(December 29, 1947 – January 13, 2008)
"If you don't understand what he's saying to you, the worst thing you can do is just say 'Yes' or 'OK.'" And with those instructions, I, the new pastor at FBC Farmersville, embarked upon my relationship with Mike Cave in 1999. Mike was born with Down Syndrome. The doctors told his father and mother that Mike wouldn't live to celebrate his tenth birthday. He outlived them both (and the doctor, to boot).
Upon my arrival in Farmersville, I found that Mike loved to come to church (although he wasn't nearly as fond of the getting-up-in-the-morning that coming to church required). He loved to sing. Mike sang with gusto. The notes weren't quite right. The words weren't quite right. Mike only knew fortissimo. But the spirit of his worship was spot on.
During the Sunday School hour, Mike stayed in the office with the pastoral staff and the Sunday School records staff. Mike loved to receive a present. It didn't have to be much, but Mike did have his favorite categories: hats, books, and wrestling. Mike couldn't read, so the book could be anything, really. I would save junk mail and catalogs throughout the week to give to Mike on Sundays. If I really scored with a particular gift, Mike would reward me with a handwritten thank you note—a Post-It adorned with lines of Arabicesque scrawl.
Mike had his own langauge—his own names for people, his own system of verbs and nouns and adjectives. By the time we encountered one another, Mike's parents were gone. He lived with his brother David ("Galla") and his sister-in-law Billie ("Burl"). Every week he would come into the office and look for the key (a key ring to open the deposit bag for the offering). As the time drew near for the second service (Mike didn't favor the first service, but Billie did, so that's when Mike attended), Mike would stroll into my office with his finger tapping his raised watch-wrist. Mike didn't want me to be late.
Even if he had his own system of gestures and syllables, Mike perfectly understood everything that I said. That's the reason for the injunction against issuing agnostic yes-es to Mike. David had been burning brush once when Mike issued some unknown utterance. David gave a simple, "Sounds good to me," and then went back to get some more brush. When he returned, he found Mike holding a burning brand by the cool end, setting a large swath of grass on fire. David had approved it, so it must have been OK!
This was our weekly routine. Mike did the same thing, whether it was just me in the office or I was hosting the Sultan of Brunei. A closed office door communicated absolutely nothing to Mike. After all, he knew how to operate a doorknob.
Mike gave big hugs and big smiles. After a recent foot surgery, I went to see Mike in the Rehab Hospital. In my hand, I carried a magazine and a big white fishing hat. The magazine didn't go over so well, but the hat was a hit. I got a vigorous, whiskery hug for that one. The next time I returned to visit him, I saw that hat tooling down the hall just above the back of a wheelchair. It was a good hat for Mike, who loved to fish anyway.
I'm glad that Mike was born in 1947, back when people like Mike still had a chance to be born. Today, Mike's chances of ever seeing the light of day would be less than one in ten (see research here and commentary on the phenomenon in general here). In 1973 we handed over the law to people who have concluded with great certitude that they have mastered the complex calculus of worthiness—that they know which lives are worth living and which are not. Lives like Mike's, it seems, just don't make the cut, and so they get the scalpel.
Last night I stood by his bedside in ICU. "Mike, God loves you, your church loves you…I love you," was about all I could choke out, and then I wept a little. Later, we had prayer. At around 7:00 last night, Mike went home. David said, "I'm surely a much better person because of him." There's a variable they don't consider when figuring out who's life is worth living.
Thursday afternoon, our sanctuary will be full for Mike's funeral—I promise you. I wonder if there is a single rationalization or slogan from the pro-death crowd that would sound anything less than obscene at that gathering. I doubt it. If the number of people touched, inspired, humanized, or befriended by Mike Cave is any good measure, then his sixty years have turned out to be quite valuable. I'm glad he lived. I'm glad I knew him. I'm glad he's home. I'll be glad to see him someday soon.