Phyllis Britt

Phyllis Britt

Last week was the first week of having pretty much no responsibilities for summer. I was looking forward to a bit of ennui following the whirlwind of end-of-school-year events and one final family birthday until August, as granddaughter Clarke turned 4.

So we came home on Sunday, June 9, from Greenville with no agenda for the coming week, except for helping to get grandson Cade ready for his first solo camping trip – solo, in that neither his dad or his Opa will accompany him for the first time. (Tom has been on numerous camping trips with Cade over the last few years, so letting him go was a little traumatic for us all.)

Anyway, as I said, I was enjoying the prospect of the coming week when I got a message from a friend late Sunday night.

As an aside, it’s amazing what social media can do for us these days. My friend, Karen Daily, who used to be the crime reporter for the Aiken Standard, recently moved from Atlanta, where she and her husband have lived for a few years, to Colorado.

It was around 1 a.m. when I got this text message from Karen. It said simply, “I know you stay up late, so I wanted to pass on that Mike Gellatly died.” She was right; I was up.

And I was shocked. Mike had been a reporter for the Aiken Standard when I was at The Star – and he was just 41 years old.

While at the newspaper, Mike had eventually settled into the position as the SRS reporter and did a great job. Mike was a giant of a man – size 14 shoes, well over 6 feet tall and a Scotsman. I had many interesting conversations with Mike. It was always enlightening to get his perspective on current events. As someone who grew up in Scotland, his views weren’t colored by the typical biases that Americans have, so there were times that he could bring a more balanced view to happenings that elicited a more volatile response from those of us who grew up here.

He went to College of Charleston, where my daughter Liz went. He found a home-away-from-home at Camp Gravatt, where he served as a camp counselor alongside kids I knew from church and from North Augusta. Most notably two come to mind, Scott Rankin and Jimmy Hartley. Many readers may remember that Jimmy used to be the youth minister at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church sometime in the 2000s, when Fr. David Thompson was the rector of the church. In fact, Jimmy, now a priest with the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina and son-in-law of Polly and Sonny Goldston of North Augusta, was the officiant at Mike’s funeral last week. It was somewhat comforting to me to see this familiar face and hear him speak fondly of Mike.

When I was talking about Mike’s death with Karen, who is about the same age as Mike, she noted his death “kind of hits home.” Mike was two years older than my son, Mac. In fact, Mac and Mike shared a birthday, March 4. So I had to agree – his death kind of hits home for me, too.

As you can imagine, I had so many questions.

I had kept up with Mike, at least peripherally, through Facebook – well, that is until Facebook sometime back chose to show posts from only about 25 of your Facebook friends who appear most often in your typical feed. So it dawned on me that I hadn’t seen anything lately.

I recalled the last time I had paid attention to Mike’s posts that he had mentioned some sort of unnamed problem. I thought at the time that he might be referring to any number of things – he had initially left the Standard for a job in Columbia, where he had been living all along. I knew he had left that job and had taken another, so I thought that might be his concern. Mike has two children who are entering their teens, so I thought he could be referring to any of the many issues that can arise as children grow into adults. And I also knew that somewhere along the way he and his wife had parted ways.

But I never considered that he might be ill. So I immediately asked Karen if she knew what happened. I figured a car crash or something like that. What else takes one so young?

Karen reported she knew he had, at some point, been diagnosed with testicular cancer, but she shared the obituary which gave another clue. (Anyone who is in the habit of reading obituaries is probably aware there are often certain telltale clues in most obits.) And Mike’s listed “in lieu of flowers, donations may be made to”

I, of course, looked it up. The website is dedicated to pancreatic cancer. If you’ve known anyone with pancreatic cancer, you know that, for the most part, this disease takes no prisoners. I’ve known two or three folks in the last couple of years who suffered with pancreatic cancer (most recently S.C. Rep. Ronnie Young), none of whom survived this dreadful disease for very long.

I do know one person in North Augusta who has been living with pancreatic cancer for a number of years. I’m hopeful that soon there will be more like him and fewer like Mike. As you probably know, Jeopardy’s Alex Trebek announced not too long ago that he is living with this particular cancer. I watched an interview in which he detailed what it has been like so far – the sickness from the treatments and the hair loss, for example. (Yes, he admitted he’s currently wearing a hairpiece – who knew?) But he has been very optimistic, pointing out his contract with Jeopardy runs for three more years, so he has to fulfill that obligation. I like his optimism.

For now, it saddens me that my friend Mike is gone from us. I often referred to him as a gentle giant. He was such an imposing figure with a big voice, strong opinions but deep down such a tender heart and affable manner. I’m sorry that his children will grow up without his constant presence. I’m sorry that his parents have to bury a child – I cannot imagine the pain, for Mike may have been 41, but he was still their baby. I’m sorry that I can no longer assume that he’s out there somewhere making his way through this world.

All I can say for now is that last week I was reminded in the worst possible way that you just never know. All those platitudes are true – you don’t know what tomorrow may bring, so give a hug, say “I love you,” make that phone call, visit a friend, write a letter. And remember: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is God's gift...”