will remind you to follow your path to happiness and joy, go boldly, and know it will mostly likely be like the peacock ore, like life and death and grief and friendship - BOTH messy and joyful.

I dont know why youre gone already Michael. 

I am sure you will find great joy in this whatever comes after this short messy life of wisdom and optimism and friendship.

  Rest in peace my friend.