Mike Eshelman was my best friend, and he was probably the smartest kid I've ever known. I don't know what kind of scale they judge the SAT on now, but in 1995, when it was based on a scale of 1600, Mike scored 1440, he only took it once, and he probably wasn't trying all that hard. Intelligence has a funny way of manifesting itself in certain people, and Mike was no exception. He had a way of being the smartest guy in the room, and yet, he never once made anyone feel stupid. In fact, he usually was willing to help out whoever he could with his vast intellect.
Case in point: Mike took Calculus as a sophomore in high school, and one of his senior varsity soccer teammates was in his class, and this kid (who we'll call Kyle, to protect his identity) was usually on the verge of being ineligible to play, specifically because of this Calculus class. By the second or third week of class, Mike had figured out that he was setting the curve by light years. By the fourth week of class, Mike had adopted the following strategy in order to keep Kyle on the soccer field: he would take the quizzes and tests all the way through, and then he would go back to the beginning and change some of his answers to wrong ones, also making all of the necessary changes so that his work looked like he was coming to the wrong conclusions by accident. Mike still maintained the highest grade in the class, and Kyle stayed on the soccer field.
Mike was known as being a relatively quiet blonde kid, but you'd never know it if you got him started on something he was interested in. He spent a lot of time just looking around and sizing things up. He would get this smirk on his face when we were at parties in high school--he didn't start drinking until college by choice, so he was my designated driver on the rare occasions that I drank--he would get this look on his face, and I could just tell that his brain was moving at a thousand miles an hour. The 1440 earned him status as one of three National Merit Scholars in our grade, which, as we all know, is a definitive benchmark of maturity and respectability.
So, it came to be that it was a National Merit Scholar who would hide my car because one of the doors on it didn't lock and you didn't need a key to start it. When I would call his house to ask where my car was, it was a National Merit Scholar laughing his balls off in the background while I talked to his mom. It was a National Merit Scholar that would invite me over to watch Don Cherry's Rock 'em Sock 'em Hockey, a Canadian videotape collection of the best hockey fights of the 1980's. In the summer, I played golf with a National Merit Scholar, where the only rule was that the golf cart couldn't stop moving. To earn our Senior Service hours, we taught third grade Sunday School, where a National Merit Scholar and I would blatantly lie to 9-year-olds, that the book on the shelf was, instead of the Disciple Book, the Discipline Book, and if they screwed with us, we would write their names down in that book and show it to their parents.
It was a National Merit Scholar that taught me how to play Beer Pong. When we were living in Denver and I almost shattered my tailbone on the Bunny Hill at Keystone trying to learn how to snowboard, it was a National Merit Scholar defending my honor to the laughing nine-year-olds on the chairlift, who were trying to spit on me. I created a game called "Hot Tub Bottles" in Texas with a National Merit Scholar that involved holding a beer bottle, upside-down, on the floor of the hot tub, and the bottle that hit the surface first was the winner. Believe me, this seemed ingenious at the time. A National Merit Scholar wouldn't stop writing my cellphone number down on the bar tab whenever the waitress was hot. And it was a National Merit Scholar that I got into a drunken wrestling match with, in the snow, behind the Old Hole in Glendale, Colorado, while we were both wearing pajamas on New Year's Eve of 2002.
Mike went into the hospital a few years ago when he woke up one morning and had trouble walking. While the doctors initially thought that he had bruised his spleen playing intramural hockey, an MRI revealed a fast-growing tumor in his lower back right next to his spinal cord. When they took the tumor out in surgery a couple of days later, they had, out of necessity, taken his spinal cord with it, and Mike was paralyzed from the waist down. Mike, in addition to being the most intelligent person I have ever known, was also the most stubborn, and he put his head down and fought his way through chemo and radiation treatment for what probably seemed like an eternity, before it went into a brief remission.
Mike learned how to get around unaided, driving with his hands, and succeeded in being completely self-sufficient despite his disability, and returned to work as the Vice President of the retirement community developer that he made a lot of money for. He always made the best of his situation. He actually called me last Halloween; he was going to a party and, me being a comic book geek, he wanted to ask me what Professor X from the X-men looked like, besides being bald, because he needed a costume. Mike drove across the country, from Denver to Pennsylvania for a wedding, by himself, stopping in Columbus to hang out at my brother's house. Again, Mike was extremely stubborn; in fact, he drove because he said that getting on and off of airplanes was a huge pain in the ass.
I called Mike the week of my 30th birthday to tell him that my girlfriend had bought me tickets to Las Vegas, even though I knew that he and I had always said, that if I ever went to Vegas, I was going to go with him. I felt like I was cheating on him; in fact, I felt a little less guilty when I called him the day of, and he told me that he and Mish were at The Hole in Denver getting hammered, and that he wished me a Happy Birthday. Little did I know that he was on his cellphone at the Sports Book at Caesar's Palace, and when he, his brother, and his posse showed up to surprise me at the Hyakumi Sushi restaurant inside Caesar's, I was dumbfounded, ecstatic, and impressed at the same time, that he was such a good liar under such a heavy influence of vodka tonics.
Despite my initial resistance, Mike picked up the tab for my 30th birthday dinner. To paint a picture, this was eleven people, about twenty-odd pounds of sushi, and drinks for everyone. The tab was over $750 without the tip. Now, I know that Mike did very well for himself at work, but I felt extremely guilty about letting him do this. At least, I felt extremely guilty for it for about the hour and a half it took him to win his money back, threefold, at the Blackjack tables at the Bellagio. Afterwards, he made a joke about playing on the tables with the eight-deck shoes, because he "didn't trust" the automatic card shufflers. I laughed, but I still don't think he kidding.
The last time that I really spoke in person with Mike, it was at Caesar's, and it was in the suite he was staying in. We were at least twenty floors up, the windows were gigantic, we were drinking the surprisingly tasty combination of 7UP and Crown Royal, and we had a direct view of the fountain in front of the Bellagio. I told him how much it meant to me that he was there, especially because I know how much he hated planes, and he told me that he wouldn't have missed it. He said the same thing then that he said every time I visited him in Colorado, the same thing that he said when I went in to see him in his hospital bed the first time; that being sick sucked, and that he could go in ten years or ten days, but that the present was what mattered, and the fact that we were there, in the here and now, together, was what mattered most.
Mike called me weeks ago to tell me that the doctors had found spots on his spinal cord, inside of his neck, and that he would be going through treatment again. After we agreed that, since he had kicked cancer's ass before, he would do it again, we resumed our usual conversation about what was currently happening in our lives, specifically, my state of unemployment and his continually recurring dreams about rap battles with Snoop Dogg and finding himself in the body of Burt Reynolds during Smokey and the Bandit. Mike stopped returning my phone calls about three weeks ago, and I called Ryan, his brother, to check up on what was happening. Ryan said that I wasn't the only one that wasn't getting phone calls back, but that Mike was very sick, and he would keep me posted on what was going on. The next phone call I would get from Ryan was to tell me that the cancer had moved in and settled in all around Mike's brain. Chemo and radiation treatment could no longer combat it, and, three weeks ago, Mike was moved into a hospice facility in Denver, and that the doctors had removed his IVs and were trying to make him as comfortable as possible.
While Ryan never directly told me not to fly out to Denver on Friday, he told me that the cancer had affected Mike's brain to the point of his nearly being non-responsive to his surroundings, lapsing in and out of a blank stare. Ryan said that his brother just wasn't there anymore. I thought about how, when I had gone out to visit him, even though he was happy to see me, I could tell that he hated me seeing him when he was really sick. I decided that, even if he were still in there, he wouldn't want me to see him weak; in fact, due to his stubborn sense of pride, it would have probably just pissed him off. I know that he would want me to remember him, strong and happy and independent and hilarious, and up over two grand at the Blackjack tables in one night, not even counting what he won at the Sports Book, in that suite at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas.
Michael Robert Eshelman died August 7th, 2008, 31 days short of his 30th birthday. Cancer took his vigor, his natural mobility, and finally, albeit briefly, his incredible intellect, before it took his life. But cancer never took his courage, his determination, or his optimism. Nothing could possibly stand up to his unbending will without killing him. Mike Eshelman is the bravest man I have ever known, and I loved him like a brother.
If there is any justice in this world, I'd like to think that when I go, Mike will be waiting for me with a bottle of vodka and a deck of cards. We will play that same stupid card game for an eternity, and he'll still count cards. I will never win. And I won't care.