One Last Round
You Can Never Say Goodbye Too Soon
BY JERRY HUFFMAN
Editor’s Note: 48-year-old Mike Johnson died in July of 2010 after nearly 20 years fighting AIDS. The Milton, Wisconsin native contracted the virus through heterosexual, unprotected sex in the early ‘90s. He then spent more than a decade traveling the country, educating thousands of high school and college students about the risks and dangers of HIV transmission.
In 2005, AIDS began taking a serious toll on Mike. His health was slipping and, while he would live another five years, his friend and golfing buddy Jerry Huffman thought it was important for Mike to know just how much he meant to him—to tell him while he was alive, as opposed to saving his thoughts for a eulogy.
July marks the five-year anniversary of Mike’s death and Jerry has chosen to share what he told Mike, with readers of The Reporters Inc. It’s his way of reminding all of us about the fight thousands of AIDS patients around the world continue to face every day.
* * * * * * * * * *
Mike, is this really happening? Since the day we met I knew you would die someday. The good part about defining something as “someday”, though, is that it never really comes.
There was always a way to put it off. Your blood counts would go south and the doctors would patch you up. We would deal with “someday” later.
I still remember the first time we went golfing. That first round was almost our last. On the course, those tank tops and long shorts were scary. You could always hit the ball but I had a hard time getting past the fact you dressed like a doofus.
In those first years I was scared to ask you about AIDS. We just golfed. You were traveling the country doing seminars and had a national reputation as “the AIDS guy.” I didn’t want to know what it was like. I was just grateful it wasn’t me.
The first time it really hit me you were sick was the day you almost got skulled by a wild shot from another fairway. “If I ever do get hit,” you said, “don’t touch the blood.”
“Why?” I wondered aloud, before realizing what a stupid thing I had just said.
“Because I have AIDS, idiot,“ you said. Oh yeah, I’d forgotten.
A few years ago I figured out why we both loved golfing together so much. Out there you weren’t “the AIDS guy.” You weren’t even sick. You were just a regular Joe. We were two wonderfully anonymous middle-aged golfing pals.
It was always such a delight to watch your face when you’d hit a good shot. First, there was the look of amazement when it happened. Then you’d look around to make sure someone saw you, and then you’d go into your Mr. Nonchalant act.
Back then, I’ll give you credit. You beat me more than I ever wanted to admit. But then–I can’t put a finger on when exactly it happened—the rounds started becoming less competitive. I got better, and you kept getting sicker. It wasn’t fair. But we kept going.
I remember the day when, instead of going to the back tees you asked me to play the shorter, arguably easier tees with you. You had the brains to admit that not only was the course more than you could handle, but you had the courage to admit that the virus was taking a physical toll.
Still, we walked and talked that day just like we had hundreds of times before. I didn’t know it at the time but someone out there was giving us one last truly glorious round together.
You know what else I remember? Our caddy was carrying both our bags that day, barely breaking a sweat and we were both sucking wind by the back nine. Somewhere along the line we truly had turned into two middle-aged cliches and we weren’t even carrying our own golf bags.
Bob Seger has a great line in one of his songs: “I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” Mike, I had no idea that would be our last round of golf. If I had, we would have never left that day. We would still be there talking. We still have so much to talk about. Goddamned “someday” was catching up to both of us.
For the last year I’ve watched you fight this horrible disease as it worsened. I wanted to be there for you. Through the really awful days with the anti-biotics (that I swear made you glow in the dark), the seizures, the surgeries.
Through it all you’ve inspired me with your courage and amazed me with your grace, enduring life’s worst indignities. So many times last winter, I silently said goodbye, knowing it was over, only to be amazed later when we took your beloved dogs, Dallas and Jenna, for a walk.
My favorite golfing memory of all, with you, is when we took the clubs out one day just for some fresh air and just a bit of practice. I don’t know which I was more scared of that day–the thought of you dropping dead at the course or the thought of telling Sherri (Mike’s wife) you keeled over golfing.
Then there was that stunning moment when you dropped a ball at the 100-yard marker and shanked one into the bunker. It didn’t matter. You walked in, hit a textbook sand shot, and the ball rolled into the cup. As usual, you got that look of total amazement on your face, looked around to make sure I saw it, and fell right back into Mr. Nonchalant one more time. In that instant, all the pain and fear of the last year disappeared. It’d been too long since we laughed that hard.
The first time you told me you loved me I did what any normal guy would do. I ignored you. Guys don’t tell even their best friends they love each other–even when one of them is dying. That would be way too much of an Oprah moment. But “someday” was pounding on the door and, like many things, you figured it out long before I did.
I saw the stage adaptation of Tuesdays with Morrie recently. A journalist reconnects with his college mentor as the older man is dying. In one scene Morrie talks about holding his own funeral before he passes away so he’ll know what people think of him.
Then I wondered if you know what people really think of you. Or if you want to know.
So Mike, brace yourself…I’m going to tell you a few things now because I’m not sure I will have the courage to tell you later.
Sherri adores you. That woman is the rock who stood by you through more trials than most spouses can comprehend. You do, on occasion, annoy the bejeebers out of her, and will undoubtedly do so again. In spite of that, she has had the patience and sense of humor to put up with you for more than fifteen years. She’s going to be just fine. There’s going to be a lot of folks watching out for her.
Josh (Mike’s son) truly is a chip off the old block. He’s as opinionated and verbose as you are. He had the courage to fight his way into Baghdad and then came home to tell you about it. You were always there for him and now it’s time for you to let him be there for you. If one of the most important things a person can do is prepare their children to face life, you did good. With Josh you did really good.
You changed thousands of lives through your AIDS lectures. I’ve watched you drive yourself into the ground telling kids all across the country that if you’re going to have sex, it’s important you do it safely. Your legacy does not end in Milton. That’s where it began. Your words echoed through hundreds of high schools and have touched thousands of kids. Mike, you did good. Really good.
You told me once to never feel sorry for you. I guess my last tribute to you is to do just that. Not knowing what the next weeks and months, or please God, even years will bring, I refuse to feel sorry for you. We’ll still spend our Sundays watching golf and finding something to argue about. It’s what middle-aged pals do for each other when there’s nothing else left.
One last thing though, Mike.
I love you, too.
On the fifth anniversary of Mike’s death, Jerry says he’ll tee it up somewhere and think of nothing but the good times he shared with his best friend. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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