Sunday, November 10, 2013

Roses in the rain

I won’t feel the full brunt of Jeff’s death until the Saturday before the 2014 summer journalism workshop at Michigan State because he won’t be there to pick me up at the airport and drive me to his home in Grosse Pointe and lug my suitcase up the stairs and deposit it in his twin boys’ bedroom, where I’ll spend the night.
Jeff and I won’t then head over to a Polish restaurant in Hamtramck or to the Cadieux Cafe for Belgian beer and steamed mussels and feather bowling, where he’ll try gallantly to let me win at least one game because, he believes, that’s what a good host and a good guy does. He’ll fail, even though he’ll spot me a huge lead because I suck at feather bowling, especially after two or three beers, and even though I really want to win. 
Regardless, he’ll find all this hilarious, as if we haven’t done these things a half-dozen times already. By the evening's end, we’ll be exhausted from laughing and yapping, and I’ll have no trouble sleeping in Cy or Cal’s tiny twin bed, even though I’m a chronic insomniac and have been for decades.
And so, I know the Saturday before the 2014 MIPA workshop will be painful, and I’m thankful for and fully expect my Michigan friends and colleagues to pull me through. I promise to reciprocate in full.
Jeff’s funeral service was as perfect as a funeral can be. The pastor choked up once. Two of his former students spoke brilliantly, as did his two colleagues and four of his long-time running mates — members of the so-called "Fab Five." The wives of one of these pals — a woman Jeff had known since kindergarten — dubbed him “the daughter his mother never had,” and it drew a huge laugh. Though there wasn’t a dainty cell in his body, Jeff was kind and courteous and as giving a person as I’ve met. I know no one who thinks otherwise. 
In the last couple of years, as he grappled with his horrible illness, I came to understand how much I adored — oh, fuck it, how much I loved — him, and so it was hard for me to admit to myself that he had better friends than me — though, of course, I knew it had to be so. I rarely saw Jeff more than three times a year. It's also hard to realize that he was a better friend to me — not his best friend —  than I am to my best friends. 
I plan to rectify that.
The all-too-brief time I spent with Jeff was crammed with long, interesting conversations about family and sports and journalism, interrupted only by an occasional bad movie or amazing meal or wild adventure — like our trip to Cedar Pointe, where he and I literally sprinted from roller coaster to roller coaster, elbowing our way past 12-year-old boys and anyone else who dared stand between us and the front of the line. We rode every monster ride in the park before lunch —several of them twice.
Then, we wolfed down cheeseburgers and fries and laughed and yapped and then rode two or three rides one last time before hitting the road back to Detroit to pack up Jeff’s GM van and head toward East Lansing — me with my carry-on suitcase and Tumi man-bag; Jeff with his ice chests, air conditioner, sacks of candy, stacks of handouts, and God only knows what else. As in all of his life, Jeff arrived locked and loaded. All in.
For example, years ago, the workshop directors quietly pressured their instructors to quietly pressure their students to compete in the closing night’s big talent show — and most of us did, even though we knew either Jeff or Kirk would win because both started planning their performance months in advance. They'd arrive with props and costumes and scripts and everything short of a Children's Chorus and chamber orchestra.
I once kidded Jeff that his class syllabus must look something like this:
Sunday: 5-5:10 p.m.— Welcome. Review of rules.
Sunday: 5:15-7:30 — Auditions. Costume fittings.
Monday: 9-9:30 a.m. — Sports coverage, writing, opinion, headlines and captions. Design, graphics and photography. Tom Izzo press conference. First draft of story due at 9:28. Second draft by 9:30.
Monday 9:30-9:40 a.m. — Break. Change into costumes.
Monday 9:40 a.m.-Wednesday, 3:45 p.m. — Rehearsals.
Wednesday 4-5 p.m. — Show time.
Thursday 9-9:30 — Presentation of First Place Trophy. Brainstorm next year's performance. 
Strangely enough, no one I know begrudged Jeff a bit because (1) he made it part of a larger learning experience, and (2) he somehow convinced 15- and 16-year-old boys to sing and dance, and to wear makeup and an occasional boa. In other words, he taught them to prepare, take chances, give their best and laugh the whole time they were doing it.
And, I'm guessing, that’s how he lived right up to the second he died.
That's why the church was packed. 
As I said, the service was lovely — funny, uplifting, powerful. I only cried a little. It ended with a video, of course, and I want to thank and curse whoever chose “Thunder Road” as its soundtrack because I’ll never hear it again without thinking of Jeff, and I love that song and listen to it often. I played it three or four times during the plane ride from Detroit to Dallas, and each time Bruce belted, “Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night,” my eyes puffed and turned watermelon pink.
I also listened to “Hungry Heart” and “Blinded by the Light” and “Jungleland” and five or six other Springsteen songs including, of course, “Born to Run.” And when he sang, “Together, we can live with the sadness,” well, it was as if Jeff were saying to me — and to us — run 'till you drop, never look back, love each other with all the madness in our souls. One day, we'll walk in the sun. 
Or, as he might also put it, "Rehearsals in ten, kids. Find your boa."