It's 3:13 a.m. as I write this, just hours before Mikael's funeral. I've slept 2 1/2 hours already but when I woke I couldn't get back to sleep. I am so full of joy I have no room for grief. I lay in bed two hours ago, feeling this joy well up into near excitement, undergirded with a peace and contentment that to most people would make no sense. I'm not sure it makes sense to me but I know it's real. God has been so good. He has poured out his blessings on us this week and I feel like we are the most blessed family in the world right now.
I can't imagine life without Mikael. I'm still in shock, running on adrenaline and the drive to give Mikael the best farewell ever and not wanting to miss a moment of the flood of family and friends who have been pouring into our home with cards, flowers, meals, goodies, more meals and goodies, love, prayers and memories. I've been sitting in an armchair where I have a straight line of sight to the front entrance, a complete view of the rest of the living room, nearly all of the dining room, an eye into the kitchen and a window into the family room. I sit here like a queen bee surrounded by the bustling activity of the hive, people bringing me what I need and want and pushing water and food into my hands to keep me well. I could get used to this.
Did I say people were bringing meals? The first day we were brought lunch and two hot dinners. The next day we were given lunch, five hot meals, frozen meals, muffins and treats. I've lost count since then though I've been trying to keep track of who has brought what. I want to remember, when this is all over and the joyous chaos subsides, who has brought or done what. I know I will miss some because they sneak past me and leave anonymously.
Tonight we were mostly family in the house and a few, close and comfortable friends. My sisters had washed and dried my dirty clothes and Mary Kosta was ironing. Some of the boys and their cousins were in the family room playing Rock Band with drums, guitars and microphones. My mom sat on the couch with Agnes, Tom's brother's wife talking about faith. Tom's brothers, my sisters and my cousin Roy were clustered in the dining room catching up with each other's lives and talking about a variety of things. Others were in the kitchen and still more up in Tom's study. I was able to sit in my chair, soaking it all in and yet free to not have to interact. I sat with my computer connecting with some online friends and exchanging e-mails with people about the service today. This is what heaven will be like.
We've started to tape the sympathy cards to the wide door frames in the house, and will print off every online greeting we receive and add them to the doorframes and walls. Even when everything dies down, we will be surrounded by your love.
The house is quiet now. The girls are sleeping in the family room, the boys tucked into their beds, with Konrad in Mikael's (no, we didn't change the sheets) and Tom is hopefully sleeping in the sweet bliss of peaceful dreams. I sit here embraced by the love that has flowed through these rooms in the past four days (today, the fifth, has barely begun). How do I begin to talk about my son?
Mikael was the third of four of the most awesome sons a mother could have. I have been blessed.
His entrance into this world was quick--one hour. He was the dream baby. He hardly cried and was happy and content. He was so easy to take care of. If only all births and infancies could be like his! He climbed, nearly before he could walk--scaling the walls when he was two, hiding the spare key to the house in the upper branches of the spruce behind our house as a preteen and reaching second or third-floor "entrances" to abandoned buildings whose first floors were impenetrable. He probably found a way into the yellow warehouse next door to this church and he especially loved the remains of the Ogilvie Mill on Higgins Avenue.
Mikael's brilliance was demonstrated as he learned to talk. His grandmother called him the little wise old man because of the things that would come out of his mouth. His earliest friendships were with Michael Lazaruk from Church of the Way, and Sarah Spiers and Jaquie Pharaoh from across the street. He and the girls entered into numerous escapades including his backyard wedding and first kiss to Sarah when they were five. Simon Bickle-Tapper and D'Arcy (I'm sorry, my foggy, sleep-deprived brain can't remember your last name) were his best friends at Montrose School.
He loved to learn and grasped every opportunity with gusto. At Westgate he loaded his schedule with every musical class he could and learned to excel with the oboe under the instruction of Julie Trottier and mentorship of Vic Loewen. He won a trophy at the Manitoba Music Festival one year. He was jealous that all his brothers got a year or more of home-schooling so he spent grade five at home pursuing topics that engaged him that year--old cars and horses. Together we read every Black Stallion book the library had.
Mikael embraced all genre of music, singing, playing and listening to it. He also composed music using only the computer keyboard and scoring software. The music you heard as you waited for the service to begin was his. The same CD will be playing while we visit and enjoy each other’s company after the service. You will hear Bassoon Concerto, A Renaissance Affaire, March to the Kremlin, Midnight Romance, Concerto for Oboe, Strings and Continuo, Preludius Maximus and Sinfonia in G Minor and more.
Grit and determination are two words that describe Mikael. This can't be better illustrated than pointing you to the several years, beginning at age nine, that he got up at 5:00 a.m. rain, shine or blizzard, to deliver the Free Press to his customers on our block. He didn't want his parents accompanying him despite their fears for his safety and boldly ploughed through snow that sometimes seemed deeper than he was tall. He saved his earnings and, at eleven, bought the pine captain's bed with bookcase headboard that he wanted.
He loved books and read the likes of Dante, Dumas, Richard Foster and obscure authors I'd never heard of before. One book he faithfully read was the Bible. In the last year of his life, his mornings began with him at the dining table or computer, Bible open on the one hand and a hand-bound journal of his own construction on the other. His print was miniscule and his favourite pen was a space model he received several years ago that writes under water, at forty-below and at heat that would turn the hand holding it to cinders.
Mikael wanted to be authentic and often struggled with his faith: Why did he follow God? Was it for the right reasons? How could God possibly accept him with all his failures and short-comings? Yet he had a driving passion to know God more. He was a pre-schooler on holiday with his family, sitting on the boardwalk of a north-western Ontario bog on a bright Sunday morning when he committed his life to Jesus. His involvement with Church of the Way included faithful attendance, helping in the nursery, Pioneer Club, singing in the choir, and eventually becoming youth pastor for a short while.
Friends at church included Jonathon and Nathania van Kuik Fast, Paul Prowse, Christine Man and more that my brain can't recall. Together with their youth pastor and his mentor, Ken Warkentin, they watched movies, ate pizza, explored faith, ideas and issues, tobogganed down Garbage Hill and took short mission trips to Chicago and Vancouver. Paul was the one to save Mikael's life when he tried to take it last year. Together they wrote the words to the song "Duct Tape," which Mikael then put to music and layered his own voice for the many harmonic parts. Listen for it after the service as a CD of some of Mikael's music will be played in the background. Paul, if you have a copy of the words somewhere, I would be grateful for a copy.
Other friends he's had during his high school and young adult years are Robin Dalloo who was a classmate at the School of Music and Tyler Braun, with whom he took many adventures including the time they headed to the mountains for the weekend in his dad's Thunderbird. When the fan belt broke just past Swift Current, they created their own until, after the car died on them several more times, a tow truck came to the rescue. There wasn't room in the truck for both Tyler, Mikael and their younger brothers, so Mikael and Tyler's brother rode back to town while Tyler and Konrad began the long trudge back on foot. Tyler can correct me if I'm wrong but I seem to remember a taxi or limousine being sent to pick them up. Since they were travelling on a shoe string, they got permission to spend the first night in the car at the mechanics shop but it seems to me that people in the town rallied around them and took care of them. Mikael said they knew everyone in Swift Current by the time they left two days later.
Aliesha was his best friend the year before this last, until she moved to Spain. Together they cooked many gourmet meals and he was able to pour out his heart. Very close to him at the same time, and moving away from Winnipeg on the same weekend, are a couple whose names I can't remember. When Konrad announced his wedding plans for the January just ahead, Mikael wanted to combine the wedding trip to Vancouver with a side trip further north to visit them.
Willow has been designated my honourary daughter. She and Mikael were thick as thieves in many adventures. This spring as the ice was breaking up on the Assiniboine River they saw a partially submerged but grounded canoe. When Mikael suggested they try to retrieve it, Willow's response was, "Totally!" They began to plot how they might do this and rigged some contraption to throw out to the canoe and reel it in. Sadly, they were unsuccessful. Willow knows the best places to get the best deals on fabric and they often went together to find some for one project or another. Mikael admired Willow's talents, diversity and quirky rebelliousness against convention.
Sean Carney was a Westgate classmate for several years and a close friend. Sean, are you the one who found the steering wheel from the Thunderbird at a scrap yard you were scavenging in and bought it for Mikael's birthday? He used it as a tie rack and loved it.
The Thunderbird, by the way, survived the aborted trip to the mountains but died in another adventure of Mikael's: When he decided to cycle across Canada and then got sideswiped by a car on the first day, Tom came to his rescue in the Thunderbird. For reasons I don't remember, instead of returning to Winnipeg that day, they drove on to Falcon Lake but the car was in severe distress and puttered and choked its way along the Trans-Canada highway, annoying the heavy trucks it was slowing down until it gasped its last breath at a Falcon Lake garage. They tied the bike to the roof and had somehow tied the doors closed so they climbed out the windows. Tom was so disgusted with the car by this time, that he gave the vehicle to the garage owner (who quickly rushed to get a piece of paper on which to record and seal the deal before Tom changed his mind). They got a ride back to Winnipeg with a friend.
Sean's sister Heather, was a very special friend of Mikael's, going out two or more times a week for dinner and a movie, studying together at the university and generally enjoying each other's company. He hoped she would be his girlfriend.
We weren’t aware that Mikael was in a serious mental health state until a year ago September, when I received a phone call from Viola Prowse, Paul’s mom, to say he had been at their home for the past couple of days. Viola and Dan met Paul and Mikael at Emergency the day he tried to take his life and stood in our place, being the parents he needed then. They didn’t call us immediately because they wanted to honour Mikael’s independence and I appreciate that.
The day I learned he was there, he had a previously scheduled visit with his psychiatrist so I picked him up and together we went to see the doctor. He agreed when she suggested he be admitted to the psychiatric hospital and we drove there directly from the doctor’s. Thus began one of the more difficult years of our lives.
While he was in the hospital, we moved him out of his Broadway apartment back home. When he left the hospital, the safety plan we agreed upon was that we would both have our cell phones with us at all times and the moment he began to feel like he might harm himself, he would call. We were on suicide watch for several months, me clutching my phone, wherever I went, so I wouldn’t miss the vibrations of etiquette mode.
Slowly, he began to improve. Tom spent a lot of time with him, especially this last summer when they did things like their mid-week canoe trip in the Whiteshell. These excursions and times together bonded the two in a deeper way than before and Tom is grateful to have those memories.
But his medications had caused an 85 pound weight gain in just a few months. This was very distressing to Mikael who had been so active and fit until his time in the hospital. He hated himself for being so large even while he knew it was something beyond his control. He was pleased and excited when the doctor told him that they would change medications. As the change took place, he began to lose—I think it was close to 25 pounds. He also enrolled in two university courses for the fall term—Evil in Religion and Death in Religion, not good choices for a young man battling depression—and was embracing life with new vigour.
Unavoidably, finding the right medication and dose for mental health patients is often by guess and by golly. The process of doing this created chemical and thus emotional and mental instability and we were once again on suicide watch.
Last Saturday, Heather and Mikael spent the evening together playing games. When it was time to go home, he insisted he walk despite the long distance. Near a major intersection, empty of traffic because of the hour, seven early-teen "hoodlums" called out, trying to provoke him. When he ignored their several attempts, they jumped and attacked him. He proudly told me later how he managed to fend them off, get the pocket knife out of the hand of one and, when they ran off, peeved (he used a stronger word) at what they had done, chased after them, caught two, called the police and hung onto the two until help arrived. He was pumped about this when he finally came home, excited with his victory. ("I didn't want to call you, Mom, because I thought you'd be sleeping.")
Monday morning, Mikael spoke to Heather and he sounded good. He was planning to spend Remembrance Day with her, watching a marathon of war movies--a family tradition I started when the kids were young, so they would grasp the meaning of the day. He had told us about these plans as well.
Monday evening he was feeling like a failure with all the accompanying negative thoughts and emotions. He’d missed two or three weeks of school because of insomnia and then, as the medications were adjusted, non-stop sleeping. Dr. Gordon was wonderful, keeping in touch with him by phone on the difficult weekends and seeing him more frequently during the week. Not only had his sleep/wake difficulties kept him from exams and writing papers, he was coming down with a cold and was feeling physically miserable—meaning more days away from school. He didn’t want to quit, wasting the money he’d paid for tuition and books but he could see no way to succeed in the courses because of all the time lost to illness.
We sat at the dining table discussing the problem, both Tom and I encouraging him and brain-storming possibilities. I suggested that we could call the university to see if they would give him a partial refund if he withdrew for medical reasons and to contact the disability services to find out how his needs could be accommodated so he could finish the courses. He asked me to make the necessary calls in the morning. Everything seemed settled and when he got up from the table to go to his computer in the kitchen, I thought to myself that he was doing well.
During our conversation, he told me that it would be good to do bed-checks that night. He wasn’t feeling safe so after fifteen or thirty minutes of him in the kitchen, I went in to see how he was doing. I could see he was writing something on the computer and when I asked, he told me it was an e-mail to Heather. I went back to the dining table and my computer. Not long after, I saw him move into the family room, turn on the TV and lie down on the couch. It wasn’t too long before I could hear his soft snoring.
“Oh good! He’s going to get some sleep,” I thought.
Wondering if he’d be warm enough, I got up to cover him with his favourite green blanket, careful to not wake him up. He was in an awkward position with his head bent at a sharp angle and one leg draped off the couch and onto the floor and I thought of fixing that, but I didn’t want to disturb him, so I returned to my computer for another hour or so. With the hopes that he’d have a good night’s sleep, I went to bed. It was 1:30 a.m.
In the morning, once Tom was ready for work, he went to check on Mikael as was his habit. It was just before 7:00. When Mikael didn’t respond to his greeting, he got worried. He tried to resuscitate him, called 911, came frantically into our bedroom to tell me Mikael had taken his life and I refused to believe him. But when I saw him lying in the very same position he’d been in when I saw him last, I began to realise that this might be real. His hands were cold. The paramedics tried to bring him back to life but it was probably more for our sake than for Mikael’s. His body was already in rigour.
As I’ve pieced together the last hours of his life, I believe he took the overdose soon after he went to the kitchen. He called a few friends but no one was answering. He sent an MSN message to Willow but she wasn’t there. After he wrote his e-mail to Heather, he wrote another to Sean but he cut it short because he was beginning to lose consciousness. That’s when he lay on the bed. When I covered him over, he was dying but I didn’t know it.
Willow called me when she saw his MSN message two hours later. “I just saw a message from Mikael. He said he was committing suicide as he was writing. Is he okay?”
“Yes!” I replied. He’s sleeping on the couch. I can hear him snoring.”
Mikael had plans for the next couple of days. He’d also spoken of hope to attend seminary once he had his degree. Did he take the pills thinking that we would catch him in time to save his life? We don’t know.
What I do know, however, is that we have a good God, a God full of mercy and compassion. Mikael had spent the last year (and probably longer), tortured in his mind and heart. We don’t know what was in store for him had he lived. Would he have gotten worse? Would his entire life have been tortured with mental illness? We don’t know. God could have kept him from dying. There were a multitude of opportunities—the phone calls, the messaging, coming to me in the next room—but God, in his goodness (because God is always good), chose not to. I like to think that this was an act of love from God to both Mikael and his family. Mikael no longer suffers. He has been freed and I am grateful to my loving God who has made that possible.
As Job in the Bible said, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”