Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Higher and Farther Than Anybody in a Gray Place Dares To Dream

Any evening that begins with a car on fire is guaranteed to be memorable.

That's how things got underway as the darkness draped itself over New York City on Saturday, April 12th, 2008: with Michael Chobot spending the first few minutes of his big 21st birthday celebration staring in disbelief out of the window of the cab we were sitting in the back of as it crawled with traffic past an inferno that maybe ten minutes ago was a car. We were heading downtown, toward the Village, and firefighters had already blocked off the lane with the burning, empty vehicle, backing up the FDR for a good half-mile. While at least one of us in the cab was frustrated as hell at the delay, the sense of little-kid wonder I'd come to expect from Mike was in full bloom once the cause of it was revealed. From where I was sitting I could make out the expression on his face reflected slightly in the window as we passed the scene -- the open mouth forming an awed smile, the wide eyes, the appreciation for the sheer surreality of such a moment. Live long enough in Gotham and you start to believe that you've seen it all, that nothing can return you to that place you were when you knew full-well how wonderfully weird the entire world is. But there was Mike, with all the unpretentious exuberance that something like the sight of a car engulfed in flames, out of nowhere, to kick off the night of your birthday bash, should elicit. And at that, I remember cracking a little smile in spite of myself, because if there's one thing you learn from knowing Mike, it's that whatever strange magic it is that he possesses -- the singular way he looks at the world, what makes him him -- it rubs off on you, and that's never a bad thing.

The rest of that evening involved, among other things, Mike drunkenly rushing up to me at a bar after having disappeared for a few minutes to tell me that if we were willing to buy a couple of girls he'd just met drinks, they would make out in front of us; Mike being relieved of his leather belt and spanked with it by a bartender at Coyote Ugly; and the night's master of ceremonies, a good friend of mine, nearly being arrested for public urination. The following morning, I was awakened from unconsciousness by Mike standing there holding up the now very soiled blanket that I'd laid out on the couch for him the night before; he asked me, completely sincerely, with a goofy smile on his face that only served to ratify his perceived innocence, "Hey, man -- why'd you give me a blanket with vomit all over it?" I threw the thing in the laundry, we ordered a couple of Irish breakfasts from a place up the street and spent the rest of the day learning how to jump cars off the roofs of buildings in Grand Theft Auto IV. It was, even during that heady period in my life, with a new baby on the way, one of the best times I could remember. I had taken my wife's kid brother, whom I'd known for six years, out to christen his adulthood and we'd both had an absolute blast.

That's my favorite memory of Michael Chobot, my favorite among many memories. It doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of who he is and what makes him unlike anyone I've ever known, truly unlike anyone period, but at the moment it's what I've got. And those closest to Mike are doing the same thing I'm doing right now: quietly but hurriedly gathering these memories like diamonds spilled across a floor and holding tightly to each one. They're doing this because soon it's all any of us will have. Soon, Michael will be gone.

For almost two full years now, Mike has put up a truly remarkable fight against one of the most ruthless and efficient killers on the planet: acute myeloid leukemia. He's been in and out of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. He's undergone not one but two bone marrow transplants. He's straddled the line between recovery and collapse, gone into remission, then returned to that precipice to dangle precariously again. Throughout it all, his sense of humor and his singular outlook on life -- the life he was battling so valiantly to hold on to -- have never waned. He's had terrible days. He's had times he's wanted to be alone, I have no doubt times when he's wanted nothing more than to close his eyes and drift away from everything and everyone -- to open them and find himself floating freely in the ocean off a sunny beach somewhere, truly alive. But somehow with a strength I can't even begin to imagine he's managed to keep the most important part of himself intact. The Michael his family and friends have always known -- the one I've known for more than ten years, since he was a funny, awkward, endlessly analytical 14-year-old kid -- was still there.

Recently, following this latest transplant, which appeared to be holding, Mike took to looking toward the future. Maybe it was that weekend back in 2008 that sold him on a life in New York City, but in the couple of years before being diagnosed, Mike had moved to Brooklyn and was beginning to get some truly impressive work in his chosen field: sound engineering. He worked on Salt, Pokemon, and It's Kind of a Funny Story. He lived payday to payday, like just about everyone starting out in media in New York, and eventually worked on a PBS feature called An Original DUCKumentary. Just a couple of months ago he called me with some incredible news: He'd been nominated for a national Emmy for it -- outstanding music and sound. The ceremony is this coming October. He wanted to go. I joked to him that he needed to leak the fact that he has cancer to the Academy -- possibly get the sympathy vote.

Maybe it's the fact that I'm 3,000 miles away from him and only know what I hear in his voice when we talk on the phone, but I think I finally put out of my mind the ugly reality that had always clawed at my insides. Maybe all of us pulling for him were right: Michael was special. He had taught himself piano as a child and composed symphonies as a teenager. He had an artistic streak most could only dream of and a staggering amount of talent to back it up. He had a strangely old-soul quality about him, becoming a kid fanboy of music that was popular on rock radio even before I was a kid (so much so that I used to rib him pretty mercilessly about it). He was almost supernaturally optimistic. He was an honest-to-God genius who seemed to control everything around him, making his dreams come to vivid life and bending it all to his will without really even trying, always improving it -- or at least making it a hell of a lot more interesting. He couldn't be taken. It simply wasn't possible. He existed in a perpetual state of grace. He was gonna be fine.

But two weeks ago, he was given the news: there was nothing the doctors could do anymore. The cancer had come back with a vengeance. It was too aggressive. Too powerful. He wasn't going to make it. He's not going to make it.

He's home now. With the family he loves more than anything and which loves him with equal ferocity. He's at peace with what's to come.

How do you mourn for what never existed? How do you grieve not for the past but for the future, a future that will never be? I suppose that's what true grief is -- it's not the disappearance of what was there all along as much as it is the sudden absence of what you were so sure was to come. It's the worst kind of cliché, but Michael Chobot was going to change the world. He was going to do something not simply great but truly monumental. I can't even begin to explain how I know this, but it's as certain to me as the searing knowledge that the man who isn't my blood brother but who embraced me as one and has grown to become an inextricable part of my heart and soul is now dying. The only comfort I or anyone else close to him can take is that he's already accomplished such extraordinary things, had so indelible an impact on so many lives, created love and joy as effortlessly as he created sound and music and film, equally beautiful and without question immortal. There's little anyone can do at this point other than to assure Mike that what he's done with his life has mattered. That in just a little over a quarter-century on this planet, he fulfilled every bit of his promise to himself and those around him. That he made a difference. That he can be proud.

Michael is my brother and my friend. I will go to my own grave loving him. I will make sure my daughter, his niece, grows up knowing how fortunate she is that her uncle was the man he was. She'll learn the stories about Mike, hear them repeated endlessly. The hilarious stories, the unusual stories, the profoundly moving stories. She'll hear the stories from his brother, and his sisters, and his parents, and his friends, and every single person whose life he's touched.

Maybe I was wrong. Maybe everyone who's known Michael Chobot throughout the years won't be left with only memories once he's gone. What they'll be left with is what Mike himself gave them, what he gave me: something better. Michael made our lives better. He has since the day he was born -- and his legacy will ensure that he'll continue to long after his physical presence is no more.

He always had fire. He was guaranteed to be memorable.


(Adding: Overnight, Michael Chobot died. He is survived by his mother, Gwyn, and his father, Tom, as well as his sisters, Jayne and Sarah, and brother, Joe. And those he called brother or sister, Phil, Megan and, for reasons I'll never fully understand or be able to adequately thank him for, me. He lived with more passion, wonder and innocence than anyone I've ever known or ever will.)


Izar Talon said...

I'm sorry. He sounds like a really great guy.

Craig Norris said...

Thank you for this. I was, among other things, Michael's high school English teacher. My connection to the Chobot family goes back some 20 years or so, having taught Jayne when she was in 10th grade; followed by Joe, then Sarah, and, of course, Michael. You captured the essence of Michael very well, as well as the tragedy that has not only befallen him, but everyone who knows him. Again, I thank you.
Craig Norris

Anonymous said...

Michael Chobot was one of the first students I hired when i began managing the college of communications equipment room for Penn State. He made every day a joy, and had a voracious appetite for learning. He knew more about sound by the end of his junior year, than I know today. His presence was exhuberant, he lit up the room, even after spending all night editing. He cared about the details other people brushed aside. He'll be greatly missed.

Laura Rowlands said...

I played soccer with Mike as a kid, with his father, Tom, as our coach. We went to high school together, too. He was a great guy. Always seemed to know exactly what he wanted to do. Sad to say I haven't seen him since graduation. Thoughts and prayers with the Chobot family.

Anonymous said...

Our hearts are broken

peabody nobis said...

Sorry for your loss, Chez.
Godspeed, Michael.

brettskean said...

I am deeply sorry for your loss, Chez.

When I was 21, my brother (also named Mike) was killed in a car accident. He had just graduated high school and had a music scholarship to Eastern Illinois University. I too wonder what he would have grown up to be, what turns his life would have taken, what accomplishments he would have achieved. He was a talented pianist and could play a song or a piece by rote after having read the music only once or twice.

While I did not get the chance to say good-bye to him (it was a see-you-soon, after a break from college), he did come out to me as gay, something he never told my parents. I told him that I loved him no matter what and didn't care if he was gay, straight, purple or from Mars. After his funeral, the pastor of the church that my brother went to came up to me and said that my acceptance of my brother's sexuality greatly relieved him and gave him a sense of piece. That is all I have left.

Treasure the times you spent with your Mike, remember the good times and the bad, and try to understand and come to grips with how f-ed up the world is that such great and wonderful people are taken away from us for some non-sensical reason.


bafreeman said...

A friend of mine from high school, Chris Abel, died from Hodgkin's Disease when he was 25. He went though much the same--in remission, out of remission, at least one bone-marrow transplant. (During chemo when he felt too crappy to go out he would come by with a few movies and share his Marinol.) Following his initial diagnosis, Chris taught me more about how to live than anyone else I've ever known. His first time in remission, he backpacked through Europe by himself. It was something he'd planned to do after he graduated from college, but he realized--even in remission--that he might not make it that long. That trip is symbolic of how he spent the last few years of his life. Guys in their 20s, with decades of living stretched out in front of them, have a lot of (often drunken) conversations that begin with "You know what we should do? We should...", and usually end with more beers and no action.
Chris didn't engage in that kind of talk. He did things. He lived his life audaciously. I think about him often (the last time we went out was to a Collective Soul concert, so any time I hear "Shine," Chris comes to mind), but your remembrance of your brother made me remember him much more vividly. Thanks for that, Chez. And sorry for your loss.

namron said...

I do not know Michael, but I am certain that he is in awe of your ability to communicate the deepest of feelings and emotions with a style that is incredibly moving and artistically clean and simple. Chez, you never disappoint your readers, especially with material as close to the heart as this.

Anonymous said...

I was once an acquaintance of Michael's sister, Sarah, and her husband, Phil. I never had the pleasure of meeting Michael, but his story and your memorial to him, are beyond inspiring. I cannot begin to understand the loss that your family is feeling, but I hope you know that Michael's life and outlook, through your words, is helping me in ways you will never know. Thank you very much for sharing this. Continued thoughts and prayers to his family and friends.

alopecia said...

I'm sorry, Chez. People like Michael should spend long, happy lives changing the world. They shouldn't die before they even get a chance fully to understand who they are and what they can accomplish.

My condolences to you and everyone who knew Michael Chobot.

I'll raise a glass in his honor tonight.

"… I haven't really found any lessons in death other than I wish it wouldn't." –Joss Whedon

Kelly Bell said...

"What they'll be left with is what Mike himself gave them, what he gave me: something better."

And I believe with that, he did change the world.

Riles said...

Very sorry for your loss, Chez. Sounds like we all lost someone truly special.

JW said...

My condolences to all whose lives he touched.

Anonymous said...

I went to school with mike. We were never close but I always admired him. He had the greatest attitude. He was always so happy and so curious about everything! He would end up involved in every activity available! I wish I had known him better, simply because he was a rare person. He always saw the good and was hysterical too. I had no idea he was ill and hes constantly on my mind now. I'm so glad he has such an amazing family and friends to have been there for him. There are no words that could ever make this feel okay but I wish you and the rest of your family comfort and peace.

Em said...

I'm so sorry to hear this. I lost my mom to leukemia. Condolences to you all.

Anonymous said...

So sorry to read your well written eulogy for Mike.
No one should die at 26!

It's impossible imagine the hospital ordeals he endured.

There is truly nothing sadder than the passing of a sibling.

It's happened to me, more than once, and everyday I think about my brothers who are gone. They often show up in my dreams.

As empty as it may sound, my sincerest sympathy to you, and Jayne's family.

I am sorry he's gone!

The Carrere Family said...

What a wonderful tribute to Michael and so profoundly true to the Michael who touched our lives. The Michael our family knew was the very young Michael...four, five, six and then into high school and he had that incredible spark even then, that something unique that simply invited the people around him to be filled with joy. When Michael and my daughter were in preschool, he made cards for her - covered with trees, hearts, wild squiggles and, once he knew how to write, her name and his declaration of love for her. It was either in kindergarten or first grade, when the teacher joked about the rule she had to make for Michael and Emily - "No kissing." (Terribly smitten with one another, I am guessing they found their way around that). They stayed friends through elementary and junior high school, going to the 9th grade formal together and then, as often happens in those teenage years, spent less time together until they finally lost touch after graduation. The thing is...they may have lost touch, my husband and I may have only known the child-Michael but....but....you are so right...Michael's spirit doesn't leave you once you have known him - he manages to stay with you, nested somewhere in your soul. We send our deepest condolences to you and all of Michael's family and love and appreciation to Michael for the gift he gave us.