Saturday, February 22, 2014

Michael Palmer. Any Age is Far Too Young

For years I'd entertained the fantasy of crossing the Colorado state line from wherever I happened to be, with the windows rolled all the way down and Rocky Mountain High blasting on the stereo. It was going to be my fanfare, like the opening bars of the Star Wars theme or Superman, announcing to the world I was home at last. 

On a warm Indian Summer day in October, 1997, I did that very thing, driving my Ford pickup truck across the invisible boundary between Wyoming and Colorado, leaving the East Coast behind, little knowing in a few years I'd find myself on the same highway, retracing the miles back. Also little knowing that in forty eight hours, I'd be awakened by a story on NPR's Morning Edition with news I never wanted to hear. John Denver had been killed in a plane crash. I felt like I'd crashed with him. 

It was the same autumn I met author Michael Palmer in print. Michael and I never met in the same way John and I had, but we corresponded briefly, discovering how our experiences dovetailed by email. He'd been involved in the Massachusetts Physician's Health Program, working with physicians, like himself, whose lives had been affected by psychiatric illness and/or substance abuse. As a psychotherapist, prior to medical school, I also worked with doctors enrolled in the Colorado Physician's Health Program. Michael was in recovery, as he revealed years earlier, and I was attempting to recover a life I'd never known. Michael was a writer, I was trying to become one, and he offered me generous encouragement.

I found his books while prowling the Boulder Public Library, looking to feed a growing interest in medical fiction. At the time, I wasn't convinced it was even remotely possible to include medical school in my future, though I wanted to, quite badly. Reading about medicine was becoming a kind of therapy, much as writing had been for Michael, and his books helped overcome my fear that, not only had I missed the bus marked "medical school," it was gone for good. I had yet to learn there is no optimal time for going after what matters most to us, there's only now and what we do with it.

Michael was my companion during the months preceding premed coursework, when I hung onto to the ridiculous fantasy that a doctorate in clinical psychology would be enough. He helped me face the inevitable truth that nothing would ever substitute for my becoming a psychiatrist and I'd best get on with it. I learned from him how recovering a life is just as grueling and just as rewarding as what he'd gone through himself.

I'm glad I shared some of these things with him, especially now. We never know how tenuous life is, not really. We go through the daily grind with the unconscious assumption time is on our side. We do this a lot when we're younger or at least I did. We think only older people die, whatever "older" means, and if it happens to a peer, unless we know them personally, we conveniently overlook the obvious fact it could easily have been us, had the cosmic tumblers turned up our numbers instead of theirs.

The reason I'm glad I shared those things with Michael is this afternoon I learned he passed away, quite suddenly, a few months ago. He'd been in Africa, on safari, and had barely gotten back to the States when he experienced a heart attack. I can't help but think how appropriate it was for him to have been on safari; for reasons I don't quite fathom, I've always associated him with Hemingway. Michael was 71 and far too young. I feel certain he would agree, any age is far too young.

(Obituaries for Michael Palmer, MD, may be found here: New York Times and Boston Globe. Michael's final novel, Resistant, can be accessed via

(Creative Commons image by cdrummbks via Flickr)

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