For seven years, in Philadelphia, I worked as what is known as a Barrymore Nominator. Nominators were sent to see area theatre by the now defunct Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. If we saw something in a show that we found outstanding we were to nominate that show for further scrutiny. If enough nominators independently voted for the same things in a show the show would proceed to the next round up. That next round of judges would see the nominated shows and ultimately decide who would win the coveted Barrymore Award, Philly’s answer to the Tony Awards. All of that is totally irrelevant to my story, but it does explain why on a spring night in March of 2003 I was sitting in the audience at the Arden Theatre Co., watching a performance of Northeast Local by playwright Tom Donaghy when I got an unexpected visitation, and my life slowly started to improve.
My dad, James F. Michael, had been dead for the better part of two and a half years by the time I found myself at the Arden. He had died on September 3, 2000 from a combination of emphysema, congestive heart failure, and lung cancer. He had smoked himself to death, and despite a triple bypass at age fifty, a bout with throat cancer, and a loving family desperate to see him quit, he just didn’t have the willpower to kick a habit that was ingrained in him as a teenager. He had died at age seventy at Reading Hospital and Medical Center. My mother and I were by his side when his heart stopped for the last time. Those are the facts, but that wasn’t necessarily how I viewed the situation in 2000.
The night he crossed over my mother and I had gone to visit him in the hospital. He was alert, but weak, and a bit chatty. He told me he loved me and told the nurse that my mother was a good cook. He looked at my mother and said something to her that haunted her for years until her memory started to fade. Holding her hand he said to her, “I think I love you,” and then went on about how much he missed her cooking. He was a complicated man. My mother and I were hungry, so we told him we were going to get something to eat at the West Reading Tavern but we would be back before visiting hours ended.
While at the tavern she got a call that he had slipped into a coma and was only being kept alive by life support. I had argued with his doctors who had tried vigorously to pressure my mother into signing a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) and had prevailed. They didn’t want to spend the money trying to save a man they never thought would leave the hospital again. I wanted them to spare no expense in trying to save my father’s life. I had won out, but the decision would have lasting consequences for me.
We arrived back at the hospital to the bedside of a brain dead man whose heart and lungs were still functioning if supported. We tried to gather family members to our side to say goodbye before his heart stopped, but thunderstorms had knocked out some phone lines, and I couldn’t reach my brother Jeff. The moment came for him to be removed from the machine and my mother choked. “I can’t do it,” she cried. “You have to do it,” and she refused to take further action. I was twenty-nine, and had had a loving if tumultuous relationship with him for most of our life – in many ways due to the smoking – and now it was left to me (from my point of view) to kill him.
I lay across his stomach and talked to him awhile. I held his hand, told him I loved him, and cried a lot. Finally, I nodded and the machine was shut off. I was shocked that his heart and lung functions continued for sometime thereafter. I felt the pulse in his hand get weaker, but remain steady to the end. I remarked wryly how even in death this musician’s musician knew how to keep a beat. And then it stopped. And it was over. And he was dead. And I had killed him.
The next year was a blur of sleeping, depression, and working when necessary, but nothing more. I did shows, directed, and music directed, but couldn’t compose. He had been my musical muse. With him gone, the music inside me ceased. A year after his death – literally to the day, September 3, 2001 – I started my first day as Director of Choral Activities at La Salle College High School outside Philadelphia, now in a full-time teaching position, the kind of which he had always wanted for me. The date was creepy and poignant. I felt guided by him to the position, and I stayed in it, in his dream for my life, for three academic years. At La Salle I met two men named Dennis and Joe who introduced me to TAGP and encouraged me to apply to be a Barrymore nominator. By fall of 2002 I was one, and that leads me back to Northeast Local at the Arden.
Midway through the Second Act while sitting in the darkened theatre my father’s voice rang through my head. “I release you,” he said. I was shocked. I could hear my father clear as anything. Couldn’t anyone else hear that? “I release you,” he said again. “Don’t mourn me anymore and move on with your life.” He was louder than the actors. “Goodbye.” The voice dissipated. I sat there stunned and tingling and warm. I had thought about him every day since his death, guilt-ridden by the fact that I had been the one to “pull the plug.” I had blamed myself, I had considered suicide, I had written healing haiku, I had isolated myself from friends and family, I had stopped composing. No matter what I did I considered him while I did it. Now he had released me, come to me, given me absolution and farewell. I didn’t know what to think, but somehow, in some way I felt lighter.
The show ended (it was good, but I was preoccupied thereafter) and I strolled down 2nd St. and made a right turn onto Market St. to head back to Market East Station and an outbound train toward home in Lansdale. There was a warm breeze in the air and I strolled buoyantly almost to the point of dancing. I talked to him in the air and thanked him for coming back to release me, to let me know that I should choose my life over a preoccupation with his death. I thanked him, told him I loved him, and said goodbye again and again. I knew at that moment two and a half years after his death that my period of mourning was ending and that my healing and moving on was about to start. I was right.
He visits me every so often, but has never spoken to me since. A room will suddenly smell of his signature cigar and I’ll know he’s about. Nancy has smelled it too on occasion, so I know it’s not just me. I know my son will never get to know his grandfather the way I knew him as a son. But it’s nice to know that every so often, especially when times are really good or really bad, he will make his presence felt, fill the room with smoke, and let me know that he is watching over me, and that he loves me.
Happy Belated Father’s Day, Dad
And I love you too,