My Don Mills Mike
by Trevor Arkell // from issue 3. Vol. 2 // Web Exclusive
He fell. And was silent. But before he was silent, he was silent.
In late December 2013, the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) experienced one of the worst ice storms in Canadian history. (The Montreal storm 15 years earlier was even worse.) Everywhere you looked, trees had cracked and splintered and collapsed under the weight of the ice. In the Brampton neighborhood where my wife and I lived, the storm’s effect was particularly bad. Huge branches had toppled onto roofs that then caved in. On one street it was as though the storm had concentrated its fury: cars were demolished; trees had fallen through large windows; hoary limbs and branches hung down in eerie tableaux. People’s homes lay in ruin.
We ourselves were minor victims of the storm. As the ice built up on the trees in our yard, their branches gave way and boomed on the frozen ground. The sounds of the limbs falling to earth were relentless, making the night seem interminable. At some point, fearing the worst, we repaired to the basement. We didn’t sleep: our one-year-old daughter wanted to play, and we wanted to cry. When I walked outside early the next morning, I was shaken. One of the larger branches of the ash tree behind our house had broken away in the night and hurtled through the garage. Many branches had fallen too close to neighbours’ houses and cars for comfort. Our backyard looked like a clear-cut field.
On the last morning of the year, my brother Tom, his son Kyle, his brother-in-law Blair, and my friend Mike (chauffeured by my mother) arrived at our home. By the time the guys arrived, I had already been cutting fallen wood with a friend’s chainsaw for two hours. For another three, we cut, dragged, and piled it. By then we were tired. The day was achingly cold, and we went into the house for some warmth and refreshment with a sense of finality.
Except for Mike. Mike remained outside, alone. When I realized he wasn’t with us, I went to find him. He was assembling his climbing gear at the base of the ash tree, thinking he would try to clean up the jagged edges of the branches that remained. After climbing to the mid-point of the tree, he spoke to me about the danger of moving out onto the ice-covered limbs. Safety was always a primary concern with Mike. He never ventured to do anything without calculating the risk. When we worked on cars together, we always placed additional supports beneath a car in case a jack failed. Mike would say, “Let’s put that stand there for safety’s sake.” On that day after the storm, he eventually decided that he would have to come back another day: cutting the tree then was far too dangerous.
I can tell by entries in Radio Shack and Edmund Scientific catalogues from the 1960s and early 1970s when things likely took place between Mike and me. The highball microphone that could be plugged into a Panasonic Hi-Fi, which Mike occasionally transformed into a PA system, was purchased in 1972, but to my knowledge it was only ever used by me. One day we stood in his front yard, the PA system on a small table and hooked up to speakers, and I attempted to impersonate a comedian I’d seen on the Mike Douglas Show. I didn’t know what I was doing. But the amplifier worked, booming my voice down the street. Mike laughed, and anyone else who noticed pretended they didn’t.
My mother purchased a pair of Fanon Ranger IV walkie-talkies for me when I was 10 or 11. Mike and I would use them to communicate from each other’s houses or when we were at the fort (a wooden shed his dad had built at the end of the yard), and one of us would go exploring on the CN Railway tracks and transmit his findings. With a walkie-talkie you speak as though alone—you can move out of the range of eavesdroppers, unlike a telephone, whose attachment to a wall prevents you from going very far. Mike almost never spoke on the telephone.
At school Mike was “no talk.” He left school entirely in June 1975, having failed to pass Grade 9. I’m sure that he was not much remembered after that, even though the previous year his teachers had written of him: “Michael is a pleasure to teach. We wish all students were like him.” Part of Grade 10 he attempted via distance education, but after asking for my help on some math questions, he packed it in. By then he had already assembled a small computer with a DIY kit, but he’d had it with institutionalized education. He wasn’t yet 15 years old.
Michael was my life-long friend. We met when we were three years old, and knew each other for 49 years. Michael was clearly brilliant in many things. He was nothing short of a mechanical genius, whose real love and specialty was electronics. In high school, I designed a physiology project that would test reaction times in firefighters. I designed it so that when I threw a switch, a light would go on; the firefighter would then have to throw another switch to turn the light off. An electronic timer I borrowed from the physics lab would record the time interval in fractions of a second. I was having trouble wiring the timer into the circuit. Mike looked at my set-up, and in a few moments realized what I had done wrong and rewired the circuit. I never knew how he learned what he did. I never saw him with a book or magazine on electronics. For all I knew he had been born with this ability. That was the way he was.
But the way he really was—a person who in the 1960s and 1970s exhibited a curious matrix of behaviours that were deterministic insofar as people came to expect of him this odd disposition—was never determined during his life. He did not engage in social situations where he did not already know the participants. He would not answer questions in school, would not attend school field trips, would not play with others in the school yard, would not join school-organized events, would not join a team, would not dine out with his family, would not wear formal clothing, would not talk to me for months on end, would not do anything he didn’t want to do. Period.
Mike had absolutely no respect for formal authority: cops, firemen, teachers, politicians. Even fathers were held largely in contempt. Sirens of any kind, another symbol of the state, would set him off, but the police were Mike’s Enemy Number One. On a sunny afternoon one summer, Mike stood on the driveway of his parents’ home. The police drove past, stopped, reversed, and stopped in front of Mike. They attempted to search his pockets and a struggle ensued. Kevin, Mike’s younger brother, ran into the house to fetch his father, who confronted the police. What, he wanted to know, was the problem? The police informed him that Mike was a drug dealer and that they were searching him for marijuana. Mike’s dad was incredulous and laughed out loud. His son, he informed them, was no more a drug dealer than he was. He told them to leave the property at once. One of the officers, more level-headed than the other, talked his colleague down. They left, but the damage was done, and Mike’s disgust was forever cemented. What this and other encounters demonstrated was that he had little or no care for the consequences— emotional, physical, legal, or any other kind. And in a way, I was envious. After all, I was always a little anxious around authority. My fear stemmed from the social and familial implications of a confrontation. I had had no compunction about getting into fistfights when I was in grade school or yelling at my uncle when I thought he was wrong. These were private encounters, and had no real repercussions beyond the schoolyard or the living room. Mike’s encounters as I witnessed them could well be written up in the newspapers or the court reports. In this sense, I was totally out of his league.
When I was in grade 10 and home one Saturday night from boarding school, Mike and I walked south on Leslie Street. On the east side of the street was a telephone booth. I phoned the operator and made what I thought at the time was a funny crank call.
“Is this the operator?”
“Yes. How can I help you?”
“My appendix is flaring up. Can you take it out?”
“Is this an emergency call?”
“Yes. Can you operate?”
“Young man, you’ve called Bell Canada. Do you need a doctor?"
“Bell Canada? I thought you were an operator!”
And so on. When I hung up the phone, we crossed the street and continued south. A few moments later a yellow police cruiser sped north, turned around, and pulled up beside us. One of the policemen asked whether we had just made a crank call to the operator. We denied doing so. The officers then asked us to empty our pockets. Mike refused. One of the cops reached into his coat pocket and withdrew his Swiss Army knife. Mike, strong even then, reached out and grabbed it. The cop was shocked. Mike looked at him icily. After some further questions we were told not to call phone operators again, and the police got back into their cruiser and sped away.
His disrespect for authority took other forms, too. Next door to our house (at the very address where the murder takes place in Hugh Garner’s Death in Don Mills, by the way) lived Claire, with whom my mother was on friendly terms. She was a widow, a smoker, an alcoholic, the very epitome of a certain kind of 1950s woman in late middle age. She detested both children and teenagers, and this virulence redoubled when we decided to make her the butt of our pranks. The things we did to that woman: crank calls (“Michael and Trevor get off the phone!”), garbage in the backyard, motor oil in the window wells, and rotten apples thrown against her window. That last escapade led to this exchange between Claire and Mike’s father:
“Michael and Trevor have been at it again.”
“Look, Claire, I don’t need a history of the street. What seems to be the problem?”
“Michael’s just thrown an apple against my front window.”
“That’s impossible, Claire.”
“Because Michael’s been in bed for the last hour, Claire.”
“Well, well, he just must have!”
“Good night, Claire.”
The early death of my father has had serious repercussions for my family, most of course for my mother, but also for my brother and me. When my father died, my mother was pregnant with my brother, and in the 18 months that followed she had to seriously consider her vocation. Coming home late at night after working all day wasn’t working out. A professional change was her solution, and for the next 30 years she taught elementary school—we had our summers and holidays at the same time, and in certain respects life at home was more connected that it would otherwise have been. But my dad wasn’t there, and although most of the time I wasn’t conscious of his absence, circumstances in the lives of others would occasionally force me to reflect on his not being part of my life. Michael had a form of autism—a term designating a spectrum of related brain development disorders—that prevented him from forming emotional relationships or communicating in emotional ways. I don’t know the precise date, but one day Mike’s dad told Mike to move his tools to a different part of the basement workshop. His tools were in stacked red tool chests, almost identical to mine—we had been collecting tools and fixing things for as long as I could remember—and the tools were a symbol he used to communicate a sense of self: power, authority, expertise, achievement. When his dad told Mike to move the tools, he might as well have been the cop on the driveway. This kind of authority was not only arbitrary: it struck at what was truly wrong—the only identity Mike had, the only voice he could use was being silenced. And after an almighty rage, Mike had, as always, the courage of his convictions: he never spoke to his father again.
Today I know more about Mike’s illness than I did when I was young, when I could not understand how a boy who had a father would voluntarily shun his father in order to make a point. Of course it’s true that many of us take umbrage at a parent’s statement or action. And it’s true that such statements or actions can resonate for a long time, even a lifetime. But an avoidance that lasted the better part of 40 years I still have great difficulty understanding. Michael seemed to take pride in the fact that his father didn’t speak to his own mother, Mike’s grandmother, for more than 25 years, a revelation that I then as now could not understand either. When Mike told me, I felt both his inherent pride in making the statement and its action foolish. How could reasonable people act this way? Didn’t they know how lucky they were?
In 1964, just before Christmas, my mom took me to the curling rink after dropping my dad off at home. He was tired, he said, and wanted to have a rest. My father, a geologist and prospector, lived in Canada’s North much of the year. He worked for Selco Mining, where he met my mother, a geo-chemist. Typically, he worked in places like northern Manitoba or the Northwest Territories from after thaw to freeze-up. The times in between he’d be at home or at work on University Avenue, where Selco had its offices. The day we went curling and my dad had his rest was during one of those home times. We arrived home in the late afternoon, and I was through the door first. (Those were the days when, in Don Mills at least, families didn’t lock the front door of their homes.) I shook dad by the right arm and told him we were home. The next thing I remember is firemen pulling my dad to the floor from his chair. When they pulled him down his head hit the carpet, and I remember thinking they should be more careful. I remember my mom screaming in the hallway, and after that my memory goes blank.
I spent a great deal of my youth looking for fathers, hoping in some way that I would be adopted by someone who could stand in for my own missing father. I had “uncles”: family friends who could at times act in paternalistic ways. Most of the time, though, what they thought of as paternalistic was merely discipline and demands for respect, not inclusion or understanding. I wasn’t taken to football games or hockey games very often, but I do remember being reprimanded a lot. Even Ron, my own real uncle, could only make promises that were almost always unfulfilled. The tool set I gave as my answer to the question, “What would you like for Christmas?” never materialized until I was old enough to take a job delivering newspapers, save the money earned, and buy it myself. And so I was really mad that Mike would so easily diminish, sacrifice, even nullify his own father-son relationship. For this I thought he was a jerk.
What I didn’t realize then about Mike’s decision was that it was symbolic of his illness, a symbol that was speaking for him: it was not that Michael had looked long and hard at the emotional consequences of his decision to abandon his father and then made the choice consciously. Rather it was an action he couldn’t help but make. He was no more in touch with his own emotional being than he was with that of others, precisely because he had almost no emotional being beyond the expression of anger—an expression that I have come to see both as another dimension of his physical courage, the dimension that he wanted more than anything to be defined by, and as the ultimate distress call at his lack of emotional connection to others. In the end, this lack of emotional competence, almost entirely displaced by intelligence, bravery, and mechanical aptitude, deprived him of so much. The world that I have largely taken for granted was almost entirely unknown to him: He never had a sexual relationship, a job interview, a steady vocation, a partner, children, a home of his own, a car, a vacation, a formal education, a dinner in a restaurant, a haircut at a barber’s, a drink in a bar, a visit to a theatre, a future.
Four days after he had helped me clean up the trees felled by the ice storm, Mike woke up, had water and a chocolate cookie for breakfast, and then walked over to Marg’s house to cut trees around some power lines in her backyard. Around 10:30 he told her that he had to help Remo with some of the trees in his backyard. Around noon, his sister Maureen heard him come in the back door of their house—actually, their parents’ house; Mike and Maureen had never moved out—very upset at the sounds of sirens blaring yet again in the neighborhood. Those with forms of autism are often disturbed, sometimes greatly so, by loud noises: sirens, explosions, even animated talking. Mike’s annoyance was intensified by his disdain for authority: the police services, the EMS, the fire department were all populated by “goons.”
That Saturday, Mike was in a rage. Soon after, Maureen heard the back door slam. The rest is speculation. Mike must have returned to Remo’s yard and noticed his cutting pole way up in one of the trees. Frustrated by the weather, the sirens, the forgetting of the pole in the tree, Mike likely opted to leave his arborist’s harness on the ground and climb up his rope bare-handed to fetch the pole.
I didn’t know it at the time, but for the previous few months Mike had been suffering blackouts. He collapsed one day coming up the stairs; another time he fainted in the living room. I was later told by a physician that he had either arrhythmia or the onset of a brain aneurysm. To this day, I don’t which of these it was. But I do know that after he left my house on New Year’s Eve, he spent the next three days in brutal cold helping his neighbors clean up their properties. Perhaps the long hours—up to 15 hours each day—and the lack of nourishment—water and a bun or cookie for the whole day—further exacerbated his condition.
He must have climbed the rope, reached out to grasp the pole, and as he did, the light faded, his hands relaxed, his body left the rope, and down he plunged. A second or two later, as he hit the ground 8 metres below, almost every bone in his body shattered. And yet, when he was found, his blood was found in two spots: one on the ground where he fell and the other on the base of the tree where his pole was. Somehow, broken as he was, Mike, in his final heroic act, must have moved to a sitting position for a moment, rested there, and then, finally, lain on the ground. And that was it. He was gone. This time, forever.
Trevor Arkell has among other things written on Wallace Stevens, cooked the recipes of Richard Olney, fooled around with ham radio, fixed cars, read the western stories of Elmore Leonard, and listened to the music of Art Tatum and Glenn Gould. He teaches at Humber College, is married to a wonderful person, Melissa, and has two young children, Leah and Ryland, to whom he reads Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in The Hat and Heidegger’s Being and Time. In the summer he wanders the beaches of the Bas St. Laurent and in the winter he rides the train.