Last May, my wife and I took a trip up to Idaho to visit my parents, attend our nephew’s high school graduation, and also to visit my Uncle Mike for probably the last time. There’s a statue on display in my Uncle Mike’s living room, just to the left of their TV. It’s the “End of the Trail” statue by artist James Earle Fraser, and you’ve probably seen it before, “Seated upon a windblown horse, Fraser’s figure slumps over despondently, embodying the physical exhaustion and suffering of a people forcefully driven to the end of the trail.”
While the statue was created to symbolize the effects of the Euro-American settlers upon the Native Americans, the statue took on a completely different meaning, as I watched my uncle shuffle around his kitchen and living room. The Harley-Davidson riding, fully tattooed, gruff, and muscular uncle that I had always known, was now frail, low on energy, and exhausted.
As he shuffled around the house in overalls that seemed to hang from him – which he said were from many years ago when he was skinnier – and slippers, it was difficult not to focus on what cancer had done to him, yet the essence of him was still intact. He spent the afternoon struggling to move around, but was quick as ever when it came to throwing sarcastic jabs at us, in-between his 5-10 minute naps in his armchair. Whenever someone would throw one back his way, he’d just look at them and say, rather quietly, “Whatever, dude!”
Michael Thurston’s trail began on October 9, 1952, in Tacoma, Washington. Right away, he was a hell raiser, goofing around and getting in trouble during his school years. One of my favorite stories of his infamous escapades was one time in high school, he and some buddies carried a faculty member’s Volkswagen Beetle up to the school roof. After high school, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, graduating from USMCRD in 1970.
Uncle Mike made a lot of bad decisions and he ended up spending a good chunk of my early childhood in and out of jail, but my favorite memory of him is from when he was released from San Quentin and was living with my Grandma T, when my mom and I went to spent the night with them. While my mom and grandma talked about who knows what, Uncle Mike and I went to a nearby store, bought a model jet fighter plane, and came home. We sat in his room building the model, watching the World Series (the Blue Jays were in it that year) and talked baseball and motorcycles. Uncle Mike was one of the few people who talked to us kids like we were equals – like we weren’t just little kids. When we talked, he would listen. Not just listen so we’d eventually shut up and go away, but he’d actually look you in the face and listen. When he spoke to you, you listened, usually because he would say things that your parents wouldn’t want him to, which is part of the reason us kids loved him so much.
In 2003, he married Cindy and in 2006, they moved to Caldwell, Idaho, a short drive from where my parents were living. Uncle Mike busted his ass all day, every day, and really took a loving to barbecuing and cooking for people. He saw how food made people happy and it gave him something new to focus on as his retirement approached. He looked forward to spending his days with his son and grandchildren, barbecuing, riding motorcycles, fishing, and relaxing. Even with cancer ravaging his once-strong body, he took pride in cooking up racks of ribs, beans, and an assortment of other things on the last remaining BBQs and smokers that he hadn’t preemptively sold off, so that my aunt wouldn’t have to do it when he was gone.
He lived life on his terms and in his own way and I always respected him for how he dealt with the ups and downs in life. He was a straight-shooter who expected the same from those around him. In 1996, Uncle Mike made the choice to get clean and sober and to finally kick the addictions that plagued him most of his teenage and adult life. Even when dealing with the debilitating pain of his cancers, he wouldn’t allow himself to use medical marijuana, because of a promise he had made decades ago:
“Spent most of my life doing this thing called life alone, my choice and the results of my actions so there’s no one to blame but myself. It took a long time for me to get my act squared away and I lost so much time with the family. Some times I wish I could just wave a wand and go back and change things but it’s all those learning lessons that made me who I am today. Kept my Momma on her knees for 30+ years hoping I’d wake up and straighten out. Thank God it happened in her life time. Made a promise to my Mom back in 96 when I got clean and sober that I wouldn’t go back to the lifestyle I’d come from that I’d die clean and sober. She got to see me for the last 17 years of her life happy and productive and I think she was proud of me when she passed two years back. People keep telling me to use pot to help with the cancer, that it will help me eat and help the pain and they’re probably right. I’m no moral giant and believe if it helps you I’m happy, I don’t and won’t for one simple reason, when I get to heaven and look my Momma in the eyes there’ll be at least one promise I’ll have made to her and kept and that’s important to me…cancer took her almost two years ago and she didn’t need it to help her, so if it was good enough for Momma it’s good enough for me.” – Uncle Mike, May 7, 2015
That’s the man I know as my uncle. Not the troublemaker teen or the young man who made stupid mistakes, but the man who found the good in every situation (“My first night in Quentin they served liver and onions for dinner and I thought, ‘Hell, this ain’t so bad!’“), especially in his clean and sober years where he worked to help other struggling addicts get in touch with sponsors who could help them on their path to sobriety.
Cancer is ruthless and it tries to take a person’s dignity and personality – the very essence of who they are. Every day that passed presented new obstacles for may aunt and uncle. Uncontrollable hiccups from his throat muscles failing. Confusion. Sleeping all day. Lack of control over his fingers when he tried to type updates on Facebook which he always started with, “Hi De Ho.”
Even at the end of his trail, Uncle Mike was a tough son of a bitch and right now, I hope he’s dancing the jitterbug with Grandma T up in Heaven somewhere. We may not have had the closest relationship, but he was my uncle and I loved him.