“I am dying of cancer. And, I am the happiest I have ever been. If I can be happy, you can be happy, too.”
— MIKE VAN CLEAVE
I met Mike over drinks at Stollys in the Marais. If I had to guess, I’d say that there were a couple of years there where most people who knew Mike would say they’d met Mike over drinks at Stollys. Meeting Mike was a big deal. I’d heard a lot about him. When my wife, Nour, lived in Paris, he was one of her closest friends. And Stollys was their dive. I like barflys. So I liked Mike instantly. Mike was big. Not just physically either, his presence was big. Mike was my kind of guy. He lived in Paris, spent ten years in NYC, grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and was born in Kentucky. As he used to say, he started “more than a few businesses”, a coffeehouse, a vintage car restoration company, some internet stuff. He taught at Insead.
You got pulled into his orbit. At that point, Nour and I had only been dating for a few months.. Meeting Mike made me love her even more. If this was the kind of person who got her through her years in Paris, there were plenty of wonderful things I had yet to discover about her.
A few months later, Nour told me Mike was going to die. He has been diagnosed with a form of cancer so bad the doctors gave him weeks. A year at most.
Mike being Mike, decided he wasn’t going to go out with a whimper. He decided to go out in style and throw one last big party. He coralled his drinking buddies from across the years and the continents. A Facebook group emerged, then an event. The Fete de Mike was on. In January, in a house in Fontainebleau, over a hundred of Mike’s friends showed up from New York, Beirut, Bangkok, Kentucky. We drank and ate for three days straight. I danced so hard outside in the rain that I woke up the next day with mud in my nostrils. When I got there, I knew no one, but by the end up of those three days I had met dozens of amazing people. Some of them who would become true friends.
Those three days gave me an inclination of how I’d like to live my life. If I could end it with so many wonderful people around me, I’d be happy.
Mike was also happy after those three days. Happy enough he decided he wasn’t going to die. He went onto an experimental drug courtesy of France’s free healthcare system. He told me once that his insurance premium for the same kind of treatment in the US would have bankrupted him.
As Mike realized he didn’t have long left, he shed a lot of what wasn’t important. He focussed on relationships. They were the only thing he’d take with him till the end, and the only thing he’d leave behind. Initially, I think part of me always kept Mike at a safe distance. I loved him, but I met him knowing he wouldn’t be around. It says more about me than anything else. I’m terrified of things I can’t control. So I tried to preempt and control the fallout from a friend’s death. But, like I said, Mike pulls you into his orbit. And there is no safe distance from a force like Mike.
After the initial Fete de Mike, there were a few more parties. We were celebrating that he was still around, but we were also celebrating all our own friendships that we’d created amongst ourselves. We pieced together new relationships from the off-cuts of Mike’s.
This year Mike had to cancel the party. When Nour and I visited him in Paris in his apartment, he said he was in pain and couldn’t piece together the strength to go through with the party. He was working on his podcast, Life Lessons from a Dead Guy. We’d had a few conversations about it over the previous months. It was a project he cared about very deeply, a documentation of the things he learned while he was sick, and of the friendships he treasured.
Last time I came over alone with some packs of the American Spirits. We ordered some burritos. We talked about the podcast. And Nour, who couldn’t come because of visas and borders. I could tell he wasn't well. He was in so much pain. Three times his eyes rolled in a way that made me feel the life leaving him. I felt I was saying goodbye to him, and when I left that day I hugged him tighter than I ever had.
On Wednesday Mike left us for good. We didn't get to say goodbye properly because Nour is waiting for another visa and borders are a kind of hell. In a way I'm happy though. Mike is this big gregarious bear hug of a man. It would have destroyed me to see him any other way. I’m not built strong enough for that.
What Mike has left behind is a group of friends, family really, like no other. We’re all making plans to see each other and celebrate his life. There’s already been a memorial drinks in his honour at Stollys, sun piercing through the windows.
If you knew Mike and want to listen to him again, I’ve been relistening to this podcast. And if you didn’t know him, listen to it as well. You’ll learn a thing or two about letting go of meaningless things, and cherishing important things. Mike was important, and the world is a bit less of a party for him having left it.
Goodbye Mike, we’ll see you on the other side brother.