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)

 

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“Always.”

I think my first exposure to Alan Rickman was the superb 1995 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility penned by and starring his best friend (and one of my biggest heroes), Emma Thompson.  His character, Colonel Brandon, is meant to be this aging, semi-severe bachelor who suffers from unrequited love for the blossoming, beautiful Marianne Dashwood played to youthful perfection by Kate Winslet.  rickman 1Naturally, she sets her sights on the young, dashing, too-charming-to-be-real cad Willoughby and rebuffs Brandon’s advances, thinking him incapable of feeling love or inspiring it in another. And even though Brandon knows what Willoughby is capable of, that he has less-than-honorable intentions, he doesn’t interfere.  Instead, he quietly, humbly goes on loving and supporting Marianne through all her worst moments even when it aches him to do so.  He is unfailingly kind and chivalrous to the last.  And when Willoughby has left Marianne inconsolable with a broken heart as Brandon knew he would, Brandon does not revel in being proven right.  He does not gloat or chastise Marianne for having chosen such an undeserving man to receive her love over himself.  Instead, he goes on loving her and caring for her without hope or expectations until one day, she realizes she has fallen in love with him and they marry.rickman 4

At one point, Willoughby says, “Brandon is just the kind of man whom everybody speaks well of, and nobody cares about; whom all are delighted to see, and nobody remembers to talk to.”  But for me, Brandon is the best part of Sense & Sensibility.  Beyond our heroine, Elinor, he is the one whose quiet, lovelorn suffering stings most true.  Brandon is the emotional and moral center of the story for me; he’s the one who does what is right above all things, sometimes at the expense of his own heart.  Brandon shows us that love often doesn’t come in the form of charm and sizzling passion, but that it often looks far more like tenderness and compassion.  rickman 2Marianne’s assertion that love must be “inspiring” and loud is met by Brandon’s subtler acts of love, and she realizes he is far worthier of her heart than a man like Willoughby could ever be.  While Austen illuminates this quite well in her book, it didn’t really sink in fully until I saw Alan Rickman’s portrayal of Brandon.  I saw the pain in his gaze, the love in his every action.  He made us all fall in love with Brandon, but I also fell in love with Rickman himself.  And I learned a lot about how to love as a direct result of his performance in the film.

When they announced the cast for the first Harry Potter film, my heart leapt with joy at hearing Rickman’s name announced as another long-suffering lovelorn character: potions-master Severus Snape.  Most people today are going to be talking about how great Rickman was at playing the villain (and in all fairness, Hans Gruber and the Sherriff of Nottingham are both thrilling and sexy performances and steal the show of their respective films), but I’d argue that Rickman was actually better at romance, and more specifically, showing us the trickier, more painful aspects of love.  Colonel Brandon in Sense & Sensibility.  Snape, who is villainous at times, but has carried the pain of love for so long, it has eaten away at him.  Harry in Love Actually, who doesn’t realize his foolishness is wrecking his wife.

rickman 5

With the brilliant Juliet Stevenson in Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990)

And especially Jamie in Truly Madly Deeply, who must try to let his former love go while helping her learn to let him go.  These roles aren’t quite as showy as the villains, but they pack more of an emotional wallop.

It is only in mourning Alan Rickman’s death today I realized I have treated him a bit like Marianne Dashwood: accepting he would always be there for emotional support but never fully giving him the attention he truly deserves.  I was blind sighted by the news of his passing, because I had come to love him far more deeply than I ever realized; his presence was always a welcome one onscreen or onstage.  And don’t get me started on that marvelous, iconic speaking-voice.  He gave us everything selflessly with the deepest of love and greatest care for his craft, collaborators, and those of us who sat in darkened rooms watching him.  He deserved far more, but he made the absolute most of what he got.

All I can offer in return is my deepest affection and gratitude for the many gifts he gave me as I’ve grown up watching his films.  Rickman IS Brandon: the kind of man everyone speaks well of and whom all are delighted to see, but damned if he’s not also somebody we ALL deeply care about.

Thank you, Alan.

rickman 6

1946-2016.

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