Wednesday, August 06, 2014
When someone you love, someone exceptional, is taken from you at a young age there's more than the standard grief and hurt. There's a quiet rage at the incomprehensible injustice of it all and an emptiness that feels like its own physical presence, because what was lost wasn't just the past but the long, bright future that was supposed to be ahead.
On this very early morning one year ago, someone I loved and continue to love more than can be expressed in human language died of cancer. On paper, he was my former brother-in-law, the younger brother of my ex-wife. In the reality I came to believe and understand, he was my own brother. That's what he considered himself and what I was both humbled and proud to call him as well.
While it may feel like a tired cliché to liken the attempt to survive cancer to a battle, there's simply no better analogy for what Michael Chobot endured. He fought. He battled. He waged war, for almost two years, showing a determination, humor, and grace that I could never in a million years imagine myself being capable of. When it ended -- when he said his goodbye and allowed himself to finally let go and drift away -- there was in some ways a sense of gratitude and appreciation both for the fact that he was with us for as long as he was, and that his suffering was, at least, over.
But it's always in the ebbing aftermath where the real heartbreak of something like this lies, when the silence and shadow slowly move in to fill the space where the person you loved once was. It seems like no one who was close to Mike has been able to find true north in the wake of losing him. We've all just been adrift, going about our daily lives, sure, but always with the knowledge that something irreplaceable was missing, and always one stray, fleeting thought away from breaking down and screaming through hot tears that we needed that something back because we couldn't be without it.
He was supposed to be here, dammit. He was supposed to laugh with us and cry with us and call us with absurd questions and make it a point to tell us he loved us every time we parted from him and always leave us wondering how we got so lucky to be able to say he was in our lives -- and he was supposed to become an Oscar-winning sound designer and marry and have children and grow old and be an inspiration to us in every single thing he did.
The memory of him can do some of those things. It can't do all of them.
But Mike would've hated it if I or anyone else couldn't get past the tragedy of his death and remember only the triumph of his life and his legacy. So even though I look at that picture above and can't help but cry -- because it's a reminder that at one time he was the same age as my own little girl, his niece, and I can't imagine the larger thought that even something so wonderful and innocent and flawless can't be guaranteed safe passage through this life -- I've got to keep looking up and moving forward. Because that's what he did. Always. Those whose lives he enriched in innumerable ways now take what he gave us and carry it in our hearts, our souls, our very marrow. And that's how his life goes on -- through us.
Just before he died, Mike asked me to write something about him -- essentially, to write his obituary. I ached over it, unsure of what I could possibly say and how I could begin to say it. But I finally took a deep breath and let what was inside of me out. I published it just a few hours before he left, not long after midnight on the morning of August 6th.
I'm reposting it this morning, on this anniversary. I miss you, Mike. I always will.
"Higher and Farther Than Anybody in a Gray Place Dares To Dream" (Originally Published, 8.6.13)
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.
(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.)