Being That Person

There comes a time in your life that you are that person. The person that knows someone well, maybe better than anyone else, and you know it will be you who has deliver the eulogy when that person dies. I volunteered for the job, to deliver the eulogy for my friend Phil Chmura. I didn’t wait to be asked, because sometimes you just have to be brave, step up and say what has to be said. In our lives, where relationships can be virtual and thin, it is a honor to have deep and long lasting friendships, as I did with Phil.

This is the text of my tribute from his service last week.

Phil, in December 2016.
Phil, December 2016 at Donkey

“There is a part of me, most of me actually, that can’t believe my friend Phil is dead. Just 12 hours before he had his stroke and began to die, we sat around our kitchen table, listened to music, ate bean tacos and drank some beers. It was a pretty normal night, other than the elephant in the room—his brain cancer. We talked about it in generalities—he was glad the radiation was over and was happy to be back home, he was concerned that his hair was falling out and he was hopeful about the immunotherapy that would begin in a week or so.

Every day after his Melanoma diagnosis, just like normal, we talked, texted or emailed. Our conversations were upbeat, oddly so. I never remember Phil being so positive. I began to believe, truly and honestly that he would survive this cancer. We talked about that often—about believing that medicine and science would provide a solution. I had faith, because ­he believed he’d get better.

But that didn’t happen and my best friend died.

In writing his obituary I realized, I really didn’t know Phil that well. Most obituaries have a birth and death date, an education and work history and a list of hobbies. I didn’t know, until after he died how old he was, I had to ask his sister. Age didn’t matter to him.

I knew that Phil went to Catholic schools and a bunch of colleges—Muskegon Community College was his favorite—he was a perennial student there. Did he ever get a degree from MCC? He probably never bothered to fill out the paperwork—learning for the sake of personal inquiry was more his style.

He lived in a few places outside Michigan and I threw him at least two going away parties—but he always came back home. And when he lived away—he was gone from my life. We’d write occasional letters or send postcards, but that was all. Eventually, he’d show up back in Muskegon and we’d resume our friendship.

Phil worked on and off during the time I knew him—he took a few drafting classes at MCC—he told me once that he didn’t like drafting much, but was pretty good at it, and drafting jobs paid the bills. When he was out of work or between apartment leases, he lived with my husband Pook and me, for a few months at a pop. There was always space for Phil in our house.

Me, Pook and Phil
Me, Pook and Phil at Burning Foot

One of the things I loved about Phil was that he rarely told me no. I can’t say I made a lot of unreasonable requests—foot massages, babysitting our son in a pinch, dog sitting all four of our dogs over 30 years of friendship, grabbing a six pack of beer if he was headed our way, a long bike ride around Muskegon Lake on a Sunday morning, a cake for dessert, taking our present dog, Lucy, to the veterinarian for emergencies, a butt squeezing or her shots. He volunteered to poke my black and throbbing toenail with a red-hot needle. He assured me he knew what he was doing, “My mom is a nurse,” he said. He did me a solid with that hot needle.

I might have met Phil on quarter beer night at JP Allen’s, or perhaps it was it the night that Bobby Packingham’s art exhibition opened at the bar. I know for sure that it was at JP Allen’s, that old place downtown, now long gone. I remember standing with Phil, and Pook and looking at Bobby’s art before we settled into that big side booth where six friends could comfortably sit. There would be three pieces of art that booth, one on each wall. It’s funny now, to think of art—good art—hanging in a packed, smoky bar. But that’s how things were when I met Phil.

Phil was my intellectual and literary companion. He would scour library, estate and yard sales for books for first editions or other books that he thought I’d like. He’d strike up Twitter conversations with well-known authors, Susan Orlean, specifically and send me phone pictures of their Tweets. A few times a week he’d email me articles about something one of us was interested in—articles about Frida Kahlo or other artists we loved, new books by good authors, politics, conspiracy theories, music and pop culture that involved Madonna or Barbie. We swapped and shared books and he helped stock my Little Free Library. At least once a year, we would drink and talk about driving to Montana and arranging an accidental/on purpose meeting with author Jim Harrison—and when Jim died and so did that scheme.

Phil and our dog Lucy
Phil and our dog Lucy

To me he was always Philbert, but also Spill, Phil-in, Philanderer, Philosophy, Phildirt and others. He was my Phil-in when I ran for Mrs. Asparagus in 1989. When Mike was in the hospital having spine surgery, Phil went with me to the Shelby High School Cafetorium and escorted me into the program where I was introduced as “Roberta King, wife of Mike Miesch, escorted by Phil Chmura.” I was lucky to be named runner up. We called him Spill because when we were painting our first house he took a full gallon of paint up a ladder to paint the eves—and dropped it. Boom. Paint everywhere. After we recovered from the mess and the loss of $10 of Sears house paint, we just laughed.

There’s one thing that Phil did, for which I will always be grateful. Last spring he started bugging Pook about taking a drawing class at MCC with him. Phil was never much of a pesterer, it wasn’t in his hippie nature to nag. But he brought up the art class enough times that Pook finally agreed to enroll. It had been maybe two decades since Pook had done any serious drawing, but off to MCC he and Phil went—and drawing began again. Two days a week for three hours they attended class and made art until Phil got sick. I thank Phil every time Pook takes out a piece of paper and starts to draw.

We’re here today because of art—this Museum and the people here gave Phil great pleasure and meaning in his life. While I didn’t think of it before he died, art was one of the things that was always present in our friendship—from JP Allen’s to MCC to those odd performance shows we went to in people’s garages to author readings and art exhibitions here—the red thread of art kept us together.

According to myths in both Chinese and Japanese cultures, the gods tie an invisible red cord around the ankles of people that are destined to meet and be together. People with red cords are meant to authentic friends, even soulmates, regardless of place, time, or circumstances. This mystical red cord that binds two people is believed to tangle or stretch but never, ever breaks. Death does not break the red cord.

In your program, there’s a red cord. Take it and use it to remember our friend Phil. Wear it on your wrist or your ankle, use it as a bookmark or tie your keys with it. And when you see that material reminder of Phil, think of what he meant to you and the connection that death cannot defeat.”