Uncle Mike passed away last month. His memorial was yesterday afternoon in Redlands, California. Below is the text from my eulogy.
Good afternoon. My name is Robert M. Montenegro. My dad and Mike have been friends since the early 80’s. That ‘M’ I mentioned — my middle initial — stands for Michael. That’s not because my parents were particularly partial to archangels, but because they were particularly partial to Mike. As am I.
From the moment they made it official on my birth certificate to today, here, right now — Mike has been a fixture. A rock upon which my life has been constructed. Little league games. Family vacations. Mike took me to my first concert. He took me to see Springsteen, which to him was like meeting the Pope.
The nicest thing he ever did for me: When I graduated high school, he and I toured the East Coast — we stayed with Troxel and Nancy — and we took in ballgames in DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia and the Bronx. I can forever say I got to see a baseball game in Old Yankee Stadium thanks to Mike. Who does that for someone else’s kid? Mike did.
When things were rough at home, he was recourse. An ear to listen, a shoulder to lean on. I’d get a phone call:
-“Robbie Montenegro, this is the coolest guy you know.”
And I knew it was him, and I knew I was going to be glad for the duration of the call.
Mike was family. Not by blood, but by love. And that’s thicker than anything.
Ernest Hemingway once wrote: “The world breaks everyone, and afterward some are stronger at the broken places.” That was one of Uncle Mike’s favorite quotes. He was a broken man, yes, in many places. His knees. His heart. His health overall. But he was a strong man. A vital man. The kind of person who leaves an indelible mark on those privileged to be his friend. To be his family.
But more than who he was, quirks and all (and there were a lot of quirks), is the lineage of what he taught me. The lessons instilled.
I have here with me the card he gave me when I graduated high school. I found it yesterday when going through items I kept from years ago. He wrote (in chickenscratch):
Robert (no more Robbie 4 u),
When a young man asked Frederick Douglass what he should do with his life, Douglass said “Agitate, agitate.”
Robert, everyone is very proud of you and everyone has great expectations for your future. Be your own man. Question everyone and everything, especially authority! Have no “hero worship.” Sometimes the people you admire most, need to most shape up to scrutiny.
Good luck – I love you
He got in big trouble with my dad for writing that. But Mike was never afraid of my dad. He had the sort of fearlessness I wish we had more of in this world. He was unafraid to do the right thing.
How many times have you witnessed a form of injustice and did nothing for fear of making waves? You know the moments. When you see something you know in your heart is wrong, unfair, unjust. And you let it happen.
A random kid at a little league game crying after being savaged by the coach for a mental mistake.
A member of the waitstaff being berated by the world’s worst customer.
Neighborhood hooligans launching slurs in the night at the house on the corner where the gay couple lives.
Sexism, racism, prejudice, corruption, mistreatment and misconduct. How often to we allow these things to go by and say nothing?
And then we play these moments in our head again and again painted with dabbles of regret. What if I had acted? Could I have made a difference? I knew what I should have or could have done, and I didn’t do it.
I think this world would be a much better place if fewer people were afraid of standing up for what they know is right. The world would be a much better place if we had more people like Mike. Because in each of those situations I mentioned, I saw Mike — unafraid — do the right thing. And in my life, I strive to do the same. To act. To allow righteousness and a strong moral compass be my guide. And that’s because of Mike. That’s his gift to me — one of many gifts — and I’ll always be grateful.