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The journalist, songwriter, and musician Michael Brick held his living wake on Jan. 13 in Austin, five days after doctors told him time was short. He and his wife, Stacy, had known the day was coming since the previous March, when an ER doctor slid open the curtain, tears streaking her face.

During their treks to and from MD Anderson Cancer Center, Mike and Stacy had talked through his wishes for funeral arrangements and such; about their son, John-Henry, 8; about their daughter, Celia, 5; and about Mike’s daughter, Sadie, 21. He said, after he was gone, he wanted family and friends to gather in his honor at the Hole in the Wall in Austin, a legendary joint that launched a thousand bands and a considerably higher number of hangovers.


It so happened that the day Mike and Stacy got the hospice talk, friends from Mike’s writers group were flying into Austin to spend the weekend. For the next two days the house was filled with music, noise, laughs.

Stacy said it hit her on Saturday, maybe, toward the end of the day. “I thought, ‘This is bullshit. I don’t want to play your music at your wake. I want you to be there.’”

She asked a friend if it might be possible to book the Carousel Lounge, another Austin music venue. The friend called back quickly: the Carousel had a 5 p.m. slot the following Wednesday. Stacy waded into the living room, tapped Mike on the shoulder, and quietly put it to him.


“You’re here. You should be at your own wake,” she told him.

He didn’t need to think it over. He was in.

It’s worth noting here that Mike was a book author who also wrote for the New York Times, and, after he’d moved the family back to his native Texas, the Houston Chronicle.

If his journalistic peers had the chance to start their own publication, many would have picked him ahead of any dozen Pulitzer winners. He slipped bizarre, funny, otherwise verboten sentences into the staid pages of the Times, and the characters who acted as his journalistic muses — bartenders, people from the block, the human equivalents of rusted F-150’s with missing hubcaps and ripped seats but good motors that could still get you across the country with maybe a little drama but whatever — peopled his songs as well.

He wore fedoras and old vests. He was well-known for being kind and generous to friends, colleagues, and strangers. Around this time he was 41 years old.

When the wake got underway, the Associated Press photographer Ted S. Warren recorded it. In the video, Stacy introduced her husband to around 90 people who packed the Carousel floor. He carried his too-thin frame to the mic, adjusted it like he’d done thousands of times before.

“I chose the right people,” he told them. “I’ve been lucky enough to find the right people in life, and I love you all. We’re the Music Grinders.”

The crowd hollered and Mike led the band through songs that read like a “best of” compilation — or, perhaps, a legacy gift to his children. There were songs about love, about loss, about the passage of time, about foolish thoughts of 29-year-olds.

Mike’s best friend and bandmate, Peter Weber, recalled Mike’s hands had been so affected by chemo that he hadn’t played guitar in six months, and his spoken voice had changed.

“But he played guitar and he sang like himself,” Weber said. “It was almost like he shed his cancer for a couple hours.”

Between sets, Mike’s brother, Jeff, read selections from Mike’s story collection, “Everyone Leaves Behind a Name: True Stories.” Seth Ginsberg, a Brooklyn-based musician, led the crowd in a sing-along. Mike took the stage again, introducing his bandmates and his children. He offered a tribute to Stacy, and those in the audience.

Speaking by phone earlier this month, Stacy said some members of her bereavement group had loved ones who could never bring themselves to say goodbye.

“It can be a terrible thing for the people who survive you, because they don’t feel like you had peace,” she said. “Mike knew he had to leave. He didn’t want to leave. But he was so graceful about facing it that he just wanted to help everyone else get through. That’s what this was.”

The burden of that gift, she said, was evident during the final song, “Beth Israel.”

Well the sun rises slowly over Beth Israel.
Where the cripples and drunks all together so well.
It’s one more cup of coffee for the late night bunch.
And there’s plenty for breakfast and nothing for lunch.
And I’ve stayed up the whole night thinking it through.
That’s how long it takes to say goodnight to you.

I’d tell the whole story to the gap in the wall.
Or else it’s like nothin’ ever happened at all.
Though you’re so far away it ain’t no crime.
It’s the parts you won’t read in them New York Times.
Kept me up all night. What else could I do?

When that’s how long it takes to say goodnight to you.
When that’s how long it takes to say goodnight to you.

These days even Danny is gainfully employed
But it makes him half crazy and he’ll get so annoyed.
Because they all would be actors but Jeffrey’s the best
And the vodka store don’t take American Express.

And reliable sources say it’s all true.
That that’s how long it takes to say goodnight to you.
That’s how long it takes to say goodnight to you.
That’s how long it takes, that’s how long it takes.
Oh that’s how long it takes to say goodnight, goodnight to you.

Afterward, Mike stepped away from the microphone and looked at his fiddler for a long moment, his cellist, his electric guitar player. He hugged his accordion player and kissed him on the head. He moved to his electric guitar player and did the same — they were all weeping — his cellist; his fiddler. Celia bounced through the stage in her polka dot dress.

Mike bowed and clapped as the band continued to play, and his wife and the kids hugged him and then left him alone on stage looking out at his friends as the band continued to play, as Jeff cried at the guitar, as the crowd cheered them on. They kept playing and, finally, six minutes and 28 seconds after they’d started the song, they sounded a long, final note. Amid the applause, Mike shook his head almost imperceptibly, then mouthed, “I love you.”