‘I saw Mike MacDonald about two weeks after I did comedy for the first time. He did at least 90 minutes and, of course, closed on his signature air guitar bit. There have been very few comdians that have actually put me in pain, but that night, Mike was one of them. At the same time, I was thinking, “What the Hell am I even doing in this business?” – Glen Foster
By 2012, it was obvious something had gone wrong. Mike’s transplant surgery had not taken place. I never really heard why, but now time was quickly running out.
Mike was forced to put out a second public plea for a donor to come forward, and all those who had previously applied as potential candidates, had to reapply. That was the protocol.
I had kept a copy of my first application on my computer. So I downloaded the forms, signed them anew and sent them off a second time. I was due to head home to Canada on holiday that August. I contacted Mike and asked him if he was up for a visit if I came to Ottawa. He said he was. So I told him to rest up, I was on my way.
On a warm and sunny day, with a great deal of trepidation, my pal Linda and I, got in her car and drove to Ottawa. It was a bittersweet journey. I dreaded what I might find, but I was quietly terrified it could be my last chance to see my old friend.
We made it to the Nation’s capital intact and checked into the hotel. Mike was staying with his mom Colette, as Bonnie was still in L.A., so I rang to let him know we were now in town. We set a time to meet, and he gave us directions to the MacDonald family home.
Then he surprised me.
He suggested the three of us go down to a comedy club in Ottawa to watch a show that night.
I was hesitant. I asked if he was sure he was up for it. I knew from other friends that he was in a bad way. I suspected by the weakness in his voice he should be in bed. I suggested getting a movie or playing some games instead.
But he was determined to go out.
So I agreed.
We pulled up to the house that evening, and just as I was about to get out and look for the door number, I spotted a figure heading towards us in the darkness. It was Mike. I had not seen him for nearly a decade prior to this, but as he drew closer his obvious physical decline was devastating. I tried not to show my horror as I hugged him gently and said hello.
He had lost so much weight I would not have recognized him from a distance. His skin was not the yellowish tinge I had expected from the jaundice associated with liver failure, but instead, was almost grey. He was a shadow of his former self.
His fight was still intact. Likewise his humor and determination. But my dear friend had become a ghost before his time. No matter how prepared I thought I had been, his appearance was heartbreaking.
Linda and I gently and slowly settled him into the front passenger seat and asked directions to the club. We could actually smell the illness emanating from his body as we drove off into the night. It was a stark reality check.
The club owner Howie Wagman, greeted us warmly. I hadn’t seen Howie in years, but he looked happy and content. He confessed with a smile that he was engaged to be married soon. I was so pleased for him. Always liked Howie. A little bit of happiness in the midst of this sadness.
It was pretty special to be at the Ottawa club with Mike. This was after all, his home venue. As we watched the show from a table at the back of the room, an intermittent but steady stream of comics began to approach us.
They would crouch down beside Mike, quietly and deferentially, whispering, so as not to disrupt the show. They would shake his hand and introduce themselves, telling him how much they admired him. Or – if already known to him – would ask how he was doing, or request he watch their set and offer some feedback on how to improve a bit they were working on.
I had to smile, remembering how he used to strike terror into the hearts of other acts in the past. How they would quake at the sound of his approaching footsteps as if he were a hungry T-Rex, and scattered when he moved through the room.
I thought back to an email I had sent him a year earlier, reminding him of the first time we had met:
‘…..Was it the suit? Was it the glare of your burning eyes fixed upon them as they pitched lame new material on your altar like the sorry offerings of a primitive tribe? Naw. It was the judgement they waited for. The terrible judgement. Will Mike think I’m funny? That was all that mattered to them. They needed your stamp of approval. They needed it because you were the comedy king. They needed it because you were a legend. Even then. Even all those years ago, your reputation as the craftsman of comedy preceeded you...’
He had loved that email. He wrote me back telling me he planned to include it in a book he was writing that would hopefully end with him getting a new liver. Even as he battled this vicious illness, he was still full of ideas and plans for the future.
Now he was mentoring upcoming talent, reinforcing old connections, and forging new ones. He was a different man.
Face to face with his own mortality, my old friend had made a choice: if he was going to go, it would not be with rage in his heart. He didn’t want the anger of his early life to be his legacy. He wanted it be compassion. He wanted to share what he had learned, to pass on the knowledge that had taken him decades to acquire.
His illness had allowed him to be courageous in a way he might never have thought himself capable of in those early days. He opened himself up. He invited people in. And these young comics were reaping the benefits.
Love is better than hate.
He would say it to me over and over. In emails, in phone conversations.
‘Love is better than hate, Sherry.’
After the show Linda and I were sure Mike must be feeling tired. But instead of heading to the car to go home, Mike suggested we go and listen to his brother JP play at a bar down the street.
JP MacDonald is known by his stage name Johnny Vegas. He’s a well known local singer and has a kick-ass band called the All-Stars. They were playing nearby, at Maxwell’s Bistro, and Mike really wanted us to go. I was hesitant, but could see he did not want the evening to end yet. And of course, neither did I. Linda was game, in spite of the long drive earlier in the day. So I nodded not-so-grudgingly.
‘If at any time you’ve had enough, please say so,’ I told him, ‘We can still get together tomorrow.”
He shook my apprehension off with a grin and squared his shoulders. Mr. Belligerent re-emerged.
“You getting too old to stay out all night? I mean, I wouldn’t want to keep you up with all the good times…..”
I snapped back with the appropriate ‘Beligerent’ response.
“Oh, here we go, crank it up…”
He laughed and off to the bar we went.
We stayed until well after the audience had left, talking as the band had packed up. When we finally pulled up outside his mom’s house, it was after 2 a.m. I braced myself for the goodbyes.
But Mike was still not ready to call it a night. He made no move to get out. Even when I did. He would simply admonish me and change the subject.
So the three of us sat there, laughing and talking in the car. I could tell he wanted it to be like the old days – when we hung out into the early hours of the morning talking comedy and riffing. It was as if he was determined to keep going, to convince me or himself, that everything was going to be ok. Maybe he was afraid that if he left, that would be it; the last time we would see one another.
I don’t think either of us could face that thought.
So I allowed him to wave off my repeated attempts to bring the frivolities to an end. He did not want concern or admonishments. In all the years I had known him, it had always been Mike who determined when our nightly sessions ended, and so it would be now. There was no point in arguing. He was the boss.
It was 5 am or so by the time we finally wrapped it up.
Linda said her goodbyes and thanked him for the night of entertainment. I got out of the car with him, gave him a long hug, and told him I loved him. He shrugged it off, but hugged me back. He didn’t want to go there. He couldn’t. I understood that about him. So I kept my emotions in check. It took a concerted effort on my part.
I promised I would call later that day and maybe we could try to meet for lunch if he was up for it. He agreed. And then he vanished into the early morning dawn.
Back at the hotel I fell asleep dreaming of a miracle.
Linda woke me five hours later. The hotel had already extended our check-out time once. Now they were getting impatient. It was not pretty. I am not a morning person.
We packed, loaded up the car, and, as promised, I rang the MacDonald family home to see if Mike was awake.
He was not.
I cursed myself silently. He had pushed himself too far. Whether for our benefit or his or both, I can’t be sure. But I felt a deep tinge of guilt for allowing him to persuade me to let him stay out so late. I should have insisted.
As Linda and I started the drive back to Toronto, I was lost in thought, and worried I might never see my friend again.
But I would not have traded that night in Ottawa for anything.
A few days later Mike sent me a message.
‘I’m so glad the stars were aligned just right and we had what little time we had – And yes, as far as recovery goes, I slept a lot the next day and even more today, but it was well worth it in my mind and heart. Make sure I have your email and the Beatle stuff will get to you and as always the prayers and love will too. In the meantime–Stay Funny and above all stay healthy…God bless you Sherry.
Sincerely your friend and brother in more ways than one,
P.S. I hope that it’s okay to consider you not only as a colleague, kindred spirit, but as a sister I never had…’
About three months after I returned to Ireland, the hospital called me to say that I had not been accepted as a potential donor. That was how I found out that Mike had now been placed on the urgent transplant list for a cadaver donor.
This was his last chance.
Mike and Bonnie were in Ottawa when the call came.
“We have a liver. We have a match. If you can get to Toronto in the next eight hours, its yours. Otherwise, it goes to the next person on the list.”
Bonnie got them to Toronto with two hours to spare.
And Mike got his miracle.
On – of all days – March 17, 2013.
St. Patrick’s Day.
You could be forgiven for thinking this precious gift – a new liver – would have been the end of Mike’s troubles. That finally, his story would have a happy ending.
But sadly, this was not the case.
Although he had survived the surgery, which in itself was a feat, his new lease on life came with a few unanticipated catches.
First there was the horror of realizing that he had forgotten his act. All of it. Every single bit. Over 30 years of material. And that is a lot. Because Mike rarely did the same bit for long and he wrote every single day.
But suddenly it was all gone, as if he’d never performed before. He told the story of seeing himself on TV one night, performing at the Just For Laughs Festival. He said it was like watching a stranger. He recognised himself, knew it was him – but felt he was hearing his own jokes for the first time.
It was an unforeseen side-effect of the medication he had to take to stop his body from rejecting his new liver.
How could he hope to perform now? How could he regain his career?
He started to watch old tapes of himself onstage, hoping to jog his memory. Listened to his old audio recordings. Once he was able to put together a set, a new challenge arose: how to perform and remember the material as he did it. He had to write new stuff too, because the old stuff didn’t feel like him anymore.
Meanwhile Mike was still regaining his balance and muscle strength, so this limited his movements onstage. He could not be as animated or energetic as he once was. This required a whole new style of performing, which also felt foreign. He had to change his entire style of delivery. It took months and months for him to rebuild his confidence.
I cannot over-emphasise how enormous a task this was; what a massive accomplishment. To do something so well for 30 years, have it ripped away, and have to start all over again. From scratch. And then to have to do it in a whole new way. All while battling to regain some equilibrium in your life and health.
Lesser humans would have given up. Retired quietly. Found another calling.
Not Mike MacDonald.
He was – to the core of his being – a comedian. And he had fought too hard and too long to give up now. He kept hammering away until, not only was he back on stage, but he was also funny again.
An amazing feat.
And yet, there was no time to rest or enjoy this monumental achievement.
Because another issue now arose…
The same anti-rejection drugs that had wiped his comedic memory, were now interacting badly with his bipolar meds.
‘Well, that’s just great,’ he would have barked, rolling his head and eyes.
The resulting chaos of this adverse interaction sent Mike once again on what he referred to as ‘the bipolar rollercoaster.’
His mania and depression returned, bringing with them the usual assortment of suicidal ideation, insomnia, despair and hopelessness, followed by boundless optimism and bursts of creative energy, which he struggled with physically. Up and down, up and down.
I mean, seriously, how much is one guy supposed to take? The constant battle for survival played right into the cyclical nature of his illness. He must have felt exhausted and deeply disheartened. I can only guess, as he was not really in contact with me during this crisis. He shut down a bit. Withdrew. Some friends who had seen him at the time, said he was in a very dark place. But he resisted contact. He was overwhelmed and his mental illness was crushing his spirit.
So he had to climb out of that spiralling hole too. A long process, during which he continued to work on a movie about his recovery. Although he was excited about the project, the travel and filming must have sucked up what little energy he had left.
Eventually however, he again emerged. He went back to performing. He went back to touring. He took back his life.
He demanded his life.
He maintained the fine balancing act of meds and recovery for the remainder of his days, and most of the time, he managed to stay positive. With the support of Bonnie, his family, his friends, and his fans – he pushed through it.
But it wasn’t easy. It was day to day. And it was work.
Mike was a passionate advocate for organ donation. He knew he had been given a second chance at life and he did his best to make the most of it. He never took a single day for granted. Now it was all about love. Forgiveness. Compassion. Gone was the bitterness of his past. Any anger was reserved for only righteous causes. Nothing petty. There was no time for that.
He tried to make every day count. He supported other comics, inspired them. He embraced old friends. He made new ones. He became a teacher, a mentor, a champion to so many. He became the best version of himself.
Since his death, I have been reading thousands of accounts from an incredible number of people – from all walks of life – who have a story about how he made them feel special. Performers, friends and fans. I know he was always so thankful for his fans. Some of them had followed his career since his early days. During all his battles they sent him letters and emails of support. He found strength in that. It made him feel like the invincible Mike MacDonald again.
Some people never change. There are two reasons why:
Either they are already exactly where they are meant to be. Or they are stuck. Usually due to fear.
Other people do change. And there are two reasons for that, too:
Either they forget what really matters and make bad choices. Or they change because they have grown.
Mike MacDonald grew.
He made soldiers laugh in the middle of horror-filled war zones, thousands of miles from their homes. He helped those struggling with mental illness find humour in the middle of their darkness and despair. He brought hope and laughter to those waiting for life-saving organ donations. He showed those battling addiction that they could regain their lives.
He inspired and encouraged countless comics get better at their craft, raise their game and work harder. He never stopped being funny. He never stopped loving what he did. And he never forgot his friends.
As recently as a month before his death he was on my Facebook page, after I was slighted and ‘blocked’ by another comic I had not named, for some perceived slight.
‘Name!‘ he had bellowed from afar.
I argued that a name would only create a childish online FB drama.
‘Do you not understand WHY we have FB?’ he asked.
He was still looking out for me. Still my big brother. Still my protector. All these years later.
Mike made a difference. He made an impact. And he left an enormous void that can never be filled. He had to fight for nearly everything he got in life, and most of the time, he won.
But this time…
This time, death snuck up on him.
(Last part to follow…)