Thursday, December 13, 2007

Saying Goodbye to Michael Phillips

(L to R - Michael Phillips, Loretta Nall, Christie Reeder)

Michael Paul Phillips' funeral was held today in Millbrook, AL. As with any funeral, it was a very solemn occasion. I was happy to see that the church was packed with Michael's friends and loved ones. Christie Reeder, Ralph Hendrix and myself were in attendance for Alabamians for Compassionate Care.

The morning started out all wrong. I put my dog outside in his pen and put his kennel in the car. I had planned to take him with me because I wasn't sure how long I would be gone. When I went to get him out of his pen he refused to come. I had to leave him alone, outside and hope that he would not escape and eat a neighbor or get killed in the road. I don't think I can take any more burials of the things I love this week.

The family had agreed to let me deliver one of Michael's eulogy's. When I went to print it out I discovered my printer had no ink. I called my friend Christie who printed one and brought it with her. When I started reading over it about 20 minutes before the funeral started I realized that the printer had chopped off words and deleted entire sentences from paragraphs. I didn't know what I was going to do. Michael's family lives right around the corner so I decided to call them and see if they could print it for me. I had already sent it to them for approval. His sister-in-law said they had already printed it out and that the family loved it. Michael's Uncle Ron brought me a copy to the church.

Michael's Uncle Ron was the first to speak. He and Michael were the same age and had grown up more as brother's than as Uncle and nephew. Ron spoke about the good times growing up and shared treasured family memories with us. He told a great story about when he and Michael were baptized. He said they went home immediately afterwards and burned all of their rock-n-roll tapes.....except their favorite ones. Michael's favorite band at that time was KISS. The Ron sang a beautiful rendition of "I'll Fly Away." It's always that song and "Precious Memories" that tear me apart at funerals.

Next I spoke. His family had requested that I not mention medical marijuana specifically because not everyone knew about that part of Michael's life and it might cause other complications that no one should have to deal with on a day like today. Michael had given me an olive green safari hat in New Orleans that looks just like the light tan one I wear everywhere. Just out of the blue came in my room one morning and said, "I brought you this hat." As I took the podium I donned the hat and explained why I was wearing it. At the end of the service a small boy came up to me and said, "Michael used to wear that hat all the time."

Here is the eulogy that I delivered for our friend Michael.

Good morning. My name is Loretta Nall and I have a few words I would like to say about Michael Paul Phillips. I'd like to start by thanking his family for graciously granting me a few minutes of this most precious and private time. They are very brave because most people would have serious reservations about turning me loose with a microphone at a funeral. But they know I loved Michael and that I am deeply scarred by his passing and that this is the very last thing that I will ever be able to do for him. So thank you Ms. Jackie and Mr. Bobby for trusting me once again with Michael.

I met Michael after he saw me on the Keith Olbermann show during the 2006 election. He called me up and told me he was a patient and that he wanted to be involved in passing a law that would make his life and the lives of people like him more tolerable.

I worked with Michael for a little over a year on some political issues that he was interested in. I guess you could say I was his patient advocate. He was born with an inoperable brain tumor that caused multiple seizures on a daily basis. He had taken every seizure medication known to humankind, and a few that were not, to no avail. He survived 4 different and unsuccessful brain surgeries that resulted in major injury to his brain causing him to have problems communicating, understanding and slowing his motor skills and coordination. As a result of that he was never able to be independent. He was never able to live on his own for very long, was never able to get his drivers license, never married and never had any children. He had also been mostly ostracized from society because the world is a cruel place especially for those with disabilities. I was fortunate to be counted among the friends that Michael had along with the small group of people who work with me here in Alabama.

I began taking Michael to our patient advocate meetings around the state and coaching him on how to stand before the heartless power structure in the Alabama State House and tell his story. His proudest moment came when he and his mother testified this year before the house judiciary committee and he got his name and story in the Mobile Press-Register and the Montgomery Advertiser. He was chomping at the bit to be able to testify again in 2008 and would call me multiple times a week to see when we were going back. He had found happiness and strength in speaking out and standing up for himself. I think for the first time in his life he had found his voice and even if he could not do the little things that so many of us take for granted in life, speaking out was the one thing he could do for himself and people like him. And he took to it with a vengance. It was a beautiful thing to witness him discovering his inner strength and it was nothing less than a blessing for me to be able to be a part of that.

A few months ago the organization that I work for offered scholarships to attend a conference in New Orleans about the issues Michael and I worked on together. I was able to secure one for him to attend. To say that Michael was excited would be a vast understatement. He called me or emailed me at least twice a day about the trip for a good month before we left. His child-like enthusiasim was a beautiful thing to behold. He told me this would be his first trip away from home since he graduated high school. That was 20 years ago. Michael had a lot of fun on this trip. He was fearful sure, but he was excited and he knew he was part of a group of people who cared about him and loved him and accepted him and understood what his life had been like. I want to paint a brief picture of Michael's last days with us.

On the way to New Orleans Michael had complete control of the stereo system. He brought his large CD collection of the same kind of music that I love and we cranked it up and sang most of the 300 miles to our destination. During the times the radio was off he talked about is mom and dad and said he would miss them during the trip. He talked about his little nephew and how much he enjoyed it when he would come into his room and ask Uncle Michael to print him out some coloring sheets and they would color together. He told us that he had asked for a dog for Christmas. He discussed his medical history with Ms. Terry Gillard and Ms. Dawn Palmer who were riding with us. There is a class action suit against one of the manufacturers of a drug he had recently stopped taking and he wondered if he might be able to get in on that. I told him we would research it when we got back. He said he better start losing weight and taking better care of himself because he wanted to look good as a millionaire.

At the conference Michael got to meet other people who had seizures, mulitple sclerosis, who were in wheelchairs....people like him who could really relate to what his life had been like. My experience with Michael was that he was mostly a very shy person but at this conference surrounded by people who could relate he came out of his shell and made many friends. He got to meet some people that were very important to him and he felt very proud of himself and you could see his confidence growing and taking root. He got to tell his story to people who got it. He got to walk down Bourbon Street which is something everyone should see before they die. He got to eat raw oysters every day. He took notes during the sessions we attended, struck up conversations with the strangers sitting anywhere near him, exchanged contact information with other patients who were destined to become his friends and had begun making plans for how he would implement all that he had learned once he got back home. No one was more shocked than I was to find that he had passed without warning in the night. Michael passed the way most of us hope to exit this world. Asleep and never the wiser and although he was away from home and his loved ones he was nontheless surrounded by people who love and cared about him.

What I want to leave you with today is a message of compassion. Michael was a grown man with all the brains, drive and passion of any normal person lucky enough to be born without brain tumors. Because of his lifelong struggle to survive, his numerous surgeries, and the toll his seizures took on his brain function and his physical body he lacked the communication skills to express himself and it took him a little longer sometimes to understand things, which was very frustrating for him. Not being able to do the small things we take for granted like drive to the store, live in your own place, have a job, take a trip or even have a dog of his own made Michael a man who had to live as a child...never having the opportunity to grow up.

I am so glad that Micahel's path crossed mine for he taught me many lessons about patience, which is something I am notoriously lacking. He taught me to look underneath what you can see on the outside of people and find their core, because while our differences may be many on the physical level our similarities, if we take the time to look for them are always many, many more.

Before I end this today I want all of you to take a moment and think about someone you know who may have problems similar to Michael's. Do you know someone who is disabled? Unable to drive? Lacking human companionship because they can't get out and make friends? Someone who is in need of a little extra understanding and compassion? Someone who is often not included because it is inconvenient for us to take them along? Michael did not ask to be born with inoperable brain tumors but for much of his life he was treated by society as if he had. Could you do a little more to help people like Michael feel loved and included? Could you offer to lighten the load on the family members who care for people like Michael? While I know they do not want his life to be seen as a burden to them there is no denying that caring for a terminally ill person takes a very big toll. I could do more and I will do more. I am going to take the very important lessons that Michael Phillips taught me and incorporate them in to my daily life by reaching out more to people that we as a society often isolate whether we mean to or not. Will you do the same?

Michael Phillips I am so blessed to have known you and your passing has left a huge hole in my life. I will miss your phone calls, funny emails and your innocence. I will continue the fight for the common beliefs that you and I shared because I know that is what you would want. While we will miss you we know that you are in a place that does not require drivers license, you have your own house with a dog and there are no such evil and monsterous things as inoperable brain tumors. Thank you for showing us the true meaning of courage and bravery. On behalf of Christie and Mitch O'Brien, Dawn Palmer, Terry Gillard, Ralph Hendrix, Gabriel Sayegh and all of the new friends you made in New Orleans Peace Out Buddy! We'll miss you.

His family had also requested that I read the lyrics to "Spirit in the Sky" by Norman Greenbaum

When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that's the best
When I lay me down to die
Goin' up to the spirit in the sky
Goin' up to the spirit in the sky
That's where I'm gonna go when I die
When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that's the best

Prepare yourself you know it's a must
Gotta have a friend in Jesus
So you know that when you die
He's gonna recommend you
To the spirit in the sky
Gonna recommend you
To the spirit in the sky
That's where you're gonna go when you die
When you die and they lay you to rest
You're gonna go to the place that's the best

Never been a sinner I never sinned
I got a friend in Jesus
So you know that when I die
He's gonna set me up with
The spirit in the sky
Oh set me up with the spirit in the sky
That's where I'm gonna go when I die
When I die and they lay me to rest
I'm gonna go to the place that's the best
Go to the place that's the best

Afterwards I went over to Ms. Jackie and Mr. Bobby, got down on my knees in front of them and laid my head in their laps. They gave me comfort and I hope I provided comfort to them. Michael's family had brought a small CD player and played "The Best Day" by George Strait. I suspect that was a request from Michaels father who took his death very, very hard.

We loaded up my old station wagon
With a tent, a Coleman and sleepin' bags.
Some fishin' poles, a cooler of Cokes,
Three days before we had to be back.

When you're seven you're in seventh heaven
When you're goin' campin' in the wild outdoors.
As we turned off on that old dirt road
He looked at me and swore...

Dad, this could be the best day of my life.
I've been dreamin' day and night about the fun we'll have.
Just me and you doin' what I've always wanted to.
I'm the luckiest boy alive,
This is the best day of my life.

His fifteenth birthday rolled around,
Classic cars were his thing.
When I pulled in the drive with that old Vette
I thought that boy would go insane.

When you're in your teens
Your dreams revolve around four spinnin' wheels.
We worked nights on end 'till it was new again,
And as he sat behind the wheel he said,

Dad, this could be the best day of my life.
I've been dreamin' day and night about the fun we've had.
Just me and you doin' what I've always wanted to.
I'm the luckiest boy alive
This is the best day of my life.

Standin' in a little room back of the church with our tuxes on,
Lookin' at him I say, I can't believe, son that you've grown.
He said,

Dad, this could be the best day of my life.
I've been dreamin' day and night of bein' like you.
Now it's me and her,
Watchin' you and mom I've learned,
I'm the luckiest man alive,
This is the best day of my life.

I'm the luckiest man alive,
This is the best day of my life.

I mentioned in an earlier post that one of Michael's favorite bands was Metallica. While we were riding to Birmingham last week to pick up the rest of our group he played "Sanitarium" and said it was his favorite song ever. Understanding something about Michael's life and listening to that song with him while riding down the road I totally understood how that was his most favorite song ever. Read the lyrics and see if you don't agree.

Welcome to where time stands still
No one leaves and no one will
Moon is full, never seems to change
Just labeled mentally deranged
Dream the same thing every night
I see our freedom in my sight
No locked doors, no windows barred
No things to make my brain seem scarred

Sleep, my friend, and you will see
That dream is my reality
They keep me locked up in this cage
Can't they see it's why my brain says “rage”

Sanitarium, leave me be
Sanitarium, just leave me alone

Build my fear of what's out there
Cannot breathe the open air
Whisper things into my brain
Assuring me that I'm insane
They think our heads are in their hands
But violent use brings violent plans
Keep him tied, it makes him well
He's getting better, can't you tell?

No more can they keep us in
Listen, damn it, we will win
They see it right, they see it well
But they think this saves us from our hell

Sanitarium, leave me be
Sanitarium, just leave me alone

Just leave me alone

Fear of living on
Natives getting restless now
Mutiny in the air
Got some death to do
Mirror stares back hard
kill is such a friendly word
seems the only way
for reaching out again

I got seperated from the funeral procession and was unable to locate and follow them to graveside services. I plan to visit Michael's grave when I have had some time to digest and accept all that has happened. Right now I am just too raw and drained. As I was driving home the radio station played "Paradise City" by Guns-N-Roses. That was one of the songs Michael and I sang at top volume on the way to New Orleans. He said we must look like the characters in "Wayne's World" when they were driving down the road and jamming to "Bohemian Rhapsody". I'm actually still hoarse from it. I cranked the stereo up all the way coming home, think I might have blown a speaker in the rental car and thought how perfect it was that song should come on at that moment.

Take me down to the paradise city
Where the grass is green
And the girls are pretty
Take me home (Oh, won't you please take me home)

Just an urchin livin' under the street
I'm a hard case that's tough to beat
I'm your charity case
So by me somethin' to eat
I'll pay you at another time
Take it to the end of the line

Rags to riches
Or so they say
You gotta
Keep pushin' for the fortune and fame
You know it's, it's all a gamble
When it's just a game
You treat it like a capitol crime
Everybody' doin' their time

Strapped in the chair of the city's gas chamber
Why I'm here, I can't quite remember
The surgoen general say's it's hazardous to breathe
I'd have another cigarette
But I can't see
Tell me that you're gonna belive

Capitain America's been torn apart
Now he's a court jester
With a broken heart
He said turn me around
And take me back to the start
I must be losing my mind
"Are you blind?!"
I've seen it all a mllion times

I want to go
I want to know
Oh, won't you please take me home

I want to see
Oh, look at me
Oh, won't you please take me home

Take me down to the paradise city
Where the grass is green
And the girls are pretty
Take me home (Oh, won't you please take me home)

Take me down to the paradise city
Where the grass is green
And the girls are pretty
Oh, won't you please take me home

Take me down
Oh yeah
Beat me down
Oh, won't you please take me home

I want to see
Oh, look at me
Oh, won't you please take me home

I want to see
Boy, I'm gonna be mean
Oh, oh take me home

Take me down to the paradise city
Where the grass is green
And the girls are pretty
Oh, won't you please take me home

I want to go
I want to know
Oh, won't you please take me hooooooome

When I got home I had a note in my inbox from Michael's brother Scott.

"loretta i think that is perfect and that you are wonderful! scott"

It was response to my question of whether the eulogy was acceptable to Michael's family. I am glad they liked it and I hope that I did Michael proud. It was an honor to tell the part of his story that I know and send him on his way with love from his friends. I want to thank the Phillips family for showing me so much warmth and kindness, for allowing me to be a part of Michael's ceremony and for allowing me to be a part of his life. I'll always share a bond with them now. Ms. Jackie and Mr. Bobby asked me to please let them know when the medical marijuana bill starts working its way through the legislature again because they plan to stand and speak for Michael and others like him whose lives could be made better by safe access to a simple plant. Michael will be very proud.

Michael's family is still in need of financial help to cover the cost of transporting his body from Louisiana to Alabama and covering the cost of his funeral. If you haven't already please take a moment and send them something now.
To mail a contribution please send a check or money order payable to Bobby or Jackie Phillips to

Bobby & Jackie Phillips
3802 Martha Lane
Millbrook, AL 36054

Or use the paypal button below to make a contribution online. These contributions will go to my account as the Phillips' family does not have one. I will then distribute any monies to them.


Kathy said...

Loretta, I'm so sorry for your loss. Your eulogy was beautiful, and I know the family appreciated it.

Unknown said...

What a wonderful eulogy! Michael was blessed to have a friend in you.

Anonymous said...

my name is tim orcutt.i have lived with and took care of mike for over 13 years. i miss havein around but u helped mike out of hole and i thank u. and the funeral was wat he wanted.i would like to help out with a bill thats been long over due. i also am a chronic pain patient. contact me at