Tuesday, February 14, 2012

In Memoriam: Charles Sakai

I just learned that someone dear to me, Charles Sakai, passed away two or three weeks ago. Charles was a comrade-in-arms - mental health advocate, history buff, and Mahler fan. We’d been in each other’s lives for at least ten years, the last three or so as Facebook friends.

We met online sometime in the very early days of my writing about my illness, around 2000, and exchanged emails sporadically.

We met face-to-face in 2003 at a DBSA conference in Long Beach. Both of us had signed up for the talent show. I did a tap-dance number. That’s right, I really tap-danced. I can’t even begin to describe my inner wrestling match with my social anxiety as I got up on that stage. Charles, by contrast, was a natural. He sang karaoke in an unforgettable off-key voice, but the crazy thing was he seemed to be channeling the entire positive life force of the galaxy as he was doing it. It was an amazing performance. Needless to say, he drew the loudest applause of the evening.

We were also participants in a talent show together the next time DBSA came to California in 2006. Again, he brought down the house. The last time we saw each other was the last DBSA conference I attended, in Orlando in 2007. I was one of the break-out speakers, and for my talk I unpacked my didgeridoo.

The purpose of the didgeridoo in my talk was to illustrate the benefits of settling into the kind of stop-and-smell-the-roses state that is vital to managing stress and maintaining wellness. I had only just taken up the didgeridoo three or four months earlier, and about all I could do with it was drone a single monotonous tone. But I thought this would be good enough to lead my audience through a guided meditation.

I think I succeeded, instead, in mystifying just about everyone in the room. My audience was quiet when I stopped, the response I anticipated with a meditative exercise. Suddenly, there was Charles, bursting into loud applause, carrying on as if he had just heard Louie Armstrong reincarnated belting out West End Blues. Charlie came up to me right after his talk, enthusiastically snapping photos of me with my didge and posing for photos with me.

Gotta love this guy.

I last saw him as the conference was breaking up. We would, of course, see each other at the next conference.

I finally figured out how to use Facebook sometime in 2008. Charles was there, constantly encouraging me, giving me a reason to keep going through all my constant down periods when I would have gladly pulled the plug on writing about mental health in exchange for spending the rest of my life rolling pizza dough. I would post a link to my latest blog piece, he would reply with a “like” or a comment.

Okay, not when my posts revealed my politically liberal tendencies. But I was delighted to discover we both resonated to a lot of the same off-beat stuff, such as military history and Mahler.

I can’t remember precisely when I shared on Facebook a YouTube video of a snippet of a Mahler symphony, but there was Charles, enthusiastically responding. Holy cow! both of us seemed to be saying at once. You’re a Mahler fan, too?

To the uninitiated, Mahler is a cult. Mahler fans worldwide share a special bond. Not any old special bond. A special special bond.

Charles, of course, would keep asking if I would be attending this DBSA conference or that DBSA conference. I would keep informing him, no, not this year, maybe next year. We would also talk about my visiting Colorado Springs. Charles was very involved with DBSA there, which has a very active chapter with lots of great people I have bonded with over the years.

I kept thinking that one of these days I would get to Colorado Springs. Alas ...

But we still had Facebook. I recall enthusiastically informing him late last year that I had purchased a ticket to see Dudamel conduct the LA Phil in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. He responded with equal enthusiasm.

Then, soon after, his “likes” and “comments” stopped. I didn’t think too much of it at first. People go into hibernation. Maybe my liberal politics was getting too much for him. The Presidential primary season was in full swing, and I was making no secret of the fact that I considered Republicanism a diagnosable illness. Surely, he would be back.

Two weeks ago, I attended my Mahler concert. It was the most profound musical experience of my life. As soon as I got in the door, I was posting on Facebook. Not just one post. A status post, two YouTube snippets, a link to a just uploaded rerun of an old Mahler blog. Charles will love this, I thought.

No “like.” No comments.

A week went by. Two. I was going through one of my rolling pizza dough moments. Where was Charles? This morning I went to the wall of his Facebook page. Someone had posted:

For everyone that was unaware of what happened to Charles, he got sick, so they took him to the ER and then he was put in ICU in Denver. One week later he died. He had a very advanced form of cancer. By the time he found out, it was too late ...

Now I know. Charles, you were there at the Mahler with me. You had to be. I was thinking of you the whole time. It was one hell of a concert, wasn’t it?


Jeri said...

John, thank you for your loving memories of Charles...he truly was on of a kind! We're still hoping that you will get to visit Colorado Springs...Your books, blogs, and perseverance have been helpful to so many. Please consider a visit, and hopefully we can meet in Miami for the 2013 conference.
--Jeri Brasch, DBSA-Colorado Springs

J Back said...

Your comments on Charles were right on target. He was a great guy and treated people so well at all times. He will be missed by many.