Mike Chielens died last Saturday. The many online comments on his obituary noted his love of baseball, beer, and rock and roll. Chielens was director of Legal Aid of Western Michigan, and the comments also spoke of his kindness, his fight for the underdog, his respect for everyone. But I knew Chielens when he was a brand-new legal aid lawyer at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid - JALA. He was a laughing elf of a man, a tiny guy with a huge heart, round face, red hair, freckles.
Chielens loved to flirt. Though he looked like Howdy Doody, with a little boy’s physique, his charm and intensity could bowl women over. But he was loyal to his fiancée in Michigan, and whenever Van Morrison sang Brown Eyed Girl, Chielens talked about Jan, a warning to us to keep a safe distance.
Mike Chielens and Mike Milito shared an apartment. They were fun-loving wild men, smart, determined, and fierce for justice. I knew them when we were young, when all of us were young, a gang of northerners with law degrees who descended on Jacksonville to be turned into lawyers under the leadership of two slightly older Harvard Law graduates.
Jacksonville was a blue-collar city, with a large poor black population, a large poor white population, some uppercrust southerners and a whole lot of insurance executives. Lefty lawyers had trouble finding friends outside legal aid, so we became a close-knit group, living in little bungalows in Riverside, near downtown. Some of us lived at Jacksonville Beach, and kept open house on weekends.
When we first came to Jacksonville, my five-year-old son Eric and I stayed with Sara until I found a place, an upstairs apartment with no air-conditioning, but well shaded by thick pine trees. Later, when I was no longer a VISTA volunteer making three thousand a year but a staff attorney making ten, I moved to a house, and new arrivals would stay with us.
On Saturday mornings I’d start my laundry in the laundromat on King Street and Eric and I would walk to visit one friend or another while the clothes dried. Julie and Graddy kept M&M’s on the back of their toilet to encourage their toddler to get up in the night to pee. Sue and Max always had coffee aging in a percolator.
In the evenings we often gathered at my house so I wouldn’t need a babysitter. I cooked dinner, Jim brought his guitar, and we sang harmony. I had serial crushes on most of the guys, but generally avoided fishing off the company pier, and instead paired up with quite unsuitable men whom I found elsewhere.
My family came down for Thanksgiving, and legal aid friends joined us. My father was impressed that fourteen people could be so jolly on only two bottles of wine. He didn’t notice some of us sneaking off to the back of the house to smoke dope.
One day our program director came into my office and found me crying. I had discovered that Eric’s after school care was atrocious, and didn’t know where to turn. That night, Paul’s wife Shirley called and said Eric could come to her house after school - she had four daughters from elementary to high school. They lived two blocks from me, and two blocks from Eric’s school.
Shirley and I decided to train for the first Jacksonville River Run, so every morning she knocked on my door at 6:30, and we ran through Riverside and Avondale, on past the huge oaks and houses of Ortega. After the River Run, I drove to the beach and joined a party that lasted well into the night.
LIZ AND SHIRLEY IN THE FIRST JACKSONVILLE RIVER RUN
I stayed at Jacksonville five years before I moved to Gainesville. One by one, my friends left JALA for Atlanta, Grand Rapids, Providence, DC, Los Angeles. Most of us stayed connected to poverty law in one way or another.
At every time and place of my life, except one desperately lonely year in Montreal, I have had a group of friends. Happily, in every group there is always one who keeps us all connected after we move on. For the JALA gang it’s Marie, who writes long, chatty Christmas letters, who organized two reunions in Florida, who made an email list of old JALA comrades and told us when first Mike Milito, and then Mike Chielens got terrible cancers.
MARIE (far right) ORGANIZED REUNIONS
Milito and his wife Judy went on Caring Bridge, where we could read the step by step horrors of his treatment, and finally, thank God, his slow recovery. Chielens didn’t use Caring Bridge, but Jan sent emails and Marie forwarded them to us.
Mike and Jan put themselves through torture, with the hope that they would have many years on the other side They didn’t; his condition grew worse and worse and after about a year of hell, Chielens died. I got the news from Marie, and cried and cried. It was Marie who sent flowers in all our names, with Dylan lyrics - ‘May you stay forever young.’ And Marie who said, 'don’t pay me for the flowers,' and organized a group contribution to Western Michigan Legal Aid.
I hadn’t seen Chielens in over thirty years, and only kept up with him second-hand. But I grieve for him, and for that time, for that community of young people happily misspending our youths together. We played hard, but we also worked hard, certain that our cause was just, hopeful that we could change at least one little corner of the world.
I have reached an age where my friends and famiy will be dying, unless I go first. Many of my friends have survived cancer, some are battling it now. I write this in Miami Beach, where we have come for the unveiling of my late brother-in-law’s tombstone. Adam died suddenly, a few weeks after his fiftieth birthday celebration.
Thinking of my own death doesn’t dismay me much, though I hope to hang around long enough to launch Amanda and see her land on her feet, and it would be nice to see my books published and acclaimed before I go. But losing my family, losing my friends - that’s very hard.
Young people see old age as boring, or at best, peaceful. They think all the excitement and adventures are theirs. But facing all this loss, facing my own mortality, this is a profound, if difficult, adventure.
Here's to Chielens. Here’s to all the friends I have lost touch with, and all the friends I will someday lose.
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