The first entry on Mike Hughes’s blog: I’m supposed to die tomorrow. Hope not. Two weeks ago, the doctors gave me two weeks to live. I’m pretty sure they’ll be proven wrong. In fact, I’m actually making plans now for next week. A friend now in Ethiopia is planning to travel here at the end of next week. I told him to get here as soon as possible because I might have a funeral I have to attend at the end of the week.
And so began a long series of essays on his blog, Unfinished Thinking: Some Thoughts on Living and Dying. Today, December 15th at 9:30am, Mike finally died. I have been thinking about him all year long and this morning paged through my journals to read all our emails, all the messages we’d sent back and forth throughout 2013.
Mike was one of those guys who could make fun of himself, and as you can see from this first email, even his cancer was not off limits for comic material.
April email from Mike to me, Mike Lescarbeau, and Jim Riswold: I need new jokes about my situation. By now everybody’s heard me say that after 15 years of dire warnings I’m embarrassed to still be alive. They’ve all heard me say that if you want beautiful women to tell you how good you look, get cancer. I’ve got a million of ’em. Actually, I don’t. Like all old men I repeat corny old jokes over and over—I can’t help it. I’m sick of hearing me say these things. I need new material to run into the ground. I always give credit to others when I tell their stories or jokes. As you suggested, I picked up one or two things from Tig Notaro’s stand-up. I’ll really have to give her credit since so many have listened to her routine. Got any good lines for me? –Mike
Email response from me to Mike: Okay, I’ll send you some. But as a writer I need a deadline. How long do I have? Get it? “How long do I have?”
The jokes I penned for him are lost somewhere in the e-ether but I remember one, somethin’ about “Dibs on your pain killers.” Giving Mike grief was a pastime I remember with great fondness, one that began back in 1983 when I first began to work at the Martin Agency (I think I was creative hire #10). But it was Mike’s taste in movies that was the most common target of my derision. He styled himself a bit of a “film buff” and rarely missed a visit to Sundance with his wife Ginny. Myself, being a middle-of-the-road movie moron (I love stuff like LOTR and Dark Knight) well, we had plenty of mean-spirited things to say to each other.
Email to Mike, Mike Lescarbeau, and Jim Riswold: Mr. Hughes is under the mistaken impression that since he’s sick he gets a “Get out of jail free” card regarding his hoighty-toighty taste in movies, or “fil-um” as I think he probably calls it privately. And so, I am very sorry to shock any of you with this news item, (received seconds ago from the World of Rational People who Judge things Fairly and Accurately and are not Drunk with I-was-at-Sundance-and-Saw-a-celebrity Fever)… but the movie Lincoln? Sorry, it was not a good movie. We wouldn’t even be talking about it if anyone other than Spielberg had directed it. … –Mr. Sullivan
And then in my journal (not an email, just a diary entry) this: … The past two days I have been blue thinking about my old boss Mike Hughes and his losing battle with cancer. People are flooding his Facebook page with well wishes. I just sent him a private message that said, “I love you, old friend. Hey, if you are well enough to watch movies, lemme know what you’re watching. I promise to watch it and also like it without sending you the usual disparaging note about your taste in movies.” And he wrote back: “I don’t want my near-death experience to be inconvenient for your movie-going, but I bet you still haven’t made it through the attached list I sent you last month.” Lordy, it hurts to see this good man leave us so early. He’s only 66 or so. Christ.
A June email to me from Mike: How are you? Hope all is well. Richard Pine at Inkwell Management in NYC is talking to a ghost writer about turning my blog into some kind of book. We’ll see what happens with that. (Or, given my current prognosis, I should say you’ll see what happens with that.) The writer is looking for additional samplings of things I’ve written. Of course, if it’s not on my hard drive, I haven’t saved it. Mike Lear mentioned to me once, I think, that you actually saved some things I wrote back in the ’80s. You wouldn’t still have anything would you? If so, could you send a copy to Susan? Don’t bother with it if it’s any problem. How’s academic life? Want to teach at the Brandcenter? –M
An email I sent to Mike in September: Hey Mike: My son Reed smokes. I’ve been trying to get him to quit for the longest time. I have never expected my occasional emails would have any real effect. … . He remembers meeting you in the RIC airport with me. My possibly inappropriate request is this. A message to him from you, a man with cancer, a man who never smoked a cig in his life, who rages against the dying of the light writes to say, Jesus, what he would give for the health that young smokers so blithely ignore. You could also then use this email to a young smoker as a blog posting; two birds one stone sorta deal. If you are either unwilling or unable to do this please accept my apologies for asking and know I love you anyway. –Luke
Mike wrote this email, that same day, to my son Reed: We’ve met once or twice over the years. I worked with your mom and dad a long time ago at The Martin Agency in Richmond. If you think your dad’s crazy now, you should have seen him then. ¶ Of course, being crazy is one of the privileges of being young. Hell, it might even be one of the obligations of being young. If I could live some of my early years over again, I guarantee I would have been a little crazier. ¶ But I hope I wouldn’t have been stupider. There’s a difference between crazy and stupid. Crazy is a tattoo. Stupid is a cigarette. I personally don’t understand why anyone would get a tattoo; I bet most of our tattooed brothers and sisters regret the decision they made back when they were young (crazy) and drunk (crazy.) But a tattoo is a crazy they can live with. ¶ My dad started smoking in the pre-World War II days when all the young guys were doing it. Three packs a day. As much as he loved the taste of the Camels and Kents he smoked, he came to hate the habit. It made him quit the sport he loved (tennis) and it undoubtedly hastened his death in the mid ’80s. He tried to quit many times. But a 3-pack-a-day habit developed over many years doesn’t go away easily. ¶ He didn’t live to know that the second-hand smoke he left in his wake was almost certainly the likely reason his only son—a lifelong nonsmoker—developed lung cancer. I’ve had radical surgery to remove a lung. I’ve been through seven or eight different kinds of chemotherapy programs—half of which kept me sick most of the time. A collapsed lung sent me to the hospital for a week. I’ve had three or four different radiation programs. I’ve been hospitalized with a pulmonary embolism. I’ve spent an entire summer in American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge while undergoing various treatments. I’ve been told that my cancer has spread to my pancreas. To my liver. To my brain. I take 14 or 15 doses of medicine every morning, mostly pills, but also injections and creams. I take half that many again at night. And about a half a dozen during the day. Three times a day I do a horrible tasting, 12-minute nebulizer breathing routine. I spend almost all my time hooked up to an oxygen machine. I’m going to see an ophthalmologist in a couple hours because my vision’s gotten a little weird lately. ¶ I’ve had to live with the public humiliations and indignities that go with this serious disease. There have been times when I can’t allow myself to go too far away from the bathroom. A couple of times I’ve coughed up a little blood. It’s usually hard to eat solid foods. My hands shake sometimes; my wife or my sister have had to cut up food for me a couple of times. One night while dining with friends at a nice restaurant I repeatedly threw up some strange kind of phlegm on my plate of food. I’ve listened to the lies friends told me about how good I look when my hair has thinned away and my face has puffed up. I’ve found out too late at times that I’m not strong enough to climb even one or two stairs. I’ve given up a number of things I loved: diving, skiing, foreign travel. I often cancel visits with friends because I’m just not up to it. ¶ Several times I’ve had to tell my wife and my sons the statistics about how long I have before I am expected to die. I’ve had to say goodbye to family and friends I thought I’ll never see again. Lately, it’s become hard to eat solid foods: my chest feels clogged, my breathing becomes labored, my eyes water uncontrollably. ¶ All that said, I know how lucky I am. While I often feel sickly and uncomfortable, I’ve rarely felt much pain. And, amazingly and against all odds, even though I’ve had lung cancer for at least 18 years, I’m still alive. I don’t usually feel great, but I’m still able to love my life. And I do. ¶ Increasing your odds of getting cancer is stupid. When my dad’s generation of young men—the “greatest generation”—started smoking, they didn’t know what we know now. They thought smoking made them look more sophisticated, more mature. When young people start smoking now, they just look young and stupid. That’s what everyone says. “Look at those kids lighting up.” “Oh, they’re so young.” “So stupid.” ¶ The only good news I have about it for you right now is this: recent research confirms it’s easier to quit the habit now, when it’s still relatively new. Quit. Don’t just try to quit, quit. Make your mom or dad a serious $1000 bet that you won’t smoke at all for the next year. Do something crazy a year from now with the money you win. Just don’t do anything stupid. ¶ You don’t really know me, but I really care about what you do here. If you do quit now—and stay off the tobacco for a year—my wife Ginny and I will also give you $1000 to go crazy with. She’s cc’d here because you might have to give her the good news about the money she owes you after I’m gone. (Every day is a gift for me now.) ¶ Please let me know your decision. –Love, Mike
I’d love to report that Mike’s long and thoughtful email convinced my son to stop smoking, but no. Still, I think Mike’s thoughts may yet save my son from this terrible disease.
Email last week from me to Mike: Yo Mike: The passing of Mandela prompts me to nominate him for sainthood. But you, Mike, maybe you could be the patron saint of less pressing causes. Off the top of my head, I think you’d be a great patron saint of, say, the proper use of it’s-versus-its. I myself continue to take the lord’s name in vain every time I see that mistake make its way into print. But perhaps that is too small a cause. I’m pretty sure there’s an opening for patron saint of “Please let me win a $100,000 in next year’s Mercury Radio Awards.” (If you do end up landing that gig, can you ask around to see why my half a million prayers were just, like, TOTALLY ignored?) Your many fans will probably suggest your beatification be instead for some high-falutin’ post, like “Patron Saint of Niceness” or something. Which is cool. Yeah, YOU take that one Mike. I probably won’t land the $100k Mercury Award gig, but when I come up to take the helm as, who knows, Patron Saint of Scratch-Off Lottery Tickets, the first cloud I’m gonna be stopping at is yours, dude, because you’re gonna be a real saint, mos def. –Luke
What I thought was my last letter to Mike: I have put off writing this letter, a real letter, because I don’t know what to say other than I love you. I had a dream about you last night where I finally decided to simply call you on the phone and in the dream I remember saying “I think about you every day” and I was crying as I said it. Thank you for being the best boss I ever had. Ever. Thank you for showing up with your credit card that day I cluelessly showed up in Richmond without a way to pay for the hotel. Thank you for putting up with my erratic and ungrateful behavior during my using years. Thank you for having breakfast that one day in 1983 when you showed me a picture of your son and said, “Kids are the best reminder that there is a life outside of advertising.” Thank you for giving me five of the best years of my career, maybe the best, at The Martin Agency when it was a small agency. And thanks for expecting better writing from me. Even to this moment I’d like to impress you and I wish this letter were better. (Do they give One Show medals for letters? No? Then who gives a shit, right?) Anyway, I don’t have a punchy ending. My heart is breaking. I love you, old friend. –Luke
But as it turned out, this was the last email I wrote to Mike, sent last week on December 6th: Hey Mike: Here are four poems from the only poet I have ever liked, Billy Collins. [In this post, I include below only one of them.] My mom turned me onto him many years ago. I love every word this guy has written. Try downloading The Art of Drowning, for a start. The four poems I’m attaching here are about death, yet I find all of them comforting. –Luke
Memento Mori by Billy Collins
There is no need for me to keep a skull on my desk,
to stand with one foot up on the ruins of Rome,
or wear a locket with the sliver of a saint’s bone.
It is enough to realize that every common object
in this sunny little room will outlive me –
the carpet, radio, bookstand and rocker.
Not one of these things will attend my burial,
not even this dented goosenecked lamp
with its steady benediction of light,
though I could put worse things in my mind
than the image of it waddling across the cemetery
like an old servant, dragging the tail of its cord,
the small circle of mourners parting to make room.
The last email from Mike: Luke: OK. I made it through his poems. Then [because one of the poems was called Aristotle] I paged through some Aristotle history. I had no idea how weird Aristotle was about women. (No weirder than Steinbach on the last page of Grapes of Wrath, but weird enough.) One thing I both like and resent about this kind of poetry is that it encourages me to get involved. It encourages me to go to Aristotle or to think of the lamp in my office that will outlive me by years. The reason the lamp thought is better than the Aristotle poem is that Aristotle requires a middle step that I might not want or have the time to take. With iPads, etc., it’s easier to do the middle step—to get the background on Aristotle—but it’s still a step I’d rather not have to take. I prefer the thought laid out for me to agree with, disagree with, ponder. I’m rambling. Thanks for thinking of me. –M
That was the last email from Mike.
I was planning to write back to him tomorrow, maybe Tuesday. Since he didn’t appear to LOVE the poems I sent him, I was gonna fire off some of the usual snarky crap I send him, somethin’ about how he probably likes the crappy kind of poetry that’s in the New Yorker. (Seriously, I have never been able to decode even one New Yorker poem. Not one.)
Mike’s death today came as such a shock. It shouldn’t have, given his terminal cancer, but still, it felt sudden. I’d grown so used to Mike’s benevolent online presence. All through 2013 he was his normal, thoughtful, marvelous, even chatty self, writing honestly, unflinchingly, about life and death and love and family and all that important stuff we don’t usually talk about until we are certain the end is near.
I love you old friend. Good-bye, Mike Hughes, the most-loved man in advertising.