Mike O’Brien – A staffer remembers

Mike O'Brien - photo provided 'The Big Diseasy'

Mike O’Brien – photo provided ‘The Big Diseasy’

We had just put the Martlet to bed, and were downstairs in the old Student Union Building Lounge. It was April 13, 1985, the last staff meeting of the year was over, and the last issue off to the printers. Five of us were trading stories over the customary jug of beer. A lull came up in the conversation and editor Mike O’Brien mentioned he had a strange experience last week. Shopping in a Super-Valu near his home, he noticed a middle-aged lady kept looking at him as he went up and down the food aisles. He said he found himself a couple people behind her at the checkout where she stared at him more. Finally, she leaned towards him and spoke, saying she was sorry for staring at him but she had to tell him something. Mike may have been half-suspecting some kind of proposition, but she confided that he looked just like her son who had disappeared eight years previously. Mike shrugged, relating he remembers saying something inanely inadequate to her awkward comment. Just when he thought that was the end to the conversation, she asked him if he could do her a favour.

“It depends,” he said.

She asked him if he could just say something special for her, and then she wouldn’t bother him again. It was to say “Bye, Mom.”

Mike said he considered the request, thinking it was weird and oddly morbid, but she seemed nice and sincere enough, and told her he would do it, figuring it would probably make her day. When it was his turn in the checkout and she was standing by the door looking at him, he gave a weak wave and said it, feeling self-conscious. She left. He thought no more about it until the cashier presented him with a bill for $84 worth of groceries when all he bought was four cans of soup and a box of cereal. The cashier said that the lady who left had said her son would pay for “their” groceries . . . Mike quickly told the cashier to put his bag aside, and he ran out to the parking lot just in time to see the lady getting into an old Ford Acadian. She was about to close the door, and Mike pulled it open, telling her she better go back and pay for her own groceries. They struggled with her car door. When he tried to take her arm, she struck him and started thrashing violently. She tried to kick him away, and as soon as he grabbed her ankle, she began to scream.

“It was eerie,” said Mike. “She sounded like an injured cat. People were looking at us and I realized how it looked. I shouted at her that she was a thief and suddenly she stopped. ‘I was only pulling your leg,’ she said, ‘like you’re pulling mine.’” Coming from the editor whom we trusted and respected, Mike had us believing him from the first line of what was then a new jibe and that has now become an old joke.

‘I was only pulling your leg,’ she said, ‘like you’re pulling mine.’” Coming from the editor whom we trusted and respected, Mike had us believing him from the first line of what was then a new jibe and that has now become an old joke.

The Victoria-born Michael James O’Brien was a journalist, comedy writer and actor best known for his role as Wes, the insurance salesman and liquor store vendor in the TV show Corner Gas. He got his start in journalism at the Martlet where he was contributor, entertainment editor, co-editor, photo editor, and sometimes distribution manager between 1983 and 1985. Known for holding student politicians accountable and sneaking underage newspaper volunteers into the student bar, Mike was a Creative Writing and Journalism student who worked at six weekly B.C. papers in the Co-operative Education program before landing a reporter job at the Medicine Hat News. He went on to the Regina Leader-Post where in the 14 years he was there, he helped unionize the newsroom. His book Calling the Prairies Home was published in 1999. An interest in theatre got him started with acting in amateur theatre productions, and from there, commercials and film. His dream job arrived in 2005 when he started writing and producing for CBC Radio. He also had a role in HBO’s series Less Than Kind. He married reporter Robin Summerfield in 2008, and it was a year after their son Will Lang was born in 2010 that Mike was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma in its terminal fourth stage.

For four years, he endeavoured to live life to the fullest while “negotiating with cancer.” He kept up acting and writing as much as possible, while writing in his blog, “The Big Diseasey,” that top of his bucket list was spending more time with his son. (Mike claimed all the good names for cancer blogs were taken; he would have liked to have used “Departure Lounge.”) He chronicled his and his family’s day-to-day struggles and high points with acute observations, such as “There aren’t five stages of grief, there are five hundred” and “We cancerous folk begin in the same place, usually a doctor’s office. Sadly, we often end up in the same place, too. The route between those points is variable; it traverses a wide, wild country with back roads and unmarked trails.” He had an approach that many would call black humour, and was really a way of lifting the darkness with comedic grace. He once wrote that he thought the perfect last words for someone like himself on his deathbed would either be “If I go into a coma, keep taping my shows,” or “Did the Governor call?”

“We cancerous folk begin in the same place, usually a doctor’s office. Sadly, we often end up in the same place, too. The route between those points is variable; it traverses a wide, wild country with back roads and unmarked trails.”

In June 2013, he described how he had forgotten about his 21-year-old history with diabetes in the more glaring light of his cancer. It was like one of the henchmen of the conquered villain had come to kill Agent 007 in the last part of the movie, when, in the midst of initially effective chemotherapy treatments, diabetes sent him to the Emergency Room because of high ISUMS (incomprehensible scientific units of measurements). “I had a Bond moment. It’s like a [blond] moment, but more lethal.”

He also had short shrift for typical obituaries worded as in “so and so lost a courageous battle with cancer,” maintaining that posing cancer as a combatant would imply it was victorious when the afflicted die. “I have cancer, it’s going to kill me, but that doesn’t mean it beats me.” Mike thought it would be a good idea for newspapers to run not just obituaries, but survivor stories, under a column title of “Still Here.” It would allow people entering remission to write about their decreasing tumours (“tumour humour,” he called it), their living with cancer and their regaining strength, “flipping the bird to their former lymphomas, melanomas, and othernomas.”

“Please don’t say I lost a battle to cancer. I lost my life, and it’s been a winner,” he wrote in June 2014. Mike O’Brien met the Ultimate Deadline May 24, 2015. His final dispatch was a legacy of humour.

Rest (the paper) in Peace, Mike.

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