Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Michael L. Cox, 1952-2009

Mike Cox passed away on Monday, following a yearlong battle with cancer. A brief and no doubt inadequate tribute follows:

Mike Cox was one of my best friends, and held the additional distinction of being the very first friend I made in Nebraska. When my wife Susan and I decided, in 1998, to move here—she had been offered a teaching post at the University of Nebraska—I went through back issues of Hawk Chalk to see how many falconers might be in Lincoln. Two names kept popping up: Mike Cox and Karl Linderholm. So I determined that, once we got settled in, I would give them a call. But I'm just introverted enough that I could have found excuses to put that off for weeks or months. Fortunately, on just our second day in town, fate intervened when a neighbor, seeing my tiercel redtail in his newly-erected mews, contacted Animal Control. This resulted in a further chain of calls to the local rehab organization, Nebraska Game & Parks, and finally Mike. Unaware of all this, I was stunned to receive a call from the very person I had intended (eventually) to call!

It turned out that Mike and Karl were the best of friends, and soon I was fortunate enough to find myself included in this relationship. For the next ten years, the three of us regularly drank beer together, played sand-court volleyball together, and of course hawked together. There were times when we seemed to drift apart—other than volleyball on Friday nights, we might go weeks without speaking during the summer, leading Karl's wife Lynne to observe, "It's like you guys give up your best friends for Lent!" But this was a symptom of familial comfort rather than any sort of discord: when we did reconnect, usually just before the start of hawking season, it was as though no time had passed. Both Karl and I considered ourselves tiospaye or extended family, having spent many evenings as well as the occasional Thanksgiving or Christmas with Mike and his wife Linda, either at their house or at their home away from home, Barry's Bar & Grill in downtown Lincoln. Conversation at these gatherings might range over an incredible diversity of topics, but naturally falconry was the one we returned to over and over again.

Mike had come to falconry in his twenties, having already excelled at taxidermy and karate. His first hawk was an imprinted redtail, a bird he might have kept to the end of his days had it not been shot from the road by a poacher. Karl came along a year into Mike's falconry career and, with few if any experienced falconers nearby, they taught themselves and each other the basics of practical gamehawking. They were both instrumental in getting Raptor Recovery Nebraska off the ground: when the Wachiska Audubon Society embarked on this project, they had plenty of enthusiasm but no hands-on experience with birds of prey; Mike and Karl put in many hours as volunteers, and eventually got the others up to speed.

Mike was a founding member of the Nebraska Falconers' Association and served several terms as its president. He flew a variety of hawks at both furred and feathered quarry, but eventually settled into his niche as a dedicated rabbit hawker. I just missed his goshawk phase, during which he flew several of these volatile accipiters; by the time I came on the scene, Mike had become infatuated with Harris' hawks—not because they're easy (although they certainly can be) and not because they're social (I never saw Mike fly his bird in a cast, and know of only one cursory attempt to do so), but because of their athleticism and intelligence. Despite a demanding full-time job at the Lincoln Journal Star (he eventually became the newspaper's production manager), he spent at least five days a week in the field, and preferred to hunt seven days a week if the weather permitted it. Never a game hog, Mike was long content to bring home a single rabbit per outing, but eventually switched to making multiple kills because he realized that his tiercel was hunting for exercise and enjoyment, not strictly for food. Doing right by his hawk was Mike's way, and one reason he simply couldn't fathom the motivations of pet-keepers: "I just want everyone to have as much fun as I do."

Have fun he did. I've already mentioned volleyball; Mike and Linda, along with several friends, started a recreational team that remains together to this day. They also started, in 1976, an annual pilgrimage to western Nebraska, where with a rotating assortment of friends and relatives they paddled the Niobrara River by float-tube, canoe, and more recently kayak. After their first kayak trip, Mike and Linda bought their own Daggers and began exploring several of the local lakes around which we hunt during the hawking season. Not that this was their only time on the water—summer evenings not dedicated to volleyball were generally spent in and around their backyard pool, which was the place to be on the Fourth of July. (It was at the pool that I recorded and later transcribed some of Mike's stories into articles for Flatwater Falconry, the Nebraska hawking journal.)

Last summer, Mike began experiencing a visual disturbance which he described as a glare in his field of vision, even when he was out of the sun. He ignored it, and after a few days it went away. Weeks later, he woke up to find the glare had returned, now bad enough that he couldn't read the morning paper. He went to the doctor's office, and from there to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with lung cancer. The cancer had metastasized; a brain tumor was responsible for the glare. Although Mike underwent both radiation and chemotherapy, the prognosis was never good.

Still, Mike and Linda were determined not to give up on life, and never gave in to bitterness—in fact, Mike accepted his fate more gracefully than many of his friends did. He gave his hawk away to friend Bob Noble because he himself couldn't ensure enough flying time (again, doing right by his hawk), and when I spoke hopefully about the possibility of Mike's getting Hannibal back after a year of treatment, he gently but matter-of-factly announced, "Mark, I don't expect to be here in a year." After years of good advice from Mike, this was a final piece of quiet wisdom: set aside denial, accept what is, and be at peace with it. In Mike's final months, he and Linda traveled, he continued to play volleyball when he could, and he even made the Niobrara trip this summer (two days after being released from the hospital following a seizure!). My daughter Ellie and I went on the Niobrara trip for the first time this year, and now I’m even more glad than ever that we were able to do so. Ellie, who was born during our first winter in Nebraska, had known Mike all her life—and, like me, will treasure every memory of her time with him.

Mike was one of life's good guys: a man who married his high-school sweetheart, who worked hard to support his family but always kept work and play in balance, who lived with integrity and generosity and humor. His family, his friends and colleagues at the paper, and of course the Nebraska falconry community will all miss him—the world will never again be quite the same. But, as Mike pointed out to me, life goes on, and he was okay with that. I'll do my best to be okay with it, too.


Remchick said...

What a touching tribute. Thanks for sharing.

Deb said...

Mark, great job!! I enjoyed the entire article. Deb B.

Donna said...

Nice write-up Mark.

PBurns said...

Well said, well done. Memory is served best by passing it on. You are doing that.