The circle of life

I first met Michael Palmer in 1999, but in truth I’d known about his kindness and generosity since 1996, when he gave my debut medical thriller HARVEST an amazing blurb. At our first meeting, I was overwhelmed by his happy exuberance and his larger-than-life personality. I’m a quiet Aspergian type; Michael was hands-on and affectionate. I’m no good at working a crowd; Michael could slap anyone on the back and become their best friend. He was my opposite, yet he became one of my dearest friends. And when he was asked to teach an annual course on Cape Cod for doctors who wanted to write fiction, he immediately invited me to be his co-instructor for the course.

With Michael Palmer in Hyannis

With Michael Palmer in Hyannis

Every autumn for twelve years, we met up in Cape Cod for our annual weekend course. Before an audience of 150 – 200 docs, Michael and I would share the stage as tag-team teachers, tossing thoughts back and forth about the creative process, publishing, and the ups and downs of the writing life. When you share the stage with a guy for 16 hours, every year, you get to know him. And in the evenings, when Michael and I hung out together, we got to know about each others’ families, too. I knew that Michael loved being a father more than anything else in the world. I knew he found writing books fun but also agonizing, and his #1 piece of advice to aspiring writers was this: “Don’t kid yourself, this job is hard. Writing is hard work.” He’d laugh about the time his sister told him he’d never become a writer because “Michael, you’re just too dull.” He adored his literary agent because from the very beginning she believed in his keen storytelling instincts (even though she also said he didn’t know the first thing about writing.)

What I found most endearing about Michael was his sense of humility, his ability to laugh at himself, to never be embarrassed. One day, while my husband and I were houseguests, Michael said, “Hey, let’s all go get facials!” My husband was horrified by the idea. So Michael took just me to his favorite spa, where we got our facials, side by side. He was the ultimate metrosexual, not afraid to embrace his feminine side.

Then there was the incident with the acute attack of gastroenteritis, the live lapel microphone, and the audience who heard every sound. As Michael reemerged from the bathroom, he was bewildered when the audience applauded. And when he found out why, he simply grinned and took a bow.

And finally, there was the rhinoceros. Michael loved the saying “writing a book is as easy as making rhinoceros stew. First, you have to find a rhino.” The rhino became his talisman, a creature he was so obsessed with that he eventually bought a huge bronze rhino sculpture for his garden. And I’m talking HUGE. (Did I mention that Michael was larger than life?)

Alas, our annual meet-ups in Cape Cod eventually came to an end when the writing course shut down. We still managed to see each other from time to time, but I missed our long weekends together. I missed laughing and grousing together about writing. I missed him. We’d email each other, intending to get together one of these days. He and his loving partner Robin had come through a difficult time together because of her surgery, and now that she was healing, he was excited about their upcoming trip to Africa. He just had to deliver his damn manuscript, and then he’d be off to his dream destination.

He did finish the manuscript on time. He did visit Africa. But upon his return, while waiting in the Customs line at JFK, Michael collapsed from a heart attack and a massive stroke.

I still can’t believe he’s gone. I can still hear his voice, his stories, his laugh. As long as I can still hear him, see him in my mind, Michael will always be alive.

I wanted so much to be at his funeral, but a certain family obligation sent me to Ithaca, New York. I heard that his memorial service was overflowing with friends and family, and no wonder; Michael was everyone’s friend.

Three days after Michael’s funeral, my first grandchild Levina came into the world. Life truly is a circle. Even on the heels of sadness, there can be joy. Michael once told me that the best thing in the whole world was a grandchild. He would have been crazy about mine.

With my new grandchild Levina.

With my new grandchild Levina.