Michael Whealen, a brilliant and unorthodox York University faculty member, suffered a fatal heart attack in early March. Days passed before his body was discovered. Due to the delay, York did not lower its flag to half-mast until Friday the 13th–a freaky fluke that Whealen would have relished.
On Monday March 30th, I stared at the kaleidoscopic ceiling of the chapel in Scott Religious Centre. Although the memorial service for Michael Whealen had yet to begin, it already seemed too quiet, too conventional, for a man who had been anything but. A small picture frame at the front of the room, leaning against a potted plant, served as the simple indicator that, yes, mourners had come to the right place. Like the man himself, the set-up was deceptively humble.
Whealen was a fascinating person. During his 57 years of life, the waif-like teacher with the foghorn voice had survived impossible ordeals. For instance, he narrowly escaped a fiery death in his father’s home and, after being rescued by firefighters, he was nursed back to health with experimental drugs. There was even a time during which Whealen had lived on the street. Perhaps more widely known, however, was Whealen’s uncanny love for the Japanese icon Hello Kitty, or his habit of blasting rap music from his office on quiet Friday afternoons.
Although he was the incisive son of a Harvard-educated journalist, Whealen could not boast a doctorate or a six-figure income. The childless divorcee was no stranger to the life of a vagabond, an iconoclastic existence that refused to apologize for itself.
While waiting, I wondered if I should have worn a Hello Kitty t-shirt instead of a sombre and professional outfit.
As apparent strangers trickled into the room, I wondered who each might be: A former student? A co-worker? An estranged family member? Some exchanged glances of familiarity, but most looked like they had come alone. At first it wasn’t even clear who would preside over the ceremony.
An Anglican Bishop sat in the front row, wearing his holy garbs and waiting patiently. Nearby, a gawky girl with porcelain-white skin and ink-black hair slumped forward, reading something on her lap. Near the back of the room sat a Whealen-look-alike, but with a more youthful air and the posture of a salesman.
Finally, James Robertson–a fellow staffer at York’s Centre for Academic Writing–emerged from the periphery and stood behind the podium. Right away, he acknowledged the irony of celebrating Whealen’s unorthodox life in a religious centre.
“Michael was often, well, vulgar. He questioned everything, often joking about wearing a tin-foil has so that the government couldn’t read his thoughts,” he said.
Indeed, Robertson later informed me that he used the word “vulgar” intently. The origin of the word is deeply class-based, referring to the “common people” that would routinely offend the sensibilities of the bourgeois. Whealen didn’t like hypocrisy or pretence.
“I think Michael took pleasure in being profane,” he said. Audience members nodded and smiled.
Robertson went on to admit that he’d been quite surprised to learn of Whealen’s Anglican roots–he had come from a lineage of priests–and that Bishop Arthur Brown wanted to say a few words at Michael’s memorial.
Minutes later, the elderly bishop rested his weight on the handles of his four-wheeled walker. Taking a decidedly less-ceremonious and more-conversational tone, it seemed the clergyman was no stranger to Whealen’s antics.
“Michael comes from the Hebrew Micael which means ‘resembling God’. He’s also the archangel who got Lucifer out of heaven.” He paused, then continued with a twinkle in his eye, “But I guess he would have had to get to know Lucifer quite well to manage that.” More smiles. More nods.
Whealen was full of such contradictions.
In an article for Arts & Opinion, an online magazine based in Montreal, Whealen once wrote of “danc[ing] on the razor-fine edge between life and death, sanity and madness, acuity and hallucination, historical fiction and facticity.”
In this vein, Matt Pfaff, described Whealen at the memorial as a man with the physique of Skeletor and the wit of Hunter S. Thompson. In a further allusion to Thompson–a journalist known for his cheeky disregard for authority–Pfaff referred to his email exchanges with Whealen as “The Gonzo files.”
I thought about the fact that I almost didn’t make it to the ceremony. I hadn’t recieved an email from my department. I hadn’t heard through word-of-mouth. Actually, I’d almost missed the sidebar about Whealen’s passing in our school newspaper, Excalibur. In the article, Carl Hiehn quoted Robertson in saying, “[Whealen] was a person of the people rather than a person of the academy […] it was Whealen’s unique position as an outsider that made him accessible to those York students who also feel outside academia.”
The pale girl was suddenly summoned to the podium. She’d scooped up the paper she’d been reading and walked slowly to the front of the chapel. As she read her speech, eyes lowered, I noticed her outfit, as black as her hair, and her knee-high leather boots. She has a soft accent that I could not place.
“I failed Michael’s class” she confessed, immediately locating herself as an academic outsider. “But if it wasn’t for Michael, I may not be here today.” The room was still. She then smiled as she read an email from him “He said he’d be ready to go after seeing a black man elected president.”
It was one of Whealen’s most interesting tendencies to perpetually reflect on life and death. Somewhere in the middle of his article for Arts and Opinions, Whealen embarked on a clearly demarcated “excursus.” His words are intriguing enough as to quote him at length:
“We are stuck here on this godforsaken stage (Isaiah Berlin called Earth the “insane asylum of the universe”), and forced into these outrageous roles by [. . .] the fortuity of our birth, and the inevitability of our death. This is, I think, the bare ontology of the world [. . . that we . . .] all inhabit, and must negotiate. Dreams are dead. The landscape is littered with bones; the earth, drenched with blood.”
But Whealen wasn’t necessarily pessimistic, nor was his humour always dark. His friends described his generosity, his kindness, his playfulness. Robertson reminisced about the small Hello Kitty figurine that Whealen had placed in his office. “This is a mini cam, a vigilante that will watch you when I’m not around.” Again, the mourners smiled to themselves.
What had started as a conventional memorial began showing signs of the cheeky nuances that Whealen would have loved. Patrick O’Neill played an acoustic tribute on his guitar, including a chorus line that went, “It’s a wonder the wind don’t blow off your skin.”
Another colleague, Phyllis Rozendale, offered the attendees Godiva chocolate, a treat which Whealen used to buy en masse from a “secret supplier”. Although there were tears, there were many more grins. The Whealen-look-alike, who turned out to be his brother Bryan, looked nostalgic and contented. There was something more than mourning in the air–perhaps it was exuberance.
After the ceremony, I searched my inbox for my own email exchanges with Whealen. Ironically, our last set bore the subject line “Alive and Well.” In one of his messages, he shared this poem with me:
“The is a little-known poem by the 20th Century Boston poet Robert Lowell that, in part, goes:
Weep (It is frequent in human affairs)
Weep for the magnificence of the means
And the pathetic, shabby tragedy of the ends.”
The flag that had flown at half-mast couldn’t tell passers-by who Whealen had been. Upon questioning, most students who had known him admitted they didn’t know he had passed. He had no children, and no lavish inheritance to forward. His characteristic tremor had simply stopped one day in his downtown Toronto residence, marking a humble end to a fascinating story.
Want to read some of Whealen’s own words? Check out the addendum to this post: Whealen’s Witticisms