In 1994, a few years before our daughter was born, the Northridge earthquake rocked our little family of three. For me, a girl from Pittsburgh, it was terrifying to feel the very foundation upon which I stood rumble, roll, ripple and groan. But it was also such a vivid reminder that the earth is a vibrant, ever changing organism. And then this past February, an earthquake shook my soul. Mike – my husband, the adventurer who took my hand and led me all over the world, the father of my two children, my dashing best friend – was killed in a helicopter crash.
These days, months later, I never know when the aftershocks will strike. Out of the blue they render me catatonic and limp. I don’t live in fear of them. I try to let them roll through me with little resistance. I do my best to let the many arms of support that have reached out these past months buffet the rocking and rumbling of my psyche.
About a week after he was killed, over a thousand people gathered in a rotunda, a big embrace of a space, to celebrate Mike. People arrived from the communities he loved all around the world: his family, both literal and figurative; friends; ocean lovers: shallow reef lovers and deep-sea aficionados; film friends; musician friends; fans, some of whom we’d never met; neighbors. The crowd reflected and expressed the many facets of Mike.
I recognize we tend to canonize those who’ve died, so apologies if I’ve done that here since I’d hoped to avoid it. Mike wasn’t perfect. Um, no. But now’s not the time to tell you about that, and anyway, there really isn’t much to say except that he was indeed human. And those qualities were dwarfed by his many strengths, the love he shared, his high wattage smile and his legendary quirks. And yes, he was funny as heck and prone to saying whatever popped into his head, consequences be damned. He was larger than life. Mike was a supreme giver, hugger and sharer.
I can’t articulate our family’s heartbreak since it’s a sadness that defies words, and I don’t want to in this forum anyway. On the other hand, I do want to talk about the beautiful community that has surrounded us in the aftermath. From the hundreds and hundreds of exquisite, handwritten notes, many from people we’ve never met, to the emails, the texts, Facebook messages, to the blog posts people have emailed me from all over the world, the phone-calls, the food – oh, the food! home cooked, comforting food – the visits from family, friends and mere acquaintances, the Bhutanese prayer flags quietly draped in front of our house one night by a dear friend, all the delicate, fragrant flowers, the thoughtfully scavenged beach treasures gathered and dropped gently into a polished, dark wooden bowl on our front steps, the hugs, kisses and hand holding. So much kindness and generosity for which we feel such tremendous gratitude, the depth of which we can probably never fully express.
Like the octopus that fascinated him, Mike’s tentacles reached out to many, and we are witnessing the power of his big heart and goodwill growing exponentially. Mike physically needed community and it, in turn, hugged him back. It’s encircling us now. Everyday something reminds me how important community is. Whether it’s how it plays a key role in nurturing children, or how it becomes the support you need when life knocks you down, it’s clear to me that strong community is the fertile soil of healthy human existence and growth.
Mike had that rare ability to speak to people as though they were the most important in the room, to make people feel understood. Sure, he had a legendary gift of gab. But he also had lots of time to listen to other people, to hear their stories. And let me tell you, he genuinely cared. He adored mentoring and encouraging those whose talent he admired, and there were lots. I am learning of more every day. He reveled in talking to our kids and their friends, to first graders, to rooms packed with attentive marine scientists, to friends around our dining room table, to those he met on an expedition to some remote corner of the globe. He stayed in touch with most. If he didn’t, it was because he was so busy, but when he saw them next, he just picked up where he’d left off, like it was yesterday.
Ok, it’s true: Mike talked to anyone who would listen. He loved sharing his enthusiasm for the natural world. He adored telling tales of his many adventures. He had a visceral need to share his wonder, and it came as naturally to him as breathing. It bubbled up from deep inside of him, like the lava oozing from beneath the earth’s crust, the lava he so thrillingly filmed with his dear buddy and talented cohort Paul Atkins.
Make no mistake, though. Mike was not an earnest environmental crusader, doing what he did out of sense of duty. Mike did what he did because he had no choice: he had to share his passion for the oceanic world, and as I said to a friend not long ago, you’d better not be standing next to him when he got going. He threw his arms around when he talked, making his rather small stature larger than life itself, and his wild, crazy gesticulating could knock you out if – heaven forbid – you got in the path of a flailing arm.
Mike abhorred pomposity. He hated arrogance or self-importance. He was not a fan of jackets and ties. For Mike, the fewer the clothes, the better, unless of course he were in Antarctica, the Arctic, or hurtling down the mountain on a pair of skis but even then, he might remove all his clothes except his ski boots as he did once while skiing down Mauna Kea. He was happiest, really, in searing heat with a clear blue ocean at his feet, wearing nothing at all. He had no patience for formality, something that set his teeth on edge. Oh sure, give him a margarita or a glass of an old cab, and he could have a whale of a time. But more often than not, he almost seemed to be that proverbial fish out of water, flopping around at a formal gathering. Toss him back in the sea, and he swam beautifully, in total comfort and with confidence. While others might happily gain entrance to the finest gala in a dapper tuxedo, Mike was most at home in a neoprene wetsuit, something that gave him a ticket to an octopus’ garden party.
A refrain I’ve heard over and over these past few months is how Mike treated everyone with respect and made friends everywhere he went. He was unfailingly loyal and kept his word. An equal opportunity jokester, Mike seasoned his speech with bad puns when talking not only to celebrated characters, but also to the reliable man who picks up the trash. He just seemed to be at home in his skin, wherever he happened to be.
Mike’s passion and enthusiasm left its imprint on everyone he met. He loved all critters – terrestrial and marine – and was, in so many ways, a clergyman, a missionary of the sea. After his family, his friends and most of all, our two children, people he adored more than anything on earth, he loved the ocean. Mike’s calling, his mission, his passion was to share its glory and to defend it. And he had a lot more to say about that since he was growing increasingly worried about its future. I am still getting requests – at least once a week – to honor him and his legacy in some way or another. It is humbling and a true reminder to love as deeply and as widely as you possibly can. It just reverberates and is the thing that, after all is said and done, matters most of all. Nothing can curb the hugely positive energy emanating from a vibrant soul. It lives on and on. To quote the Beatles: And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make. Mike, you lived and loved large.