I can’t imagine the pain Tony, Barbara, Mark, John, Paul, Nina and Anna are feeling, I just know they’re Gonnella’s, and they’re strong enough to survive it. Michael loved them all so much, as he loved Kerry and Shelley, and Tracey and Amanda, and Jeannine, and all his nieces and nephews. His uncles and aunts… And his 27 cousins. So while I mourn his loss, I’m here to celebrate Michael’s life. If he knew I was down here crying, and bringing everyone down, he’d be slowly shaking his head in a disapproving way, then he’d look up over his round hippie glasses, and have just one word for me. “Weak.” I can’t hit every highlight, or tell every story, especially in church, but I hope to shed just a little light on Michael’s journey.
For the last week and a half, the outpouring of love on Michael’s Facebook page has been incredible, just like when we lost Peter only 15 months ago. Tony and Barbara and their boys have had an incredible impact of so many lives. This week in Arizona, I think Mrs. G got a glimpse of Michael’s out there, but I’m not sure she understands that she and Mr. G are a big reason their sons have so many friends. I’ll tell you why. 67 Greenwood Ave in Wakefield was an open door, and a welcoming place for all the friends of the five Gonnella brothers. Mike Mercurio, Joe Ventura, Ralph Gonzales, Scott Brown, Frank Gallahue, Pat Tecce. The list is a long one. The boys grew up in a home where their friends always felt welcomed. So they kept making new ones, and still do today.
Michael wrote and posted a lot about life, often from “Hippie Peace Freaks” and from the sayings of Native Americans. Over the past couple years, Michael shared things to help cope with the loss of his brother, Peter. I’ll share some of Michael’s own words today to help us understand the man he was. Here are the first two:
On April 1, 2011, Michael quoted Pope Paul VI (I got this one in for Mrs. G…):
“Somebody should tell us, right at the start of our lives, that we are dying. Then we might live life to the limit, every minute of every day. Do it! I say. Whatever you want to do, do it now! There are only so many tomorrows.”
On July 27, 2011, Michael wrote to Nina:
“For my oldest beginning her new life, it’s time for you to make your mark. Always be true to yourself and follow your heart. Find your balance and be happy. Enjoy and protect all the creator has given us. Love you.
Sometime in 1967 or ’68, like all lifelong friendships, one day Mike and I just started hanging out, but things didn’t really begin that well. I remember my mom saying pretty firmly, “I don’t want you hanging around with those Gonnella boys.” What I didn’t know was Mrs. G. was saying the same thing to Mike about me. Well, we loved our mothers, and still do, but they were both wrong. Within a few years, my mom would ask, “why can’t you be like Mike?” I think she meant his aggressiveness, particularly in sports. “Be like Mike…” Nike ended up stealing that line a few years later for some basketball player.
Speaking of basketball players, Peter now has a partner for 2 on 2 hoops. Michael and I used to thrash the other brothers in 2 on 2 at the court at 67 Greenwood Avenue. We were “Wilkes and Walton,” dominating like the undefeated UCLA teams of the mid 70’s. Of course, Mike and I were in high school by then, and our brothers in grammar school… Like all his brothers, Mike was an excellent athlete, and an even stronger competitor.
One summer, Mike and I were roommates for two weeks at the Sam Jones – John Killillea basketball camp at Stonehill College. Somehow our parents made that happen. Every day we’d have a morning and afternoon “clinic” on fundamentals. One hot afternoon, Celtic Assistant coach John Killilea took a group of us out to one of the 8 courts on the parking lot to learn defense. For the sake of this story I’ll say the temperature was a buck twenty. For 45 minutes, as the waves of heat rose off the blacktop, coach had us in “the defensive position.” Thighs parallel to the ground and arms held out the same. We kept our backs straight, butts down, and heads up while coach Killilea whistled us through defensive drills, shuffling quickly side to side and back to front. You could hear the groans of the young. Some quit from the heat. Most of us didn’t. Mike didn’t. When it was over, coach Killilea explained the drill. He pointed to his chest and said, “defense is all about heart.” That was Michael. Mike could score, but he had the heart to play “D.” Later in high school, Wakefield would game plan to neutralize high-scoring guards with Michael. “Oh, you guys got a great scorer? Well, tonight you don’t.” Remember that, right Cam? Shutdown D..
You may have seen the picture of the five Gonnella brothers at a Wakefield alumni tournament in 1996… Mark, Michael, Peter, John, and Paul. The apostles they weren’t, especially in any competition. Taking on the five Gonnella’s in hoop? Only a “gidrul” would do that. Besides, I always thought you just needed one Gonnella if you wanted to win.
Just one more story about Michael’s heart… Our senior football season took a big hit when one of our lineman rolled Mike’s ankle before we played our first game. Anyway, I recall Mike missing games early in the season, but for some reason the Watertown game lingers in my mind. It was late in the year, and brutally cold, but Mike was on fire that day. I remember watching him run through a hole and seeking out defenders to hit, and they were hitting hard. Each play he’d bounce off two or three like a pinball, until a gang finally dragged him down. It was all blood and guts on one good ankle that day, and Mike heroically carried us on his back… to a 27-6 loss.
Now it wasn’t just all Moms, apple-pie, and sports when we were young. One time we got caught drinking by Mr. G. He always treated me like a son, and on that occasion he gave us an epic lecture about how he had 4 younger sons, and that I had 2 younger brothers, and that we needed to set an example. Mr. G.’s words really hit home with us, and our brothers were very important to us, so from that point on, Mike and I made sure that we never got caught drinking again.
Again, I’m sorry I can’t tell every story, but I want to make sure I tell this one. I think it may have foreshadowed the free-spirit Michael became later in life. In the Fall of 1973… I know this because you can look stuff up on the internet. We were at a party at Jeff Lanzillo’s house. Moose, Chico, Fitzy, Bogie, Rogie, Mike B., Mac, Tony, Hog, and Dillard. We were all there. I’m not sure how Mike got a hall pass from Marie that night, but that’s not important right now. Anyway, as the evening wore on, it occurred to some of us that Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re an American Band” was repeating over and over in the dark living room. The tune was a huge hit, and Mike’s favorite song. When we walked in to see what was up, we found Mike dancing by himself in front of the stereo wearing nothing but his whitey-tighties. Of course we started teasing him, but unfazed, he just kept dancing. And that’s the end of that story. Except for the music…
Michael’s taste in music was not everybody’s taste in music, but Mike’s taste in music was a wider range than most. For every Sabbath or AC/DC or Motorhead song, there was one by the Beatles, or BB King or Johnny Cash or Frank Sinatra or John Lennon. His favorite song, and a song that defines him is “Imagine” by John Lennon. Listen to its simple message that Michael lived:
Imagine all the people
Living for today…
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…
“My Way” is another song that defined Michael. You know the words. It’s Michael.
Around midnight back in August of 1977, Mike and I approached the MA Turnpike West in a white 1969 Camaro convertible. Michael slowed the car, and said, “This is it. We can turn around or go.” We were, “at the dividing line between the East of our youth and the West of our future…” I stole that line… We were not yet 20 year olds from Wakefield, MA. We paid the toll. Already best friends, that trip to college in Tucson, Arizona bonded us with a unique experience only the two of us lived.
Early on, I always understood the love and loyalty between the brothers, and I’d seen it in action. Sure, Michael was all about that hippie peace love stuff… unless you messed with his family. I remember the one and only time we went to a bar while we were in college… Yeah, we just wanted to see what this “bar” thing was all about. Anyway, Michael and I were looking over a balcony talking about an accounting course or something, when we heard commotion behind us. We turned around to see some guy pushing Mark. Apparently Mark was talking to this guys girlfriend. Michael darted at the guy like Deion Sanders, except Michael could hit, and before the guy knew it, Michael was on top of him expressing some sort of dissatisfaction with the poor fellows actions. Michael’s words were flying as fast as his fists, and neither was saying “peace.”
Some 30 years later, I wanted my son Kyle to experience a road trip like Mike and I did. Well, the rated “G” parts, anyway. So when I planned our trip, it was natural to begin and end with some Dillard time. That’s when I witnessed that love and loyalty to his brothers was only surpassed by that for his girls, Nina and Anna.
On Facebook, Michael posted a picture of Anna sitting on his bike, her head back against Nina’s shoulder. Anna was beaming. Nina was looking into the camera with that look of hers that says, “there’s quite a bit going on in my head right now, and you can’t even begin to comprehend it.” Yeah, Nina is very much like her thoughtful, free-spirited father, and Anna the mischievous “twinkle in Michael’s eye.” The picture of the girls had a simple caption written by their father. “My life….”
On that trip, Michael and I had a lot of catching up to do. We met in Sedona, a desert paradise of soaring red rock and mystic energy. Mike’s kind of place. After Mexican food, we grabbed cigars, a bottle of bourbon, some ice, and then retreated to a private balcony eventually blanketed by an Arizona sky of stars I hadn’t seen in a very long time. Now, anyone seeing Michael on the street would think “Biker” from the tattoos, head scarf and black leather vest. I remember one of our high school friends asking me, “What’s up with the beard and the tattoos and all the Indian stuff?” All I could say was, “He’s still the same guy.” I have spent some time reflecting on Michael’s evolution, and some of the adversity life put in his path. First was the torn ligaments in his ankle before Senior year football, but that was nothing compared to a serious car accident after HS, that not only nearly killed him, but caused him to miss a KISS concert a few weeks later. Then a lung tumor and surgery a few years after college. Was it all bad luck? No. It was just Michael’s journey, and the lessons that taught him that our time here is short, so you should live the life you choose. So if I were asked that same question about Michael today, I might say, “People are like Motorcycles: each is customized a bit differently.” The Harley. I’ve never ridden, so I did a little research to find out what drives those that love to. Here’s a quote I found:
“Four wheels move the body. Two wheels move the soul.”
That night in Sedona, I also learned how spiritual Mike was. At yesterday’s wake, someone told me that friends at the Arizona service described Michael as “the healer.” I don’t know about that. The next morning after the bottle of bourbon, I didn’t feel like he did any healing on me. What was most enlightening was hearing Michael speak about his girls and his efforts to instill the wisdom of the Navajo in his eldest, Nina. I then understood the spiritual center of Michael, and why he signed everything he wrote with “Peace.”
We had a great time reminiscing and filling in gaps like loose grout in our life’s mosaic. After several hours, we had recounted some 40 years of family, children, women, music, working and living.
After the trip, I remember thinking, “Why can’t you be more like Mike?” I was amazed at how outgoing he was with people, and how many friends he had. I wrote about it, and referred to Mike as “the mayor of Anthem.”
On October 24, 2011, Michael quoted musician Tim McGraw on Facebook:
“We all take different paths in life, but no matter where we go, we take a little of each other everywhere.”
Michael was us, and we are him. Sometimes I’ll hear myself phrase something a particular way, or even laugh a certain laugh, and I think, “That’s Michael.” I hear the same things in Mark, John, and Paul, and definitely in Nina and Anna. In that way, he’s still with us.
It’s now been 12 days since we lost Michael, and in my reflections on his life, I again find myself asking, “Why can’t you be more like Mike?” What I mean is that he had the courage to live life on his own terms, be true to himself, and not bow to societal pressures about how to look, and he made no apologies for it. Michael Gonnella was a man of family, of peace, of love, and of incredible heart. I’m going to miss him.
I leave you with Michael’s last written words, On August, 1st, the day he died, Michael posted a picture of a colorful peace sign, made up of smaller, multi-colored peace signs. He wrote,
“Peace, love, and happiness from Phoenix. Happy August……”