I’ve waited to do this story on Mike for quite some time. Why have I been waiting? Because I love happy endings. The nice tidy ones where everything falls into place and the underdog wins. The kind where what seems to be impossible happens and everybody walks away thinking the world is a wonderful place. So I’ve been waiting for the happy ending to come along for Mike. The problem is, it hasn’t yet. And it’s pretty messy in the middle.
My first encounter with Mike was about 10 years ago. Standing in the kitchen area of a local homeless shelter, I began a conversation with a man with bright blue eyes and sandy brown hair. He told me, among other things, that his name was Michael. As the conversation came to an end, he asked, “Can I use your phone?” Taking my phone from my jacket, I gave it to the man and then watched him round the corner and head outside. After about 10 minutes, I began seriously doubting that I would see my phone again. Looking back now, saying “yes” probably wasn’t the wisest thing. But in the end, there came Mike back in the door of the shelter with phone in hand. I gave him my phone number when I left that day and thus began the beautiful friendship of two very different people.
A month or two later, while watching my son’s baseball game, I received a call from Mike. His voice was stressed and erratic and I knew instantly something was terribly wrong. Mike unraveled a story about someone trying to kill him and that there was no safe place to go. In the chaos of the moment, one of his conclusions was that he should kill himself to avoid being caught. The odd contrast of our situations vividly stands out as I remember that moment – me at a sunny baseball park enjoying a high school game and Mike in some dark drug area of town hiding alone. The experience could be summed up as two totally separate worlds colliding on a cool spring day.
Not long after, Mike asked me to drive him to a court hearing in a town forty minutes away. I’m not sure why I decided to take on that task, but I did. My friend Patti, who was no stranger to risky encounters, immediately chimed in that she would go as well. Later she told me she merely went for my protection. (And yes, I’m thankful to have friends who have my back when I am naive!) The road trip reminded me a bit of a scene from Thelma and Louise. Honestly, we had a “rip roaring” good time. Remembering the trip, I would judge that was probably one of the things that cemented our friendship. That and the jail visit where Mike came to the glass wearing an orange and white stripped outfit three times too big. Despite the circumstances, we couldn’t stop laughing. I featured a snapshot of Mike, Patti and me at a roadside diner on our trip but unfortunately don’t have one of Mike in the jail jumpsuit. On second thought, that’s probably fortunate for Mike.
The last ten years have flown by and I’ve not infrequently received calls from Mike similar to his first one. Typically, I tell him that no one is trying to kill him. He says they are. It’s possible he’s right. After all, Mike’s been involved on both sides of the drug scene for quite a few years and has enemies. And it’s true that the people he claims are after him actually have murdered some people. Who’s to say? At the same time, I also realize he has schizophrenia, so it’s complicated. In the end, seeing truth with clarity is a pretty difficult thing for all of us. Sometimes a friend questioning why we see our situations as we do, makes us examine things through a different lens and ultimately brings some clarity. A little at a time, Mike and I are both working on seeing things a little clearer.
The past has a way of coloring how we see the future. It’s true for Mike, and for all of us. His early years were filled with terrible stories caused by the actions of an abusive mom and step-dad. Trying to escape home, Mike spent quite a few days in and out of Juvie Hall. I know without a doubt, had some of his early experiences happened to me, I would not have made it through. He did. As a result, Mike is resourceful, tough and brave. In the years after that, he had six felonies, cycled in and out of jail and served some time in prison. Despite a pretty difficult road, Mike managed to keep his sense of humor and is still one of the funniest people I know.
Up until now in the story, your picture of Mike is likely jaded by my disclosure of him being a felon, an addict, and a schizophrenic. If those are the only facts you knew about my friend, you would miss the most extraordinary parts. He is able to acknowledge his faults and accept responsibility for his mistakes. In that aspect, I wish we were all a little more like Mike. He is humble and grateful; thoughtful and kind. And Mike is a great listener. In one of the most difficult periods of my life, I could call Mike and cry on the phone. There was never any judgement, no inkling that he thought my problems were trivial to his (even though they were). There was only the sympathetic ear of a great friend who was willing to hang out with me in a really dark place. That’s what a true friend does. Isn’t it surprising, some of the most unlikely people and most difficult situations, lead to your most precious memories? There is no doubt in my mind, if I needed something, Mike would move heaven and earth to help me, and I would do the same for him.
One year for his birthday, Mike came over for dinner. In our conversation a few weeks later, he said something that will always stay with me. “Growing up I saw families like yours on T.V. My family wasn’t like that and none of my friends had families like that. I didn’t think they really existed. I thought they were just made up until I saw yours.” At the time Mike spoke those words, I remember being heartbroken over the number of people whose homes are filled with anger, violence and isolation. Perhaps Mike’s words are why I remain committed in reaching out to people who feel like they don’t belong. The conversation came to an end that day with Mike’s final words, which I will always treasure, “Thanks for inviting me to be part of your family.”
I too am thankful, thankful our worlds collided and I said yes to that road trip all those years ago. We’ve been on a road trip ever since. Sometimes there’s been laughter and sometimes there’s been heated discussions. The journey has been filled with sweet highs and heartbreaking lows. Most of the time, Mike is clean – but sometimes he’s not. Most of the time, he has a job – but he can lose it easily. Most of the time, he can deal with the schizophrenia – but sometimes he can’t. We just happen to still be in the messy middle right now.
One thing I know for sure – he is not the same man I met ten years ago. Michael has changed. Somewhere along the journey, he learned how to trust. Now, he actively tries to make the right decisions and do the right thing, even if he isn’t always successful in it. But who is? He learned how to love and how to be a good friend. Maybe the joy really is in the journey, because I am not the same woman either. I’m different, because he became my friend. Mike taught me that being a good friend doesn’t mean you fix someone else’s problems for them, you just love them in the messy middle.
So, perhaps this story is really for all of us who are still in the messy middle, or know someone who is. It’s good to realize we aren’t the only ones. Most of all, this is a story about celebrating progress even before there’s a nice happy ending. For Mike, I really believe there will be a happy ending. I’m sure of it. We just haven’t arrived there yet. So here’s to a new year! Let’s all celebrate the progress we have already made. And soon, may we all find ourselves in happy endings.
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Galatians 6:9 NIV
We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. Romans 5:3-5 NLT
That’s why we live with such good cheer. You won’t see us drooping our heads or dragging our feet! Cramped conditions here don’t get us down. They only remind us of the spacious living conditions ahead. It’s what we trust in but don’t yet see that keeps us going. Do you suppose a few ruts in the road or rocks in the path are going to stop us? When the time comes, we’ll be plenty ready to exchange exile for homecoming. 2 Cor 5:6 Msg
Know that I’m on your side, right alongside you. You’re not in this alone. Colossians 2:1 Msg
When I think of Mike, I always think of NEEDTOBREATHE. What a great band and what perfect lyrics for this story. “I don’t know what’s around the bend. All I know is that my love, it knows no end. All these pieces fall in line because I’m forever on your side. Take my hand when you can’t see light, cause I’m forever on your side.”