In the past few months, I have become quasi-obsessed with the experience of being emotionally moved. I reported on new research about that experience a few weeks ago, and also discussed how someone sharing something “soulfelt” often might prompt a feeling of being moved or touched in others.
I suspect when one becomes more aware of an experience such as this, one starts to pay more attention to it. And so it has been with me.
A few weeks ago, my beloved college celebrated its 50th anniversary with a faculty & staff talent show. My friend and longtime collaborator, Jennifer Isaac, shared a Moth-award winning story about her brother that moved everyone in my aisle to tears. I suspect storytelling – along with a few other major modes of expression, such as music – are particularly likely to move people. With Jennifer’s permission, I share her edited story below. It’s also available by video beginning at around 1:21:00
Flying: A Personal Story
By Jennifer Issac
I’m standing in the middle of a forest. The sun is shining; the sky is a bright blue and I crouch down and spread my arms like I’m going to take off and fly. And that’s exactly what I do. I can feel my body stretch up into the air and when I look down, I see the canopy below. I lean way back and make big body circles just like I did when I was a synchronized swimmer. I’m flying! I just love flying, especially, when I’m sleeping. And I have my brother Mike to thank for that. Whenever I see him in a dream, I take off.
Growing up the youngest of three, my nickname was “Fastest Jammies in the West” (thank you, Dad). I did, then, and I still do, now, love to go to bed early because I like to dream. As the baby in the family, I probably spent an equal amount of time both loving and loathing my older siblings, and with good reason. I had a lot of time at the bottom of the fart pile. They dressed me up in ridiculous costumes…a lot. But I gave it back, too. Like the time I “styled” my sister’s gerbil’s tail with a scissors (I did that).
As the middle child between two sisters, Mike had to find his own identity, and he lived his life by his own rules. I don’t think he fully embraced it until he was in junior high, though. When out riding his bike, a motorcyclist hit him. He had a severely broken leg and road rash. At that moment, I believe he made up his mind that his life was his to live and he was going to do things his way. And everyone loved to be around Mike because he’d make you laugh and was a deep thinker. He talked about things that mattered. Mike was also a teacher for me. When I was kicked out of piano lessons because I couldn’t learn the bass clef, Mike would sit at the piano with me. He’d say “Jeni, you play the left hand and I’ll play the right.” And unlike other teens, Mike actually enjoyed hanging out with grandparents and young children. He taught himself to play guitar and other instruments, and he acted in community theater. While his peers were getting confirmed in church, Mike was taking Transcendental Meditation classes.
After his freshman year, Mike decided college wasn’t for him and so he rode his ten-speed from our home in Minnesota to Portland, Oregon. And that is where he put down roots. Fast-forward through our parents’ nasty divorce, some high school and college for both of us, and Mike decided to teach English to children in Japan. It was a two-year commitment and he came back to our hometown to say good-bye before leaving. The night before I was to see him, I had the most vivid dream. Only this time, Mike wasn’t in it. I was told that he might die. I woke up in a panic and knew I had to warn him. You see, Mike had just come out as a gay man. It was the early 80s and I knew there were dangers.
I remember sitting on the couch at our father’s home while telling my brother about my dream. He had a distinct “older brother” look on his face. He thanked me and told me not to worry. He was in a monogamous relationship and was traveling for two years. “Seriously, Jeni. You have nothing to worry about.”
A year passed and I moved to Mankato to finish college. Mike kept in touch and sent many pictures of the children, their families, and his colleagues in Japan. Everyone was happy and smiling. I know he was having an amazing experience. It had been awhile since I had spoken to him and I remember sitting on the floor tying my son’s shoelaces when the phone rang. I was excited to talk to my Mike until I heard his voice. Something didn’t sound right. He said, “Jeni, Japan is sending me home.” He told me he hadn’t been feeling well. There were strange spots on his arms, and he had a sore throat and cough that wouldn’t go away. The doctors determined he had Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome: AIDS. Mike was the ninth person to be diagnosed in that country and was promptly sent home to receive medical care. Because it was the early years of treatment, the prognosis wasn’t good.
I really wish I could say that I was there to help take care of Mike. I really wish I didn’t make those stupid engine noises when I pushed his wheelchair. And I wish I could say I was with him when he died. On September 3, 1986, surrounded by people he loved, his partner, David, and our sister Laura, Mike took his final breath. The last part of him I touched was a beautiful wooden box with his ashes.
But I know he’s still around me. Because I can hear him in my oldest son’s laughter. I can see his spirit and passion in my daughter, and in the philosophical musings of my youngest son. And, I still see him in my dreams.
A short time after Mike passed, I dreamt I visited him. He was in a big Victorian house with other men who had died of AIDS. Among other things, Mike told me our sister (who was pregnant at the time) was going to have a child named “CJ.” I decided not to tell anyone about that dream – especially my sister. A few months later, my nephew, Christopher Joel was born.
And you know what? If I’m really lucky, I’ll see Mike tonight. And if I do, I’m going to take off and fly.
Jennifer Isaac taught Communications at Normandale Community College. She died on October 13, 2019. I hope she and Mike are flying together now.