Life was a pain for Michael Sherrill. Literally. Mostly a headache, sometimes a backache, but always a pain.
Michael was born in pain and when, at a few weeks old, doctors diagnosed him with hydrocephalus, everyone knew why.
The literal translation of hydrocephalus is "water in the head." It's caused by a build up of cerebrospinal fluid. That build up can do a lot of nasty things to a body, but mostly it just plain hurts.
I met Michael when he was 18 years old and a brand new student at Luzerne County Community College. I don't remember exactly when I first learned about his headaches but I know it was not on the first day of class. He simply wasn't a complainer.
The first time we sat down and talked about his pain was the first time he had to tell me he'd be missing a week or so of school due to surgery. That's when I found out that surgery was away of life for him – he had had dozens of operations, mostly on his head, always to try to relieve the pressure – and that, I suppose, is when I found out he had to put up with a headache every single day of his life. And every minute of every day.
Michael wanted to be a journalist and he would have been a darned good one. He had all the qualities: a natural curiosity, a genuine concern for people, a love of the English language, and a willingness to learn. I never saw a student more comfortable in an interview situation. Michael would think nothing of sitting down with the college president and firing one tough question after another.
But the one quality that made me think "this kid's a journalist" was his sense of humor. You must have one of those – and in good measure – to work in this business.
When Michael returned to school following his 57th operation, he told us all, "You can start calling me ‘Heinz' now, I'm at 57."
And in the summer of 2006, before consenting to his 91st surgery – the one that would be his last – he was still joking.
After the 90th operation, Michael had made a pronouncement: no more surgeries. He'd had enough.
So he had to be talked into the next one. His doctor told him the choice was his but if he did not have it, he could wind up a vegetable.
"I can't be a vegetable," Michael said. "I can't."
"I understand," the doctor said. "I couldn't either."
"No, you don't understand," Michael said. "You've never seen my mother's garden. If I was a vegetable, she'd forget to water me."
Michael's mom told that story on the day he died. She enjoyed telling it because she wanted everyone to know that her son kept his sense of humor right to the end. In his final hours, he asked his mom to have a private viewing. "I don't want a bunch of strangers standing by my coffin telling you how good I look," he told her.
That spoke to another quality we journalists seem to have: cynicism.
Mrs. Sherrill honored her son's request.
Michael Sherrill was more than just an LCCC student. He was part of the family. He had taken classes for nine years. His health situation kept him from ever taking a full load, and often he'd need to ask for a grade of ‘incomplete' because of an emergency surgery.
But he never stopped going to school, never lost his love of learning, never gave up on his dream to earn a college degree.
When Tom Leary, now LCCC president but then vice president of student development, learned that Michael might be near death, he went over his transcripts and discovered that Michael – although he did not realize it – was eligible to graduate. He had indeed earned his degree.
It was mid-summer. Leary had an official LCCC diploma shipped overnight and on a rainy Friday afternoon, he, along with Michael's counselor Deb Boyson, department chair Tom McHugh, and professors Ron Reino, Andy Petonak and I, arranged to gather at Michael's home in Larksville for a private graduation ceremony.
We arrived two hours after Michael had died. He was 27.
"Don't say you're sorry," his mom interrupted each of us as we tried to express our condolences. "This is a happy day for Michael. He is finally free, free from pain. He was alert ‘til the end and he was so happy to know that he was finally a college graduate. You know what that meant to him. LCC was his life. He loved going to school."
Mrs. Sherrill said Michael's diploma would be placed in the coffin with him. Even though he never got to see it or hold it, she said it was his most prized possession.