Love couldn't stem the tide of despair. So, in the end a young man took his life, leaving many behind to answer the unanswerable question of why. More than 200 locals attended a memorial celebration of Mike Gokey's life on Monday evening at the Controy Pavilion at Onota Lake. Gokey, a graduate of Taconic High, was found by the state police canine unit in the woods off Valentine Road just north of the school. The 21-year-old had been reported missing in the days prior.
You would have liked Mike Gokey had you been given the chance. But the speed bumps placed before him had taken their toll quietly. The final act in this play, some would suggest, was a selfish one, but Mike was anything but selfish. He'd give you the shirt off his back if you needed it and the last $20 he had in his pocket, which he did recently to a stranger who Mike thought looked down and out.
"It didn't look like the guy had anywhere to stay that night," Mike said later. "I knew I did."
What then cripples the mind of a young person? What is the weight that ultimately forces someone to emotionally collapse and surrender? Estranged from his real parents, Mike was placed in residential care at the age of 4 and put into foster care at age 15. His second foster family were the Bishops, Terry and Rosie, who had enjoyed many years of success in that capacity. The Gokey-Bishop matchup wasn't without the usual ups and downs that are connected with raising a foster teenager, but the love that flowed both ways grew by leaps and bounds and it became evident to many that Mike would benefit greatly from being with this family and was certainly in an advantageous situation.
"No one ever gives you any guarantees," Terry said. "But Mike grew to be one of the family."
The Bishops live near Onota Lake and the water and woods became Mike's playground. Terry Bishop Jr., Terry's son, often took his younger foster brother fishing.
"I never had to ask twice," Terry Jr. said. "He'd be right there. We didn't have a boat, but I called him my first mate."
Mike's smile could light up a room, said his real sister, Jen, who lives in Ashfield. The brother and sister were close, "we always had each other's back," she said. Jen, 24, was devastated by the loss of her baby brother, but stories about Mike only brought smiles to her face. It was hard to think about Mike and not smile.
Mike drew strength from his years at Taconic. He made some friends and was loved by the staff, which worked with him daily. He enjoyed being able to Google his grandfather's farm in Conway and share the pictures. He loved even more spending time at the farm on weekends and during the summer. There were transgressions committed at Taconic, and those were dealt with. Mike, if nothing else, knew right from wrong. He just didn't always make the right choice. But he accepted the consequences without drama.
The people who orbited his planet were many and his path through the universe was mostly swept clear by those who cared. Foster care, said Sena Larabee, a social case worker for Mike for many years, ends at age 22. Larabee said Mike was "an amazing young man" but added that like others, she was unsure about what would have been his immediate or long-term future.
The past year or so had been tenuous. Mike had met a girl in Ohio and moved out there for a time where he tried to attend community college. It didn't work out. He called the Bishops and asked if he could come back and stay for a while. No problem, the family said, and Rosie picked him up at the bus station and prepared his bed.
Job issues cropped up but there were no problems that didn't seem impossible to iron out. The Bishops have a long history of solving foster care issues. But like Terry said, there are no guarantees.
Mike began to get up early and take long hikes in the woods near his home. One night he didn't make it back for dinner. That wasn't like him and the worst fears were realized a few days later.
"We did everything for Mike a family could do," Rosie said. "I have no regrets. I'm not standing here feeling guilty and wishing we had done this or done that. But we are still trying to process it all. We truly didn't see it coming."
Few do. It was Mike Gokey's game the entire time and he held all the cards. And despite all the love and support he never was comfortable with the hand he was dealt. So, he played that lousy hand until he reached the breaking point. The pain became too great. Whatever he was searching for remained elusive. It appears that Mike decided it was time to call off the search.
That's the tough part; that's the part that's hard to understand.
Brian Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.