He was frequently the first person who called to wish me a happy Mother’s Day. Now, I’m not sentimental about Mother’s Day, but he was. I appreciated his calls all the more because he had no biological obligation to me: he did what he did only out of the goodness of his heart. Mischa (Michael) Wecher was Andrew’s maternal cousin, his mother’s sister’s son, and an elder brother to us all.
I hate having to use “was” to describe someone who was such a life force. On Wednesday, May 4th, I received a tearful phone call from Andrew’s sister Eve, who had just flown out to Oregon with her brother Dan, with the sad news that Mischa had just passed away. They had got there less than two days before, and it was almost as if he had been waiting for them to arrive before he took his leave, just a couple of weeks short of his 68th birthday.
I first met him when I was just 17, when he spent a year in Andrew’s family’s uninsulated cabin on the banks of White Pond in Concord with his lifelong friend Bob Parker. At the end, in Coos Bay, Mischa waited for Bob, too, and breathed his last only after Bob had left to return to Los Angeles. But that winter of 1972, they kept warm with cheap Ripple wine and by coming to my college dorm during the coldest spells, when the preppies gaped at their tattoos, biker gear, and Mischa’s expansive presence. For he was well over six feet tall and was not one to tone himself down for anyone. No doubt he got a kick out of the wide-eyed Cliffies, and played up the role of the stereotypical biker to watch their reactions. Mischa invented the fast-and-furious game of Gnip Gnop at my dorm: it was played with ping-pong paddles and ball over a ping-pong table, but although the ball had to be kept in the area over the table, it was not allowed to touch down on it.
That was also the year when Mischa introduced Andrew and me to John Prine. He was on tour to promote his first album, and was giving a now-legendary performance at Passim’s in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After listening to the young postman and Vietnam Vet-turned singer-songwriter-poet introduce and sing all the songs on the album and then some, starting with the iconic Spanish Pipedream, I was a fan for life. Since that day I must have seen John Prine half a dozen times, and know almost all his lyrics by heart. The New York Times was calling him “the working-class Bob Dylan,” and they were half-right in terms of his genius, but John Prine can’t be compared to anyone else. Neither can Cousin Mischa.
The chorus of Spanish Pipedream goes:
Blow up your TV, throw away your papers
Go into the country, build you a home
Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches
Try and find Jesus, on your own.
In his own way‑and he did everything in his own way‑Mischa might have adopted this song as the anthem of his life. Home and family meant everything to him, especially his beloved daughters, Jessie and Michelle. He was a fiercely protective father and would move heaven and earth for them. He did just about everything himself, letting nothing and no one dictate his beliefs and behavior. For several years when his daughters were small, he moved the family to the wilds of Northern California and panned for gold. He made homes in New York (Brooklyn; Massapequa, Long Island), Concord, Massachusetts; Washington State; California (Redondo Beach, San Diego), Phoenix, Arizona; and, in what was to be the last year of his life, in Coos Bay, Oregon, where he realized his dream of living by the water, buying a boat, and fishing as his father had done before him.
In every home of his, he threw himself into building and remodeling, building a garage single-handedly, putting in a pool, creating a desert rock garden in Phoenix, completely renovating the house in San Diego that he inherited from his brother Richard before selling it and moving with Debbie to Coos Bay. On his Google+ profile he listed himself as “Bum,” but he was one of the most hard-working people I have ever known.
Mischa was larger than life in every way, not just in terms of energy and physical size; he was also big-hearted and the soul of generosity. Like all of Andrew’s family, he celebrated the Ukrainian Orthodox Easter and Christmas, and never failed to call in whenever we gathered for those occasions, talking to each of us in turn as we passed the phone round the dinner table. When he came to visit he would cook for us, shopping in bulk at Costco and preparing about three times the quantity that anyone could be expected to consume in one sitting. On every visit Back East he helped complete projects around the house; thanks to him, our bathroom floor is beautifully tiled.
Also thanks to Mischa, we have a small glass-stoppered bottle of his younger brother and our cousin Richard’s ashes on the shelf in our living room, next to the Russian icons, the statues of Ganapati, and Nikhil’s school photos and sports trophies. After dear Richard’s untimely death a few years ago, Mischa rode his Harley across the country with Bob as he had many times before, this time carrying his brother‘s ashes with him everywhere he went, even to the table at restaurants, before bearing them to the cemetery and his family’s plot. But he left some of them behind with Andrew, and perhaps with others along the way.
Mischa had more than his share of health problems over the past decade, undergoing several surgeries and forced to take heavy-duty meds, but his zest for life was undiminished. He decided to have two hip replacements, and in close succession so that he wouldn’t be long out of action. While grounded, he threw himself into a new project, making striking, intricately carved walking sticks, each one worthy of Gandalf himself. He insisted that the hospital return one of his hip joints to him, and embedded the ball in his personal walking stick like a royal sceptre. And when he was given the green light to walk free, he went right out and bought jet skis to test-drive his new hips in.
As a strict rationalist, Andrew’s father Ted is liable to scoff at anything that hasn’t been scientifically proven. Mischa always saw it as his personal mission to get Ted’s goat, and Ted usually obliged by rising to the bait. On this one particular occasion, though, he outdid himself.
Mischa was planning another cross-country road trip but didn’t reveal his plans to his uncle. Instead, he mentioned to him on the phone that he’d heard about a new device, like a Star Trek transporter, that actually made it possible to teleport oneself across long distances. Ted just switched his mind off as he tended to do when Mischa was talking nonsense, as he saw it, but he was playing right into his nephew’s hands. When he arrived at our house, Mischa called his uncle as if he were still in California, and again brought up the story. “Ted, remember that teleporting device I told you about? Well, I’m going to test it out right now.” And such were his persuasive powers that he pulled it off! He materialized in Ted’s kitchen, tiptoeing over from our house next door with the cell phone to his ear, and, for a few minutes, rattled even a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic like my father-in-law.
He delighted in getting a rise out of all of us, ruffling our East-Coast-liberal feathers with his forwarded emails and jokes that we often considered off-color, offensive, or downright wrong. But they were part of the total package, and because it was coming from someone we loved, we were forced to confront this point of view, much as Ted was forced to consider the possibility of something he considered unscientific in the extreme.
Mischa is responsible for so many high points in my life. He got us into Disneyland on special passes when Nikhil was four; took us to Pete Seeger’s Clearwater Festival on the banks of the Hudson River in New York State; drove us to the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona, at whose legendary vortex the earth is said to be exceptionally alive with energy; and when, on a cross-country trip at age 18 I had the worst sunburn ever or since, he gave up his king-sized air bed to me, where I was rocked to sleep like the first created being on the floating islands of Perelandra. And, of course, he introduced me to the music of John Prine.
I can’t wrap my head around the idea that Mischa has gone. He was always calling in and reminding us that we had family who cared about us, and we took it for granted that he would keep on doing so. Even when he was ill he kept on calling, and making light of the round after round of chemotherapy that he was enduring. Eventually Debbie contacted us and told us that he was not doing well, and Eve and Dan made the trip out to the Northwest, where Andrew had traveled with him less than a year ago to help him move. I wanted to go, and told him so, but never made it. I wanted to tell him how much we all loved him and how much of him would forever be part of us, but now I can’t do that, except in spirit.
Give my feet to the footloose
Careless, fancy free
Give my knees to the needy
Don’t pull that stuff on me
Hand me down my walking cane
It’s a sin to tell a lie
Send my mouth way down south
And kiss my ass goodbye.
But please don’t bury me
Down in that cold cold ground
No, I’d druther have ’em cut me up
And pass me all around
Throw my brain in a hurricane
And the blind can have my eyes
And the deaf can take both of my ears
If they don’t mind the size.
When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam,
I’ll be halfway to heaven with Paradise waitin’,
Just five miles away from wherever I am.
Love you, Mischa. Let your spirit soar.