Massarella: Michael had a disarming way of talking 0
LOS ANGELES - As a life long fan of Michael Jackson, I can hardly describe the sadness I felt the first time I saw the pop idol, far too up close and way too personal.
It was Nov. 20, 2003 and I was part of the gargantuan media scrum gathered outside the Santa Barbara courthouse for his arrest on child-abuse charges - charges that were later dropped.
The bewildered look on his face as he was escorted into the courthouse in handcuffs was one thing, but what will stay with me always was his face. Michael Jackson, the fabulous singer and dancer whose posters I had plastered on my wall as a girl, did not have a nose.
I'm not kidding. No nose, just white cartilage in the centre of his face.
We all knew he had had loads of plastic surgeries, but not to that gruesome extent.
As he was being rough-handled that day, the prosthetic nose he usually wears had come askew, his mask had probably been stripped off during transport by authorities, and that's when I saw it.
In interviews, Michael Jackson said a lot of people had failed him growing up, especially his father, Joe. He never mentioned what he had allowed unscrupulous plastic surgeons talk him into.
It was this spring when I saw Jackson again.
He had moved back to California from Dubai just before Christmas, renting a $100,000-a-month house in Bel-Air for his family. A realtor tells me he had equipped the home with a sound and dance studio, and it was there, where he went into cardiac arrest Thursday, that his plans for his ill-fated comeback tour were being executed.
His older brother, Tito, is a neighbour of mine in Calabasas, Calif. I often see Tito; he's naturally shy of gawking neighbours, but still manages to be friendly to everyone.
Jackson had come to Calabasas, presumably to visit his brother, but I saw him that March day with his kids at the local park across the street. While Michael was wearing a mask - a white cotton one, across his nose and mouth - and a wide-brimmed hat to shield him from the sun, his kids were frolicking normally, dressed just as my kids were, with trendy skinny jeans and T-shirts.
You could tell the other kids in the park were a little afraid of him. Their parents had already whispered that it was the Michael Jackson, plus, who's kidding - children only like to see adults in masks during Halloween.
Jackson brushed it all off and started talking with them anyway.
He pushed one little girl on a swing and when she started laughing, he laughed too, and that was it. The ice was broken and the other kids swarmed around him, with their jaded parents watching from the background, wanting to play with the odd, child-like, energetic man.
I introduced myself, not as a reporter, but as a mother of two of the kids.
"They're beautiful," he said kindly. I could tell he was smiling, his eyes crinkled.
Just as Jackson lay dying in UCLA Medical Center Thursday afternoon, a fellow neighbour saw Tito run out of his house and jump into his car. He was rushing to be with his brother at the hospital.
It was a gorgeous afternoon, a little overcast, not too sunny, a perfect wind blowing in through the mountains from neighbouring Malibu beach.
Squeals of delight from the kids now off on summer vacation could be heard from across the park.
"How's Michael?" the neighbour asked. He asked the question we all wanted to know.
And Tito, whose own dreams had been revived because he had his brother back home and was working side by side with him on the comeback tour, shook his head before speeding off.