On May 25, 2017, I lost my dear friend Mike Merslak, and even worse, my dear friend Nancy lost her husband Mike Merslak. He was only 38. Cancer, you can eff right off, indeed.
Every once in awhile, I love someone at first sight. I loved Nancy at first sight, and every time she opens her mouth to let her magnificent, magical brain pour forth, I love her even more. It took longer for Mike and I to fully bond, but fully bond we did.
Mike and Nancy hosted me on my first night as a separated woman, just five months after Alice died. It wasn’t the best day of my life, needless to say. But that night we sat and drank vodka and had a long discussion about life and death and sexuality and politics and history and the complexities of maintaining friendships with other parents…. and we laughed our asses off for the bulk of the time. They turned me around that night without trying. They took me under their wing at my lowest, let me settle in, and then watched me soar.
That was the night I began to love Mike as much as I already loved Nancy.
I spent many nights of my separation with Mike and Nancy. They were integral to my ability to put one foot in front of the other, and I am eternally grateful.
Nancy asked me to give the Eulogy at Mike’s service. Besides being mother to my two girls, and being the “Undercover Godmother” to another friend’s child, giving this Eulogy was the highest honor of my life.
Mike was a complicated guy, so this was a huge responsibility. I wanted to give Mike the send-off he deserved, not just for him, but for his wife and kids. So, I took the notes that I received from Nancy on a Wednesday and wrote (and paced) in every spare moment for the next three days. I shed not a tear while I wrote it; I have no idea how or why. But once I finished, and received a note from Nancy that simply said, “It’s perfect,” I dissolved into tears that did not stop for hours. (Obviously, I am not 100% cured of perfectionism. Will try harder.)
Anyway, here it is, my Ode to Mike Merslak. He was like no other, and I miss him like crazy. And Nancy: I got you. Forever.
The first two lines of Nancy’s notes for this Eulogy were:
• Fondness for magical realism
• Fractured, in pieces
And so, knowing no better way to honor a man of unparalleled intelligence and implacability, this eulogy will not be standardized. This eulogy shall be magically, yet realistically, fractured, like so many of our hearts.
On August 2, 1978, in a gulag town in former communist USSR, Mikhail Alexandrovich Boguslavsky burst forth into a place that no longer exists. As Nancy says, “a Jew in a land of no God.” Even when it did, in fact, exist, Karaganda existed primarily as a punchline to a joke. Isolated in a vast area of uninhabited steppe, it is quite literally “the middle of nowhere”. The final syllable of Karaganda rhymes with the Russian word for “where” (где), as well as with a Russian obscenity used to answer to an unwanted question “Where?”. Therefore the joke: “Where is it?” — “In Karagandy!”
When people that did not know Mike ask me to describe him, I have always started with: “Well, he had a fascinating world view, as one might have if one were a Jew, born in a gulag town in a Communist country, became a refugee with no possessions and then landed as a pre-pubescent boy in a large capitalist Philadelphia, only to lose one’s oncologist mother to cancer months later.”
It’s a tidy little sentence there, but it belies a lot of potential turmoil: Jew; Communist; Refugee; Nomadic decent; Thrust into capitalism as a motherless pre-teen. All unthinkable. Yet it brought forth the fascinating and fun human we all know as Mike.
But before Mike, there was Mishka, as he was affectionately called. A boy who grew up in a dim apartment with very few things, a basement full of potatoes, and his parents, Alexander and Yelena. Alexander was geologist under Stalin, and as punishment for his intelligence, he was imprisoned many times, sometimes for years. Yelena became a great oncologist. But as Jews in a godless country, Mike said that as a child he would think, “It’s such a beautiful day; shame I’m Jewish.”
For the boy Mishka, winters were long, the snow was deep and was only white where footprints punctured through the coal dust crust that capped the snow. Few belongings meant very few toys, except one beloved hippo that was accidentally left behind at his grandparent’s house in Crimea one summer. He never got that hippo back. And he never recovered from the loss of that hippo.
I hear of his childhood, and I hear only one word in my mind: Starkness.
1989. Gorbachev began to let the Jews leave. Eleven-year old Mishka, his mother, his father, and his great-grandmother left for Italy with few belongings. There, Mishka discovered video games and arcades, and his life was forever changed, for video games and arcades are the very opposite of starkness. There, Mishka found an arcade version of Double Dragon 2. He never found it again, and he never got over the fact that he never found it again.
As I sat and wrote this, I could not help but think, “Thank God I was never instrumental in the loss of a source of Mike’s pleasure, because apparently he would have never let me live it down.”
While in remission, Yelena, Alexander, and family endured many applications and interviews to come here to the US, arriving in Philadelphia only three months after leaving the steppe. Mishka’s mother and great-grandmother died in quick succession shortly after arriving in the US, leaving young Mishka and Alexander to stay with relatives before getting their own apartment. Alexander eventually remarried. Mishka and his father had a beautiful and tight bond, as you can imagine.
At some point, Mike became Mike and also changed his last name to Merslak, his mother’s maiden name. Nancy — good wife that she is — never asked why. I marvel at this fact. Mike may or may not have suggested that I might be the kind of wife that asks too many questions. We liked each other anyway. And this reminds me of a story…
There was a day in the park in March of this year. His death was looming, but not yet imminent. He wanted to show me a stream. But there were other people at the stream, and on that day, I was not in the mood for other people. Mike teased me for being secretly anti-social, but he let me be, reclining on a blanket, starting at a tree. Eventually, he came up, took my hand, and said, “The people are gone. It’s safe now,” and led me to the stream, as one might lead a child back to bed after a nightmare. As soon as I heard the stream, I burst into tears. I had no idea why. I was embarrassed — and not accustomed to crying in front of others — so walked down the bank alone. A few minutes later, Mike came up to me and said, “It occurred to me that you have gone through everything that you have gone through, and probably never had a man hold you while you cry. I’m going to hold you while you cry.”
And he did. And I cried harder, because he was correct, though I had never thought of that way before. Nancy sat there and watched her dying husband hug her friend, a bereaved parent. All of us bound into beautiful friendships by the varying degrees with which we had brushed — and were brushing — with death.
Before long, we were all laughing again, because we were very good at laughing even when — strike that — especially when bleep got real. Mike was a beautiful friend, not just to me, but to all of you too.
After Philly, there was college at NYU. Mike started off Pre-Med, before switching to History. He specialized in Medieval history, but he knew everything about everything, according to Nancy. Let’s just say you did not want to play Risk against Mike. Or chess for that matter. He knew intricate details of every recorded battle and the founding of the early churches. He consumed primary sources for breakfast. Nancy says that part of Mike’s soul resides in Constantinople and that he was “as learned as any priest, and as rigid.” She continued, “His soul was in Jerusalem, and his heart in Babylon.”
And though now far from the steppe or Karaganda, Mike also remained sympathetic to the Mongol hordes that rode through, burned, and pillaged that part of the world, which was also the rumored birthplace of Genghis Khan. Nancy says that part of Mike always slept on the steppe with the nomadic tribes, “in a time and place when horse and rider were one.”
Which brings to mind another story from that day in the park. Mike was waxing poetic about his nomadic heritage, and how all the “-stans” were only established because the women in the harem brought too much stuff and would become too comfortable with their stuff, thus eliminating their urge to roam. But, he said, what men wanted even more than to roam and to murder and to be free, was to be enveloped by the softness of woman. The men, therefore, tamed themselves and begrudgingly established empires. (That last bit makes me laugh to this very day.) He proceeded to castigate me for bringing things like, you know, WATER, on our mission that day, because it was slowing down our roam. I told him that women tend not to be able to envelop anyone in softness if they are dehydrated and also care about the health of their men, and so think to bring things like WATER to keep them healthy. Mike said he never knew I was so lippy. I said he’d never before given me occasion to be. He doubted I’d be a good harem wife, he countered. I retorted, “Before today, I thought that men needed a harem for the obvious reasons, but after this conversation I am convinced that it was because when one wife was worn out from arguing with the man, back ups were needed. You know, ‘Nancy, you’ve clearly had enough. Take a load off. I’ll bicker with him the rest of the day.’” Mike smiled and said, “Well if some of them weren’t so lippy, we wouldn’t need back ups.” And so on. I sort of felt like I was auditioning to be the second wife of Larry David.
Law School followed college, and there he met Nancy. Nancy insists that they never intended to form a relationship, but I’m not 100% certain that Mike saw it that way once he had his eyes set on her. I remember him telling me, “At first, I thought, ‘who is this horrible person?’” This because Nancy had the gall to want to leave NYC early in the morning to get back in time for a scheduled class or meeting. But I also remember him saying, “I wanted Nancy. So, I went to her in New Hampshire, and I brought her back here.” He got his woman. And then he created his –stan here in Los Angeles.
I don’t know whose version of their story to believe, but since this day is for Mike, I was a good girl and did not ask follow up questions. However Mike and Nancy arrived here, Julian burst forth in 2008 and Lenore in 2010. Mike adored his children and led with a firm, yet loving hand. Later, Jen Kurek will tell you so many beautiful stories of their time together as a family.
Diagnosed with a rare form a cancer just before Lenore was born, Mike underwent surgery and radiation. 2012 brought with it a recurrence, more treatments. In 2015, he was diagnosed Stage 4, and underwent all manner of chemo, surgeries, immunotherapy, more chemo, etc. Nancy’s notes said, simply, “He tried.” I was transfixed by this, as I have always said that if my loved ones defy my wishes and bury me in the ground, my tombstone should read only, “I tried.” I simply cannot think of a better way to sum up a life well lived.
But he did more that try. A strong, loving father, husband, son and friend, Mike was. Mike’s friendship was one of my most cherished, and you all know I would take a bullet for Nancy. And most of you know me well enough to know that I am not joking when I say that.
One last story to demonstrate the kind of man Mike was. One late night this past winter, when there were still options but things were not looking good, I sat with Mike and Nancy in their backyard, drinking vodka and talking as we had done so many times before. Mike offered to drive me home that night, which was unusual. I accepted. Once in the car, he asked me if I had heard Leonard Cohen’s new song, “You Want It Darker?”—he knew I was a Leonard Cohen fan. I hadn’t hear it yet. He played it for me and we listened in silence as Leonard sang about his impending death. Without a word, Mike pulled into the nasty liquor store parking lot near my house and we listened a second time as we stared straight ahead at the graffiti wall. It’s an incredibly powerful song, definitely worth more than one listen. Eventually I said, “I kind of wish I could take your place.” “Why?” he asked. “Because then I could see Alice.” His face drew compassionate as he responded, “Oh, Melissa. There is nothing after this.” I winced internally because it was not what I wanted to hear, of course. But outwardly, I did not react, for it was not my place to push my beliefs on a dying man. And Mike knew it was not what I wanted to hear, but he did not hide from me what was true to him, just as he did not expect me to hide from him what was true to me. We just sat there, silent, looking at each other with compassion and acceptance of our differing beliefs. No judgment. None.
Because though Mike was a person who was not afraid to hate things — like unnecessarily cheesy food — and though he may disagree with you vehemently, he didn’t need to agree with you to love you or even to like you. And he wasn’t afraid of the nothingness, or the potential that he was wrong and maybe there is more than nothingness after this. And these, my friends, are the signs of an evolved human and a true friend.
My heart breaks for Nancy, Alexander, Julian, and Lenore. And I will have their backs for as long as I draw breath. But for Mike, my wish is this: That his soul is somewhere near the sea, surrounded by the Mongol hordes and civilizations gone by, holding his hippo while playing Double Dragon 2 and listening to Leonard Cohen, exhausting all the departed women with ontological discussions while they all drink copious amounts of vodka.
A girl can dream.
All my love to Mike, and all of you that loved him. He was “a man between many worlds” as Nancy put it, and the world he now inhabits is within all of our hearts.