Today marks the 38th anniversary of the death of Mike Hynes.
Mike was my friend, first lover, and (at least through the lens of a 20-year-old) my life soulmate. He died suddenly and tragically in a swimming accident in the Potomac River, only a couple days after returning to the Washington, DC area after having driven his best friend, Michael B., and me back to university in Wisconsin.
Mike was, well, interesting. In the days before hand-held calculators, one of his trademarks was to wear a slide rule from a clip on his belt. Other trademarks included a wooden tie (tied around his neck with a leather shoelace), and tall leather boots. Mike’s family was similarly interesting on a number of levels: he was one of 10 children in a devoutly Catholic and liberal family (yep, back in those days, “Catholic” and “liberal” weren’t mutually exclusive). His parents had connections to organizations such as the Catholic Worker Movement and its founder Dorothy Day. The family had relocated to the Washington, DC area from Minnesota because his father had taken a position with his friend and former professorial colleague, Eugene McCarthy, when McCarthy (known to the family as “The Senator”) was elected to the US Senate.
The family – Mike was in about the middle – was fun-loving, close, and each sibling seemed to me remarkably different from all the others. It was a tribute to his parents that each child was nurtured in the manner most suitable to that child. The house was a magnet for kids and young adults; we were always welcomed, treated with respect – but with 10 kids, there was a degree of chaos that seemed to be the normal state of affairs.
Mike and I didn’t begin dating in earnest until after I’d left for university. Unable to afford going away, he stayed home to go to school, and for the 9 months that we were apart, we wrote each other frequently. I received wonderful poetry from him. (Of course, these were pre-email days, and we couldn’t afford many phone calls.) When I could get home, for holidays or even an occasional long weekend, or when he made an infrequent visit, we were constantly together. The summer of 1970 was idyllic; weekends at the beach (alone and unchaperoned, unbeknownst to my parents); concerts at the Washington Monument, picnics, babysitting for my then 2-year-old nephew Willy. The summer of 1970 was a summer of laughter and love for both of us.
School started in late August for me. Mike borrowed a car carrier from my folks to take Michael B’s & my returning-to-school luggage, and with a 4th friend, Leo, we departed for Wisconsin from Virginia in Mike’s car – an old Mercury (affectionately referred to as “Merc”). After a couple days in Milwaukee with us, Mike & Leo returned to Virginia. On Wednesday, Sept 2, 1970, Mike returned the luggage carrier to my folks, and had dinner with them. On Friday, Sept 4, 1970, Mike went with his brother and a couple of friends to the Three Sisters area of the Potomac River, on the Arlington side. Details are fuzzy, but apparently at least a couple of them decided, unwisely, to swim to the Three Sisters Islands – small islands in the river – and of the 4 of them who attempted the swim, 2 of them didn’t make it – Mike and one of his brother’s friends.
In Milwaukee, I was out on that Friday night. When I returned to my dorm room, my roommate and friend, Kathy, told me I had to call home quickly. This was unusual, as those were the days when long-distance phone calls were expensive and reserved for very special occasions. I called, and my sister broke the news to me: Mike had gone swimming in the Potomac in the afternoon, and his family thought he had drowned. His body had not been recovered. She told me I should come home Saturday. I did, along with Michael B. Mike’s body was found on Saturday.
Michael & I were in shock. Neither of us had experienced a death of a friend – we were 20! – and our case, it was the death of a best friend and boyfriend. We flew home Saturday morning, and were met at the airport by our parents and friends who had not yet left for school. At various times over the next few days, we spent time at the funeral home, and we planned a special service for Mike in addition to the funeral mass. Mom wouldn’t go to the funeral home because of the open casket, saying that she wanted to remember Mike as he was on the previous Wednesday, when he returned the car carrier.
That whole week is a blur, but I have snippits of clarity – of comforting memories through that awfulness. Mike’s family welcomed me – welcomed all of Mike’s friends – as part of the family, even during their own extreme grief. Mike’s mother’s strength was nothing short of remarkable. The service we planned for the night before the funeral was in his church, but run by those of us who were his friends. We played “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” – which was “our” song (to this day, the song can bring tears to my eyes, and I’m affected by “sail on silver girl, sail on by, your time has come to shine . . .”). Another song we played was James Taylor’s “I Always Thought I’d See You Again.”
The funeral wasn’t as personal, and I was proud of how stoic I was, until the end, when Mike’s casket was escorted out with the prayer, In Paradisum:
May the angels lead you into paradise.
May the martyrs receive you at your coming
and take you to Jerusalem, the holy city.
May the choirs of the angels receive you, and may you,
with Lazarus who was once poor, have eternal rest.
We buried Mike – I think it was on Wednesday. And we buried him complete with slide rule, wooden tie, and boots, along with his coke-bottle thick glasses. I think we buried my childhood – and the childhood of our friends – at the same time.
My heart was broken. Slowly, I recovered, but so often thought about Mike’s life and death. I still do. I don’t know whether Mike and I would have made a lifelong successful couple – we might not have lasted another month – but I have always resented that we weren’t able to decide for ourselves what our future would hold. The decision was taken from us on an awful Friday in the Potomac River. My life went on, I married, had a wonderful daughter, changed in careers and relationships, and am now in the most satisfying relationship I’ve had since those halcyon days of 1970 – a relationship that’s lasted far longer that Mike’s and my 12 months.
As the years progressed, I thought of Mike less and less. I still treasure, though, his letters. Sadly, I lost his collection of poetry some years ago. But I honor his memory, and know that on some level, he is still with us, laughing that most distinctive laugh.
Mike, you’re gone, but you’re not forgotten. Your silver girl is getting more silver-haired, but you’re forever frozen at 19.