The first part of this summer went quite well for me. I was taking a class I enjoyed, the weather was still fresh, and the long hours of August tedium were hull-down on the horizon. Before I knew it, it was mid-June and my brother was packing for camp – the same one my siblings and I had been going to ever since I was 7 and where I had been a counselor the previous summer. This would be the first year my brother would be going alone.
Two or three days before he was set to leave, my phone rang. It was a close friend from the year before; we’d been an item at camp, but it had been a while since we’d last talked. I answered, excited to hear from her. What she said was the last thing I could ever have expected.
“Remember Michael Greene?” she asked. It sounded like she was holding back tears. I groaned inwardly, expecting some pointless gossip or drama blown out of proportion. Of course I remembered him. Michael had been one of my best friends the previous summer.
“He went down during the pre-camp swim test. They resuscitated him and evaced him to the hospital, but he died.”
The smile froze on my face. There was a long silence. I gulped and stammered, “Are you serious?”
Michael Greene is dead. The phrase repeated in my head for days and weeks after. I learned the details: No one knew exactly why he’d submerged, but the camp director had gotten him out and continued CPR until a helicopter arrived. They’d been hopeful at the hospital, but he had died after a short stay.
Ever the cocky daredevil, I had never even tried to contemplate the fragility of life; I don’t think Michael had either. This was Michael Greene. The counselor who helped his 7-year-old campers adjust to homesickness, who joked about cleaning up their piss-stained beds, who was just about the jolliest jokester I’d ever had the pleasure of teasing about his initial anxiety about jumping off the 15-foot swimming tower at night in the nude.
Michael Greene is dead. What did that even mean? I thought about death a lot after what happened to Mike. The idea had always fascinated me, but I had never experienced a death so close to home. I’d experienced brushes with death before by way of near-misses in the car. One spring I took a glancing blow to the forehead during shot-put practice, but nothing came remotely close to having a dear friend die. Michael was a healthy kid. It could have happened to anyone.
Michael Greene is dead. No one at the camp talked about it when I went up for visitor’s day. I saw his former campers and watched as they ran around enjoying themselves, not dwelling on the tragedy. I walked along the dock where he and I had been scolded for swimming after dark, after the kids had gone to bed. It was the same green wood; there was no sign of what had happened. What did I expect? A bloodstain? A gravestone? I almost felt disappointed at how normal everything seemed.
I’ll never work at Camp Tamakwa again. Not because it’s a dangerous place, and not because my friend died there, but because I’ve realized how many other opportunities are out there in the world.
Mike and I had talked about traveling abroad; we’d talked about the Peace Corps and European topless beaches. I started a list of “Things to do before I die” with a byline in a tribute to Mike. The list is long, but he point isn’t whether I’ll eventually climb El Capitan or go skydiving over the Nairobi Desert. Essentially, I wrote it because I didn’t want to keep being complacent in life.
No one should meet a premature death, especially not someone as exuberant as Michael Greene. I feel cheated that he died under such normal circumstances. He should have died a hero’s death – trying to save a camper and diving beyond his ability, anything closer to how he lived. Instead, he was whisked away just before the best summer ever. Months later, my vision still blurs when I think of his hopes and plans for the future – or simply, the present – sunk to the bottom, up there in a place he called home a couple months each year.
But I suppose I have learned something. To those who haven’t been there, the lesson I took away may sound hardhearted. There is no why. Michael Greene wasted no time wondering why; he simply lived and loved. Although his life was cut short, the years he did live were not wasted. In the end, it’s the most valuable thing he’s ever taught me.
Now, as I sit each morning watching SportsCenter with my Raisin Bran Crunch, I always take a moment to think of Mike and the thumbprint he left on my life. I shoulder my backpack and set out for class, determined to get as much as I can out of it, no matter how boring it may be.
Somehow, two summers ago in the typical end-of-camp lost-and-found clothing shuffle, I ended up with one of Mike’s sweatshirts. I found it in a box where I’d been keeping it, intending to return it to him. It was a while before I was able to wear it, but I realized that if he’d ended up with something of mine, he’d wear it without a second thought, and if we met to hang out, he’d put it on to see if I’d notice. It’s a red, zip-up Roots sweatshirt with a huge hood – at least two sizes too large for me. Every time I wear that hoodie, I find myself looking around, biting back a smile, waiting for him to pop out and say, “Hey, that’s mine!” I’d laugh and hand it over. I’d give him a big bear hug.
– Paul Blumer is a Daily staff reporter.