So Special

A Reflection

The following is my eulogy at Michael's Zoom funeral service: You can also link to a video I made in Michael's honor.

Michael Steven Billig 1956-2021

“Sit by my side, come as close as the air, share in these memories of gray

And wander in my words, and dream about the pictures that I play in changes”

     — Phil Ochs

That's the Phil Och's song, “Changes.” You may or may not have noticed that I included the song in the video I made in Michael's honor. Phil Ochs was one of Michael's early heroes and a protest singer in the 1960s whose sister, Sonia, happened to be Michael's teacher growing up in Rockaway, a beachy part of Queens. Och's sister gave Michael her brother's hand-written chords and lyrics written in chicken scratch. Michael gifted half of them to me, just because he could be generous like that. Many years later, we donated the songs in Michael's name to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

As far as the song “Changes” goes, Michael and I played that song together at least 100 times in our lives and when I finished the video, I didn't really know what to do with myself, so I just went over to the couch, picked up my guitar, and just started playing the chords over and over again for about 15 minutes, thinking what a god damn tragedy that we won't get to play it together ever again.

I picked “Changes” for the video because it was Michael's absolute favorite song to play on guitar. We started playing guitar together when we were both teenagers and I couldn't even come close to singing that song, or most any other song, as beautifully as Michael could. He had a beautiful singing voice; in case you didn't know that about him. He certainly didn't get that voice from his father, Arnie, who had a deep baritone and loved to sing the Father part in the Cat Stevens song, “Father and Son.” Some of you know experienced it first hand.

I could literally spend a few hours spinning stories about the guitar, sports, hitchhiking adventures, Cousin Club weekends—especially the early years, before we got caught up in romance, college, our daughters, and all kinds of other adult responsibilities and commitments. And his sisters, Ronda and Melinda, could spin their own endless stories. They honor me by allowing me to speak for the three of us and our generation, so a huge thank you to them. I can tell you with complete certainty that both loved their little brother dearly; there was never any doubt about that.

I talked to both Ronda and Melinda before putting this eulogy together so it would reflect all of our thoughts. Melinda sent me some of her thoughts in writing, and if you would like to see that, please contact her and I'm sure she would be glad to share them with you over email.

Both Michael's sisters recalled that Michael was so ticklish that if you looked at him like you were even thinking about tickling him, he would run the other way. I used tickling against him our whole lives, as recently as the last time I saw him. It was my secret weapon.

Melinda asked me to point out that Michael was—as you could see for yourself from the video—quite a cute baby and then a handsome child. Early on, she nicknamed him Ugly to keep him humble. Melinda's three daughters knew him as Uncle Ugly, which opened the door for payback, which he was quite good at.

Michael was a gifted fencer and was able to afford to attend Columbia because they recruited him and helped him pay the expensive Ivy League tuition. I remember traveling to the Naval Academy in Annapolis and seeing Michael compete and knew that if I tickled him too much, well, he might pull out his saber and finish me off. I used to tell him that in his mask, tights, and armor, he was quite swashbuckling, like a Jewish Zorro.

Michael was much like his father Arnie, who he very much looked like and who we lost tragically to a heart attack, also way too young. In Michael's eulogy about his dad, he wrote: “The memory of that kind, gentle man will live on in more than just our individual and collective minds. For we—my sisters and I and our children—are him. When we are smart or funny or generous or kind or outspoken—we are him. And it is actually liberating to realize that he lives on in us.” Michael's words about his own father ring so true regarding his impact on his own children and everyone he touched.

Michael didn't inherit his father's love for swimming or water sports. But he did inherit his father's love for baseball and was a pretty good second basemen. I know, because we fielded hundreds of ground balls together whenever he came to visit my family in New Jersey. Later, as many as of you know, he became a devoted Phillies fan, even going so far as to listen to games on the radio when they weren't on TV.

And I need to mention that fitness was something Michael focused on his whole life. Did you know he once ran a 5-minute mile? When Michael told us he had been diagnosed with leukemia the first time, part of the shock for me was that Michael ran 8 to 10 miles every other day and was in tremendous physical condition. After Michael got through that his first transplant, he was told by his doctors to cool it a bit—and he turned to race walking, and he made that a priority for the rest of his life. You did not want to get in the way of Michael's plans to race walk, I can tell you that.

In the video we just played, I opened by listing many of the things that defined Michael, and I won't repeat them here. Michael may have changed his major 7 times and had lifelong passions for all those things I listed, but there were so many things that I didn't list. Michael loved squash, for example, and every week during the academic year when he was at Columbia, I would drive to campus and we'd play squash.

And then there was sailing. When Michael was in graduate school at Harvard and he and Nina were living in Cambridge with newborn Shira, I'd often drive up from Jersey and Michael had a new passion: sailing. He would take me sailing on the Charles and seemed to know everything about it and was completely confident. And of course, Michael came to fishing later in life and became quite accomplished at it. He even got me to fish, which I consider a minor miracle, and I actually enjoyed it and was so looking forward to doing it again. So, Michael may not have inherited Arnie's love for swimming, but he certainly gravitated towards doing many other things in or near the water.

Ronda and Melinda also reminded me that Michael showed early signs of enormous intelligence when—at 5 years old— he was able to recite, in order, every U.S. President. I found it very irritating, though, because I was a year old and still struggling with my ABCs, so he wasn't making me look good. In fact, he made me and all his cousins look bad when it came to brainpower.

Here's another little-known story about Michael as a Whiz kid: Around 10 or 11 years old, he did a report on the man James Cash Penney—you know the guy who founded the mega department store chain better known as JC Penny. Well, we had an older cousin David who worked as a junior executive for the company, and the cousin somehow got the report in front of Mr. Penny. JC was so impressed that a limo was sent for Michael and he was taken to the midtown Manhattan headquarters for an audience with the famous entrepreneur. Knowing Michael, he probably asked JC for “a penny for his thoughts,” the first among a lifetime of questionable puns.

The Whiz Kid struck again when we were teens and Michael and I worked as dishwashers at a camp for emotionally challenged teenagers in Monticello, NY. Michael was 16 and I was 17. (Many of his Rockaway chums worked there as well: Mark Fry and Bruce Levine were two I remember. Back home in Rockaway were his buddies Stuey Nussbaum and Steve Shapiro. He loved them and tried to stay in touch with them all his life.) But the point I want to make is that I worked at this camp again when I was 21, this time as a counselor. And guess who was my boss? Michael the Whiz Kid, who went from dishwasher to camp director in just three summers. I mean, who does that?

So Michael was already on his way to being a high achiever, but as intense and as laser focused as he could get about lots of stuff, the professor with the Ph.D. from Harvard also had a spirited, playful side and unleashed goofy nicknames and corny puns on all of us. But he especially pointed his big imagination at young people, especially his daughters, his step kids, and his many nieces and cousin's kids. And when it came to Michael and Heidi's beloved dog, Sophie, he was always in total goofy baby voice mode, and it was endearing to witness.

Michael was also able to point his sarcasm, wit, or some right-on-the-money snarky comment to characterize an issue or a contradiction or something he felt was wrong or off-the-mark. Many of us saw this on display when it came to the conservative political climate in Lancaster County, or fundraising, or his mother Adele demanding he make his bed just so, or his beloved Phillies and Jets, and fish that refused to cooperate.

And Michael was born to teach, and not just about cultural anthropology—although I should point out that Michael won F&M's Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching in 2006. Michael's passion for what he was interested in was infectious, as his poor daughters know best. As little kids, he talked me into convincing my parents to buy me a chemistry set, which hung in my parent's basement for 30 years and which I never touched. Why? Because Michael thought it was cool for both of us to have the same chemistry set.

Later, as so-called grown-ups, visiting Lancaster usually meant a drive through the Amish country and a fascinating and thorough lecture on the Amish culture, not to mention Lancaster history. Michael must have given this tour a few hundred times, but you'd never know it from how enthusiastic he was. In fact, Michael was working on a book about the changing economy and culture of the Lancaster County Amish with his longtime friend and collaborator, Elam Zook. We hope maybe a graduate student will take over Michael's role and that their work gets published someday.

Would you like an omelet for breakfast, Michael would ask his guests? If the answer was yes, Michael was going to make you the greatest omelet in the history of humankind. And I've got to admit, his omelets and everything else he cooked was pretty damn good, a long way from his mother Adele's green jello with fruit cocktail that we all grew up on.

Ronda pointed out to me that Michael—through his scholarly research—was an early champion for women's rights, which was especially evident when his research took him to Kerela, a coastal state in India, where he wrote that socialists and communists were valiantly fighting for women who were being oppressed in Hindu temples, the workplace, and most everywhere else. His writing about it was seen as a threat and resulted in his getting turned down for future visas by the Indian government. Michael always encouraged women; his sisters and his daughters are fiercely independent, strong women, and Michael couldn't have been prouder.

Michael inhabited a world that put a lot of demands on his time, but family always remained a priority. When his sister Ronda lived in the Washington, DC area, Michael and his family never missed a Christmas/Chanukah celebration and there was an open invitation to visit Lancaster, and he and his family were always so overwhelming welcoming and gracious. Later, when both Michael's sisters were living in the New York City area, Michael would make the three-hour drive for any family event at the drop of a hat. And often he'd drive home in the same day.

And Michael was fascinated by family history. He used his research skills to trace his own genealogy and sent us incredibly thorough email reports of what he had learned about our ancestors in Poland and Russia. When his niece Lara, who has been teaching in Madrid the last few years, was traveling through Poland, Michael was thrilled to hear that she was interested in knowing about areas our grandparents and great grandparents had come from—and she used his research to trace her own roots. That was so him.

And with all of Michael's gifts, and there were many, for me the most impressive one turned out to be how courageous and empathetic Michael was in dealing with this terrible cancer affliction that came out of nowhere and haunted him for much for his adult life. Everyone knows about his transplants, but few knew that he went back to Hopkins almost every year for tests to make sure he was cancer free.

I could go on for an hour about this. but I'll just say I wrote about his affliction as a freelance writer three times for the Johns Hopkins magazine as a way to try to slightly, and I mean, slightly, connect and share the experience with him. The first two times I spent a few days with Michael in Baltimore as he went through it. I never heard a “Why me?” or really much complaining at all. I, for one, would have been yelling at God and screaming at the heavens for the unfairness of it all.  

If anything, Michael was inspired by the plight of his fellow patients, especially the first time, before the HIPPA laws isolated patients for privacy and legal reasons. He would let me know when someone in the transplant program had passed and was profoundly sad about it. And the fact that he became an advocate for leukemia survivors in the years after his first transplant says quite a lot about his compassion and commitment to others.

And like everything that touched his life, Michael learned everything about his leukemia, the different types, what made them different, the drugs and clinical trials, the numbers he needed to achieve his own health. I saw firsthand how much the many doctors and nurses he met along the way admired him for this attitude, intelligence, and courage. And I certainly didn't have to work overtime to tell his story. He told it for me. I just wrote it down.

Many of you already know this from those amazingly thorough, well-written emails he sent to many of us in mass to keep us informed of his experience. When we didn't get one for a while, he would actually apologize for not writing. I would think to myself: Are you kidding?

And here I need to acknowledge Heidi. Michael had finally met his soul mate, and Heidi selflessly stepped into the role of caregiver while fighting her own medical issues. Typical of Michael's attitude was just a tiny passage in one of his emails to us when he learned that both he and Heidi had become ill at the same time: “As for me, bring it on. But as for Heidi, please just leave her the hell alone.” Heidi completely dedicated herself to Michael with all that she had and, believe me when I say, their love and their chemistry was impressive to witness. Heidi, you are awesome, and on behalf of all of us, thank you for your remarkable efforts and courage in the face of it all. You will always be a big part of our family.

The migrating snow geese that you took many of us to see at Middle Creek will miss Michael. So will the Phillies, the Jets, and the fish, who were pretty good at dodging him. But every once in a while, he'd snag one, and it was so much fun to see his reaction.

And finally, Michael's absence from our lives was always a possibility as he battled this dreaded disease. As one of his students put it so eloquently on his Facebook page: “FUCK Cancer!!!” I sing that sentiment to the heavens.

Both Michael's sisters saw their little brother's evolution through the years as a reflection and testament to their father. Melinda wrote: “at my dad's funeral, Michael said he spent his life separating from my parents—only to look at commonalities with my dad after he was gone.” Ronda wrote: “when I saw Michael with Daphne, as a new grandfather, I realized he had morphed into that wonderful, intelligent, kind and loving giant among men—our father, Arnie Billig.”

Somehow our world without Michael seems inconceivable. Life without him will never be the same—plain and simple. But I know with certainty that he would want us to make the most of the time we have left on this good Earth, an Earth he certainly loved and cherished. Didn't he show us how much with his words and deeds?

I can't help but think that if Michael was hearing all this, and I hope somehow he is, he'd scoff at me being way too generous in painting him as some kind of hero or perfect human being. He certainly was not that—as none of us are. But all of us who knew him came to realize that he really was truly—one in a million. Thank you for letting me pontificate on someone I loved.