You remember 2008?......June?......16th ?......
That is a date I remember, a date I will mark on my calendar, commit to memory, recall often, and remind others of. That is the date that I sat with a great man as he made the passage from this world into the loving embrace of a merciful God. That is the date that friends and family, drawn together by the love of a simple man, sang songs and said prayers and drank a toast (dark rum in medicine cups) to a true peacemaker.
You know Cleveland?......You know Charlotte and Roddie Steele?......You know their son, Michael?......Well if you did, consider yourself blessed.
Michael Hector Steele was a man whose life was full of riches. Some of his riches were because he could never seem to “find” his wallet when it was time to pay the bill, some because he was light on his feet, could move quickly when he needed to, and couldn’t resist the temptation of money just sitting there, unattended, and nobody looking. But mostly Michael’s life was full of the riches of family.
As is the mystery of so many things in life, this richness began with suffering, when Michael lost his mom when he was just a little boy. But that early loss enabled Michael to belong to two families – the Steele’s and the MacDonald’s. And so Michael was doubly blessed.
Gerri and Floyd’s courage in welcoming this little boy in the first months of their marriage was a leap of faith that yielded rich rewards. Mike was raised in love, by a family who treated him as he deserved to be treated – just like everyone else. They loved him and irritated him, they teased him and forgave him and tried to hurry him up. They believed in him and they taught him to believe in himself. They gave him one of the most important gifts that a person with a disability can be given – a strong sense of self and a confidence in his own worth as a human being. Michael knew he was worth something, and he expected to be treated with dignity and respect. And so he was. He was a son and a grandson, a big brother, an uncle, a groomsman, a brother-in-law. (He never got to be a dad, although according to Judy, if she had her way, he would have!) Many people have commented on how lucky Michael was to have had such a wonderful family. Although this is certainly true, it was Susan who said that those folks had everything backwards – they felt lucky to have Michael.
Michael’s family loved him well, and he loved them back just as fiercely. To see that famous grin threaten to split his face right in two when one of his brothers would burst into the room and make some boisterous remark about “Steely Dan” would do your heart good. He loved to tell stories of his family, and although the stories were often excruciatingly long, it was a joy to sit and listen and watch his face as he recalled his family in Cleveland and Creignish. Truly, when he told stories of his family, Michael was telling the story of his heart.
Over these past weeks, many of us have been so moved by Gerri – her strength and strong will, her refusal to take no for an answer. When Gerri came to Korban House, Michael sat up and took notice. If Gerri said he had to eat something, he ate. During his first stay at the Baddeck Hospital, we could barely get Michael to sit up in bed. But when Gerri came, he was walking up and down the hospital corridors. I saw the same dynamic at work yesterday, as Gerri traveled from Steele to MacDonald, sticking nametags on lapels of reluctant family members so everyone would know who was who during the wake. “Resistance is futile”, one of the kids commented. And yet for as long as I have known her, this powerful woman, this “force to be reckoned with”, cannot speak of her son Michael without the tears coming. As she begins to talk about her gratitude for Michael’s presence in her family, for the way he helped to teach her kids to be good people, people of compassion and sensitivity and welcome; as she asserts with absolute certainty that welcoming Michael was the best thing she ever did, her emotion wells up and spills over and she seems so fragile. This is the power of Michael Hector Steele.
But even after a rich and full life in Creignish, loved and cherished and cared for, Michael’s arrival at L’Arche was a new life for him. He was so proud to do what his beloved brothers and sisters had done before him – move away from home, get his own place, land a “real” job with a weekly paycheque, a social life independent of his relatives. That same sense of generosity that made it possible for Gerri and Floyd to welcome Michael as a boy now enabled them to share their treasure with us. And uncovering that treasure over the past eight years has been a blessing and a privilege for all of us at L’Arche Cape Breton.
There is popular saying that I have seen on greeting cards, wall plaques, and fridge magnets - Live well, laugh often, love much. Typically this sort of pop culture wisdom rubs me the wrong way. But as I have had occasion to reflect on the life and times of Michael Hector Steele over the past few days, I am struck by how fitting this little phrase seems to be.
Michael lived well. He knew to appreciate the gift of each moment – a good cup of tea, a piece of F-U-D-G-E, a visit on the couch with a friend. He took his time. (Although it think it was Graham who mentioned that the folks who thought he always moved at a snail’s pace never watched him as someone across the room was pouring a drink of rum and coke ) Many people have talked of how much Michael loved to dance, and how much they loved to watch him dance. He did the steps and the square sets his own way – slowly and a little lopsided – but with total freedom and without a shred of self-consciousness. Quite the opposite, in fact. He claimed his place in the middle of the floor, right in front of the stage, whenever the fiddlers gave the nod for the really good dancers to show their stuff.
Michael laughed often. He laughed at his brothers when they teased him about being lazy or cranky or any number of sins. He laughed when his friends made jokes about things he considered scandalous. He laughed at his own jokes. Like the time he persistently beckoned one of the assistants at Asha House to “come here”. He wouldn’t stop until Joe was merely inches away from Michael’s nose, at which point he grinned and said “Shut up!”
And Michael loved much. He filled up with emotion when a friend would give him a kiss, or grab him in a waltz and dance across the floor. He relished the opportunity to take one of his many lady friends out for a meal or a drink. And once he let you into his heart, he never let you out.
Many people have been touched by the way Michael was loved during his last days at Shalom. Someone wrote us a note saying that “L'Arche has a role in teaching the world how to live the passage of dying with grace and compassion.” I believe this is true. But I think that the reason we are able to live this passage well is because we are open to the example of the “unlikely teachers” in our midst, people like Michael Steele. Our people live with vulnerability and weakness, a fact which these last months of Michael’s life illustrated so clearly. And even though our world teaches that this weakness and fragility is to be avoided, we know in L’Arche that we are called to walk with people on these difficult roads, to accompany them in suffering as well as celebration. And we believe that in this suffering there is somehow the mystery of Jesus’ presence among us.
Until recently, the closest any of us got to helping Mike with any personal care was knocking on the bathroom door begging him to hurry up! But over the past few months all that changed and Michael needed us to care for him in very obvious, physical ways. He needed us to help him eat, to move him, to bandage his feet, to help him get washed and dressed. These were difficult times for Michael and for us. And as I looked at his little body lying there in his bed in our house of prayer, I kept picturing the body of the crucified Christ, so tiny and vulnerable, so broken. I imagined Jesus friends standing at the foot of the cross, witnesses to suffering, crying out in disbelief and despair, as we did, seeking some explanation for why their dear friend had to suffer, and had to leave them so soon. Just as the passion and death of Christ remained a mystery to the disciples until Jesus was revealed to them in the resurrection, so Michael’s suffering and death is still a mystery to us.
There are so many stories about Michael – too many to tell today. There are stories about Michael as a toddler, running into the side of the house as he watched with delight his shirttails flapping in the wind; about finding a stash of dried up banana peels behind his bed; about threats of having to walk to Bingo if he wasn’t ready on time; about too much "Murder She Wrote" leading Michael to create all sorts of sordid mystery stories of his own; about broken arms and missing fingers endured without complaint; about frosted cinnamon rolls snuck into pockets and eaten in the privacy of the bathroom; about "Steeles not drinking beer"; about Michael making the arduous trek to the top of the waterslide at the Delta Hotel pool, ceremoniously making the sign of the cross, then screaming like a girl the whole way down.
But the story that remains with me today is the one of Michael in a L’Arche summer vacation group going on a whale-watching tour in Pleasant Bay. The day was windy and the whitecaps on the dark green ocean looked ominous. But with some convincing, Michael reluctantly agreed to join his friends on the boat. As the vessel ventured out over the rolling waves, Michael’s face got greener and greener, and his knuckles whitened as they gripped the side of the boat. As Gillian, trying to lighten the moment, leaned in close and said, "Are you ready for a rum and coke yet?", Michael looked at her scornfully and said, as only he could, "What do you think?" When the boat finally came safely ashore and Michael’s feet were once again on solid ground, he was jubilant. He raised both arms high in the air and shouted "Amen! Amen!"
What a metaphor for the last months of this man we loved so much. Michael has been on rough seas, anxious and worried and often in pain. But now I can picture him at the pearly gates, sitting with Charlotte and Roddie and Floyd, surrounded by half moons with the fiddle tunes dancing in the air, a jillick clutched in his hand, and his arms raised high in triumph shouting, "Amen! Amen!"
So long, dear Michael. It’s been good to know you.