I did not expect to be as saddened by the death of Michael Jackson as I turned out to be. Not that I am cold-hearted, but I lived in the constant dread that his death was imminent. When I was close with Michael, there were just too many times that he walked out of a room with a doctor, after complaining that his foot or back or neck hurt him, all lightheaded and woozy. There was no way that a body could survive so regular an assault. So after begging him to give up the painkillers and failing, I steeled myself against the inevitable by feeling angry and disillusioned. Was Michael not the man who had squandered so many blessings? Was he not the friend who, after I had invested two years of my life into helping him rehabilitate his, treated me as if I were a nuisance because I dared to push him to fix his shattered existence? I would overcome my feelings of pity with a spirit of defiance. No, I will not cry. He hadn't earned it.
But then the news came that he had died. And I was devastated. Especially when I saw my children's tears. Michael was accused of pedophilia. But my children and his children were playmates. Yes, I made sure to supervise. But the children did not see him as a monster. Michael brought cartoon videos for his kids and my kids to watch. We sat in my living room on Thanksgiving laughing and joking. And the children missed him.
Once, when my son Mendy was eight years old he accompanied Michael and me to a kosher restaurant in Manhattan. Mendy tried to order. The waiter focused on the adults. Mendy felt ignored. He kept on repeating his order. Michael heard him. He interrupted the waiter. 'Excuse me, but this child is trying to order. Can you please listen to him?' It was not something you'd expect from a superstar. They were supposed to be utterly self-absorbed, right?
And then there was the incident with my children fighting with the children of another family on the school bus. Michael heard about it. My eldest daughter felt bullied. Michael sprang into action. Enter the peacemaker. He called me, and over several days he planned a peace parley in earnest. Everything down to the name tags of the children. No detail was too miniscule. Kids should not fight. Adults were the corrupt ones. He wanted to see harmony among kids. And while he put hours into planning the summit (which never went ahead because the other family pulled out) he was supposed to be working on his album, Invincible. No matter. It would wait. Ending altercations between school children took precedence.
I did not think I would cry when Michael died. It was only when I went back and listened to the many hours of taped conversations that Michael and I conducted so that I would write a book that peered into his soul. Hearing his voice, hearing him say, in his long drawn out way, 'Shmmmuuuulleeeey,' That did it. The tears flowed. Yes, I was angry at him. Truly. He threw away his life. He had lived recklessly and orphaned his children. He had medicated away the afflictions of the soul as if they were ailments of the body until his body could no longer tolerate the abuse. He had squandered all of G-d's blessings. But he touched me nonetheless. He made me softer and gentler. He was highly imperfect and was perhaps guilty of serious, terrible sins for which there might not be any forgiveness. But G-d, was he tortured. And that is no excuse. Because you dare not visit your pain on an innocent party. But did that cancel out the good he tried to inspire in others?
He used to watch me tell my children I loved them. He did not approve. 'Shmuley, when you tell your children you luuuvve them, you have to look in their eyes. They have to know that you mean it. You have to focus only on them. You can't tell them and look somewhere else.' And ever since then, I peer in their eyes.
After we had given our lecture at Oxford together, I was waiting at Heathrow to travel back to the US. Michael was staying on in London. He called me on my cell phone. 'Shmuuullleeey. Did I tell you I love you?' 'Yes Michael, you've told me many times.' 'But I mean it. I love you.' 'I love you too, Michael. You're a dear friend.' I hung up. I thought he was too sentimental. But I left the conversation with red eyes. How did he find it so easy to tell people he loved them?
So with all this beauty in your soul, Michael, now that you're in heaven, I have to ask you. Why? Why aren't you still here? Why did you screw up your life? Why could you find no happiness without a painkiller? Why did you orphan those beautiful children you loved so much? How could you promise that you would never be alone with kids ever again, only to be arrested a second time on charges of molestation? How could you betray what we tried so hard to build? Why? Why?
I didn't want to feel for him. I wanted to be angry. I never wanted to forgive him. He had everything, but he acted as though he had nothing. He reveled in feeling he was a victim. And even so, there was something very special about him. A superstar who could sit so humbly at Shabbat table and make others feel important. A very busy father who all but refused to travel anywhere without his children. And I'm left with forever vacillating between feelings of pity and feelings of disappointment. Feelings of affection and feelings of fury.