Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

A true friend is one who’s still your fan even after you’ve gone all fan-girl

Everyone has a concert buddy, and mine is my friend “Tom.”

We met as awkward seventh graders at Lake Braddock Secondary School and bonded over music and writing. Both of us were words nerds who wrote for the school paper (though I skewed far more heavily in the nerd direction than Tom ever did) and played instruments in our spare time. Tom played the bass in a rock band, whereas I played piano someplace slightly less hip: the pit orchestra for school musicals.

After we graduated in 1989, we stayed in touch through reunions and Facebook. The latter helped us reconnect in person last December.

We caught up on all the life we hadn’t posted about on Facebook. Our old bond was not only intact but stronger, and it still included music. Neither of us plays our instruments as regularly as we once did, but we still know how to appreciate music. And though we listen carefully and critically, Tom and I can find something to enjoy in just about any live performance. This makes us natural partners for shows that might not interest other people.

Last winter, Tom invited me to see Stanley Clarke, a renowned bassist, at the Birchmere in Alexandria. I had never thought of bassists as headliners, but I have such faith in Tom’s taste in music that his proclamation that Stanley was a musical god among men was all it took for me to want to hear the gospel. Two hours with Stanley and his incredible trio proved that he’s a gifted bassist in the way that Shakespeare knew a few things about iambic pentameter. I was converted and ready to evangelize.

In April, I bought tickets to see Phil Vassar, one of my favorite performers, at the Hylton Arts Center in Manassas. I invited Tom and he accepted immediately, though he didn’t know who Phil was. A few days before the show, I won passes for a meet-and-greet. I asked Tom if he was up for it and got an enthusiastic, “Hell yes!” He knew it would make me happy, so of course he was happy to do it.

A few days before the concert, I emailed Tom with the crazy idea of giving Phil a copy of my book. Never before had I considered doing anything so utterly fan-girl, but Phil had played a brief, yet important, role in my life at a crucial time and I wanted him to know. I waited for Tom to tell me it was a terrible idea. My friend is a straight-shooter, plus his background in security put him in a good position to assess how Phil might react to my gift. Tom liked my plan and thought I could pull it off without seeming like a stalker.

A few hours before the concert, I typed up a letter to include with the book:

Dear Phil,

I’m sure fans give you strange things all the time, so I hope you’ll bear with me while I give you some backstory.

Your music won me over the moment I first heard “That’s When I Love You” on WMZQ in 2001. Not a fan of country music at the time, I was listening to that station only because my then-boyfriend –possibly the least likely person on Planet Earth to belt out those lyrics—kept his car radio perpetually tuned to it. That song led me to buy your debut album, whose piano-heavy tracks planted the seeds of my long-term addiction to your particular brand of country.

When I started going to your shows, I was blown away not just by the way you would tear up the piano, but also by the amount of humor and personality you brought to the stage. I came away impressed with your musicality and moved by what your performance seems to say about your approach to life: respond with resilience and humor.

When I turned 40 in June of 2011, my marriage was heaving its last gasps, so I didn’t have much of a celebration. By September, I had moved out and initiated divorce proceedings, leading my entire family to conspire and stage a surprise 40th birthday do-over at the Ram’s Head Tavern. Your show was the centerpiece, and it couldn’t have been more perfect. My family members strolled in one at a time, the arrival of each person putting a smile on my face and sending a tear of joy down my cheek. I spent a glorious night with the people I love, doing something I love, and I cherish that memory.

As my way of saying thank you for the gift of your music, I hope you enjoy this collection of humor essays. If I got them right, they embody the same spirit I hear in your music.

Thanks again for being a consistent bright spot.

I stuck the letter and book in a gift bag and drove off to meet Tom. When I picked him up, I learned he’d studied up on Phil’s music before the concert. Some people do that to enhance their enjoyment of the show, but knowing Tom, he did it to enhance my enjoyment of the show. He didn’t want to stand there just bobbing his head, he wanted to sing along with me, because if something matters to one of Tom’s friends, it matters to him.

As we stood in line for the post-show meet-and-greet, we learned it would include a photo op.

“I’ll hold your purse and take the picture,” Tom said.

When handed a purse, your average man will react as if you’ve asked him to hold a norovirus. But Tom volunteered to throw himself on the purse grenade so I would have clear path to executing my plan.

When the moment came, I handed my purse and phone to Tom. I gave the gift bag to Phil, who opened it as I explained what it was. He received it politely, meaning he did not discard it as I stood there, nor did he seek a restraining order.

Such was my state of shock that I nearly allowed Tom to take the photo, which would have meant he wasn’t in it. Fortunately, Phil was paying attention and got one of his bandmates to snap the shot. That photo of me, Phil and Tom is one of my all-time favorites.

What stands out in my memory about that night wasn’t the music or the meet-and-greet, though. More than anything I remember how hard my friend worked, in ways great and small, not only to share in my happiness but to grow it.

Tom’s generosity of spirit is especially remarkable considering he has long struggled with depression (one of the things I learned when we got together last December). He has sought help in every form imaginable, but his brain chemistry continues to do its damnedest to rob him of hope and purpose. He battles the crushing pain of his illness daily, and always with courage and grace.

He sometimes posts on Facebook when the pain becomes intolerable, as it has in recent weeks. He reaches out when all he wants to do is crawl inward, which shows astounding bravery, strength, and selflessness. By sharing his story, Tom gives the people who love him a chance to remind him, and he lets others in the grip of depression know they’re not alone.

Tom wrote a Facebook post yesterday about feeling hopeless. It drew an immediate, heartfelt outpouring of support from the many people who know Tom’s presence in our world changes it for the better. We know he brings incredible joy to the people in his life. We know he matters.

We can’t change the wiring of his brain or fight this horrible battle for him, but we can stand with him, and we can thank him for letting us.

So thank you, Tom, for giving us a chance to show up for you, as you do for all of us.

Love,

Your Fan Club

Comments

  1. Karen Thanks for sharing this beautiful tribute to your friend Tom. I have loved ones who struggle with this challenge, and it’s heartbreaking when someone whose beautiful light shines for everyone but themselves. I think we need to do all we can to bring understanding of this disease out of the darkness. The more people understand, the more we can help those who struggle, bringing sensitivity, help and attention to those who need it.

    • Thanks for reading and for taking the time to write. You captured how I feel perfectly. So many people don’t understand that this is an illness, that it’s brain chemistry gone awry, and that the person has no more control over it than he would, say, the onset of cancer. You are helping by adding to the ranks of the aware.

      • Yes! and the chemistry is tricky. A particular medication may work for while and then stop. Or an effective pharmaceutical solution may be hard to find. It seems that every brain chemistry is different, and it changes over time. I’m so glad you wrote this post. I truly hope that it will help Tom to see his worth and value and special gifts as perceived by his friends, even if he doesn’t feel them himself all the time.

        • You’re spot on with all of this. I also wanted to tell you Tom is reading the comments on Facebook and here, so you are helping more than you know.

  2. Okay, first – we need to talk about turning into fan-girls at some point. 😉 Second, this really hit close to home, and I wanted to say thank you for writing this. And please let Tom know that even people he hasn’t met think he’s a pretty cool guy.

    • I can’t wait to have the fan-girl conversation – bring it on! 🙂 And thank you for telling me this post resonated. I had a hard time writing it, but it demanded to be written. I will take great delight in letting Tom know what you’ve said about him. Comments like yours help counter the negative thoughts his brain feeds him. He is reading all of this and saving it for when those dark thoughts intrude again. Thanks again for all of this. Big hug.

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