April 5, 2014 6:46:03 PM
Monday morning, the news came of the sudden, stunning death of Mike Ritter. He had entered the hospital for surgery to repair a heart problem and died before the procedure could be performed. Mike, a brilliant editorial cartoonist, was 48 years old. These kinds of deaths, including the sudden passing of Columbus Police Department investigator Don English at age 58, are a not-so-subtle reminder of my own mortality. I am 54.
All week, I've been unable to escape the sense sadness any thought of Mike conjures up. I cannot explain it, really. Mike and I were not close friends, although we were former colleagues and we kept in touch intermittently through Facebook.
I just feel as though there was something left unfinished in Mike's passing, a feeling unlike those that have accompanied the deaths of others I have known, be they family or friends or acquaintances.
For starters, Mike was a remarkable talent. I met him 16 years ago when I arrived in Arizona as the sports editor of The East Valley Tribune. Mike was the staff cartoonist and his talent was obvious from the start. Mike built a reputation of excellence among his peers in the world of editorial cartoonists. His work was featured in the annual "Best of Editorial Cartoons" every year from 1995 until 2003. Probably his finest moment as an editorial cartoonist came on the occasion of Sept. 11, 2001. Of all the editorial cartoons I have seen from that awful event, his remains the most inspired and moving. It captured national attention, too, a piece that perfectly captured the confusing collision of emotions that swept over us in that tragic moment.
But the absence of Mike's talent alone that seems to stir this abiding ache deep within me. Nor is it the fact that he was genial, kind, intelligent. Certainly, those are qualities to be admired and to be missed when they are gone.
But it's something else, something more personal.
We seemed to have little in common at first. He was a gay guy from Pacific Northwest. I was a straight guy from the South. Funny, though, we were both conservative Republicans. I was a little surprised to discover this: I had never met a gay Republican.
Since then, both of us moved steadily to the left. Our political orientations moved on separate paths in the same direction, it seems.
But there is something else, I think, which may be most responsible for this cloak of sadness I can't seem to shake off.
I felt there was a true empathy that existed between us, a common struggle for redemption.
Mike was fired in 2005 by the same editor who would fire me two years later.
We lost connection with each other when he was fired and I didn't hear from him again until shortly before I returned to Mississippi in 2010. By then, I had been convicted for my third DUI, spent four months in state prison and had been scratching out a meager living on a series of menial jobs, forever a pariah in my chosen profession, I was convinced.
It was at that point that I stumbled upon Mike on Facebook. I told him my story. He told me his.
This from his Facebook message to me on Sept. 24, 2010:
Yeah, the last five years have been pretty rough. Of course, I got fired in '05. After (the editor) insisted I could only draw happy local cartoons (speaking ill of the war in Iraq was un-East-Valley-ish). I just sort of gave up, stopped taking my happy pills and let the depression take me where it would, which gave them the opening to clear out that nice fat salary line I was sitting on. Alas, I had just bought and gutted a 90-year-old house when that salary disappeared and I spent the next year and half pouring everything I had (and so very much more) into getting it put back together in time to sell it at a loss.
The nightmare of those months is too vast to chronicle here, but here are two nuggets: 1. Roommate's dogs totaled my uninsured car. 2. Crazy tenant in my guest house went to family court, claimed I was her abusive boyfriend (program reminder: I'm gay as a Christmas goose). She got an order of protection that removed me from my house for one week until a hearing could be held, during which time she burglarized my house.
Skipping ahead, I move to Atlanta. My first apartment floods: I lose one-third of my cartoon archive. Apartment No. 2 is hit by a tornado. I get a job on a weekly newspaper, worked there until last year when they went out of business. Now I freelance, editing and designing a NASCAR page for Cox Newspapers (if you can believe it) and working part-time at a gym.
Since that exchange, Mike and I communicated every so often, mostly on the news of the day. But somehow, the connection ran deeper than I had realized.
It seemed to me that Mike understood what it's like to be a loser and what it's like to struggle to get back on your feet with little reason to be optimistic. I don't know if he was ever paralyzed with the same feelings of self-loathing that I experienced or if even felt like giving up, yet stumbling blindly on anyway.
At the time of his death, Mike was the art director for GA Voice in Atlanta, a newspaper devoted to LGBT issues. What I do not know is whether he considered himself "back."
I look at where I am in my life now and feel incredibly fortunate, mainly because I still feel undeserving. I wonder if Mike felt the same way before he died.
I will never really know.
Mike's was a wonderful story of a talented man's fall and subsequent struggle for redemption. But the ending stinks. And that's what still bothers me, I guess.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.