This post is a bit different to my usual content, and a bit longer too. For anyone just here for tech and dev stuff, please feel free to skip this one.
Four and a half years ago, on 19th March 2019, my best friend Mike passed away. He was 45 at the time, and today would’ve been his 50th birthday.
I’m quite a few years younger than Mike, and I remember when he had his 25th birthday at his uni bar, there was a fair bit of teasing about hitting the quarter century mark. 25 seems so young now - but it’s funny, today 45 seems somehow even younger.
I first met Mike through his younger brother Scott who I went to school with. Mike accompanied the two of us and another friend, Iain, to Live! 95, a consumer electronics show. This was the 90s, and gadgets were still cool, and there was still a huge margin between the kind of tech that vendors could show off at these shows and the kinds of things we could imagine having in our homes. It was an exciting day out, no question!
This was my first time meeting Mike, and my first introduction to his unique logic that, while not always evident to the rest of us, can’t be argued with. He was flat broke, struggling to pay his way as a student while working part-time, and insisted that no matter what happened, he couldn’t possibly spend any money at this event. This made sense, until he revealed that he’d brought £700 with him. When I asked why he’d brought that money if there was absolutely no way he could buy anything, he looked at me as if I’d just asked the stupidest question in the world, and said “in case I see something I can’t do without.” The “duh” was unspoken, but tangible.
This was also Mike’s first introduction to my unique nature. I was, to put it bluntly, a little shit, and there’s a strong case to be that I haven’t entirely outgrown that. I was 14 years old, and had one of those remote control watches that nerds loved (man, they really don’t make exciting gadgets like they used to). One of the exhibits at this show (I’m pretty sure it was Sanyo, but I could be wrong) had a tunnel of TV screens that you could walk through. This was back before plasma and LCD TVs, when “flat screen” meant minimal curvature on the glass, so these were CRTs mounted to a huge scaffold.
Naturally, after looking up the right code in the watch’s manual (which I had evidently brought with me, because this was before smartphones) and laboriously programming it into the watch, I kept sneaking through and, stealthily as possible, aiming in different directions and turning off the screens.
Now, I can look back and acknowledge 100% that this was a dick move, but apparently Mike thought this was hilarious - especially watching the baffled staff unsuccessfully trying to figure out what was wrong with their setup. So it seems the 14 year old little brat made a good impression!
The following week, Scott showed up at school with a carrier bag full of floppy disks that Mike had given him to pass on to me. I was an Amiga boy at the time, and Mike had recently moved on from Amiga to PC, which made me the lucky recipient of this treasure trove of games, cover disks, shareware, and public domain goodies.
It wasn’t long until the Amiga platform started showing early signs of it’s own pending tragic premature death, and I eventually, reluctantly, switched to PC as well. Again, this was the 1990s, and people that knew how to use a computer were still considered experts. Back then you had to know how to configure the BIOS, set the right IRQ for expansion cards, set the right DIP switches and jumpers…and of course you had to know how to configure all this in Windows too. Mike was running a side hustle fixing people’s computers, and I got him to help with mine.
It was during this time that I really got to know Mike. Initially I paid him to help me with my new PC, but before too long we were hanging out regularly, solving technical problems together, and playing video games and watching movies. Not to mention other creative pursuits that we were both interested in - although Mike was a naturally talented artist (as is his brother Scott, who has in fact made a career from it), and he has created many beautiful things over the years, whereas I have no artistic talent whatsoever, but managed to learn enough of the basic skills to do some drawing and animation for fun.
Mike was definitely the big man on campus - both figuratively and literally (he stood at a towering 6’5”). He used to introduce me to his uni friends as “my little mate Matt”, and as an outcast loser nerd, being his friend made me feel special. Of course, his “little mate” was an accurate description. We weren’t really friends - I was just some kid that used to come and hang out with him. But as I got older, and essentially started to grow up a bit more, we became closer.
Before too long Mike started feeling more like a big brother. I was an emotionally troubled teenager (I have some childhood trauma that I only started learning how to process in my late 30s, and will likely continue learning how to process for the rest of my life - as do we all no doubt), and Mike recognised and empathised with my struggles. It’s not my business to share his private history here, but he had a traumatic upbringing too - much more so than mine - and he wanted to support me and help me.
This drive - to support younger people and spare them the difficulties he had - drove him to pursue a career in teaching. Mike’s biggest dream was to make a difference. He wanted to give kids from backgrounds like his the support and opportunities that he was denied.
Like many of us, Mike had lots of dreams, but unlike most of us, he achieved every single one of them. He was not one to let anything hold him back, and never made excuses. And this dream - to make a difference - he achieved spectacularly. For confirmation, you need look no further than the outpouring of messages from former students when he died.
Mike actually encouraged me to pursue teaching too. I floundered for years after school - I didn’t have the clarity and drive that he had - but eventually got myself into university with a much more vague goal than Mike’s. Whereas he was absolutely clear on what he wanted to do, my motivation was simply to never have to work in retail, hospitality, or a call centre again. So when graduation started looming, and I had no idea what to do next, Mike and Lisa, his one day wife and also a teacher, encouraged me to pursue teaching. They repeatedly told me how wonderful it was, how rewarding, the holidays…they made it sound like a dream job. Of course, once I actually signed up for teacher training, they quickly switched to repeatedly telling me about the stress and low pay. As it happens, I ended up abandoning that career path for unrelated reasons.
During these years, my time at university, was when Mike and I became truly close. I think this was through a combination of two key factors. The first was that I was in my 20s now, and I think at a more relatable stage of life to Mike than just some kid. But also thanks to Lisa.
I mentioned Mike’s side hustle earlier, but he always had side hustles and schemes on the go, and not all of them in the pursuit of money. Possibly his greatest scheme ever was founding and coaching the girls’ basketball team at his university. While it looked great on his CV, there’s no question that he did it as a way to meet girls (not that this was something he ever had a problem with anyway). His greatest scheme, and the biggest payoff - Lisa was captain of the team, and Mike and Lisa eventually got married.
When I first met him, Mike was very hard-edged, and understandably. Not to say he wasn’t kind or compassionate - in fact, this kindness and compassion sparked the incident that forged our initial bond, I’ll get to that - but his experiences had made him wary to say the least. He’d come up through the school of hard knocks, and he’d learned to protect himself.
After he graduated uni, his life changed. One of his dreams - the dream of a stable career and home - was coming to fruition. Mike and Lisa moved into a small flat; not exactly the suburban dream home he had his sights set on (that would come later), but it was a far cry from where he had lived in his teens: rooms at the YMCA and, at times, on the streets. But it wasn’t just this change in his life circumstances, it was Lisa’s influence.
The first time I met Lisa was during basketball practice. I’d come to visit Mike at uni and got there just as he was wrapping up a game. He introduced me to the team, and Lisa was, to be honest, terrifying. She had fire in her eyes and a clearly visible competitive drive. I never got to see the team play, but from what I’ve heard, what I saw was accurate!
But off the court was a completely different story. Lisa is beyond any shadow of a doubt one of the kindest, most caring, most compassionate, and most empathetic people I have ever met. She puts all those around her first. She’s one of those people who, when you speak to her, you can tell is listening intently to every word you are saying. She’s as genuine as they come.
Lisa changed Mike. Over the years, Mike’s hard edges softened, and this changed my relationship with him too. We became true friends, and all of this led to one of the highest honours I’ve ever received in my life. Mike and Lisa asked me to be godfather to their firstborn son Chase.
I’ll never forget the day of the christening. Mike and Lisa, both Catholic, had explained to the priest that one of the godfathers (Lisa’s brother and father were godfathers too) would be Jewish. The priest gave a long speech about the spiritual responsibilities of a godparent, about how their role is to guide the child in the ways of Christ, and stared daggers at me for emphasis every few words. Well, fortunately I wasn’t struck by lightning as I entered the church, and my fingers didn’t sizzle when I dipped them in the font of holy water. As I reached over to draw the cross ✝️ on Chase’s forehead, I looked up and saw Mike’s shoulders shaking as he fought to contain his laughter - he was sure I was about to draw a Star of David ✡️. Of course I didn’t do this - I respected the honour that I had been given - but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t had the same thought too!
10 years later came another huge honour. Mike and Lisa got married, and asked me to be the best man. By this time I had moved to Australia, and this was actually my first trip back. The wedding was spectacular - not in a lavish, ostentatious way, but in the fun way you would expect no less of from Mike and Lisa. They had Han and Leia figurines on the wedding cake, and small Star Wars easter eggs peppered throughout the event. Chase and I were co-best-men, and Mike had ordered custom made lightsaber hilts for the three of us, which we wore hanging from our belts under our tuxedoes. Connor, their other son, was a baby, and therefore a little too young for best man duties, but you could tell he had as much fun at the wedding as everyone else!
In Jersey, Mike found the dream life he’d been chasing. It was a struggle at first - the four of them were living with Lisa’s parents, which was definitely a strain, but also brought them all so close together. Mike was already a part of the family; Lisa’s family are some of the most welcoming people I’ve ever met, and have always made me feel like a part of their family too (in fact, I’m sure if you asked them, they would say that they consider me family without a second thought). But this time certainly helped strengthen that bond.
Quite literally the last thing Mike ever did was to make John, Lisa’s dad, proud. On the day that he died, he was installing a wall-mounted TV bracket, and he’d placed a spirit level on top. He wanted to show John what a good job he’d done.
It’s been a relatively short time since then, only four and a half years. But it’s been such an eventful four and a half years, not just for the world (Mike checked out before COVID), but for me personally. I miss Mike every day, but some of the most important things have happened in my life in that time, and I wish he’d been around to see them. And of course to give me guidance; there are always days when I wish I had his advice on things.
There are so many more things that made Mike special. It would take another post several times the length of this to list them all, but there is one in particular that I’ve touched on earlier, one more story I have to share.
The area where we lived growing up had its share of rough elements. In particular, the neighbourhood where Mike grew up was a hotspot for a well-known racist, nationalist organisation; probably not the best for a mixed race guy like Mike, but fortunately, he’d managed to void any confrontations with these groups. That is, until I got him into one.
One day after school, Iain and I were hanging out at the local shopping centre. A group of lads from our school - one of whom happened to be the son of a prominent member of one of these groups - decided to start picking on us. I can’t blame them - like I said earlier, I was a little shit back then, and while I don’t condone their actions, I at least understand. Poor Iain was probably an innocent bystander.
Fortunately this didn’t escalate to any violence. We knew most of the staff at the store where Mike worked; he wasn’t there that day, but one of his colleagues let the two of us go out via the back. A few days later, possibly a week, we were at the shopping centre again. Mike was there, and we’d told him about what had happened, when this same group of lads showed up. As I mentioned, Mike was a big guy, and he put the fear of god into these kids.
Of course he didn’t physically harm them, but he loomed over them and made it clear that they weren’t to touch “his little mates”. I’ll never forget how grateful I was to Mike for standing up for us - something my father had never done when I got bullied as a small child - but this one, selfless act, nearly cost Mike his life.
The next day, the father of one of these boys, the one I mentioned earlier, turned up at the store with a group of thugs demanding that Mike be brought out. Thank whatever higher power may or may not exist that Mike was not working that day. There is absolutely no question that they would have killed him.
The next week was a horrifying blur. Demands at school for us to tell them where Mike lived, confirm whether he was Scott’s brother. Calls into the headmaster’s office, calls between the school and the store. Calls with Mike.
Eventually, Mike decided it was best to leave the country. He had some family in Canada and decided to go and stay with them and lay low for a while. I honestly can’t remember how it all eventually blew over. I guess the thugs lost interest. But I’ll always remember with crystal clarity Mike’s last words to me on the phone before he left.
“You take care of yourself, ok?”
It was said with such a sense of resignation, of finality. It seemed like Mike didn’t expect to survive. Immediately after that phone call I burst into tears.
I’ve never known such courage, such honour, in another human being. Mike was my brother, my best friend, and an absolute inspiration. And it all began in this one moment. I’ve barely scratched the surface here, but Mike saved me in so many ways, not just this one. He truly changed my life. He was the first person to inspire me to take accountability and responsibility, to rise above my circumstances, rather than to blame them.
Today he would have been 50 years old. He died too young, and it’s not fair that he was denied the privilege of growing old, and watching his kids grow up. It’s not fair that his kids were denied a father, Lisa a husband, and it’s not fair that the rest of the world was denied a good man.
Today, I’m remembering Mike. And I’m not mourning him, I’m thinking about how lucky I am to have had him in my life, and how privileged I am to have called him my friend. I sincerely hope I can honour his legacy by living up to the example he set. With any opportunity, I will tell people about Mike, and try to keep his influence rippling out into the world.
Happy birthday, big brother. I miss you.