Note: A version of this essay was originally posted on my blogspot blog in 2013. An edited and revised version was published on Medium in May of 2019. It carried a different title to appease the Medium editor. I have chaged the title back to my orginal title, but it is otherwise the same as the Medium version.
What difference, in a world populated by billions, can one anonymous, unremarkable man possibly make?
Perhaps it depends on what you mean by unremarkable.
The father of a good friend recently passed away after a lengthy and grueling battle against cancer. Death came neither quickly nor peacefully. Mike was escorted to the brink of his release from his mortal shell by an honor guard comprised of his two daughters. However, he crossed the cosmic threshold on his own.
I met Mike on a Caribbean cruise. It wasn’t just any cruise.
It was the first Donny and Marie Osmond cruise.
He was taking his daughters on what would be their last trip together. Mike’s oldest daughter, Leslie, is one of my wife’s closest friends. They’ve known each other far longer than Becky and I have known each other.
We booked the cruise independent of Mike and his daughters. When we discovered we would all be on the boat together, we made requests to be in the same dining party.
I had heard about Mike for several years before meeting him. Leslie adored her father, and even from casual conversation, it was clear he was the most important person in her life. I knew everyone thought Mike was funny. I knew he had been in the navy. I also knew that Mike had cancer.
I thought I had a great deal of empathy for Leslie and her sister Angie. I had seen both my parents fight cancer for years. My mother had drastic, life-altering surgery. My father went into remission several times, only to have violent recurrences. He ended up with a bone marrow transplant that stopped his cancer from recurring, for a time, but also fundamentally changed his life. I knew about the emotional gymnastics involved in watching a parent struggle with an aggressive, and lethal disease.
Mike was not a large man. It would be a mistake to say he was slight, but he was not physically imposing. Mike always stood ramrod straight. He never slouched, even when resting on a plush couch in one of the ship’s lounges.
His eyes were always scanning the room, taking in everything about his surroundings. His gaze was penetrating. Mike looked at you when you were speaking as if at any moment, his life might depend on understanding what you had just said.
He gave the appearance of being a minor character in a Tom Clancy novel — the retired military man with the family.
However, once you spent a few minutes with Mike any idea that he was some kind of cardboard cutout disappeared.
Mike was funny. He used his keen power of observation to find humor in everything. He wasn’t cruel or scathing with his humor. Mike delighted in revealing the ridiculous world we all live in, to those of use not sharp enough to observe it for ourselves.
One night after poor event planning on the part of the event staff had left us with an opening in our schedule, we all found our way to the ship’s library. The tiny room, about the size of a standard home dining room, had shelves of books nobody had ever read, nor would anybody likely ever want to read. We were the only ones in the room. Mike began a comedic routine that reduced all of us to tears. He was unstoppable.
Mike riffed on the book titles, the way the room was arranged, and the unlikeliness of anyone coming to the ship’s library, located so close to the casino, to read a book on proper button sewing techniques.
During his performance, a couple of other passengers chanced into the library. They put up a show of ignoring us, but they couldn’t stop smiling and smirking as Mike persisted in his antics.
All of us went on shore excursions together. We made the foolish choice to eschew the transportation offered by the ship and tried to find our own way to the Atlantis Resort.
Mike made instant friends with our cab driver, and the two of them entered into a dialogue straight out of a Travel Channel show. I learned more about the Bahamas than I did from either the internet or the guidebooks I’d bought.
Some of what I learned is probably even true.
Mike was always watchful of his girls. He regularly inquired after their comfort and preferences. He didn’t seem to worry about his comfort or needs at all.
He was not patronizing. Mike treated them like the adults they were, albeit, ones who could benefit a little from his military-inspired punctuality. He was always generous and sincere with his praise for them.
Mike lived a full life. He never graduated high school. Given the opportunity to join the Navy after an ill-conceived prank went wrong, Mike decided military service was preferable to a criminal record. After the Navy, he went into the printing business.
One evening while the two of us sat in a booth in a lounge, Mike explained the differences between paper measurements in Europe and the United States, and how that affected everything from school work to flyers to books.
He managed to make paper sizes seem like the most intriguing thing in the world. His explanations were never tedious, and he always knew when to stop sharing his encyclopedic knowledge of obscure subjects.
He was a genius with people. He could be charming, firm, or whatever the situation required.
Mike was not perfect — he never claimed he was.
He was not famous. Mike made no great contributions to the knowledge or cultural storehouse of humanity. He would be difficult to pick out of a crowd.
Mike was an honored veteran, but none of his exploits can be found in history books or secret files. He seemed a lot like the rest of us, living his life every day the best he could. Except, Mike wasn’t like most of us.
Mike was extraordinary.
I saw his relationship with his daughters on quiet display every moment of the cruise. The respect his daughters showed him in their speech, and in the way they looked and smiled at him showed a lifetime of trust affection. The way his eyes twinkled when they came down to the table for dinner, the easy way he made small genuine compliments about a dress or a necklace his daughters wore, demonstrated an acceptance of his children’s adulthood without an abandonment of his role as their father.
These three had a special bond, decades in the making. I also happen to know Mike saved the lives of these girls when they were quite young; he fought for them when they needed him most — when they couldn’t fight for themselves.
I realized on the cruise that the way Angie and Leslie felt about Mike, and how much his cancer tore them up inside, was beyond anything I would ever feel for my own parents because I could never be that close to either of my parents.
Looking at Mike one evening as he watched his daughters laugh, I silently recommitted myself to being the type of father he was. Among the many things I hope to give my children, a great relationship with their father when they are adults is near the top of my list.
It is not fair to say that Mike was unremarkable. He was a hero. Mike was extraordinary.
He may only have been someone I knew on the periphery of my life, but I am better for that small connection.
My wife’s report from the funeral seems too sacred to share in full. But, it is clear that even in death, Mike watches out for his girls. He left a legacy of love that lives in their hearts. He lived an example of fatherhood that I cannot forget.
In a world of hate, conflict, and selfishness, what could be more remarkable than a quiet, dignified man who stood up when his daughters needed him most? What could be more remarkable than a father who loved his children without seeking to control them?
What could matter more than being the kind of man who could change someone else’s life in just a few brief encounters over a few days on a cruise?
Mike means the world to his daughters, and because of him, my children have a better father.