Michael Halberstam, who was murdered on Friday, was a man who somehow always made crises seem less severe. Or at least less mysterious and more bearable.
We first met because of a crisis. At dusk on our first weekend in Washington 11 years ago -- a balmy June Saturday night -- a scream from our 7-year-old catapulted us into the alley. The suburbs of Nashville had not provided paved and lighted alleys, and this new personal playground was the only tangible benefit she had yet found about our new life.
The scream was more from fear than pain, but nevertheless she had been bitten by a mutt that could not be located and no one would claim. Confronted by the specter of rabies, and being new in town, to whom would we turn?
I suddenly recalled many stories that David Halberstam had told his Nashville cronies about a brother in Washington who was a doctor. Michael's phone was listed, and it rang only twice before he answered. In person. I stumbled through an introduction, apologized for the weekend interruption and generally made little sense at all.
"Now, Mr. Stiles," he said, "I think we can manage this just fine." In a way that I was to learn was characteristic, Michael Halberstam was clear, helpful, efficient, concerned. After counseling us on medical and veterinary matters, he welcomed us to Washington and invited us to drop by to get acquainted.
In the succeeding years, we dropped in regularly. There were the ordinary aches and pains and routine checkups, and several intermitten major crises. Michael the doctor became Mike the friend.
He helped in the usual ways to cope with life. But it was his unusual ways that made relationships with him provocative, spirited and satisfying. Medicine and health were basic, but life was full of much bigger matters that deserved time and thought.
The photos on his office walls testified to an active and eclectic life. Sailing with Dave in stormy seas off Nantucket. Sculling on the Potomac. Showing off an impressive catch from among the many that did not get away. He kept a rugged pace, yet urged others to set their own course. A fierce competitor himself, Mike gamely tolerated but cleverly maligned his friends' penchants for lethargy.
I suspect that his only irate critics and possible enemies were some hospital staff members and an occasional administrator. They must have groaned under his demands and blanched at his irreverent accommodations to patient care. Some years ago, he conspired with my wife to redeem a bleak Christmas I spent in the hospital awaiting spinal surgery. She prepared and surreptitiously served in my hospital room a Christmas Eve feast, replete with wine, "authorized by the attending physician."
His humor mitigated the tedium of pain, and helped cushion the strain of serious prognoses. It seemed fitting that the art in one of his examining rooms was George Cruikshank's illustrations. I felt less antiseptic when I undressed in the presence of Cruikshank's debauched 18th-century revelers and their retinue.
Even his letters to patients reflected his wit and style. My most recent annual physical was followed by a letter documenting the relevant facts. It concluded: "You have remained remarkably healthy over the years, and I feel this is no coincidence, but the result of your attention to diet, refusal to get fat and avoidance of smoking. Any other dissipations, of course, are healthy ones."
Mike's death is all too much like many other contemporary events. Bizarre.
Outrageous. Mindless. Stupefying. Terrifying.
But as stunned and victimized as I feel by his death, the quality and power of his life bridge the chasm.
Our friend, the doctor, left his mark.