This piece was originally written for Stand Up! Records, for whom I am a copy writer and loyal laugher. Written, unbidden, just after hearing Mike had died, it’s still one of my favorite pieces. Hasty, but heartfelt.
Mike DeStefano, a light of compassion in a dark world, passed away on March 6, 2011. And just like he predicted in an interview on Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast last December, it wasn’t drugs, disease, or his own hand. He had a heart attack and, just like that, we lost a friend.
Two of the stories Mike shared in that groundbreaking interview really capture his spirit. The first was about caring for his wife as she died. He said that taking care of her in those years was the best thing he ever did: it proved to him that he wasn’t a piece of shit, that he was capable of deep love and commitment. He said, “Maybe I am afraid of commitment,” because, “I know what it means. I’m going to be there until I bury you.” We’ll let you listen to the rest of the “Harley story” on your own.A second story arc was about his own (previously private) experience living with HIV and how it brought him, in a roundabout way, to comedy, to Buddhist thought, and to a courageous peace. “I don’t have to tell anyone about my HIV, but if I don’t do it, who will?” he asked Marc Maron. “There’s something cool about having the worst disease. You got hepatitis? Get a real disease!” It turns out, Mike was diagnosed over 20 years ago, but never took meds for it and the HIV never progressed to full-blown AIDS. He’s a medical mystery (not like we didn’t know that already!). And he hadn’t gone public about being positive until that interview. But he had worked as an HIV public health educator, and it was that work—and a fortuitous run-in with a Tibetan lama on an airplane—that led him to the stage in the wake of both his wife and his father’s deaths. “Instead of killing myself, I became a stand-up comic.” The truth-purveyor went on, “I want to make people laugh, but I want people to know they’re not alone with suffering. They can survive anything… Your pain is the same as mine.” Mike was open to duka (the universal experience of suffering); he was able to say, the pain that is in you is in me. He could greet it with peace, with compassion. “Namaste.”
When Mike was in the Twin Cities last, he performed at Acme Comedy Company and worked with us on recording his next record. He even got a tattoo (not the one we set up for the photoshoot for the CD cover, but still…). Of all the things we could have done, we walked around the Mall of America talking shop, and Mike got himself a chair massage. When he walked out of that place, he was radiating. Mike, happy in the moment, full of warmth, open to the world in all its darkness and light. That’s how we’ll remember him.