To you on your 31st Birthday

To be honest, I have thought of you nearly every day the past two years; sometimes just for a fleeting second, and sometimes, it’s all day.  When it’s the latter, there’s an all-encompassing sadness I just can’t shake; a feeling of helplessness.  A feeling that I – and so many others – failed you somewhere in your brief life; that maybe if I had called you more often or been that much better as a friend, you’d still be here.  And then I realize the wondering and “what ifs” makes little difference at all; what happened happened.  I can’t change it.  And so the sadness and helplessness I feel on those days turns to anger.  Sometimes, I’m angry with myself for being so distant and unaware of what was happening to you that led to your death.  Sometimes, I’m angry with you for your mistakes and your last awful choice even though I know that’s unfair to you.

On the days where the memory of you is fleeting, it’s something small that triggers me: a man with a similar profile, a few measures of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, an old SNL sketch, or maybe a Dixieland jazz band in my neighborhood with a clarinetist who’s a bit of a show-off.  Those fleeting moments are usually the pleasant ones, but the memories they conjure up are bittersweet.  Happier times that feel like an entire lifetime ago.  My brain can almost convince me you’re still here on days like that, but my heart knows better, and the sadness seeps back in.

You’d be 31 today.  Yes, it’s your birthday.  Facebook keeps prompting me to write on your wall not knowing you can’t even read it.  You’re a ghost, albeit a digital one, and your page will remain eerily stuck the way it is forever until Facebook ceases to exist.  There you are smiling in your profile picture in sunglasses on a tropical beach looking happier than you did the last few years of your life.  Maybe you’re on a beach wherever you are, but I’d like to think you’re in some heavenly concert hall playing music with all the greats you idolized.  That’s more like you; you were happiest making music whether with others or alone.  I know you can’t read this any more than you can read the birthday messages people are posting on your Facebook page, but it’s not really for you anyway.

You’re not 31 today.  You’re still 29.  You’re always going to be stuck at 29; never reaching 30.  You made it two years longer than Janis or Jimi.  Two years longer than Kurt or Amy.  But it stings that you’re forever hovering near 30, and I’m going to pass you soon.  I’m catching up to you.  I’ll be 28 this year, and then the next, I’ll meet you.  Then I’ll keep passing you and passing you and passing you, and it’s not fair.  And it’s not right.  It’s not right that I get to have more birthdays than you so early in life.  You should be here…even if it would have been harder to be here than wherever you are.  You would have found a way to make things right.  Or maybe you wouldn’t.  The point is you’d be here, and I wouldn’t have to keep reminding myself you’re not.

It’s been almost two years since you left, but I still can’t bear to delete your number from my phone.  The thought of doing it gives me a sharp sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach; maybe because that makes it final.  Or maybe it’s because I feel guilty about not dialing it more often when you were here.  Maybe it’s both, but I just can’t do it.  Though we disconnected from each other a long time ago as it happens from time to time with friends, I’m not ready to cut that last cord.  I can’t face it, even though I logically know no one will pick up the other line.  If I still have that number, I still have a part of you; I can keep you with me 24/7.  You’re right there in my pocket.

I’m not even sure what else to say except that I miss you way more than I ever could have anticipated.  I miss the stupid pranks you’d pull.  I miss the way you’d laugh at things I said.  I miss your music and the look on your face you’d get like you were the only one in the room playing.

Does this get any easier?  Maybe.  I don’t know.

“Tell me please,

Where can he be,

The loving he who’ll bring to me

The harmony I’m dreaming of.

 

It’ll be goodbye, I know

To my tale of woe,

When he says, “hello!”

 

So I am just a little girl

Who’s looking for a little boy”

 

-“Looking For a Boy,” George & Ira Gershwin, (1925)

 

Friend like me

People are taking Robin Williams’ death pretty hard today all around the world and not without reason.  He was pervasively and perversely funny; the king of so-called manic comedy.  Other than maybe Tom Hanks, he encapsulated the 1990s male movie star for me in terms of ubiquity and memorable roles.

Run-by fruiting or pie in the face, I laughed til I cried

Run-by fruiting or pie in the face, I laughed til I cried

I may have swooned over Leo, sure, but Robin was the guy I would have gladly accepted as my second dad or crazy, beloved uncle.  I think I saw almost every single one of his films from that decade and marveled at how he could make all ages laugh.  No one could riff better than him or do more voices.

But he could strip all that away and find a stillness so lovely it made your heart break when he wanted to.  His dramatic work was just as fearless as his comedy, and he could be vulnerable, flawed, and real in a way that touched you deeply.  He mined the depths of humanity, the highs and lows, with a perceived ease that was almost bordering on offensive (at least to THIS actor).  He sunk his teeth into whatever role he took on and made sure you were paying attention.  Dead Poets SocietyHe gave it his all, and that goes for everything in his life whether it was his stand-up, his film/TV roles, being a husband and father, or his charity work with our troops.  Robin was generous in all things.  I wouldn’t be able to even choose a favorite film of his but a few that have really stuck with me are Dead Poets Society, Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, Good Will Hunting, and Hook.  These are films that have profoundly influenced me in one way or another, and it was due in large part to Robin’s singular gifts.

Certainly his death is a difficult one for so many of us, but I am saddened even more because it comes on the heels of another, similar loss for me; one much closer.  I lost a beloved friend to suicide only two weeks ago, and he too was gifted in his own ways.  A brilliant musician, James had a passion for music that was infectious and inspiring.  But there was always a glimmer of darkness there: some days you saw it less, and some days more.

With my friend, James, back in 2010 at an alumni band concert

With my friend, James, back in 2010 at an alumni band concert

The times when his spirit shined brightest was when he was playing music, giving himself over to its powerful, magical spell; a medicine in its own right.  I knew he struggled sometimes with depression, but he never really let it affect him when he was with other people, or, at least, he never showed how it affected him.  As it sometimes goes in life, we fell out of touch in the last three years, and some bad things happened in his life.  Mistakes were made, consequences occurred, and the darkness took over.  No music could act as a salve; no words, no people. I tried reaching out once or twice (as did my brother), but he never answered.  I don’t know how it happened, and I don’t want to, but that darkness took my friend and his beautiful music.  And while I know there was nothing I could have done to save him, it doesn’t change how devastating it is.  He was twenty-nine years old and couldn’t fight anymore; though I wish to God he would have tried.  Robin Williams was sixty-three and couldn’t fight anymore either; another casualty of the crippling, cruelness of depression.

photo via Michael Parmelee Photography

photo via Michael Parmelee Photography

And today, while I continue to mourn the loss of my friend and now another person who I let into my home and heart on a regular basis (albeit through a screen), my thoughts drift especially to Robin’s family and close friends; the people who knew and loved him best.  Unfortunately, I now know what this kind of loss feels like.  How it aches in deep places that catch you off guard.  How helpless and powerless you feel.  How aware you become of your own fragile mortality and mind.  But while grief is powerful, I’m always amazed at how love breaks through it.  When I think of my friend, I think of the times spent laughing, the late nights at my house with my brother, and always the music, the wild, passionate music.  Those moments flood my brain more than anything else.  Looking at the hundreds of Facebook statuses and Tweets today, I know all of us think of Robin with only love and admiration too.  Our Robin was the one who made us laugh and cry and inspired us to do and be more.  Our Robin was a genie whose only wish was to grant all of ours.  He was our favorite housekeeper and English teacher.  He made us feel the joy of flying just with happy thoughts.  For whatever he and my friend suffered, they were so loved even though that love wasn’t enough to keep them here with us.

I thank both my friend and Robin for what they selflessly gave to me and others.  My life is richer for having them in it.

I ain’t never had friends like you.

1985-2014

1951-2014

Forever Young

Today’s topic is not the happiest, but I felt compelled to write about it.  I had planned to do part II of my Film Heroine series, but something has been looming in my mind this week, and I feel it necessary to purge my brain to try to make sense of it.  Thanks for bearing with me.

Last weekend, a middle and high school classmate of mine was killed in a car accident back home in Missouri.  He was 25 years old; a military vet who enthusiastically worked at the Buckle in our local mall upon returning from his service.  Only a few days before, he had been in good spirits, joking with friends online.  Eerily, his last tweet dated just a few days before his death read “Don’t drink and drive.  Call a cab!!”

Admittedly, he and I were never all that close when we were in school together.  We had a few classes together, but didn’t really hang out with each other outside of our shared academic world.  My high school was small (my graduating class was around 156-ish), so you basically knew everyone even if you weren’t best friends or in the same social circle.  He was a nice guy, extremely personable, and could always back up his opinions with solid logical arguments (we had sociology together, and he made some truly great discussion points).  He was of Mexican descent so people always were making jokes, but he laughed and made his own jokes right alongside them.  Naturally, we all graduated and went our separate ways: me to college in Oklahoma to study musical theatre and him into the military to serve our country.  I didn’t think of him much beyond the occasional Facebook post that would float across my newsfeed or when a mutual friend would mention his name.  But I was always impressed with his work ethic and enthusiasm for whatever he was doing.  The last time I saw him in person was graduation day as he walked across the stage to get his diploma: May 2007, nearly six years ago.

Word travels fast in a small town, and even though I live over a thousand miles away, I was bombarded with messages and posts all over my Facebook about his passing.  For some strange reason, I couldn’t believe the news.  I had seen him post April Fools jokes only days before.  My heart sank.  How could this be?  I couldn’t explain the sudden sadness I felt for a person I only occasionally sat in classes with for seven years.  25 years old and gone.  Never married.  No children.

I’m not sure if it’s the fact in a mere seven months I myself will be 25 or what, but it all feels so wrong.  What if I go to bed tonight and that’s it?  Or am struck by a cab on my way home?  All the dreams and hopes and wishes for my future suddenly vanish along with my mortality.  No one’s future is certain, no longevity of life guaranteed.  It’s a cold, hard smack to the face when you lose someone young.  A wake up call to your own mortality.  Are you living your life as fully as possible?  What’s holding you back from making each day count?  You can’t live in fear of dying the next day, but you should always remember that it’s going to happen at some point so you better get busy, right?

When someone young dies, are we really mourning their death or the death of their potential, their untapped talents?  Of course we’re mourning the loss of the person, but perhaps we’re just as sad about the “what ifs” that will never play out, the dreams never turned into realities.  I still have trouble processing the death of actor Heath Ledger because as an actor myself, I saw so much potential, whole reservoirs of talents meant for a longer, larger, luminous career.  To see him so alive onscreen, such raw energy and instinct, is a shock to the system when you remember he’s been gone for five years.

I guess what I’m really feeling is the preciousness of my own mortality.  For as long as I can remember, I’ve always operated as if death was so far away, that I was invincible somehow; death would come when I was ready, not the other way around, you know?  Rudy’s death has shaken me up more than I thought, because I realized that I don’t get to decide how long my life will be.  I’m not in total control, invincible until I decide to let go.  We take our youth for granted, believing we have the entire world — our life — at our fingertips.  And we do, because anything can happen.  That’s the point: ANYTHING can happen…both good and bad.  I don’t try to dwell on the bad, but maybe I’ve made myself numb to the idea that anything bad could happen to me or anyone I know or care about.  Bad things happen.  Good things happen.  That’s just how life works.  And the hard part is accepting BOTH.

I think about all the times I’ve stopped myself from doing or saying things because I was so worried it would make me look stupid or hurt me somehow.  The funny and possibly idiotic reality is what I’ve really done is robbed myself of things that might have enriched my life in weird ways.  I overanalyze everything because I think I can logically solve all my life problems before they even happen and have some control over my life, but that’s ridiculous, because I can’t control what another person is going to say or do, how they’ll react to me and my actions.  I’m 24 years old and still sometimes operate like a teenager, thinking that someday I’ll get it right and take a risk and not be scared shitless of my own actions.  But what am I doing?  I keep putting things off for the next day, because I have tomorrow to deal with it.  Rudy never got that chance, and I could lose mine too.

I didn’t mean for this to turn into some tale of morality and mortality and carpe diem and all that, but maybe that’s what it really is all about.  All of it.  Everything we do is added to the story of our lives, whether that story is short or Tolstoy-length.  And maybe we don’t get to decide the length of our life story, but we DO get to decide the content, the characters, and maybe the ending if we’re lucky.  I’m sorry that my classmate didn’t get a longer story, but it’s one worth knowing even if it’s a slightly cautionary tale.  I just hope I can make my own story worth knowing, choose the right people to inhabit it, learn from my mistakes, let things go.

Rest in peace.  You’ll be missed.