January 1, 1970Death caught up with Michael Thaler the other day. Mike was a colleague of mine, a copy editor, one of those anonymous artisans of journalism who sculpt the final shape of news copy pounded out by rushing-about reporters while composing headlines to catch the eye of busy readers.
Working out of a news bureau rather than the main newsroom, I didn’t know Mike well, other than as an editor who liked to have friendly chats about wider matters beyond glitches in my writing. Between crafting headlines and tweaking news reports, Mike Thaler quietly spent the past few months preparing to die. He’d run out of options for cancer treatment and, at the age of 45, out of time. Perhaps the best writing of his career he poured into a final rumination on life and death posted on his websites, ohenrosan.blogspot.com and poempath.blogspot.com.
“I'm going through my possessions now -- books, to start -- and am earmarking things for family and friends,” he wrote in a posting on December 21. “The trash and treasures I have accumulated over a lifetime have given me much joy, and I want to share that joy now. I think it would be a great emotional burden on my family to try to distribute things the way they think I would've liked. I am taking indescribable pleasure in this process of giving….” Previously, as he described himself, Mike was often a difficult person to deal with. “My reclusive friend,” a copy desk colleague, Jay Levin, wrote in a tribute in the newspaper, where Mike was a late shift fixture whose subtle edits were, for readers, invisible improvements to stories under reporters’ bylines.
Mike shared his enthusiasm for Japanese culture, religious devotion to Zen Buddhism and karate, and zest for closely observing the world in his photos and web sites. The ultra-modern Internet and an ancient Asian philosophy provided an intertwined path and introspective artistry for conveying what he felt to family members, friends, colleagues, Internet visitors.
When walking became too painful, in October, he wrote about what that meant for someone who loved to ramble about with his camera: “Being hobbled also is ironic given the importance I place on physical pilgrimage, whether it's circumambulating a Japanese island as part of a 1,300-year-old Buddhist ritual or walking the length and breadth of Manhattan and down into Brooklyn (haven't been able to do that in many, many months) …
What I'm getting at is, LIFE itself is the pilgrimage and all of the activities on that path, from the sublime to the mundane, are part of the package deal. I place lots of emphasis on the physical aspects of pilgrimage (I like to think of my photographs as postcards from the path), and walking the walk has become increasingly difficult. Maybe I need to change my focus, photographically and spiritually.”
Mike’s last day at work was Christmas Eve. Pain in his legs became so horrendous, he left early. He described in detail what he was going through in postings on Christmas and subsequent days. His last post was a poem on January 3, titled “Fatigue.” It began:
Looking in my bathroom mirror
I see the steady progress of death
as he moves like an eclipse
across my face
In November, he’d looked ahead to the end and wrote a breath-taking set of astonishing haikus:
Journey of a lifetime
I've been expecting you
but not eagerly
Won't you have some tea?
Going on a journey
leaving behind everything