I still remember when I learned that I shared more DNA with my siblings than I did with my parents. I don’t know why, but it blew my mind. I’m 3 years and 3 weeks older than my youngest brother, Jeremy. Mike was sandwiched in between. He was the classic middle child. Needed attention, good or bad, and got it. Anyone who grew up with us will tell you the 3 of us boys did EVERYTHING together. We shared a room for most of our childhood. Shared clothes too. Most of the time we were busy fighting each other but if someone picked a fight with us, they had to fight all of us. We fought all of the time but were as close as you could be. With time and “life” we naturally grew apart. But the Phoenix Boys remained bonded even into adulthood. As profound as understanding our genetic connection was for me, realizing that Mike was different from Jeremy and I was even more so. I remember where I was and how it happened. I was very angry and very sad all at once. Maybe it was my grief manifesting itself as anger. Either way, Mike went from being my best friend to something more distant. He’d get in trouble and I’d bail him out, always expecting him to have learned his lesson. He never did. What I didn’t comprehend was the “why.” Why he was different. Why he never learned. Mike struggled with demons that it took me years to even recognize, let alone understand or be sympathetic towards. I assumed the things he did or didn’t do were purely based on his selfish desire to satiate whatever it was he wanted in the moment. But it was far more complex than that. The night before he got married he got punched in the face. I wasn’t in the same room but when word got to me I was ready for war. I held it together when I realized everyone in our group was going to jail if I unleashed what I wanted on his attacker. So instead, I sent home the people that needed to go home and herded the rest of the group to the hospital to be with Mike as his face was stitched together. As I stood by his side in the ER it occurred to me that I would be taking care of him for the rest of his life. And I did. Car wrecks, motorcycle wrecks, life flights and fist fights would follow him in the years to come. And the rest of the Phoenix’s would always be there to fix or help him out of whatever jam he was in. Between the trouble, Mike took care of us. If he had cash, WE had cash. He even bought us a bottle of Dom Perignon for my wedding. When my children were born he was in their lives as much as he could be. He loved them. And they loved him. He encouraged me to take chances I wouldn’t normally take. Introduced me to music I would have never known, let alone love. He always the best cologne and the nicest cars. His laugh was loud and infectious and his smile was electric. Long story short, Mike wasn’t the “life of the party”, Mike WAS the party. Knucklehead behavior is expected out of teenagers. Mike extended that into adulthood and never quite gave it up. His demons began to be public enough that I became privy of a life he hid from the rest of us. He was forced to be open about them. But he never was able to fully open up. I regret that to this day. Mike would call you for no good reason at 2 in the morning, laughing obnoxiously, just to tell you some frivolous anecdote. It was annoying. If you didn’t answer, he’d leave you a rambling, pointless voicemail. Rarely did he actually need anything. I now wish I’d saved those stupid messages. But I didn’t and I can’t get them back. My brother was a ladies man. Women of all races, ages, sizes, shapes and professional backgrounds just loved him. I taught him everything he knew about how to talk to women. While I used that skill and knowledge to harmlessly flirt, he took it to another level. He was so good that he followed in my footsteps and won the “Smoothest Talker” Award his senior year in high school. He just had this innate ability to make you feel like you were the most important person in the world, especially if you didn’t have a “y” chromosome. The thing about his charm was that in the moment, he REALLY felt and believed everything he was saying. It was almost irresistible. Another thing to add to the “irresistible column”, he had dimples, “good hair”, big muscles and bright eyes. The man was gorgeous. For Mike, “irresistible” became a problem he couldn’t outrun. I really believe he wanted to win the race, he just couldn’t. I was so used to calls from hospitals and EMT’s that I would say, regularly, “Mike can’t die. Because if he could, he’d be dead already.” It caused me to become numb to the emergency calls. What other people’s friends and family would find scary or disastrous became par for the course for us. So when my dad called me around 7:30am on March the 12th, I wasn’t concerned. I didn’t understand why he was calling so early or why he kept repeating the same question “are you driving.” But when he got to the point, I couldn’t comprehend it. When he finally said “Michael is dead” I was driving out of the parking garage at work. I repeatedly asked “my uncle Michael?” And he kept saying “no.” It didn’t seem possible, forget “real.” But it was. And it was terrible. I held it together long enough to call Jeremy, and the close friends and family that needed to know before they heard elsewhere. To say his death affected many is an absolute understatement. The ripple effect was far and wide. Friends and family from childhood to adulthood reached out and helped. So many shared stories we had never heard. Moments that Mike had been there for them. How he changed or shaped their lives. Stories about him being the level headed advice giver when he had always needed advice and guidance himself. I loved Mike. I still love Mike. But it took his death for me to truly respect him. The people he’d confided in became people I needed a connection to. I needed to know the Mike that was hidden from so many, including me. His funeral was not conventional. That’s because Mike wasn’t conventional. One of our closest friends remarked “isn’t it crazy that Mikes not here for the biggest party that is all about him?” And she was right. Mike would have loved it. I miss him. I miss the calls and voicemails, laughter and nonsense. I miss sharing the inside jokes that only he got. I hurt every moment I think “you know who would love this” and then remembering that he isn’t here to love it. But most of all, I miss my mother and fathers complete heart. I have two kids. I can’t imagine losing one. And watching my mother and fathers nearly crippling grief was as painful an experience as I’ve ever endured. Jeremy and I did everything we could to help them and shield them from the responsibilities that are necessary when a loved one dies. But it wasn’t enough. Nothing is enough. It’s like craving steak and someone feeds you a salad: you may enjoy it but it won’t hit the spot. I still find myself staring in disbelief when an Incubus song comes on or a stupid joke is made. When I see pictures it still feels unreal. Hearing my mother cry or reading her Facebook posts about the loss of her son leaves me feeling so impotent. But seeing dad and mom trudge on gives me strength. They stick to their routine but don’t pretend they aren’t hurt. I’ve learned a lot from their example and I’m certain Jeremy has too. The bond Mike and I had in life feels closer and stronger than when he was alive. I feel like I finally “get” Mike. And I get that he did his best even if it didn’t seem like it. Often times people focus on how Mike died. The fact is we don’t know for certain. And truth be told, I don’t care. He’s gone and that’s the only part that matters. The sting of death won’t be relieved for far too long, but I know it gets better. It already has. As we near the 1 year anniversary of his death, I cling to the refrain of an Incubus song, “I wish you were here.” I love you Mike. I never won’t.
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