|Words by F LoBuono Photo courtesy T Lupo.|
Mike was never a big guy. Maybe 5'6 or 7". 150 lbs. or so. In fact, he was downright small. Small hands. Small feet. Small features. But never judge a book by its cover. Thomas Michael Friese had a personality as big and bold as they come. In fact, he could come on like the proverbial freight train! We had met when I was running a small TV studio in Randolph, NJ and hired him as a technician. As one of the top sound men in the recording industry, he was way over-qualified. But he needed a job and I needed someone who knew his way around a production. I hired him and we never looked back. Now, he was just a fraction of even that. Diabetes had been ravaging his body for years and it was taking it; piece by piece.
I had received a Facebook message from a former co-worker and mutual friend that Mike was in pretty bad shape but would still love friends to visit him at the convalescence home in Morristown where he now resided. The message said to be prepared; Mike's image was pretty radically changed since the last time most of us had seen him. It was just before Christmas and I felt a sense of urgency in the message. I was free that weekend and decided to make the 45 minute trip to Morristown.
After battling with the receptionist - I had asked for Michael Friese, which he always used, instead of Thomas Michael Friese - she finally realized that we were talking about the same man and allowed me into the facility. Really?! I took the elevator down one flight to the lower level (perhaps, somehow, appropriate) and walked a long, spit-shined, fluorescent-lit, linoleum-lined corridor looking for Room L-21, Mike's room. I ambled past figures in various states of distress. After all, this was a convalescence home. And, I suppose they saved the bowels of the place for the most serious cases. It filled me with a sense of dread for what I might find when I got to Mike's room. I was still looking when one of the nurses noticed me and offered help. I asked for Mike and Room L-21. She smiled like she knew Mike personally and pointed out the room to me.
There was a small window in the closed door. I peered through to make sure that I wouldn't be disturbing anyone. I saw a figure in wheel chair sitting with his face inches from a TV screen. I wasn't sure at first if that was really Mike - until I saw the silver hair. Mike had gone silver years ago. This head had a little more white in it but still had enough silver for me to know that it was, indeed, Mike. I opened the door and strode boldly in, exclaiming: "What's with this Thomas shit"?!
At first, Mike didn't recognize me. We hadn't seen one another or even spoken in years. And, as I would find out, he was virtually blind. I exclaimed, "It's me, Frank". A great, big smile immediately broke over his face!! He blurted, "Holy shit. How the hell are ya"?! He still had that hint of the Midwestern accent he got from his native Chicago. His voice was strong and his face open and welcoming. But he was in terrible shape. The diabetes had raved his body. Both of his legs where completely gone. His kidneys were completely shot. He had lost a good portion of his right hand and he was forced to wear a diaper. Perhaps, the worst part, though, may have been the loss of his eyesight. It made it difficult, if not impossible, for him to use a computer and all the good things associated with it. Still, Mike was, well, Mike: funny, acerbic, sarcastic, feisty, assertive, thoughtful, honest, and, above all, positive. I teased him that he was small before but that THIS was just ridiculous. We roared with laughter!
Despite all of his maladies (Christ, he made Job look like a fitness instructor), he was still finding a way to record music into an old tape machine (remember, he couldn't use a computer) to play for the other patients. He also showed me what was left of one of his hands. He had lost all of his fingers except the thumb. There were two stubs of fingers left that he wanted his surgeon to remove. They were useless and just got in the way. He felt that, if they were removed, he would at least be able to strum his guitar. Remarkable. Despite it all, he was still looking for ways to make music, not only for himself, but for others. And this is why I loved the man. Despite having what could be the pugnacious personality that is often associated with shorter men, his heart was pure. The purest.
I spent a good two or three hours discussing all sorts of things with him. We held nothing back. Never did. Why would we start now? He was proud of the title of longest living kidney dialysis patient in NJ and was fully intending to extend that record. He was concerned, though, that his funding would not hold out and that he might not be able to continue in that facility. Although it was obvious that he was not a well man, his voice was strong and his outlook most positive. He intended to ride that train to the last stop. He gave me no indication that he was truly dying. We exchanged a warm good bye. It certainly crossed my mind that it might be for the last time. But, at the same time, I remained hopeful and committed to seeing him again in the not too distant future.
My wife, Catherine, also a dear friend of Mike's, couldn't make it before Christmas but intended to go now. When she tried to contact him to make the arrangements, she was told that he had been moved and that they were not at liberty to say where! We were both determined to find out where he had been moved and made efforts to do so. A few days ago, I sent a message to the mutual friend who had originally told me about Mike,asking if he knew of Mike's most recent address so that we might visit him again. While I waited for an answer, Cat called me and was quite upset. In her efforts to find him, also that day, she found out from another friend that Mike had passed on Christmas day. We were both heartbroken. I am sure that she feels terrible that she didn't get to say goodbye personally. And I never realized that Mike was actually saying goodbye during that last visit. When I reflect on that last time, I think of this from Shakespeare and Julius Caesar. It is the finally exchange between Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Phillipi:
Forever and forever farewell, my friend. If we should every meet again, we shall smile. If not, then this parting was well made.
Mike was estranged from what was left of his small family. He had no wife or children. I am told that he died alone. Well, I'm hear to tell you that no one may have been in that room when he passed but HE DID NOT DIE ALONE.