His body is heavy. I can feel the weight shifting as it moves between the seven of us who carry him. In life he was a big man in every sense of the word and in death he is the same, only now, his soul — perhaps his biggest part — is gone, as we walk him to his final resting place.
It is a scene, like many others, that I can only imagine happening in Argenta. A procession of twenty people walking through the evergreens of a fall forest from a one-room cabin to the community graveyard. We cross a small footbridge where the creek runs underfoot before continuing along the waters edge. Five women lead the group, dropping flower petals on the path, while seven men carry the homemade wooden cot on which Michael rests. Behind them a dozen others walk in silence beneath the sun-pierced canopy of fir, cedar, hemlock and birch.
My relationship with Michael was first one of child to adult before becoming, in recent years, one of pupil to mentor. Still very much childlike I would absorb his knowledge when we would meet in his cabin, an endless stream of words taking rest in the recesses of my mind. He loved to talk but also carried with him the invaluable attribute of listening. Although he spoke more than I did, it was never a oneway conversation.
The topics always shifted and intermingled as life does, highlighting the interconnectedness of subjects like music, poetry, psychedelics, children, love, life, death and the struggles of the world. His speech was eloquent and his memory uncanny. In a single foray he could quote an old friend and a line of Nietzsche while doing so appropriately. It was never a stretch. He wasn't doing it to impress, but rather to enhance the discussion, which I, in turn, found impressive. Sometimes he would play music and sometimes he wouldn't. Sometimes we would drink tea and sometimes we wouldn't. And sometimes the wind howled through the maple trees that surrounded his one-room cabin and sometimes it didn't.
As his health declined he didn't endeavour to hide the personal struggle it caused and, in doing so, offered all who knew him an honest, un-glorified view of the dissipation of physical health. I never interpreted a sense of self-pity or anger over his predicament although one could easily justify them if I had. Cancer is a terrible disease to succumb to and one that is running rampant worldwide. It leaves plenty of opportunity for hope and for despair and is often accompanied by a cocktail of drugs that seem to destroy a persons system as much improve it. There are alternative medicines of course but they aren't properly studied by mainstream medicine and ultimately the most effective remedy is the one that the patient believes will work, and even then there are few promises.
My last living memories of Michael are not the most beautiful, at least not in the classical sense of the word. As a documentarian I find beauty in the darkest of corners but colostomy bags and bruised injection marks are hard to classify as such. My photos portray the nonchalantness he maintained while making tea in a diaper or injecting blood thinners into the purple mass that had become his stomach. These are not pretty thoughts but they are authentic and ultimately, that is what an honest life is about.
He was an example of the tenuous relationship between body and mind. As his physical self slowly disintegrated around him his mental faculties remained sharp and ever-compassionate. His soul seemed unchanged which made the obvious loss of physical vitality all the more unjustified. At his living wake he was all but carried to a chair — the same one that Santa sits on during the community Christmas dinners — where he sat for the next two or three hours, accepting and radiating love. He was our guru and he was paying homage to us as much as were to him.
Now our guru has taken flight. His body weighs heavy on our hands and the sweet smell of death mingles with incense and perfume causing my stomach to turn. It has only been two days since he passed from the physical plane but the biological process of death is swift once the heart stops and the soul vacates the body. At the graveyard the alternative ways of living and dying that run deep in this community continue. Prayers are made, First Nation's songs are sung — their strange melodies rising through the stillness — and finally his body is buried. Not just partially buried with a few ritualistic shovelfuls but completely buried, by hand, until all that's left is a heart-shaped rock as a headstone, a dusting of flower petals and a few flickering candles.
The communal grieving completed it is now time for the internal journey to unfold. Support between people is a wonderful thing but ultimately, it is on a personal level that we must complete the process — a process that will be as unique as the individual who undertakes it. In his book Tribe, Piers Gibbon describes a Bavarian tradition that involves "corpse cakes" or Leichen-nudeln, where the kneaded dough is placed on the dead body to rise. When the cakes are consumed some of the strength and virtues of the deceased are received with it — a powerful metaphor of the experiences and influences we retain from relationships with people long after they pass away.
It has now been almost five months since the day of Michael's death. His stories live on in my personal and digital memory and occasionally I will look at a portrait I took of him and smile. He was a planter of trees and a maker of music. He was big in soul, body and mind and gave all who knew him an opportunity to gaze death in the eyes for longer than we normally do. He was compassion and dignity personified and a shining of example of how to die with clarity, love and authenticity, and for that I thank him. We are all examples for one another, whether good or bad, and we all carry those accumulative lessons with us. They are what make us human and what cause us to grow. They are our gifts, to and from the world.