one of my best friends, michael naiman, died on a sunday less than two weeks ago (16 july 2017) while skiing his descent down mt. rainier. he had just summitted that morning—his second time doing so in a couple years—and fell 150 feet into a crevasse on emmons glacier on the way down. he was 42. along with his extended family, coworkers, and friends, i have been reeling from the news, washed over with waves of grief. mike and i had been friends many years, and met each other as tsunami disaster volunteers as part of the tsunami volunteer center on the andaman coast of thailand in 2005.
over the last few weeks i have been reading another friend’s book about a death in yellowstone, of a young man killed by a grizzly bear in 1972 that led to a trial against the national parks/U.S. government. i’d been immersed in that young man’s tragedy, in the other deaths by bear attack or in the hot sulfur waters in national parks, and meditating on that small hairline edge that exists between life and death. the night i finally got to the pages with the description of the moment of the grizzly killing was the day my friend fell into the mountain. strange overlay.
i grew up in the shadow of this volcano once known as tahoma, and it has been a very sacred presence and has held a special place in my life. i have joked it is like a 5th family member, after my parents and sister. i bought a book years ago about the first female ranger on mt. rainier. i think i thought i was picking up a story that was meant to be empowering. but i ended up hating that book, since it was an introduction into the harsh environment that can be tahoma and the ranger was also up against a lot of misogyny and ended up being the first on the scene of a lot of tragedies like my friend’s up on the mountain (sometimes as a result of the discrimination and being sent out into dangerous situations to be tested, but other times not). i didn’t expect the book to be a rosy glow of life on the mountain, but it was hard to read about so much devastation from simple trailside accidents gone horribly wrong, to airlifts and the unpredictability of the conditions and weather and ice on the peak. with mike’s death, i’m finding myself at odds again with my lifelong sense of this volcano. yes, in death there is anger, and i’m not exactly directing it at the mountain since no one person is pinpointed by nature’s wrath, but i like it a bunch less right now.
i found out about his death in a way that is very telling about the strength of the tsunami volunteer community, even 12 years after the relief efforts in thailand began. i got a text at noon on monday after his death from a thai volunteer friend living near me in the san francisco bay area who had been texted by an italian volunteer who had seen a post by a thai volunteer in bangkok who had been texted by mike’s brother. i am grateful our three continent “phone tree” worked so swiftly, as his accident hadn’t made the press yet, nor had much been posted on his facebook page—though this is where i was able to confirm the news, reading his mother’s words, “the mountain claimed my son.” our tsunami volunteer community were made aware of his tragic death through a post by one of the tsunami volunteers later that day, and over the next few days there were memories shared in this private forum by people who he had worked alongside in the early relief days.
a thai friend in the bay area arranged a small, simple remembrance ceremony for mike at the san fran dhammaran temple on the wednesday after his death, where she and i made offerings of food and support to the monks, poured water into small bowls in his memory, and ate a feast of the delicious home-cooked thai foods prepared for this purpose. we were making merit for his good karma. my friend “oh” told me she made mike’s favorite dishes, particularly a shrimp paste (nam prik ka-pi) with deep fried mackerel (pla too tod) he loved. so many things washed over me at this ceremony, namely the feeling that i had been there before—as had mike—in similar ceremonies in thailand for people who had died in the tsunami, and it felt wrong that he was now the subject of this blast out of our past. i also felt his presence so strongly, mostly in relation to the food, and could almost hear him say, “no way, this is all for me? cool! ooh, look at that dish, it smells great.” he would have loved the spread.
once the memorial had been set by his family in seattle for the monday, a week after mike died, i realized i would be the only one from this network of people scattered across the world able to go. i offered to say some words from the tsunami volunteer community, which mike’s family graciously allowed me to do. below is what i shared, a mixture of mike’s words to me, my memories, and the wishes and blessings of those tsunami volunteers who left their condolences.
Mike and I first met in Thailand in February 2005 as disaster relief and recovery volunteers following the tsunami, and tonight I bring blessings to Mike’s entire family and expressions of heartfelt sadness from people across the globe who he met and formed strong bonds with then. Though he regretted not listening hard enough to his inner voice telling him to go immediately after the December 26, 2004 tragedy, he was one of the earliest volunteers on the scene and was witness to a lush landscape scraped to dirt and thousands of people who had perished. With his photography skills, he captured a lot of the devastation along the Southern Thailand Andaman coastline, and these photos became emblematic of the Tsunami Volunteer Center experience. Elena, a volunteer from those early months remembers: “Mike was a keen photographer and many of the memories I have are in his pictures, as if I looked through his eyes.” While many of us chose to stay in the arranged accommodations, retaining a degree of our outsiderness, getting transported to and from debris clearing and construction sites every day, Mike chose to live with a family in a floating house in a fishing village while work went on, learning to speak very good Thai and cook local foods, and endearing himself to the community. The kindness and respect he gave, was given in return by the villagers. The time he spent in Pak Triam and the folks there were very special to him, and he stayed in touch with them, going back to visit most recently in 2014.
Though I live in San Francisco, when I returned to the States after the second anniversary of the tsunami I would visit my family in Seattle for various holidays and my visits always included time with Mike. Our common history as disaster volunteers, and the drive to be in that state of direct and invaluable service in the midst of tragedy, really in the everyday, was the foundation of our friendship. One of the reasons he wanted to study ultrasound was to have a medical skill that could be useful in future disaster situations. When the earthquake in Haiti happened in 2010, Mike was the first person I called to talk over the pros and cons of entering yet another disaster zone, and truth be told, I was hoping I could talk him into coming with me. His words after our conversation were,
“I’m battling with my inner voice telling me to go right now, but I’m not in a position to follow it. Before you go, do everything you can to prepare yourself mentally to be surrounded by death and hopelessness. See a therapist, or hone your meditation skills. Personally, I’m still traumatized from what I saw five years ago. The thousands of bodies at Yan Yao, and the miles wide refugee camps in Sri Lanka still haunt me. It still makes me cry a little when I think about it.”
His dedication to excelling at his studies meant he didn’t make the trip to Haiti, but he said this after my first stint there:
“Now you have to go back to Haiti, so I can continue living vicariously through your exploits! I’ve been out of my mind, stir crazy lately. I have this innate need to get dirty, sweaty, and parasite infested. You know what I mean, you’ve got it worse than anyone I know.”
It was this innate need he spoke of that I think drove him to find adventure within reach, or at least close to home, as his mastery of all things “outdoorsy” was beyond what most of us would probably consider our “reach”. His adventurous spirit also extended to food, and we would often stuff ourselves silly on “food tours” throughout Seattle or San Francisco, and I would sometimes get messages imploring me to send him specific dishes he couldn’t find at home. He probably could have cooked them himself…
I was constantly in awe of Mike’s dedication to his family and the obligation he felt to make contagious his zest for “experiencing life fully”. Commitment to family also meant that he was good to the larger sense of family, including mine, and I last saw him three months ago when we scooped up some Thai street food in Auburn and ate dinner at home with my parents. I got to show him the river I grew up on and always talked about—which he, in true Mike fashion, wanted to fish on immediately. His generosity of time and self was something they will also never forget.
Mike, many of us in the tsunami volunteer community called you best friend, and like me, loved your goofy humor, your kindness, your lack of pretense, and the way you embraced life without reservation. I personally am so grateful you always managed to make time for me, and am so glad for each moment with you. May the kindness, compassion, and joy you brought to Thailand await you wherever you are now.
at the memorial i heard stories from more than one person of the extensive crevasse rescue training he had been doing—and had gotten quite proficient at—in trees on family land, in the narrow spaces between staircases in the parking garage at work… it’s devastating to think that he could have saved himself had his injuries not prevented him from doing so.
some images from the memorial:
and some favorites from over the years—sadly there are no photos of the two of us— including a tribute meal of neua nam tok and a singha earlier this week: