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Just A Boy
A heartwarming story from Michael's childhood friend Tim Stewart

Michael Hutchence & Tim Stewart at Michael's 10th Birthday Party
(Hong Kong 1970)

For decades I had searched for the whereabouts of a childhood friend who I longed to reconnect with. As like countless times before, my friend Michael once again mysteriously came to mind, so took a break from my work to proceed with what I already assumed would be another fruitless web search. As expected I found nothing so found myself simply browsing the web for old images of Hong Kong. It was there in the small district of Kowloon Tong where two of my most memorable, life altering years took place.  I was pleasantly reminiscing though a plethora of familiar old images when…WHAM!!! I couldn't speak, couldn't move, and couldn't react, everything just shut down! Time stood still as I looked into eyes staring back at me that reached deep into my very soul. There was Michael, so very real I could have reached out and touched him.  Shock turned to joyful thoughts of reuniting with my long lost boyhood friend. I had found Michael.
Although of course elated, I couldn't help but wonder how browsing unrelated Hong Kong images accomplished what decades searching failed to uncover. How angry, embarrassed and foolish I felt when I read the caption under his photo, "…Michael Hutchence". Michael HUTCHENCE??? For 40 years I'd been searching for Michael "HUTCHENSON". What kind of friend was I when I couldn't even get his last name right?

I anxiously browsed further hoping to find more information unaware that the next mouse click would usher me into the darkest place I'd ever been. My dearest friend had passed away 19 years ago! Not only had he passed, but I was nowhere to be found to intervene on his behalf when his life was tragically stripped from him. Oh the sudden surge of unbearable pain that swept over me. It was as if the very core of my life was being drained from my being. Never had I felt so much anguish, so frightened and so alone. My wife heard my sudden groaning and rushed to see what was wrong. After showing her what I had found, she too cried with me and shared my pain. In 37 years of marriage, never had she seen me so distraught. She reluctantly left my side for scheduled appointments, fearing what condition she would find me in upon her return.

It was August 18, 2016. Until that day, I had no clue that Michael had become a global phenomenon and nor did I care at that moment. All I knew was that my childhood friend was dead. For the remainder of the day I sat in a catatonic state holding a personal photograph of Michael & I, arm in arm at his 10th birthday party, while watching a YouTube presentation of his performance at Wembley Stadium- interrupted only by bouts of uncontrolled sobbing.

I spent that evening and early morning hours scouring the web for every image, article, interview and video I could find. After reading countless opposing stories, spun reports, and a plethora of biased press and tabloid rubbish, it became extremely clear that none of the reporters, columnists or so-called journalist had even the slightest clue or any insight whatsoever as to whom they were writing about or who they were attempting to describe. I knew Michael in ways they never could or would. That morning I ceased reading anything further about Michael and tried to simply accept the fact that my friend was dead.

After a week of notable depression, my wife Vanessa convinced me that my unsettledness was not going to end anytime soon unless I did something about it. She was right. On August 28, 2016 I returned to the only website that seemed credible and reluctantly posted my personal sentiments as a memoriam. I'm not involved or familiar with social media so did not think my post would be read or of interest to anyone.
A couple days later I received an email that ended up changing my life forever, it was from Michael's sister Tina. Her webmaster read my post and contacted Tina suggesting it was possibly worthy of her attention. Michael will never return back into my life and that makes me very sad. But just as God brought Michael to comfort and support me during a very vulnerable time in my childhood, God decided to now bring me Tina to help me address the loss of someone most dear to me, her brother Michael. Thank you Tina, you've helped me find my way out of a very dark place.
The first reaction I always get from those who know me and have witnessed my grief for Michaels loss is utter confusion. Oddly enough they all begin with the same puzzling question I was forced to ask myself; why does the loss of a 2-year boyhood relationship that existed over four decades ago traumatize my heart and soul as it does? People pass all the time, friends and family die - some more tragically than others. This loss was altogether different…so very different.

Why did I experience such very real pain and emptiness for someone I've not seen or heard from in well over 40 years? It certainly wasn't an overzealous fan reaction per Michael's celebrity status, for I only knew him as my schoolmate, soccer mate, teammate and close friend. Maybe it's because as a young American boy in a foreign country he was my only true childhood friend. Maybe it's because he was my only memorable connection to my unusual past. Maybe it's because he was front and center of the few happy childhood memories I was able to recall. All of those were probably valid reasons, but my heart tells me it's more than that… something so much more.

What I do know however, is that Michael was without doubt the foremost critical player during two of the most vulnerable years of my life. That unique relationship would help create the very foundation on which my life as a man, husband and father would be built upon. I of course am in no way inferring that a 9-10 year-old Michael executed some brilliant strategy that would one day produce a successful adult. I am however going to introduce you to a young lad extraordinaire that few have ever had the privilege to truly know…then I believe you will understand.
 I never met the ‘superstar' Michael so am unqualified to share anything about that man. Appearance wise, his features remained somewhat the same as the boy I knew, just older. What was clear to me however was the entertainment industry’s efforts to alter that boy and mold him into the rock star they wanted, but that's all a facade, none of it is real. This may sound a bit creepy - so be it, but one evening I kept replaying By my side over and over again as I swore I kept seeing something that seemed so familiar but couldn't put my finger on it. Suddenly I saw it again and knew just what it was. I rewound and this time paused the scene, walked up to the screen and looked deep into his eyes. There he was…Michael Hutchence from Kowloon Tong, the boy I knew and who knew me so well - Oh how I missed him.

The true character of a person is not what's written or said about the individual - people can write and say what they want regardless of what is true or false. One's true character can only be identified in how one behaves in all given situations and how they treat, and/or react toward others.  True character can never be evaluated simply on how we behave in public, but on how we behave in private when no one is looking - And this brings me to Michael.
Although I can't actually recall exactly when or under what circumstances Michael and I first became acquainted, however it was most likely in 1968 during my first year at Beacon Hill School. One thing I am certain of however, is that it was Michael who would have taken the initiative as I would have been petrified to do so on my own accord. It also would have had to of taken a good amount of time and effort on his behalf as I learned to never trust anyone. Our family had moved around a lot and rarely stayed anywhere long enough for me to make friends. My parents were also missionaries, and very strict when it came to our interaction with non-religious individuals or groups. Needless to say, as a result I was severely lacking in social skills and was terrified of anything out of my comfort zone- and making friends was definitely not in that zone!  To make life more challenging I was the only lad in Kowloon, or in HK as far as I was concerned, who suffered with turrets, a disability that few doctors understood anything about at that time. Oh the countless nights I cried myself to sleep after enduring a long day of mumbled insults, mocking stares and shunned as a "retard" by every child and adult alike. I was 9 years when I found my first friend, his name was Michael Hutchence, and he became my best friend…ever!
You see, there's a reason Michael was my best friend…he was my only friend…there were no others. My turrets made me quite noticeable making me an embarrassment for those who were around me - but not for Michael. Oddly enough, Michael never even seemed to notice my ticks. Although they could be quite severe at times, never did he stare nor even acknowledge my grunts and quirks, it was almost as if he never even noticed them. I wasn't stupid, I knew full well he could see and hear just fine, but unlike everyone else who would quickly leave when I jerked or grunted - Michael never did, he always stayed.

Although Michael was always an awesome play mate, looking back I'm astounded at the level of maturity he displayed that far surpassed what one would expect from a thoughtful adult. Michael was very aware and in-tune with my physical challenges and emotional insecurities, yet as a 9-year-old boy, he chose where he wanted to be, it just happened to be alongside me, a place where no one else ever wanted to be. He became my sole encouragement when all others bullied me and mocked my quirks, and went out of his way to protect me from dwelling in a very dark place. What child does that, or even knows to do that? For the first time in my life I had a real person, not a make-believe one, who actually cared about me and not what I did, who genuinely liked me - if he didn't then he would have left long ago like all the others. Never once did Michael distance himself from me, that's not what a best friend does.

Before I discuss anything further about Michael, it's important to take a quick detour here in order to keep the rest of my story in context. Until I came in contact with Tina, I really struggled with the knowledge that Michael committed suicide. It seemed like some pieces of my ‘Michael Puzzle’ were missing.
Something was just horribly wrong with this picture and all that my heart knew to be true! It wasn't until I reviewed over and over my back and forth emails to Tina that my distorted picture became distinctly clear - clear to me at least. You see, it was my relationship with Michael (the real Michael I call him) that kept me, a 9-year-old boy, from actually following through with the plethora of suicide notes intended for my parents. Yes, the INXS celeb superstar ‘Mike’ took his life, but that was not Michael…not at all as there is absolutely no resemblance between the two! Michael would never have allowed life to be taken, he valued it, I know because he valued mine.  I'm confident Michael knew all too well the depth of my insecurities and made it a point for me to clearly comprehend just how valuable my life was to him. I am alive today with a wife, 4 children and 10 grandchildren, and am living proof as to his regard for the sanctity of life. Fortunately, I believe in a very real life beyond this one of pain and sorrow, I am grateful that he may one day love on my grandkids the same way he did on me.

 As I reminisce and write I can't help but question if I myself give insufficient credit to children who frankly are far more perceptive and intuitive that we give them credit for.  Case in point; I can distinctly remember trying to determine in my mind whether Michaels outreach of friendship was genuine or was I simply being pitied. It didn't take very long before I got the answer I was looking for. Having been a kid, especially one with unique challenges, I'm all too familiar with peer pressure and how one is critiqued and judged by the company they keep. Michael had absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose by openly choosing to identify me as a friend. Michael seemed well liked by everyone and interacted comfortable with the ‘cool kids’ at school. How shocked I was when my newly found friend unapologetically, and without a hint of hesitation, asked me in front of everyone (including the cool kids) if I would come to his home for his birthday party. I suddenly felt like the most important kid alive, especially since no one else there was invited. What I'm certain seem insignificant to others was paramount to me…this was my very first birthday party!
First I was shocked, then thrilled that my dad let me attend, even if he did insist on being there himself. Michael paid it no mind that my dad stayed for the party, in fact it all worked out for the better. Michael was the perfect host and impressed my father so much that I was given his official approval to revisit unescorted. Although I know now, what I didn't know then is what it was about Michael that made him so likeable. How did he earn my father's trust from just one Birthday party encounter? I couldn't even do that!

And what a Birthday Party it was. I can't recall exactly how many kids attended, just remember being surprised that it was far less than I expected. It wasn't because he lacked friends, when I was asked at school to attend, everyone around me was begging for the same invite - they just never got one. Maybe there were more kids present, but the only ones I seem to remember being there was possibly a couple other boys from school, a couple of neighbor kids that I hardly knew, Michaels parents, his brother Rhett, their Amah who absolutely petrified me, and of course my father who took some pictures that remain on my desk to this day.
And oh the deeper story those few pictures tell. There is Michael (and everyone else) in their casual shorts and flip-flops alongside me in my best summer clothes, knee-high socks, penny loafers…accessorized of course with a Cub Scout neckerchief & slide around my neck and a pen clipped to my collar - who in their right mind let me out like that!! No sooner did I walk in with my stylish apparel when a boy asked out loud in a mild patronizing tone, "What are you wearing?” Before I even had a chance to evaluate his question and conjure up a defense, Michael replied "Whatever he wants." - topic closed, conversation over! What a great day indeed! This may have been Michaels Birthday party celebration but for me it was my grand opening day of acceptance.

Nothing was the same after Michaels Birthday party. Everything seem to change overnight, mostly all for the good, although some things not so good…but that's life. Up to this point I hated going to school. Being bullied and teased is something I learned to cope with, or at least I thought I did until I became a teen. Being an outcast and ostracized is something altogether very different. Bullying you can brush off and bury away deep inside (not good), but being unaccepted and ignored will drain every ounce of energy out of you and simply wear you out! Those days were over! When I woke up the next day the sky seemed bluer, trees seemed greener, the air felt lighter and more breathable, and I couldn't wait to get to school and be with my friend.
I no longer ate my lunch alone or sat by the fence watching others play. Michael and I would wrestle during recess, something I had never done before…well, other than trying to genuinely protect myself from a bully. Great thing about wrestling with Michael was that I was bigger and somewhat stronger so could normally keep him pinned - until one day that is, when he tried something new. While holding him down he swung both his legs up from behind me and wrapped his ankles around the front of my neck. With all his strength he thrust his legs back down to the ground with my neck still locked in place. When my head crashed on the floor my eyes began seeing double and I could actually feel my brain wobbling in my skull. My best friend Michael just gave me my first concussion. I saw Michael looking in my eyes after regaining some of my senses and heard him repeatedly asking, Are you okay? When I was finally able to answer him back I assured him I was fine, but could tell by the look on his face that he didn't believe me. We went back to class and could see from the corner of my eye that he was constantly looking over at me with genuine concern. I was so afraid to tell him I was really hurt, I was afraid of my father's reaction, I was afraid of jeopardizing this relationship and was willing to protect it at any cost. Great thing about being a kid is that you normally bounce back from injuries pretty quickly. Although we still wrestled a lot, Michael never pulled that move on me again! And boy did he make up for it when he scarfed some fake blood tablets from his mother’s make-up kit. This took wrestling to a whole different level as now I could pretend getting hurt without actually being injured.

Yes, Michael was a great friend, very giving and very kind hearted…but he was still a kid with mischief on his mind. It was lunch time at Beacon Hill School so all the kids eventually found their way to the schoolyard to play. Michael and I had not yet gone down with the others but were lingering in the top floor bathroom that overlooked the courtyard. Michael was staring out the open awning window when he came up with a brilliant idea. "See those girls playing jump rope? Do you think we could get them wet if we soak these rolls of toilet paper and throw them down at them?" I guess we both concluded that we'd never know the answer if we didn't try. We found out that yes, they would get wet. We also found out that such an activity is against school policy - go figure! I also found out that a teacher had walked in just as I was about to launch another soggy roll from the window. There was no getting out of this as I was caught red handed. Fortunately for Michael, timing was perfect as he had just gone into the stall and out of view to acquire more artillery. The teacher walked over and grabbed me by the back of my collar to drag me down to the headmistresses’ office. As he turned he saw Michael and asked him if he was involved. What a dumb question to ask a kid! Just as Michael did for me at his party, before he even had a chance to evaluate his question and conjure up a defense, I answered on his behalf, "No, it was just me".  And off the teacher and I went alone. After being interrogated by the headmistress, a mean and merciless woman she was, she marched me back to the classroom in order to make an example of me in front of the entire class. During her dehumanizing speech I peered up from my lowered head and glanced at Michael, his face looked so sad. I tightened my lip in an attempt to give him some kind of an undetectable smile to assure him that it was okay and that I didn't squeal. Unfortunately, I must have been a bad actor as the headmistress noticed my changed expression and took it personally, interpreting it as a smirking mockery of her authority.  In one foul swoop she dropped me to my knees and whipped my butt to assure to demonstrate to all that she was not one to be trifled with. This was the least of my worry as I knew full well what was waiting for me when I returned home.  That's a whole different set of memoirs that no one needs to read about.
Winter was approaching and along with it came the school dance. When Michael asked what time I was showing up I let him know that I was not allowed to go to dances so not to expect me. I can distinctly remember the puzzled look on his face when he heard my answer. I know he could tell by the look on my face that this this was a dead issue "Well, I might not be going either" he said. I knew he wasn't telling the truth but think it was his way of making light of the situation. I asked him the day after if he went and he shrugged his shoulder and said in a dull kind of way, "Yes…but it was boring”. Although I knew he was lying, I knew why and think that meant more to me than had he been honest.

If you recall I noted earlier that my life became greatly altered at Michaels Birthday party, but that some of those alternations were not necessarily good. It's not uncommon for children raised in foreign countries to drift from their original forms of speech and begin adapting the language and accents of those they are constantly around. Problem was, our family had travelled the world since I was two years old so I ended up an orating smorgasbord. Another common challenge for mobile children is identity crisis, as they can lose touch with their home base and original foundation. Children with turrets face even greater challenges as they make movements and sounds unfamiliar to all cultures, and therefore don't fit in anywhere at any time. Throughout that first year with Michael I felt so welcome and accepted and unfortunately began planting unhealthy root out of fear, in an attempt to create some kind of identity - I know…sounds strange. I wanted so desperately to just BE. to be someone, to be heard without the distraction of uncontrollable grunts and sounds, to be seen apart from contorted jerks and ticks, to be noticed and recognize for something other than a target for bullying and ridicule, to be from somewhere I'm wanted, appreciated and enjoyed. A life that at that time seemed completely unattainable unless I somehow was able to manipulate my way in.

I guess about a year had gone by when while walking around the USRC (United Services Recreational Club) tennis courts one afternoon, Michael caught me off guard "I heard you said you were raised on a sheep farm in Australia". It felt as if every drop of blood just drained from my body and I was ready to physically collapse. I couldn't speak, not even grunt. My body froze so that not even a tick could hide my shame. My lips began to quiver and tears clouded my vision so that even his face became unrecognizable. We stood there silent for what seemed like days. I would begin to open my mouth but there were no words coming out. "You're from America Tim….I have a hard time even remembering Australia, and I definitely wouldn't want to live on some sheep farm". That was it! He didn't ask why, didn't chastise me or make fun of me. He only turned and kept walking so I did the same and he started talking about something altogether different. What just happened??? I don't know, but as we walked it seemed as if heavy weights starting falling off my shoulders and all the fabricated stories I'd hid behind for much of my short life began to fade from view. We walked down towards the bowling green, then again out of nowhere, as if it was a sudden afterthought, "Your accent isn't Australian, English or even American…it's different… kind of like cockney". "What's cockney?" I asked. "Like poor English - but I like it, it sounds cool" Just as before - that was it, end of conversation, and we headed back up to the pool.
 Being exposed can without doubt be one of the most humiliating experiences in life. Being exposed yet uncondemned on the other hand can become one of the most freeing experiences in life. Something else happened that day, a pivoting point in my life that is mysteriously unexplainable. From that day on my turrets began to slowly but noticeably decrease and for the next couple of years my body began to relax as it had never done before.
Michael and I both loved the water and over the summer of my last year in Hong Kong we spent all the time we could in the USRC Olympic size pool. We were both part of the swim team however, Michael was clearly a real natural and seemed to always be the kid to beat. He was always very competitive once he hit the water, but it was also very important to him that I qualify for every badge possible, be it laps or speed.
Badges were our trophies with the goal to have as many of them sewn to our little speedos as possible. One thing was certain, whenever it was my chance to qualify, rest assure that every time I turned for air between strokes there would be Michael’s face and voice, coaching me to stay focused or at times yelling at me to speed up! A true 10-year-old champion beyond his years who took your winning just as serious as he did his own. With the support of my best friend Michael, my speedo was definitely worthy of display. Because I was unaware of Michaels Rock star status until Aug 2016, the only way I could witness him performing was via old concerts on Youtube. I would read comments like ‘He loved his audience’ or ‘He magically connected with his fans’ or ‘he had a unique way of drawing you in’. My only response is…’you have no clue’!!!

Michael didn't learn that from performing in bands to enthusiastic fans and screaming girls. Michael was doing that in the late 60's at the USRC. We were familiar with the regular members and could immediately detect when new VIP businessmen, foreign dignitaries, military offices and their families were visiting. Whenever they arrived, one look from Michael and it was Showtime. The pool had 3 competition level diving platforms and we would take full advantage of them all. Before too long Michael would have all the newbies engaged and applauding with every dive we made. On one such particular day, and after hours of entertaining, Michael noticed that the large group of Naval officers being entertained were getting ready to leave for dinner at the club house. Michael wanted to keep the show going so came up with the idea that if we had the food delivered to them poolside, they would stay. Sounded great to me so for the next couple of hours we kept having hot dogs, burgers and beers sent to their poolside tables on our parent's club charge account. Unfortunately, we failed to take into consideration that a bill would show up at the end of the month. Strange thing is, months went by and neither of us heard about our costly excursion.

Although we were both avid swimmers, neither of us were great soccer players…well, at least I wasn't. Regardless we both played on a competitive summer team and had a lot of fun in the process. Our final game was an elimination competition atop Victoria Peak. If I recall correctly, there were multiple clubs comprised of multiple teams. Each specific club team kept playing timed games until only one team was left standing. The winning team from each club would then compete the other club's winning team in the same elimination process. Last team standing was considered the champions.
All that said… there were a lot of kids and parents there for the entire day! I can't remember just how far our team got, only that we had a chance to at least be included in the "most amount of games won" category. We were in our final game when our goalie got hurt and the coach sent me in as the replacement. I'd never played goalie before so figured he simply needed as many good players on the field as possible, and I definitely wasn't one of them. As the game went on, every time I gained access to the ball I'd make sure I took my 3 allotted steps before kicking the ball back down the field. I was so nervous however that every time I did so, like a robot I'd take 3 precise large steps, then Kick. Towards the last half of the game, when it was time for me to kick again, the crowd of players, parents and spectators alike began shouting out in unison with each individual step I took "1…2…3…KICK". It didn't take too long before I figured out that they were all making fun of me. I just wanted the game to stop and go home.
The game did eventually end, we lost, and as I took the long walk of shame back to the peak tram I could still hear people snickering and occasionally someone would shout out "123KICK".

Michael's life lesson to me was all about friendship. You see, as the rest of the players walked back to the tram, they made it a point to keep their distance from me. Michael on the other hand walked the entire way back to the tram by my side. No he didn't say anything profound and no he did not tell me I did a great job, he just walked with me. It wasn't till we got onto the crowded tram that Michael put his hand on my shoulder and with everyone listening, smiled at me and said unapologetically and proudly "You're allowed 3 steps". You could have heard a pin drop! In but a few words that 10-year-old boy shamed everyone on that tram, including all the adults and parents. For the remainder of the ride that tram car stayed completely silent. Yes, the crowd was still in the tram but it's as if I couldn't see a one of them - their faces and voices disappeared out the window into the side of the mountain never to be seen or heard of again.

It wasn't until 2016 when Michaels sister Tina began to explain to me what life was really like for the Hutchence family during those early years that I was able to truly comprehend and appreciate the depth of all he brought to our very unique and special relationship. I never knew that he had his own set of challenges. That he had moved from place to place. That his family structure was dismantling. This I do know, that God is wise, that nothing is by chance, not even the bringing together of two young boys with very real challenges. Why did it all play out like this? I'm really not sure. What does seem clear to me however is that there was a time when a young lad named Tim needed to be loved by someone, who found a lad named Michael who needed someone to love.

After 57 years I begin to wonder if my lonely insecure and troubling childhood isn't as unique as I thought it was. When I began writing my memoirs and opening up to others about my experiences, I began to find that many of us have very similar stories to tell, the details are just different. What I find most important is what we decide to do with those stories. For me, those early fears, feelings and emotions played a critical role in conforming me into who I would be later in life.

Yes, I still struggle with turrets, just not near as severe or noticeable, and I'm okay with it. But that once timid boy ended up winning every college debate he participated in, and was awarded one of the highest collegiate expository awards. In the corporate world he became a featured speaker at state academic conferences across the country, toured as a presenter with the leading tech companies of the word, and addressed thousands in packed auditoriums.
We all have baggage in this life - what we decide to carry with us will often determine the quality and value of our journey.
I have many memories of Michael yet unwritten, some of which are still in the process of revealing themselves, and some that are reserved for me alone. Oddly enough the one memory I've tried so desperately to recall still alludes me to this day. I have absolutely no recollection of how we separated. I can't imagine it not being very traumatic for me, however that memory seems to have completely vanished - I'm beginning to think that's exactly the way it's supposed to be.

Dear Michael
Thank for being my friend and for being my living example. Little did I know back then that I would one day have a son of my own with turrets and I’ve tried my best to be and do for him just like you showed me. Yes, my heart longs to see you again and would trade anything in this world for just one more day with you - even if was only to say good-bye. I miss you Michael…you were the brother I always wanted…you were an awesome friend…you were my best friend"!

31st October 2016


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