Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"Forever Young"

Late one night in January 2008, I discovered this 1985 TV performance on YouTube. I had fallen in love with Alphaville's "Forever Young" in the late summer of 2004 when it was featured in the brilliant film Napoleon Dynamite. That same summer, Laura Branigan, whom I had loved since my days of watching the variety show Solid Gold as a child, died unexpectedly of an aneurism. My love for her music deepened in the months and years that followed her untimely passing, but it was not until five years ago that I learned that she covered "Forever Young". I still remember the first time I saw this clip. I felt as though Laura's angelic soul had guided me to it that night, when I needed it most. A part of me feels that all over again, every time I hear the song. But my most vivid memories came over the next two years, when this most haunting rendition of "Forever Young" would underscore the final days I spent with my beloved dogs, Frisky and Chloe. 

Frisky and Chloe were sisters, born the very same summer I filmed my tribute to Madonna's "Vogue", and they were a defining part of the lives of my sister and I from our childhood through our twenties. They saw us through every high and low over the span of two decades, from grade school through college and beyond. Chloe died while looking into my eyes on December 27th, 2008, and Frisky died while looking into my sister Jennifer's eyes on January 10th, 2010. Speaking as a deeply spiritual person, 2009 was a powerful chapter in my life because Frisky was here with my family while Chloe was no longer in a physical form. Throughout 2009, the last full year of Frisky's journey, I felt Chloe especially close: their bond was truly unbroken by death. Never was this more potent than on the night of September 26th, 2009, when I walked outside with Frisky in my arms, playing an MP3 of Laura Branigan's "Forever Young" on my cell phone under a Full Moon. Now, a part of me always goes back to being in that Full Moonlight every time I listen, and I am once again holding Frisky in my arms, the spirit of her sister Chloe all around us. 

In January 2013, Laura Branigan's "Forever Young" would take on another meaning for me. On January 6th, I learned that one of my dearest and most incredible friends was at the end of her life journey. Amanda was an integral part of my adolescence, an ally in junior high school who I stayed in touch with until 2012. Many of my memories of her were formed during the seventh and eighth grades, a difficult life chapter that I avoided looking back on for many years. But now I cherish those once painful memories so as to remind me of the right approach to take to truly living life...just like Amanda did. 

In the seventh grade, I was secretly coming to terms with my homosexuality while also realizing that Amanda seemed to have romantic feelings for me. I couldn't tell her why it was that I couldn't go out with her, despite how well we got along and how much I adored her. The two of us separately and collectively endured peer abuse (I loathe the term "bullying) from certain people who mocked our friendship. I'm sure some of them knew even ahead of me that I was gay, but such taunts primarily were rooted in the fact that I was extremely tall for my age while Amanda was quite short. Amanda and I never discussed anything as trivial as our height difference, but years later I learned from a mutual friend that Amanda had battled and beaten childhood cancer, and that this had presumably stunted her growth.  Looking back, I should have known by her approach to life that she was a cancer survivor. Amanda was a lot tougher than I was, and deflected the words of other people with a strength and optimism that I still hope to one day emulate. 

In junior high school, and especially the seventh grade, I was deeply sensitive to the ignorance and cruelty of classmates whose own internal suffering I would not understand until years later. And I was obsessed by a fear that I was causing Amanda more suffering than anyone else by not having for her the same feelings that she had for me. This fear dominated my thinking, yet without any cause, for Amanda never stopped smiling. Regretfully, I transferred to another school because I felt lonely and depressed and picked-on and unpopular. I thought I could hit the "Reset" button and have an entirely different teenage experience in an entirely new environment.  Amanda, on the other hand, never held grudges against those who could be so cruel: she not only forgave but ultimately became friends with the people who had once inflicted pain.

Amanda and I did not see each other very much after we went to different high schools, but thankfully America Online kept us connected for the rest of our teen years. At the start of senior year, we ended up working side-by-side at CVS, and once again I had the pleasure of seeing Amanda every day. I will never forget the night when she rang up a junior high tormentor while we were both working the cash registers. After he left, she told me how much nicer he was now. I wished I'd taken her approach to people, and to life, back when we were teenagers. Amanda weathered much more than I ever did, and yet she never let that affect her exquisuitely positive attitude. She was never blind or naive or living in a fantasy world. Her positivity was entirely by choice, and it never, ever wavered. She consciously chose to feel only love for all people. Eventually, all people loved her right back. And how rightfully so. 

Amanda's beautiful senior photo and caption in the Class of 2000 High School Yearbook.

I can't recall if I finally told Amanda I was gay shortly after I left CVS or shortly after we started college. Telling her was something I'd wanted to do for a long time, and one day I finally wrote her an email message to set the record straight--so to speak. As detailed in past blog entries, I knew all too well what it was like to be infatuated with a guy who either did not share the same feelings and/or the same sexual orientation. Inflicting that pain onto Amanda of all people was something I never ceased to be afraid of doing. I don't know if she knew I was gay by that time I finally told her, but from the reply she sent back, all the way up to the last messages we ever exchanged, it never affected our friendship one way or another. We went on to maintain communication for years by way of AIM, email, and eventually Facebook. Some time in 2004 or 2005, we ran into one another again at a grocery store in the same plaza where we'd once worked together at CVS. I remember that hug we shared and the warmth between us so vividly, and I keep remembering it all the time now because that happy moment was the last time I ever saw Amanda. 

Last May, when I posted an essay I wrote in high school about my junior high experience, there was never any mention of my friend Amanda. This was not an oversight: I removed all references to Amanda entirely from the piece I wrote at sixteen about what it was like being thirteen. I didn't want posting the full-length essay to stir up potentially painful memories of our shared experiences, not until I had given her the chance to read what I had written and to both have a conversation about it in person. Ever since I posted my "Vogue" tribute we had been planning to get together in Boston for a proper reunion. In spite of the image I have attempted to construct with my video and my blog, these last few years of my life have been wrought with different kinds of pain that have taken a physical and emotional toll on my nearest loved ones. I kept hoping this was a chapter about to end, and that once things were back on track in my life I would resume all of my dormant social activities and pick up friendships where they were left off. In spite of all my wishful thinking, said chapter has yet to end. In the midst of so much turmoil, I became intensely reclusive, but was too vain and too ashamed to let this on to all but a trusted few. Amanda was among those few. She understood where I was at, and why I was waiting for things to be better so that our catch-up in the city would be "well worth the wait". Alas, speaking in the purely physical sense, that reunion was not to be. 

Having beaten cancer as a little girl, Amanda spent a great deal of her time working with the American Cancer Society. She had a passion for helping people that was informed not only by her extraordinary soul but also by her own brave battle as a child. I naively thought she would spend the rest of her life doing so, never once thinking that the disease would come back to take her as a young adult. Just six days into 2013, I learned that Amanda was once again battling cancer, but that this battle would not be won. I subsequently spent the next several days thinking of nothing but Amanda, generating all of the energy and prayers that I could in hopes that all of the love going her way could miraculously heal her. On the night of January 9th, I learned that Amanda was in good spirits, as positive and upbeat as ever. But I also learned that she was going into a hospice the next day. In the hours that followed, I came to terms with the inevitable, and spent a great deal of time listening to music and reflecting on my memories of someone so extraordinary. Although I am a very emotional person, my emotions typically don't reveal themselves in times of sadness. I often say that I only cry in Bette Davis movies, that my appreciation of her greatest dramatic work is certainly deepened by its ability to release my own repressed emotions when I need it most. But as January 9th became January 10th, I shed many tears for the life journey that was coming to an end much, much sooner than any of us could ever have expected. In my heart, I said goodbye that night. Some twelve hours later, on a most unusually warm and sunny afternoon in January, Amanda's journey came to an end.

In the weeks since Amanda's passing, she has remained at the forefront of my mind. Memories of adolescence came back to me with almost supernatural clarity in those final days of her life, so that those experiences, once again, all seem recent. Only what I once viewed as a source of guilt or shame or sadness I now view in an entirely positive light. I look back on the times we shared together in junior high school as pure happiness, because I finally appreciate why this was Amanda's perspective all along. For years I was fixated on a fear that I had hurt Amanda more than anyone else by not feeling for her the way she felt for me, especially as we were both going through such an awkward and challenging stage together. I can finally see that she was far more content than someone as neurotic as I could ever have appreciated, least of all at thirteen. I remember seeing her one day at the start of seventh grade wearing black cowboy boots and thinking of how cool she looked, and I'm pretty sure that's the day when our friendship really began. At a school dance held in the junior high cafeteria a few weeks later, Amanda asked me to dance, and I accepted but was shy about dancing to anything but a waltz-y slow song--indeed, the carefree Vogue Boy was long gone. But Amanda had no hesitation whatsoever, and I keep smiling to myself as I remember her immediately grooving along with the song, never revealing a trace of the insecurity that I felt defined by. 

The night before Amanda's life ended, I was consumed by grief for her family. But on the night of her passing, I was consumed by positivity, thrilled by the awesome power of her incredible spirit. That night, I didn't cry. I danced. Normally when I dance in private I have a secret fear that someone is outside my window filming me. But this time I didn't feel any fear. I didn't feel anything negative at all. I was, and still am, determined to live my life as positively and as optimistically as Amanda did. She loved life, every day of it, whether good or bad or ugly or beautiful or painful or pleasurable. She faced more adversity than I ever did and she yet she was never one to complain or to expect sympathy. She may not have been tall, but she was a tower of strength. She had not one ounce of cynicism in her, and yet she was never without a sense of humor. I speak for countless lives touched when I say that I love her with all my heart. 

On the night of January 11th, I listened to "Forever Young" for the first time since Amanda's journey here came to an end. I was under the open sky on a starry night, and I wished for a shooting star to appear while I listened. When the song ended, I felt connected to Amanda despite not having seen one. I thought to myself, "I don't need to see anything to know you're near." I blew a kiss up to the sky, to a small patch of black in the center of that blanket of stars. And then a comet shot across that patch, slowly and brightly, taking my breath away. I was once again consumed by positivity, by Amanda's positivity. Now every time I drift back towards sadness, I remember that moment, and am incapable of feeling anything but gratitude and happiness. And every time I listen to Laura Branigan sing "Forever Young", Amanda is among those angels who I feel so especially near. 

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful words, Rob! Thank you for sharing them with me. I feel honored to have been referenced inside the entry - one which made me smile AND brought tears to my eyes.

    It's a most beautiful tribute to ^Amanda^ that also allowed reflection for me, too! Now, I most definitely need to listen to that song.

    I've received signs from ^Amanda^ and am so glad that you have as well... a comet... wow. Very special between the two of you, and especially fitting! :-)

    Love you,