OPINION: At UGA, life/death and the varying degrees of graduation

Circa 2011, nearing the University of Georgia arch on Broad Street in Athens. Big sister Emma Torpy, then a sophomore at UGA, with her brother, Liam, left, his twin Fred, and youngest Michael (right) jumping in. (Credit: Torpy family photo)
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Circa 2011, nearing the University of Georgia arch on Broad Street in Athens. Big sister Emma Torpy, then a sophomore at UGA, with her brother, Liam, left, his twin Fred, and youngest Michael (right) jumping in. (Credit: Torpy family photo)

I drove to Athens on Wednesday to drop off our son’s recently repaired beater, the 24-year-old Camry with 270,000 miles. You’ve got to stretch a dollar when you’ve spent 30 years raising four kids.

It’s always great to see your children, even if it’s for a rushed 180 seconds and your son’s medical scrubs are covered with fur. Fred is in veterinary school at the University of Georgia and now is extremely busy doing a stint in the small animal emergency room at the school’s clinic. There was something about a cat with a spine injury. (I hope I’m not violating animal HIPAA here.)

While in Athens, I got lunch and strolled around the campus in a gray drizzle.

There were signs everywhere of what could have been.

There were festive banners congratulating the University of Georgia’s Class of 2021. There were parents walking around town with their graduates-to-be, exploring the shops, grabbing a bite and starting a well-earned victory lap.

It’s an exciting time. The future beckons. Time to leap into the unknown. And so on.

I said “what could have been” rather than “what can be” because as I wandered around campus, I thought about our youngest son, Michael. He has been gone nearly two years, stolen away early by cancer at age 20. But he lingers in the present.

Michael should be a member of UGA’s Class of ‘21. He should have been measured for his cap and gown and, I’d bet, be getting set to embark to graduate school. As a state champion debater in high school, he originally considered law. But the science bug bit and he was thinking of genetics.

Fred Torpy was getting his lab coat in a 2018 ceremony at the University of Georgia Veterinarian School. Michael, left, was getting set to attend UGA after a yearlong break because of cancer. They are with their mom, Julie Hodack, and grandma Marge Hodack. (Credit: Bill Torpy)
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Fred Torpy was getting his lab coat in a 2018 ceremony at the University of Georgia Veterinarian School. Michael, left, was getting set to attend UGA after a yearlong break because of cancer. They are with their mom, Julie Hodack, and grandma Marge Hodack. (Credit: Bill Torpy)

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

I don’t know if he was the smartest of our kids, but I always said he was the hardest working — and funniest. He still makes me laugh. The kind of funny that sneaks up out of the blue when I think of him and makes me nod my head, thinking, “Good one!” It’s like an amiable haunting.

(Clarification here: Fred, Michael’s older brother, who is tearing through his third year of veterinary school, might have overtaken him. For hardest working, that is. Mick is still the funniest.)

There are all sorts of triggers to remember someone who’s gone, especially those who depart early.

I sometimes sit out on the front porch late at night and gaze at the dogwood he helped plant in the spring of 2019 when he was rail thin and his time was running low. It was my kids’ Mother’s Day gift to my wife, Julie, and when it blooms, a sense of him has returned.

Or there was a few days ago when we emptied out Michael’s bedroom to paint. Julie pulled from the closet a few of his tall, wooden Christmas nutcrackers. Did I mention he was quirky? And there was the crown he received for being voted king of the Sadie Hawkins dance as his high school graduation loomed. Days after that, we learned he had osteosarcoma, an especially nasty bone disease.

He lived for 26 more months. And although we thought we knew him, we found out who he really was — a tough, brave, serene, wise and, finally, an accepting young man. The highs we shared during that time were pretty up there. The lows? Well, you can imagine. You’re drinking life out of a firehose at that point.

Michael missed what would have been his freshman year of college because of two major operations and months of intensive chemo, but finally he ended up attending UGA for most of a year before having to pull out. He got the full college experience in his truncated stint, becoming a Presidential Scholar as well as carrying a fake ID.

Michael Torpy and UGA Bulldog paraphernalia while fighting cancer at Children's Healthcare in 2017. Bill Torpy photo
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Michael Torpy and UGA Bulldog paraphernalia while fighting cancer at Children's Healthcare in 2017. Bill Torpy photo

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

And then he came home. For the last couple of months of his life, a hospice care nurse would visit our home. She was a good-hearted person, as the job would require, and seemed like an old flower child with tattoos.

“Y’all are doing a great job through all this,” she told us. “You ought to write a book to help other people.”

But a how-to book on death largely died with Michael, as we largely followed his lead.

ExploreTorpy at Large: How our youngest, who died, led us as he left us

After his death, a UGA professor forwarded me a video that Michael did for the First-Year Odyssey Seminar, a program in which UGA freshmen get to know each other. Michael‘s narration was like a whisper from the great beyond. I’ve probably listened to it a dozen times.

People think you don’t want to talk about such a wrenching matter. They shy away, change the subject. But you don’t mind talking. In fact, you’d prefer it — to remember, relish and relive. Sometimes a person will send a photo that you haven’t seen or will share a previously unheard story. And then there he is, a glint of him is right there in front of you. Smiling.

Facebook has been a purveyor of remembrance, with an algorithm that sends you posts from a year ago, three years ago, eight years ago, whatever. You click and Boop! there he is on your computer or iPhone screen in living color. It’s like a gold coin has been dropped in your lap.

Recently, social media has carried a cavalcade of posts from Michael’s contemporaries and their families sharing the joy, pride, and in some cases relief of them graduating. The happiness in the photos radiates, and Julie and I have been excited to see the roll call of achievement.

Liam Torpy, left, and Michael Torpy plant a tree they and their siblings bought for Mother's Day 2018. Photo by Anna Herrero Tejada
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Liam Torpy, left, and Michael Torpy plant a tree they and their siblings bought for Mother's Day 2018. Photo by Anna Herrero Tejada

Credit: Anna Herrero Tejada

Credit: Anna Herrero Tejada

His pals did well: one’s headed to Columbia Law School, another is already in New York in finance, while his closest friend is headed to grad school at Georgia Tech for aerospace engineering. Rocket Man.

We all have hopes, dreams and expectations for our kids and envision key moments in their future like scenes of a not-yet released movie.

Years ago, I recall thinking ahead to the spring of 2021 with relish. Michael would be graduating and we’d have all four of our kids through college (or at least undergrad). Then it would be easy (well, easier) street, a time to kick back a bit and enjoy the yutes as they blossomed.

Michael’s three siblings, Emma, Liam and Fred, are all happy and thriving. Our family has learned some severe life lessons, and we’ve graduated to where we are today. We have some great memories, a happy present and, we hope, a healthy future.

That’s all you can expect. And it’s a good place.

Thanks, Mick. And Happy Graduation.

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