John Michael “Mike” Mack, a Jackson Hole resident for 18 years, crossed over on Aug. 28, 2020, in Danbury Regional Hospice in Connecticut. He was 67. The following was provided by his family.
He did not go quietly.
His 20 years worth of AA friends and sponsees would understand this.
As would his co-conspirators at Wolf’s Auto, where he charismatically ground it out as a sales team member, then the sales and finance manager, for the past 10 years.
His family understood implicitly. The five grown children were by his side daily for his final month of hospice, where he took in favorite music jams (MC5, Zappa) and foods (mainly ice cream) and gave the nursing staff a run for their money.
Example: He talked his oldest daughter and son into smuggling in a few fine Cuban cigars and a bottle of Irish whiskey to celebrate his 20 devout years of sobriety.
“It was time,” he’d said, grinning. “Well, I did it. I really kicked my addiction, because I have no idea how in the hell I could ever drink a bottle of this!”
While he did, in fact, imbibe of the milestone whiskey shot, to the staff’s credit the illicit bottle was spotted and confiscated. No matter; mission accomplished.
Prior to his comfort-driven incarceration with Danbury Hospice, Michael and partner Diana traveled and camped, criss-crossing the country in a Dodge Ram-pulling-Airstream-trailer rig he’d assembled after recovering from the red flag colon tear that had first landed him in St. John’s ICU in April 2019.
Brilliant surgery by Dr. Randy Kjorstad, a team of fierce caregivers, and stout Irish blood pulled him through, but, looking at the grim pathology report, the pair agreed it was time to pull stakes in Jackson and blast away from business as usual. They had dreamt of doing so for years, and now they truly had nothing to lose.
Mike drove, Diana navigated and Molly-the-cat climbed truck seats — and trees, “in nearly every campground,” Diana confirms, smiling at the memory of Molly’s leash-free existence on the road.
Gros Ventre Campground was first. Situated just a stone’s throw from town, it gave them the opportunity to finish up loose ends and gain their sea legs in their new land yacht life.
“How many million make it out here to enjoy this every year? Starting in our own backyard was a no-brainer,” said Diana.
She recalls being Michael’s literal “right arm” during their stay near the banks of the Gros Ventre River, under the towering cottonwoods. Michael had opted to complete a long-time-coming shoulder surgery, piggybacking the massive April colon reconstruction before they left town.
“It was a lot,“ Diana confesses.
Michael’s shoulder was in a sling. The colon reconstruction had required a “temporary” colostomy, still a fairly new bodily feature to contend with. Apparently Michael Mack took it all in stride, tackling new body protocols, bouts of intense pain, camp chores, and climbing the ladder each night to a rooftop iKamper tent, his favorite place to sleep.
“The guy just doesn’t enjoy easy,” his daughter says. “Tough as nails and completely happy outside.”
Beautiful September weather and sympathetic park attendants made for a stay that extended many extra days. Family and friends visited. AA comrades brought a spontaneous pot-luck send-off supper. Molly-the-cat covertly assisted with the campground chiseler overpopulation problem. It was a happy, if intensely healing, time after the chaos of selling their house and overhauling a lifetime of possessions to accommodate a freer existence.
Destination No. 2 was Columbus, Ohio, Michael’s boyhood home. He caught up with sister Sally and her husband, Rob, also reconnecting warmly with friends and former band mates he hadn’t seen in 30 years.
Ambling east to Connecticut, the Airstream then rolled into the backyard of Diana’s newly widowed mother, Lorraine. Diana’s beloved father had passed Sept. 11. The pair spent the rest of autumn sorting and hauling, helping Lorraine gain traction with upkeep of the family house.
October brought pastoral walks down leafy roads, apple orchards and Metro-North NYC train trips. They took in the pre-COVID buzz of Bryant Park, great food, street music and playgrounds with city-dwelling son Drew, wife Liz, and cherished grandson Julian, aka the Scooter King of East 38th.
By November, on another city visit, buzz morphed into excruciating pain. A late night cross-town NYC ambulance ride landed Michael in Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for the week of Thanksgiving.
Chemo abruptly began.
December prompted an escape from Lorraine’s icy, slippery Connecticut backyard to the southern heat of Michael’s past home. A winter in Clearwater Beach, Florida, with daughter Taylor and her partner James began.
It was punctuated with biweekly chemo treatments in Tampa.
The chemo side effects were quelled with short fishing trips, long bike rides over the Bay Bridge, a Florida-style Christmas and New Year’s, Diana’s ever-present “wicked-green” smoothies, grouper sandwiches, and storytelling. Lots of storytelling — mostly Michael’s — around the side yard fire ring just steps from the door of their silver bullet home on wheels.
Michael savored morning fires and storytelling even more than greasy grouper sandwiches. From a health perspective, this was a good thing.
Fortunately he had plenty of stories. Life as a 15-year-old Mack family exile, living on the Ohio State campus in the late ’60s. Riding and working with recruited friends and his big brother Jimmy on the 1976 American Freedom Train. Twirling booze bottles in the ’70s as a star bartender at T.G.I. Friday’s, “with customers up and down the bar five deep.” Selling cars with mafia men in Jersey. The supply of stories saw no end. He was recounting his radical life.
They began planning their escape from thickening dew points right about the time COVID hit. Advised to stay put in Florida, Michael was wrangling his sixth chemo treatment, which made him extremely high risk, and travel out of the question. They rolled the Airstream away from his daughter’s busy family house and yard, and relocated to a serene rental home up the road in Crystal Beach.
It was in the Crystal Beach refuge that Michael decided to stop chemo when he hit No. 10. There were no guarantees what would happen after that, but he had learned there were zero guarantees anyway. The doctors had, at last, shared they had no intentions of stopping chemo anytime soon. Or maybe ever. His particular cancer case was unsolvable, they said, in doctor-speak, and their plan was to indefinitely treat him to hold off absolute tumor takeover of his abdomen. This wasn’t the quality of life he was willing to succumb to for the rest of his days.
By June the curve had flattened on COVID cases up north. They made their way back to Connecticut, Michael driving, trusty partner navigating, Molly seat-climbing. They settled into a quiet life and hopeful healing in a small rental in the woods.
Michael pounded stakes, Diana planted herbs, kale and tomatoes. She’d wanted to grow her own tomatoes for years without the need for a warm garage or greenhouse to coax them to maturity, as had been the requirement in frosty Jackson. It wasn’t his soul’s happy place — the majestic Tetons — but it did have that one non-negotiable: an outdoor fire pit. And this is where he would enjoy his daily communion of green juice for health and black coffee for the soul.
The tomatoes grew fast and so did the web-like tumors in Michael’s abdomen. By end of July, excruciating pain took him out for his fifth trip to the ER in 18 months, surgery confirming that the cancer had won.
Not without a victory dance from the opposing team. Michael walked his bony frame around, unassisted, for the next 28 days, savored the fierce love of his children and Diana, meditated to all the music he could play, Facetimed with countless loved ones, traversed the abstract reality of death and made peace with his own story.
He missed this special valley, voicing deep gratitude for its power. The radical landscape, as well as the powerful people he lived alongside, changed his life.
But mostly he ate ice cream and settled into the void that he knew would soon take him to the Tetons whenever he wished.
• “Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Therein lies the peace of God.” — A Course in Miracles
• “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything.” — Gordon Hempton
• Gloria in excelsis Deo! — Christian hymn
A memorial gathering for friends and family of John Michael Mack will be held at 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 24, at Jenny Lake.
He is survived by his father, James M. Mack, Sr., of Arizona; daughter Evan Mack of Oregon and Wyoming; son Drew (Elizabeth) of New York City; son Patrick (Amber) of California; daughter Taylor (James) of Florida; daughter Ruby Jones (Adam) of Germany; grandson Julian James Mack of New York City; an expected grandson of Florida; brother James of Arizona; sister Susan of Arizona; sister Sally (Rob) Fisher of Ohio; nephews Bo and JR Fisher of Ohio and New York; his life and death partner Diana C. DiPaola of Connecticut; his ex-wife and dear friend Beverly Mack of Idaho; his mother-in-law Lorraine DiPaola of Connecticut; brother-in-law Joel (Trisa) DiPaola of Wyoming; niece- and nephew-in-law Bella and Henry DiPaola of Wyoming; his sister-in-law Denise Becker of Connecticut; and Molly Mack, the Cosmic Cat.