Our adventure was brought to a tragic end on July 16, 2019 when Max’s life flickered out at our home in Tucson.
This came out of the blue and we don’t understand it. Max was healthy, surrounded by loving family and friends, and was excited about his plans for the future.
As you can imagine, the whole family is devastated. I don’t know when I’ll get back to the South Pacific. (Akela is now anchored on the west side of Tahiti.) But I plan to return and scatter Max’s ashes at his beloved Tuamotu Islands.
We held a gathering for family and friends at Himmel Park in Tucson where Max played Frisbee. We set up a projector and shared pictures (shown below) as a revolving slide show. We cried and hugged, and we cried some more. As the sun dropped behind the Tucson Mountains to the west, Laura helped me to find the strength to say these words:
Max, Max, Max
Here we are…. What can we say?
Let’s talk about Max.
Max was the cutest baby, and he was swaddled with affection. He would giggle and cuddle and just make us feel good. I have such fond memories of this time.
Growing up, Max was so close to his big brother Charlie. They splashed and chased each other in the pool for hours, played games, and the two were the best of friends. Even with all the ups and downs of growing up, making it through sibling rivalry and teenage angst, those two shared a close relationship.
Max had tenacity that was rare for a child. At the age of 8, he qualified for US regional gymnastics championships, which were held in Hawaii. We weren’t ready to pay for an 8-year-old to go to Hawaii for a sport. He was 8! But Max was motivated to go. We told him that he needed to raise the money for the trip. We held a “Flip-o-thon” in our front yard to raise donations from friends, neighbors, colleagues, and local businesses. Typically people would sponsor a penny per flip. Max did 1000 flips, and he got the money to go to Hawaii. As his body grew, Max was unable to continue competitive gymnastics because of the bone structure that limited the flexibility in his wrists. What did he do? He went to practice anyway. As much as 4 days a week for years. He practiced the portions of the sport that he could do, but he was really there to support his buddies. You’ll never get a better friend than Max.
Max seemed to be gifted in everything he did. He did tricks on the skateboard and jumps on his bike. Too many times he landed on his head and ended up in the ER. He loved music, playing everything from steel drum band at Tucson High to ukulele with the Polynesians at a beach barbecue. He tried glassblowing and quickly learned to make beautiful art pieces that he loved to offer as custom made gifts. His thoughtful and careful demeanor led him to excel in the profession that he enjoyed, metalwork. In ultimate frisbee, Max would make the tricky throw or the big diving catch. (But too many times he ended up in the ER.) In the last year, he got into surfing, kiteboarding, and spearfishing. My mother would call him “Max-in-a-million.” It always seemed like Max could do anything.
Max’s life has been chock-full of interesting and meaningful experiences. For the past year and a half, Max and I sailed a small boat across the Pacific Ocean. We sailed through storms with waves washing over the boat. We dove with sharks bumping into us as they were whipped into a feeding frenzy. We climbed volcanic mountains and spent hundreds of hours undersea among some of the few remaining pristine coral reefs.
But Max’s favorite was the Manta Rays. These creatures are up to 12’ across and they glide through the water with the grace of a ballet dancer. We called Max “the Manta Ray whisperer” because the mantas would seem to come to him while he’s swimming in the water and dance with him. I like to think that Max’s spirit lives on as a Manta Ray. Max lived with grace and gusto.
Max was always lucky – at the right place at the right time. Good things just happened for him. Max came back to Tucson last month to take one remaining Gen Ed course to complete his degrees in CNC operation and CAD design. Typical Max fashion – in the year and a half that had gone by, the college had removed the requirement for the class. Max just submitted the paperwork and graduated. The world seemed to smile on Max.
The best quality about Max, and the one that brings us all here tonight, is his humanity. Max likes people. People like Max. He is warm and genuine, and I often hear that “Max has good energy”. It’s fun to be with Max.
Max brings out the best in people like nobody else that I have known. Max was comfortable hanging out with me and my buddies – the old guys. Countless times we all would talk, play music, drink, play games, laugh, and enjoy the comfortable glow of being with good friends. Decades of age difference didn’t phase Max a bit. I know that he also had great times with buddies his own age, many of you are here. And Max had a special way with children. His energetic spirit and openness to everyone would draw kids to him, and he loved it. I have deeply enjoyed seeing him so happy exploring, teaching, and playing games with children from the islands and from other boats.
We all know Max as the fun guy (He would make the mushroom joke if he were here). Max had fun most of the time, and this was infectious. We were all in on it and we had fun too! Everybody loved Max.
So here he is, our tenacious, loyal, talented, adventuresome, always lucky, energetic, and fun Max. Surrounded by people who love him, with a half-a-lifetime full of success, adventure, and friendship, with next year’s plans for ramping up the fun, going back to the South Pacific to meet his kiteboard and diving buddies, then sailing to Hawaii to spend time with his best friend Ryan, and making plans for a visit to Denmark to see Isabel, an aspiring Olympic sailor who Max fell in love with while we were cruising the islands of French Polynesia. And Max had ideas of how to use his strong technical skills to make a living that would support a continued life driven by his passions. Max had the world on a string.
Does this sound like a man who could take his own life?
It’s possible to comprehend how drugs, misery, pain, or deep depression could lead a person to hopelessness, looking for an escape. Max had none of these.
We all want an answer, but we may never get one. One thing is clear. The lucid, funny, loving Max that we all know would never leave us in this horrible way. Something went terribly wrong on Tuesday morning where our Max wasn’t in charge and something in his brain short-circuited. This must have trapped him in a place so dark he couldn’t see his own bright plans for the future. And it must have been so cold that he couldn’t feel the warmth from the love that comes from everyone around him. The thought of him alone, in this horrific place with irrational hopelessness makes me sick to my stomach.
We don’t know what went wrong or why. We probably never will. We do know that Max has suffered far too many concussions and we know of the brain disorder called CTE, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which is caused by repeated head trauma. The lives of too many football players and military veterans have been destroyed by CTE. The symptoms of CTE include, among other things, difficulty thinking, impulsive behavior, emotional instability, and suicidal thoughts and behavior. Medical science is only now learning about CTE and the only diagnosis is postmortem. Max’s brain has been sent to the Boston University Concussion Legacy Foundation, the leading institute researching this terrible disorder. One small positive outcome of Max’s death is that the study of his tissue may contribute to a better understanding of CTE, and may make other people’s lives better. It comforts me to think this.
The other positive thing that I need to do is to keep a piece of Max’s spirit alive within me. I’m going to miss Max like you can’t ever believe. But I’m going to go out of my way to live and to love with a gusto that was inspired by Max.
We’re here tonight to celebrate the fantastic life that was cut short too soon and to take to heart the gift that Max gave us.
Dolphins on the bow
Whales out on the horizon
Life is pretty sweet