My father-in-law’s name has always been a bit of a mystery. If you were introduced to him, he’d firmly shake your hand and tell you he was Michael. My grandmother-in-law would usually add some warning about never naming an Irish child Michael. But on his passport (and magazine subscriptions), he was actually John Michael Flynn. No one I’ve ever met has ever called him John.
Mike was raised in Long Island — the youngest of three children. His father was an orphan. His sister died shortly before Adam and I were married. He idolized his older brother Jimmy who was the best man at his wedding. His brother had attempted suicide when they were both young men — probably about the age Adam and I are now. Jimmy’s suicide attempt failed, but cost him his ability to function. He died 6 years ago in the nursing home where that same grandmother-in-law worked as a nurse until she retired. Michael used to cry when I sang “Red River Valley” — it had been Jimmy’s favorite song.
During Vietnam, Michael served as an airplane mechanic for the air force. I think it was there that he got his taste for international travel. He returned to the New York and attended college on (I presume) the GI bill. While at college, he met a sweet young thing studying English and Education. They married, graduated, and bought a house in upstate New York. It was purchased for the big bay window and took what little money they had as they attempted to make it habitable. Any time I complain about commuting or driving any distance, I hear about the 9 hours that stood between Mike and Laureen and Laur’s parents in Long Island.
Michael and Laureen’s first child was a girl named Kietha. She was born too early for the technology of the time to save her, and she died very shortly thereafter. Every Christmas, Adam and I hang a small brass angel on the Christmas tree and remember the sister he never knew.
Not too long afterwards, Mike discovered he had testicular cancer. To pass along his own particular wisdom: “If your balls feel like a walnut, something’s wrong.” Surgery successfully removed the cancerous testicle, and spawned a favorite topic for family jokes for the next 35 years or so. Rarely did a gathering pass without someone (usually Peter) getting a good joke in about Michael and his one ball. Soon after the surgery, Mike and Laureen discovered that, happily, everything still worked.
Peter was born on December 10th, 1974. He was also born very premature, but in the years between he and Kietha, medical technology had discovered a way to provide oxygen to tiny newborn lungs. Adam, also born extremely early, arrived two years later at a hospital in Albany. His arrival was difficult enough to make sure that he would have no younger siblings.
When you sit at a table and hear the stories of this time, Mike and Laureen sound very happy, very in love, and very triumphant over their challenges. You’ll hear how the baby boys fattened right up on their mother’s milk, and how she made so much she could share with the other preemies. You’ll hear about Peter’s first words welcoming his brother home, “Dat my baby!” You’ll hear how they made do on the little they had and felt it was bountiful. You’ll likely also hear how both boys were perfect in every way, down to the last red-gold curl.
Michael was working as a technical salesman at the time. Laureen had been a teacher of English, but stopped teaching when the boys were born. When Adam was about two, Michael got the opportunity to go to Saudi Arabia with his young family and work with the Arab-American Oil Company (Aramco). They promptly decamped and moved halfway across the globe, where they would spend the next 20 years of their life.
Mike’s time in Saudi Arabia was happy. They took in lonely soldiers during the Gulf War. The house abounded in pets — dogs and lizards and birds and cats. Mike and his sons would walk the dogs together in the morning and talk. They raced boats in the streets during infrequent Saudi rains. Mike worked 5 minutes from the house, and would come home on his lunch break to share the meal with his family. Mornings and evenings were spent smoking on the back porch, talking about history, philosophy or the best way to manufacture a still for the highest quality homebrew. (Michael could and would give you a dissertation on the best ways to manufacture hooch, along with guidelines on the risks and rewards.)
Michael was a man of great curiosity. He loved to read books, especially about history. An archetypal view of Michael is him sitting at a table with an old printing of a book in front of him. The book sprouts sticky notes from every page. His glasses lay forgotten beside his pen, and he will likely lose both of them and spend the next 20 minutes trying to find them. Mike loved every period of western history, from the Knights Templar through to the Cold War. He took a particular delight in military history. He published articles on a diverse range of obscure historical points. At the time of his death, he was working on an article on Stalin.
His interest was not merely academic. He was also interested in the practical applications of what he studied. It’s amazing neither he nor his sons lost any fingers based on the stories one hears about firecrackers, live wires, black power experiments and blast furnaces. My favorite of these is a trick Mike played on his son Peter. Mike took a firecracker and placed it in the middle of a cigarette. He lit one end of the cigarette, placed it outside Peter’s window, and hurried to find himself an excellent alibi in another part of the house. Pete, of course, was rather startled by the explosion, but it wasn’t too hard to figure out who to blame. I can almost hear Mike laughing now.
Mike was a good father. He spent a lot of time with his sons and was very fond of them. He played games with them, talked with them, fished with them and explored the world with them. He called them Idiot Stick (Peter) and Dwarf (Adam), and the nicknames were infused with mischievous affection. Mike was a wonderful grandfather. He wrote stories with his grandsons, took them on adventures, patiently played games with them, sang them “Muleskinner Blues”, sent them notes from the places he would visit and frequently remarked on how exceptional and wonderful he found them.
Not long after Mike and Laureen returned from Saudi Arabia to the cold winters of Rhode Island, Michael got sick with stomach cancer. He had surgery which removed most of his stomach, followed by radiation. Although his cancer never reoccurred and he lived for four years after that point, he never fully recovered. His weight plummeted by a third, and he vacillated between nearly-normal and sick as a dog. He was miserable and frustrated by his inability to do the things he loved, but he was still loving, curious and funny. Mike and Laureen moved to Atlanta to be near Peter, Jennifer and Alec (and to get away from New England winters). No matter how sick he was, he could never sit still. Even on his worst days he would run to the grocery store twice, the hardware store once, and strike up a friendship with the postman.
Since the 4 am phone call telling us he was gone, I’ve struggled to find the words to encapsulate the man. The stories are many and funny, but none of them tells you the most important things about him. Michael was a man of energy, passion, curiosity, temper and humor. He was always happy to help with whatever you asked of him. He made friends easily with everyone he encountered. He never passed up an opportunity to tell you he loved you and was proud of you. He had an Irish temperament, to go with his fair skin, red hair and blue eyes, but never let his temper get in the way of making sure you knew where you stood with him. On the last day, he was a man who left this world with no word of love unsaid.
We love you too, Mike.