Sunday, February 03, 2008

Cheers to Michael Jay Miller

Pittsburgh. In the last three months, I’ve been to Pittsburgh three times. The first time was for work, to begin a study for the Port Authority, to redesign the transit system in Allegheny County. Most of my days were spent in meetings and doing fieldwork with Port Authority staff, exploring the busways, riding the light rail lines and buses, and watching the buses circle the streets in downtown Pittsburgh. While I was there I managed to squeeze in a dinner with my Aunt Kathi and Uncle Mike, and we had a fun time at Lidia Bastianich’s restaurant in the Strip District.

My second trip to Pittsburgh was the following week, for Thanksgiving with my family. My mom headed into town, as did my sister and her husband and kids. Cousins came from Cleveland to join the celebration as my Uncle Mike and Aunt Kathi took us to Pittsburgh’s Grand Concourse. We made a visit to Fallingwater and arrived back at my aunt and uncle’s house to watch my niece and nephew crawling all over Uncle Mike.

I’m on a flight now, heading home from my third visit to Pittsburgh. I was supposed to stay until later this week, but am returning two days early because I threw my back out this morning. Nothing sucks more than that.

Something sucks more. I’m coming home from the funeral of my Uncle Mike. The guy I’ve known since I was born; the guy who was the face of Pittsburgh for me. Uncle Mike was my mom’s younger brother, nine years younger than she. He was supposed to live for a long time. But he died of a series of strokes, with complications in the hospital including a collapsed lung, pneumonia, a heart attack, and surgeries gone awry by inexperienced medical staff. My mom spent the last month in Pittsburgh with my Aunt Kathi at my uncle’s bedside hoping for the best news, but getting the worst.

I won’t remember him for the medical problems and hospital debacles that marked his last days. I’ll remember him for picking up the much younger version of me and throwing me around, for swinging me in circles and tickling me endlessly. I giggled without a break, screaming “uncle,” the universal code word for “stop tickling me,” appropriate when shouted at him.

I’ll remember him for standing in the Farrell’s Candy Store, after we shoveled down ice cream parfaits, and telling my sister and me that we had three minutes to get as much candy as we wanted. He was paying. No limits. And I remember my sister and I had the hardest time deciding what to buy.

I remember him at his wedding, where I was a junior groomsman in my rented charcoal tux. And at my Bar Mitzvah. And at my high school graduation. And my college graduation from Michigan, the arch-rival of his beloved Ohio State. He came to all of them. He was there to celebrate with me.

I remember going to Disney World with him. I did it as a child and I did it as an adult.
Other than Walt himself, no one was more of an expert on the Magic Kingdom, Disney-MGM Studios, Epcot, or Disney’s Animal Kingdom than Uncle Mike. He had a passion for it and liked sharing it with friends and relatives.

I remember that he gave me tickets to the Michigan-Ohio State game in Columbus. He had season tickets and couldn’t make the game, so my friend Anne and I sat in the Ohio State Alumni section, next to 80-year olds knitting crimson and grey sweaters and scarves. Anne and I shouted and cheered for Michigan. Michigan won the game and I got slugged in the shoulder by an unhappy Ohio State student.

I remember that he was addicted to his Marriott Rewards points. And the Cleveland Browns. And Costco. And Bernie Shulman’s.

I remember going out to eat with him. He couldn’t have “third world food.” He couldn’t have anything with vegetables. He freaked out when my mom told him the zucchini bread she baked -- the one he was enjoying – was, in fact, zucchini bread and not coffee cake. He spit it out on his plate. And I remember he only liked to eat pizza and fried chicken and hamburgers and milkshakes, and donuts for breakfast, and beer and cheesy eggs and pepperoni rolls. And that’s what was his downfall.

Uncle Mike sure knew how to carve a beast.

At least 200 coworkers and friends and relatives flooded the funeral home, all saying wonderful things about him. “A mild-mannered guy, listened to everyone’s yammering, went out of his was to solve problems and help people.” An unlikely good guy. His death notice appeared in Pittsburgh and in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

It’s been a rough few weeks for my mom and my uncle’s wife and kids.

And a sad five days I spent with them all, trying to celebrate the life of my Uncle Mike, wishing I hadn’t had to make the third trip to Pittsburgh.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Joey, it's cousin Gayle. I talked to your mom the other night and she told me about your blog. It's very cool and I told her I wanted to start one in Michael's honor. I have ideas, but need your help and expertise. Your "Cheers to your uncle Mike" was touching and heart-warming. I have ideas to keep his memory alive and the rest of the family connected. Please call at home, (480) 892-6422, or my cell, (480) 330-5914, or email at I look foward to speaking with you soon!

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