Celebrating a Friend’s Life
It wasn’t really an Italian restaurant. It was only a common Chili’s in north Houston. Still, it served splendidly for the seven of us during our rough and ready reunion following the grave-side funeral of our friend, Darren. Though most of us had occasionally bumped into one of the others, it had been twenty-five years since a group get-together of this size. Sadly, it was the loss of a dear friend and very talented musician that had brought us together this day.
Most of the group lived in Houston but I had driven down that morning from Austin. I had contacted Mike the day before to see if he wanted to drive down with me. He, in turn, contacted Steve who I had not seen since high school. Mike had to make a trip to Brenham that night and we were to pick him up on our way to Houston the next morning. So it was that Steve and I were casually cruising east on 290 as surprised by the spectacular sunrise as we were about the stories we were sharing with each other.
By the time we made Brenham to meet Mike, Steve had discovered that my van was not optimal for music and a decision was reached to carry on our voyage in Mike’s vehicle. Despite this, we did not really listen to much music on the way there. Between adding Mike to our reminiscing and Mike’s recurring incoming cell phone calls, there wasn’t much space left for the music.
In catching up with these old friends from my days as a Drama Jock at Dulles High School, it was apropos to acknowledge the masks of comedy and tragedy in our lives but I was saddened a bit by the quantity and injury of tragedy in lives once marked much more by comedy. One song that did make it through the barrage of our briefing each other about our past was Edwin McCain’s – “Go be young, go be free. Follow your heart where it leads you…” and at this point, Mike turned it up and said, “this is the line I tell my kids” – “…Don’t end up like me.”
We made a pit stop just before the cemetery to prep ourselves. While there, I was lost in this thought that had been tumbling through my head since I’d heard about Darren’s death. He was an amazing piano player that seemed to me to always play two or three times more keys than anyone else would have played on a given piece of music. His playing was rich and full and looked as effortless as breathing or blinking your eye – and in that much time, he would have perfectly played dozens of keys. It seemed magical and Darren seemed to me to experience a joy that was foreign and elusive to me in that time of my life.
I was thinking how every life we meet and every interaction was like a note in a personalized piece of music that made up the song of our life. We have a moment, maybe a millisecond for that tone before the melody moves onto the next character perhaps to never touch that note again or not until much later – in the next verse or pass through the refrain. These collections of sounds formed parts – verse, refrain, transition – to the ensemble of our lives.
So here I am today, hearing the songs of my friends, interacting with them in a common harmony that has not come up on the scales since the early part of the song. For Darren, this song really had ended and he was being called to an eternal encore. When I returned to meet the guys, I told Mike not to settle for crooning , “Don’t end up like me”. While Darren’s masterpiece here has indeed ended, we are just in the middle of the transition. Play on, dear friends, play on. And if you don’t like the sound of it, change it.
We were the first of our group to arrive at the cemetery. We signed in, met Darren’s sons, ex-wife, and sister. As more of our friends arrived, we cycled through moments of reunion, grief and celebration of life together waiting for the group exodus to the grave-side ceremony.
We stood side by side listening to the minister as sunlight and shade sauntered around us in a peaceful dance. The minister announced that Darren’s son, Ryan, would be playing a song. Ryan explained it was a song his Dad loved and thought was powerful. Then he proceeded to play an acoustic version of Peace of Mind by Boston. It was beautiful and perfect. It was very much Darren and the woman next to me, Michelle, a high school choir friend of Darren’s begin to provide soft background vocals. I could not help but join her.
And all along, I was thinking about all the catching up with everyone and how this midlife transition time was impacting everyone. And Ryan was singing, with Michelle’s soft harmony in my left ear and the gentle breeze in my right – “Lots of people out to make-believe they’re livin’ Can’t decide who they should be”
The minister was sharing some of Darren’s path to faith and I was still thinking about how things got here. I didn’t know all the details surrounding Darren’s death but I knew it was somehow tragic and not congruent with my memory of him. Ryan was singing the next song, Word of God Speak by MercyMe. I kept thinking about how to encourage the broken hearted. Michelle’s singing was bolder this time but still soft and sweet like the breeze of the air reminding me of the scripture God had led me to that morning before leaving Austin: “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power”. As Michelle and Ryan were singing “I’m finding myself in the midst of You, Beyond the music, beyond the noise”, I closed my eyes, surrendered to the cool wind as it weaved through the dancing shadow and light, and hummed along praying, “Yes, Lord, by your Spirit and your power”.
It was good to hear the minister share how Darren was finding faith and restoring relation with Ryan by joining in some of the fellowship of faith that was so important in Ryan’s life. It was sweeter still to know this later as we friends compared notes and came to understand more of the demons that Darren battled in his life. But I couldn’t contemplate that chasm during the ceremony – I was only thrilled to receive confirmation that he had come to the reality of the parting song Ryan performed – Amazing Grace. Though Ryan didn’t perform verse three, it was the one that came to mind later as I became aware of Darren’s battles – “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; ‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far and Grace will lead me home.”
Following the service, most of us found our way to Chili’s. We compared notes from the funeral and had our own private moments of shared reflection and celebration of our fallen friend. Anne shared an insight that resonated with me. Darren was so talented that people could not easily see beyond his ability and potential to the man underneath this weight of expectation. That is certainly, sadly to say, my experience with this friend and I was sorry about that. It reminded me of an amazing verse of lyrics of another great Christian musician who has gone on to be with the Lord – Rich Mullins. “We are frail. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, forged in the fires of human passion, choking on the fumes of selfish rage. And with these, our hells and our heavens so few inches apart, we must be awfully small and not as strong as we think we are.” Thank you for grace, Father, for we are so in need of grace.
Having enough of tragedy, we labored to lay down that mask and return to the mask of comedy for the rest of the lunch. We discussed great memories and fun and how excited we were to see each other. We shared about others that some of us had visited occasionally and even more details and ideas around having a reunion in 2010.
Several of the Houston contingent were being pressed to return to work and we still had a trip to Austin but Paul persuaded us to drop by for a quick visit at his home. This gave us an opportunity to change into more comfortable clothes for the return trip and to observe the sizable collection of memorabilia that Paul had been putting up on our Drama Jock Facebook page which led us into another path down memory lane. But lunch and the long day were simultaneously leading us to a desire to lounge the afternoon away on Paul’s exceedingly cozy leather chairs – so we forced ourselves out of this slumber and into the car for the trip home.
We were tired as we made our way back to Brenham. We were lost in all the rolling emotions of the day and exhausted with trying to express them with our own word so now the music was a solace and a celebration. Mike gave me the controls of his IPhone and after a return to Boston’s Peace of Mind – it became clear that all three of us knew every word and note perfectly and were sharing in an amazing music healing session.
As Peace of Mind played, I thought about these old friends – who they were then and who they were now – friends but strangers – and how much of the shared tragedy discussed that day was an experience of finding the familiar turn strange in the transition of mid-life so we turned next to Billy Joel and explored, “Why were you so surprised that you never saw the stranger? Did you ever let your lover see The stranger in yourself?”
Mike asked us what we thought the best Billy Joel song was and we all simultaneously arrived at Scenes from an Italian Restaurant so that played next. As we all sang the song in unison and at the top of lungs, Mike hollered out, “We lived this!” It occurred to me that while it was amazing to get reacquainted, it was really more like developing new friends than seeing old ones – or, at least, it would be moving forward. The past was gone and closed off to us except for reminiscing. We’d have to build new relationships now if we wanted them. And all these pieces of broken life – there is no unbending the bent, pretending the wreck didn’t happen. Healing is recovery into the future. There is no going back to how it was. And we were singing “They couldn’t go back to the greasers, the best they could do was pick up their pieces”
As we closed in on Brenham, we knew we could not complete this healing celebration without honoring the Piano Man, Darren, with Billy Joel’s song by that title. Regret is not necessarily the word that expresses the characters in the song or even the tragic moments in my life or the lives of these dear friends but I think everyone had things they wished could be different. So, while some of us appeared to be pounding out strong notes at the moment and others were striking more somber chords or even hitting a long rest, we could all share an experience together sitting around Darren then and now, awestruck by his talent, astonished yet aspiring for his life and ours as well – “They sit at the bar and put bread in my jar and say, “Man, what are you doing here?”
“Sing us a song, you’re the Piano Man. Sing us a song tonight. Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody and you’ve got us feeling alright.”