Word came in a call from a dear friend of mine on the day after Christmas. With tears soaking through her voice, she told me she had heard that our friend, Michael had taken his own life.
I can't claim Michael Penney was the closest friend —if there is any sense in trying to gauge such closeness. I am sure there are people he had touched more often and perhaps more deeply. There are others he shared more of himself with. I really only know by hearsay much of the anguish he suffered, the long struggle of his life. I can only testify to the few times I met with him and the few times more I encountered him in written messages we exchanged back and forth.
The thing that always struck me about Michael was his calm and courage —his was a very particular kind, not the kind of courage that is some absence of fear or an ignorance of pain, his was the sort of courage that is so much more than that: the kind of courage that exists in the face of fear and pain.
As I think of it now I realize that it wasn't the Michael who lost out to life that I knew. It was the Michael who fought back, the one who challenged himself and others to "do something!" I came to know him through his involvements, his activism for peace, his interest in social justice and responsible environmentalism, through the rigorous conscience he tried to live by.
Whether we were standing in protest together or sharing our thoughts in conversation, whenever I encountered him it was that brave face he was wearing. He was speaking quietly and firmly of his belief in a more peaceable way we might share this planet with each other, or how we might protect this earth of ours as a legacy for future generations. I remember him on several nights, for all his basic shyness, guiding conversation for a film discussion group that we used to both participate in when he lived in Holliston. Whether it was "The Fog of War" we were discussing or "The Peril of Our Planet," his voice had the same pained yet bravely, patiently persisting music to it.
I remember most recently the messages we exchanged over an impassioned letter to the editor he had written. He wrote that he had —at least for a time— weathered the storm of our difficult economic times —"But what of those who had not?" he asked. "What of those less fortunate?"
He was pleased to see his letter published in the local paper. He was glad to have voiced his cares, and sorry that he had needed to.
The moment I heard of Michael's death, in my mind I heard the words Robert Kennedy offered as solace, as he informed a crowd of his supporters of the assassination of Martin Luther King. Kennedy spoke so gently then, but with such strength.
"Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world."
Before I even knew why, I heard those words. Even as I had just begun to sort through my anger with Michael, as I sorted through the questions I had for myself.
The passion to do right by this world, despair at the sight of all that is so wrong with it: these travel along the same paths within us, requiring of us such strength and such delicate care.
"Making gentle the life of this world" —that is how I will always remember Michael. That persisting music I heard in him.
That will survive so much longer than the pain.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Michael Penney's name to The National Alliance on Mental Illness, NAMI, P.O. Box 759155, Baltimore, MD 21275-9155. A memorial service for family and friends will take place at The Holliston Historical Society, 547 Washington St., Holliston, Jan. 3, 2009, at 2 p.m.