Friday, October 02, 2009

The focus of my trip to RI was a reunion of the Warwick Vets High School Chorale Tour of Yugoslavia from 1984 and this was an amazing weekend. My friend, Wayne picked me up at Greene Airport. It felt as if yesterday was the last time I had seen him and this was a feeling that went through the whole event.

I had the chance to relax at my sister's house before we got into the whole wake and funeral for Uncle Mike. The first real reunion activity was a social gathering as a pool hall and bar in nearby Cranston. We all caught up with each other and compared notes on the trip we shared together and our lives since. Only about half of those who went on the trip made it but that did not take away from the joy of seeing these friends again after so long.

Saturday morning was our rehearsal. It was the first time I had been back in Vets in decades and it was an overload of memories. Each step sparked another image from the past. I cold picture what I did on a certain area, who I had talked with and what we had said. The richness of these memories was amazing.

The backstage door to the main auditorium was ajar and I couldn't resist. All of the rehearsals, concerts, plays, stage crew meetings, drama club and times I ditched class hiding in the maintenance access room added up to the most time I had spent in any one room in the whole building. The floor creaked in all the same places and the sound was comforting. The same spotlights hung overhead and it actually looked as if they had replaced the wing curtains I tried throwing away in 1980 although the main curtains looked familiar as did the frayed ropes which opened and closed them.

I stood at center stage and looked down and what must have been some of the same tape markings that had been there when I played the Cowardly Lion, Charlie Brown and Sherlock Holmes. In my mind I ran through lines from each of the plays I had done on that stage. For old times sake I broke into the opening to a number from "you're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" which I had frozen on in front of hundreds of my classmates and remembered every word. It felt good to be there again.

I walked into what had been Uncle Mike's office. It had been changed into a piano practice room with six electric keyboards filling the space. As I stood in the doorway all I could see was Uncle Mike's desk. Covered with sheet music and in one corner a small cactus and a porcelain figure which bore a certain resemblance to the man behind the desk. This was also the room from where I had done the morning announcements all four years. I couldn't move past the threshold for fear my presence would dissipate the memories. I stood there and the tears started. I was missing Uncle Mike all over again.

Rehearsal was ready to begin and proved an even stranger experience. We were handed our music and took our places on the risers. I don't have the best posture while sitting and enjoy my life of slouching in my recliner at home and my throne sized executive chair at work. It wasn't until we were halfway through rehearsal before I noticed that simply out of habit, because I was there to sing and it was what Uncle Mike expected, that I was bolt upright seated on the edge of my seat. Habits that had been pummeled into my head 30 years ago came back like DNA encoding.

Also ingrained in our brains were the words and notes to each song. When we finished each time we all looked at each other in amazement that we seemed to sound just like we did "in the day".

All of my feeling of nostalgia were evaporated the moment the members of the current Vets Chorus entered the room to join us. They are little CHILDREN!!!! INFANTS!!!! I had seen my son grow through puberty, so seeing kids this age was nothing foreign to me. This was different! They were here in the same place I used to hang out. We all looked as if we still belonged there...not these children. We could never have been that small, that thin or that gawky. They were the interlopers! They were the new kids playing in our sandbox.

We all sang together and actually blended very well. The concert at the reunion was shaping up to being something special. I'll get into that in the next post. After rehearsal I found out my sister had been rushed to the hospital the previous evening with what would end up being kidney stones. I called her and told her that if she wanted to avoid spending time with me while I was in town she could have just told me.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Funerals suck. I think we can all agree on that. I had missed a number of important ones in the past few months but circumstances and borrowed money put me in the right place and time to be able to fly back to Rhode Island for Uncle Mike’s. I knew it was going to be an emotional one but I wasn’t quite expecting some of the emotions I went through.

As soon as we walked into the funeral home memories started flooding in. On the PA system they were playing our old Chorale recordings. All around the sitting rooms were photos from all stages of Uncle Mike’s life.

And then there were the people.

Old friends I had not seen in almost 30 years filled the room. We hugged, we caught up and we even laughed over old times. I think we also laughed at how old we had all gotten. As more and more came in it was a game to see if you were able to put the current face with the person you remembered from back in F-Wing. My ears perked up when I heard a familiar voice that hadn’t changed a bit, “Jimmy! Where’s Bevans!” I looked around following the same old, scratchy voice, “Why is Jimmy’s voice coming out of that old guy’s head?!”

Mrs. Brown, our accompanist, looked exactly as she did the last time I saw her in the late 80’s. I thought there must be a “Dorian Gray” portrait of her somewhere until a friend reminded me that she was probably using just as many cosmetics now as she did back then.

I was fine with all of these reunions and was glad that none of the grief bubbled to the surface as I had felt would come with this funeral until I glanced up and made eye contact with an old and special friend.

Jill and I had dated back in school and even after we broke up stayed friends and deepened that friendship. While we hadn’t talked in over 20 years we had reconnected on Facebook there was something about looking into her eyes. Across the room I felt as if we immediately felt and shared the grief of our loss of Uncle Mike. Also, in just that momentary glance, was all of the emotion that tied us together back when we walked the same halls, the sadness of a friendship lost over time and the joy of being together again.

All that took place in 3 seconds; the time it took me to look up, stand up and plow my way across the room and sweep my arms around her. And then we cried. As I hugged her tighter I could feel my sobs shaking against hers. “Damn you”, I said “I was fine till you got here!” We laughed, dried our tears and, after she went through the receiving line, caught up with each others lives.

The receiving line? Oh, yeah the real reason for being there.

Uncle Mike looked exactly as I remembered him. I held my tears pretty much in check, although with a huge lump in my throat holding them back. Just like with the other reunions happening in that room it was good to reconnect with the rest of the Kroian family. They all were very appreciative of my having come all the way from Florida.

There was this one moment that happened just as I was preparing to leave which shows how deep the influence Mike had on me. As I stood at the casket before I left, one of the old Chorale songs was playing. With the familiar tune playing and Uncle Mike there before me more and more memories came into focus. I could see his hands massaging the sound and his face either emoting or wincing. Suddenly, I starting singing along. I caught myself before others noticed but it was enough to make me smile at the memories.

The funeral the next day was a traditional Armenian service. The funeral procession was one of the few which came close to equaling the size of my father's as we wound our way from Warwick to Providence and back to the cemetery in West Greenwich. The weather held out with a bright sun and gentle autumn breeze as we filed past leaving flowers on the tomb cover as we left Uncle Mike at his final resting place.

Because there had been a years time to prepare for this, the family seemed able to deal easier with the loss. Added to that the reunion feel to seeing old friends at every turn took much of the sting out of this funeral and the Yugoslav reunion was a perfect coda to the whole things.

But that is tomorrow's blog.