Mike was the biggest teddy bear and gentlest giant I ever knew. I met Mike when he sat next to me in our high school speech class. One of our first assignments was to introduce a new-to-you classmate to the rest of the class, and Mike turned to me to partner up. We spent a few minutes chatting, and I still remember when we stood up in front of the group, he gave a little general background on me, and then proceeded to crack jokes and/or flatter me so he could say "oh, and she's probably turning bright red right now" - which I 100% was. Mike has told dad jokes from the time we were teenagers!
Mike and I never dated (much to the dismay of my parents, who adored him from the moment they met him), but we were each others' platonic date for many a dance! The first was our high school Senior Homecoming dance - there was a school tradition that if you were going to the dance with a guy on the football team, you'd wear his team hoodie to the homecoming game. Mike, being a foot taller and (at the time), far heavier than I, had a hoodie I could have worn as a dress! I thought I was VERY cool to be going to the dance with a guy on the football team, even if Mike would tell you he rode the bench most of the time, and I wore that hoodie SO proudly!
When I was in college in Peoria, Illinois, I would drive up to see Mike at Northwestern pretty regularly if we had a school break, and he drove to Peoria to visit me a few times too. The next dance we went to was my sorority's semi-formal. I was perpetually single and in need of a date, and it was a perfect excuse to party with Mike. A few months later, about a week before his fraternity's formal, he and his then-girlfriend had just split up, so I drove up to be his date. On every occasion, Mike would tear up the dance floor like nobody's business! He was the best dance partner!
Mike was also a rock during hard times as well. I was with Mike when my parents called to tell me they were divorcing, and he was my shoulder to cry on and didn't bat an eye at my hysterics. When my sister was diagnosed with late-stage cancer, Mike spent nearly 3 hours on the phone with me, talking me through things and calming me down. When she passed, his heart broke along with mine. I'll never forget his compassion, and that Mike was a dear friend to me at times when I really didn't have many friends.
I'm so grateful to have been able to spend time with Mike and his family in November, when his parents and in-laws had to go back to their respective homes and Lea needed extra hands. It was priceless to spend that time with Lea and Mike and the girls, making memories, knowing it was most likely the last time I would see him.
I baked an apple pie while I was at their home, and wrapped it up and froze it so the Grovers could have it for Thanksgiving the next week, after I drove back home. The last time I spoke to Mike was the day after Thanksgiving, when he was eating my leftover pie. He wanted to let me know that, "it's delectable". It was so unnecessary for him to call for such a little thing, but it made me smile, and still makes me smile to think of now.
Above and through it all, Mike really exemplified kindness. His bear hugs were legendary. Though I'm heartbroken that he's gone, my life is immeasurably better for having had him in it.