Fire and ice. And friendship.

March 5th, 2021


(published in The Daily Memphian)

(photo: Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)

On the Tuesday of ice and snow, my friend Michael Rowland blew himself up.

Every Tuesday for the last 17 or 18 years, Michael and I have been going to lunch together to moan and groan about this and that, to laugh about whatever, and to talk about everything.

Originally, the group included the late Rev. John Maloney, then rector of Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, and Leo Arnoult, fundraiser then and now for many of the city’s causes. Today, the group also includes a retired lawyer or two, a retired doctor, a retired federal judge, a retired architect, a retired engineer, a retired banker, and a tired but far from retired CEO of MyCityRides, affordably scooting people about town. We are moderately right and left to occasionally further along that line in both directions. Republican, Democrat, Independent, Libertarian, and one Mississippi State fan. Religious to not-so-much to not-at-all, and one guy from New Jersey.

All men, all knowing. A sort of “And another damn thing” club.

Even muffled through masks and safely distanced six feet apart, even challenged by hearing problems that accompany the wisdom of time, nothing prevents this bunch from being heard or from sharing that wisdom – often at the same time. One of our number, Harry Freeman, has a whistle – I’m not kidding – to referee. He is accorded the same respect as most referees.

That Tuesday, we wouldn’t be meeting for lunch.

Snow and ice blanketed the city and lunch had been called off. Virginia Rowland had braved the slick roads to run an errand and retuned home, pulling in the driveway just in time to see the explosion lighting up the sky behind the garage.

The greenhouse had blown up. Michael was in that greenhouse. He was changing out a line to the propane tank fueling the heating system when something must have sparked.

Virginia rushed back there to see the greenhouse in flames – and Michael rolling in the snow to put himself out ­– and Michael running back in the greenhouse to try and fight the fire. She called 911 and joined him, both quickly giving up. Michael peeled off what Virginia later described as “melted” clothing and actually, and I imagine excruciatingly, changed and waited for fire trucks and the ambulance.

That Wednesday morning, you may have seen the photo beneath the lead story about the brutal weather in The Daily Memphian – five firemen pushing to free an ambulance stuck in the snow and ice.

Michael was in that ambulance.

That Tuesday, a whole lot of people started pushing.

One of our group, Andy Nix, got there just after the ambulance. After Virginia arranged for someone to be with their son, Charles, Andy took her to the ICU burn unit of Regional One. It wasn’t good. Michael was more than 50% covered with severe burns, how severe time would have to tell. Most affected were his hands, arms, back and face, and the pain was indescribable. He was critical.

Andy got to work on his phone and the troops were marshalled.

People notified, people regularly updated, a matrix for meals and support established, even a call for the adoption of the exotic (and large) plants that had been saved from the greenhouse and moved into the house (filling it) when the temperature dropped before the explosion. There had to be a plan for the backyard, too. It’s a menagerie out there ... chickens, ducks, and the Rowlands have rescued so many dogs over the years that Lassie called and said they had to give somebody else a chance.

At this point I should tell you that Michael Rowland is tough as nails, and nails don’t melt easily. I should also add that Virginia Rowland can take the heat, too, as can their son, Charles. Together, they’ve survived tragedy and met challenges than most of us haven’t and won’t see.

I had a brief phone conversation with Michael after his first surgery, covered in ointment and his hands in mitten-like bandages. He spoke to me and joked with the attendants while they changed his PICC line from his leg to his neck, and said he’d had some of his darkest moments, but he was doing better.

As of this writing, he’s had two surgeries and he is doing better. Andy’s updates tell us that there’s every reason to be hopeful. His color is good, maybe less time in ICU and the hospital than originally thought, then on to physical therapy. But make no mistake, the process is brutal and far from over. The updates make that clear as well. Michael had four pain pumps – four – following the second surgery, each targeted to separate areas.

As of this writing, the number of visits to Michael’s site and Andy’s updates on CaringBridge is approaching 1,500.

Andy and Michael are different. While Andy’s growl is more like Pooh looking for honey, Michael’s is a momma grizzly protecting her young. While Andy’s dark moods are more like twilight, Michael’s are a starless midnight. But they have things in common: they both have hearts the size of basketballs and both will drop everything to help when needed.

Great friends to have around when there’s a fire.

All of this has me thinking about Michael, Andy, and friendship in general. Those lunches, and all the guys involved, have been a lifeline stretched six feet between us over the last year. The discourse, the consideration of the events of our lives, our city, and our nation, the sharing week-to-week in the time of plague have been as soothing as anything in my medicine cabinet – and it should be noted I have a whole pharmacy in there.

Nothing brings the value of friendship into focus like a threat to a friend. Nothing should remind us more of how thankful we should be for the friendships we have than the specter of losing any of them.

Last Tuesday, lunch was at Harry’s. Symbolically, he left a chair empty for Michael. Andy arrived a little late and plopped himself down in that chair. Perfect. He was covering until Michael’s return.

I’m a Memphian, and for Michael and his family – for anyone hurting – push as hard as you can.

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