|This page created 3 November 2003|
From Michael’s father . . .
We remember Michael's hyper-activity as a child, his zest for life, and his frequent disregard for personal safety in the constant search for adventure that he never lost. Black eyes and broken bones were a feature of his early life. His eager restlessness served him well in sport, but not in the classroom. His headlong pursuit of new challenges frequently resulted in reckless acts, much to the despair of family and friends who often had to rescue him and pick up the pieces.
Michael had wonderful social skills. He was always warm and open when meeting people. He had his mother’s enviable ability to relate easily and naturally to all kinds of people. He liked people, and it showed. He had a zany sense of humour, with a fine sense of the absurdities of life. He loved clowning about, to the delight of the children he taught in Taiwan. Yet he could, at times, be moody and irritable, especially when he felt disappointed in the actions of those around him.
Michael was hopelessly impractical when it came to managing money, handling equipment, or planning and organization. His only car had to have its motor replaced because he never thought to check the oil and water. He was often unreliable in matters that he considered irrelevant. Never a sentimental person, he considered Christmas and birthdays to be unimportant. In his later years he did not wear a watch. We fretted constantly over how he would get by in life, but he never worried, always expecting things to somehow turn out well. He was often irritated about our concern for his wellbeing and future life. He resented what he saw as a lack of trust and confidence in him, as if he was being treated as a child. However, this never led to bitterness or estrangement; the family bond was strong throughout his life.
Michael’s softer side was also prominent. We remember his compassion for those less fortunate. He often befriended those whom others saw as social outcasts. Many times we saw him empty his pockets of what little he had for charity collectors, and he often lent money to friends. Several of his casual jobs involved caring for the disadvantaged, with whom he showed great patience and love. He often spoke of how he loved the young children to whom he taught English in Taiwan. They loved him too. He maintained monthly contributions to the work of Amnesty International right to the end of his life, though he could ill afford this. His mother followed his lead in this, working as a volunteer at Amnesty’s head office in Sydney.
We remember his urge to see the world from a young age. A round the world trip for the family when he was ten years old (to the USA, Canada, UK and Italy) was the start. Then came long camping trips to the Northern Territory and the Red Centre in Australia. While at Newcastle University he took vacation jobs cotton chipping in Moree, fruit picking in Mildura, and as a hospitality worker at Daydream Island on the Great Barrier Reef. He happily lived in basic conditions when away from home.
We remember how, though never having much money, he sought the best of the things he really wanted: slot cars when he was a kid, the best sports equipment, an electronic keyboard, a high performance motor cycle, and above all his camera all come to mind. He always had lots of the clothes that he liked and had an extra large backpack on his last journey so that he could take as many as possible.
Although spiritual values guided his adult years, Michael was never one to avoid the pleasures of life. With some degree of moderation he imbibed and he inhaled, and he enjoyed female company. He loved making and listening to music (U2 was an early favourite). But these were merely diversions from his main spiritual pathway - he was never a slave to pleasure. Michael may have appeared easy-going, but he was never weak. He lived life on his own terms.
He instinctively trusted people. When he bought his motor cycle he handed over the full price in cash, some $6000, to a Frenchman about to leave the country on the understanding that he would deliver the bike the next day on his way to the airport. Michael’s friends and family were appalled, convinced that he would not see either the money or the motor cycle again. The next day the Frenchman did indeed bring the bike around, newly cleaned and polished, and gave Michael some free accessories to go with it.
Michael was always an independent thinker. He made his own decisions, and always accepted responsibility for the consequences of his actions, never blaming others for bad outcomes. He was completely natural, honest and unaffected. He hated pretentiousness in other people and agonized over the plight of the less fortunate in life, both in Australia and overseas. In his reading and discussions he continually sought answers to the meaning of life. Although he loved India he was distressed by the extreme poverty and religious bigotry and intolerance that characterized much of the society of that country. He regarded Taiwan as being conformist and materialistic, despite its Buddhist religion. He saw our efforts to provide a good family home as being too comfortable and unadventurous. “Do something scary” he would often exhort us, reflecting his own outlook on life.
Michael had little interest in politics or public affairs. However, his emails during his travels show an increasing distaste for what he saw as the insidious effects of globalization on traditional societies. He saw the September 11 attack in New York as a form of retribution for capitalist imperialism. His views were becoming more radical in later life.
We remember his uncertainty about what to do while at university in Newcastle. He started out studying Science then quickly switched to Arts, following his interest in philosophy, psychology and anthropology. It was in Newcastle that he first encountered Buddhism and yoga and took up meditation. He then added Sanskrit to his curriculum. His Sanskrit teacher was Professor Godfrey Tanner who had a great influence over his thinking and encouraged him to broaden his horizons in seeking to understand diverse cultures. Godfrey died just a few months before Michael.
We remember the lost years when he dropped out of university, returned to Sydney, and drifted aimlessly for a couple of years. His life for this period revolved around partying, surfing and a succession of casual bar jobs, though he kept up his practice of meditation and his yoga classes and attended Vipassana Buddhist retreats. He then came to a personal crisis in his life when he knew he had lost his way. The conflict was between his growing spiritual beliefs, his enjoyment of the pleasures of life, and the need to find a path in life. He sought out his uncle Robert, a psychologist and counselor whose own life had followed many diverse paths. Michael admired him greatly. Robert’s advice was simple: you know what you must do. And Michael realized that this was indeed the case, and, furthermore, that his destiny lay in India.
Michael immediately made his plans for a journey to India to follow his new dream. He settled down to earn as much money as he could in a new job caring for intellectually disabled adults, and read everything he could about Indian life and culture. He decided that he would become a yoga teacher and sought advice as to which ashrams in India would be best for him to study at.
A most important step that Michael took at this stage was to take the initiative to repair his relationship with his younger brother, Peter. Being close in age (20 months apart) they had grown up as hostile rivals to each other, but all this now changed. They became good mates, totally relaxed and comfortable with each other. Their last time together, in Cambodia five months before Michael’s death, was a joyful experience for both of them.
His planned departure for India came after our five month pre-retirement holiday in Europe during which time he looked after the family home. Typically, he turned this opportunity to advantage, transforming his parents’ home into a boarding house with up to ten residents at a time. The rent he collected added substantially to his travel funds.
We remember as if it were yesterday his departure for India at Sydney airport. Michael was at his charming, conversational best. He must have sensed our anxiety for his safety, but he ignored it. The last family pictures with Michael were taken. Then the time came for him to leave. I can still feel Michael’s hard, lean body in our final embrace and I remember my final conventional exhortation to “take care of yourself”, and Michael’s reply: “You too, old timer” (as he always called me). My last sight of him is permanently etched in my memory: Michael picked up his little red backpack and walked with his characteristic loose-limbed, erect stride towards the departure exit. He did not turn round as he disappeared through the doors. We thought at the time how focused he must have been on his new path in life, but now we think that perhaps he was crying and did not want us to see it. This was the last time that I saw him alive.
I wish we could have talked more.
Is it coincidence that the world has suddenly become a much darker place since Michael died? The values he stood by: honesty, love and compassion are sorely missed in today’s world. Instead we see rampant hatred and intolerance fuelling increasing levels of war and terrorism. We see the widespread practice of deceit in the form of “spin-doctoring”. We see those he called “pretentious wankers” strutting the world stage. We see increasing inequality between rich and poor, fuelled by greed on the part of the rich and desperate poverty among the poor. Michael was saddened by many aspects of what he saw during his travels, and he would surely despair at the deterioration in all of these trends since he left us. The world needed many more Michaels, instead it has one less.
He was a complex individual, a man of many parts, of quick insights, who often inspired those he met on his travels with his ideas and his ideals. The most frequent description of him is “a wonderful spirit”. He was a work in progress, with enormous potential as a person, a leader, a teacher, and in the creative arts. His final journey, from the time he left his native Australia, gave him much of what he sought in life: the opportunity to travel, to absorb different cultures, and to meet many like minded people. (He also met quite a few who were unlike any people he had met before). These last months were the happiest of his life. His time was far too short, yet, in the end, he had traveled so much further in his chosen pathway in life than the vast majority of his contemporaries . . .
Michael’s ashes remain at present in his bedroom in his family home, surrounded by many icons from his life. They will not remain there much longer. We will take him back to his beloved India in January 2004, to commit his ashes to the waters of the Ganges at Rishikesh, the place he regarded as his spiritual home . . .
From Michael’s mother . . .
At the first anniversary of my son’s death I want to add my tribute to him.
The words “son’s death” leap out to me from the page. I chose them quite deliberately - to make what has happened real to me - but they still have an air of unreality about them. Michael and death just don’t go together.
He was just so alive - the energy bursting from him - his leg jiggling away if he had to sit for any length of time - long travels in the car an agony for him - “are we there yet - are we there yet?!” Remember in primary school how he taught the whole class to climb door frames and how as a baby we had to surround his cot with pillows because he could climb out and fall regardless, even then, of the consequences. At two years of age I found him on the roof of the garage one day - always from the start impossible to contain.
With all that energy came grace and fluidity of movement in that skinny perfect body. The beautiful clear brown eyes, the long graceful fingers made of steel which could ease the stress and tension out of my shoulders and neck better than anyone else - “don’t stress, Mum, don’t stress!”
I still can’t write about his final hours. I struggle through each day trying to survive without him. My admiration for Chris and Pete - their strength and courage - makes me carry on. I put on the lippy and say “fine” when people ask how I am, while all the time my insides fill with broken glass, and my heart beats Michael, Michael, Michael . . .