Last night we went to an a cappella show at the local museum. It was small, and kinda low key but high lighted the voice groups associated with the local college. It was great. Dick Wallace hosts a program on the public radio station and was the evenings emcee.
Now I have rarely been to live concerts in any arena. This was probably the 6th one outside of school performances that we HAD to go to. So I never know what to expect. But it is a cappella..... Carmen San Diego and what not so it was going to be good right? It was. We were a bit early and walked through the display of a Hungarian printmaker's works and then toddled off to find seats.
One of the first groups up was the Sweet Adelines' a cappella division with one of my classmates, and my sister's best friend since second grade, Laura. She is a blast on facebook and has always been a chipper person since I've known her. It was fun to see her up there. As her group disembarked the stage she waved to a couple of people not too far from us. But alas, I was left to wonder who as the show continued.
Quado Pro Quo came up and killed me a little with some Bobby Vinton and Blue Velvet. A little snuggle and a lot of tears. I don't know why that song does it. It almost always does. The rest of the performances went off without much more emotion from me than a lot of admiration. Until the end, that is.
At intermission I saw the answer to the question and popped over to say hi to two other classmates. Tommy and his wife Jerilyn. Had a good catch up session and then the show went on as one would expect. The BF teased me a bit because I had gotten sucked into a performance. Their director was just very expressive and hypnotic with his conducting, which everyone else had done with a limited range. The song was called "sleep" and I nearly did.
At the end a 4 voice female barbershop group came on and did a couple of songs I didn't know. Then finished with a gut wrenching version of Dionne Warwick's "That's what friends are for."
It is a beautiful song in its own right. But for an entire high school in northern Michigan in 1985 the song bears a singular significance that 28 years later is not diminished for the majority of us. A classmate of considerable character, almost infamy, and great heart died. The majority of the school went in waves to his viewing and we all attended the funeral mass together as we would so many school masses of any given Friday. During some point in the mourning process, Dennis' life flashed before us in carefully chosen slides while this song played over the sound of many people crying.
Dennis had a reputation in the school from his earliest elementary days that was troubled and unflattering. In the mid 70 we didn't know how to deal with kids who were so different. I do not know all the details of his disorder and hazard to guess he fell in the autism spectrum. And our parents were not really good with information. Information is the key to making life easier as it leads to understanding. Without understanding, as you might well imagine, Dennis had a hard time feeling at home in our close knit school. When we were in 4th grade I was assigned to tutor him.
Having spent a lot of time with him, I still could tell you know more about him than I am able now. His learning was slow which angered and frustrated him. He could do more than his brain was letting him and he knew it. I was only a 9 year old kid with him and didn't know how to teach anything to anyone. I never felt like I was any help at all. I wouldn't do the work for him. And I didn't know how to help him absorb the information. I felt like I only frustrated him more because I didn't know what I could do for him. And I think that made things ten times worse for him. At some point he was sent to a far better school.
The school specialized in alternative teaching methods. It might have a Montessori element to it. I don't know. But he went and got the kinds of instruction that helped to unlock his brain from whatever prison it was born into, and let out his personality... the sweet, helpful and caring personality that was trapped under all the frustration. He did well enough to surpass us at some point. When I got into the high school which was buildings removed from the last school we shared I was a freshman and he was now a sophomore.
Admittedly, I avoided him for a solid few weeks when school started. I remembered the angry Dennis. And I was a little scared. The mental handicap was a small part of the issue. While I avoided him it was hard not to take note of the change in his personality. He was confident, kind, helpful and rather well liked by all of his classmates. At least by what I could see. There was a day when one of the teachers, Mrs. David, asked him to see if he could help another student make sense of the work they were doing on in their unit. He looked over the work while he stood along side her desk. If I didn't know better, I would have thought that he was an adult who had stepped out of one of those 1950's educational films, with the coke bottle glasses and the crew cut. He just had a professional look about him. He said it was no problem, took the assignment, made a note and half saluted as he walked away.
A few days after that Dennis called me. We published a yearly directory of students phone numbers and addresses since I could remember. I think the practice was abolished in 87 or 88. He called and we chatted. He said he was sorry that he was so mean in elementary school. I told him basically what I've told you guys. He described what it was like to be at Pathfinder where people knew what was wrong with him and could help him work around it if they couldn't cure it. We talked about what it was like to be a grade ahead of us and he cracked a joke.
It was a short conversation. We had many of them. Dennis was a weird kid. I was a weird kid. So it was nice to be able to talk about the things that were fascinating to each of us. As the school year progressed into Fall there was one conversation where he kept offering to come out to my grandparents to help rake leaves. I had the impression that he might have wanted to date.
To be honest. I didn't want to be Dennis' girlfriend in part because of the circumstance. It was a bitter pill for me to realize that I could be as shallow as anyone else. But I couldn't see it. And while we were able to talk, part of me always wondered when the other Dennis would show up, so more than talking would not have been possible. Beyond that.... I didn't like boys. I didn't like them the way the other girls kept acting like they liked them. I liked them because they had better toys (erector sets, chem labs, matchbox cars, legos and Death Stars etc...) and I liked them because they could go outside and get dirty and not worry about stains and holes and torn nails. I liked boys because we were alike in mindset and I couldn't stand the chatter than happens with girls.
But how do you explain that to someone when you don't fully understand that yourself?
Then there were the issues with family. There was no way my mom was going to let me date at 14. And when I did date it wasn't going to be to someone who didn't have money. And it wasn't going to be someone she could not control. Dennis had a strong family. As crazy and Italian opera as that sounds that is the way things were for me. How do you explain that without telling someone how crazy your own family is? I was as embarrassed by my mother's behavior as I was about my own looks and intellect at the time, as I was by Dennis' situation. How do you explain that without hurting someone's feelings? I know he understands all of this now. But as I type I can not think anything but what a horrible person I must be to be so frailly human. How do you explain that?
And how do you explain that you made up your mind that you would not ever date?
Two years later I would figure out what gay was, what lesbianism was and that the whole time I was growing up someone was taking bets on when I would come out. But I didn't know anything about anything except that I had to train myself not to want relationships so that being around people was easier. A decade later I would find out that there is a psychological phenomenon called asexuality which boiled in to its most essential description is a being uninterested in sex for the sake of sex or for human connection. I simply was not going to be capable of a fully adult relationship until well into my 30s. And it would only ever be with guys because for the most part.... I can't stand my own gender. But it would still take 20 years for me to figure that out.
But how do you explain something you don't know about?
I chose to blame it on my parents. The no dating until you are 16 would only put the question off for two years. But then things may have changed enough that revisiting the question might have yielded either a different set of results or some clarity.
I didn't have two years. Within a few days of the discussion Dennis had passed. A damaged chimney flue built up dangerous levels of gas in his basement bedroom and he died in his sleep. We came to school Monday morning to the news. It almost killed nearly everyone in his class to say goodbye. It almost killed me. The guilt was incredible. He never did officially ask me out, only talked the what if. And it was natural causes, or an act of God type of a situation, so it isn't like he took his own life. My head knew that. But my heart and that sadistic thing in my head that likes to blame me for everything and twist reality to make me hate being here myself knew something different. Shelly kept telling me that I didn't do anything wrong. That it was an accident. But I didn't want to believe that. Some days, even now, I don't want to believe that.
It's been 28 years since Dennis passed. 28 years since I was last in the Covell Funeral Home and felt the plush red carpet soften the footfalls of mourning visitors. 28 years since that song brought a school to tears. For 28 years I've avoided the song. I change the radio station or don't listen to the radio at all anymore. For 28 years I've been able to avoid the song successfully with only a few fails. Last night the Avoid Fail was Epic.
As soon as the last group left the stage the BF and I bolted. He to avoid traffic. Me to avoid the odd stares from people applying poor deduction skills to the anomaly of a woman crying her eyes out after a wonderfully less than dramatic performance. On the way out the door Laura's group was gathering for the receiving line. Laura gave me one of her big bear hugs and I remembered she was one of the first people to hug me at Dennis' funeral too. After we got back to my house I explained the whole sordid thing to my BF and got a wonderful amount of support.
It may have taken me a long time to figure out how I felt about boys, dating, human interaction period. But I am glad that when I did figure it out this one was there. Of course it helps that we have a common background. 25 years ago we were Seniors in the same school. He was 3 years after Dennis and while Dennis was never forgotten, he wasn't explained to the newbies either. I think in some way, his lost became a special gem that each person protected in memory the way many of us failed to in real life during the time that we had him. And that is perhaps why that song can kill so many of us each time we hear it.
And it will for the rest of our lives.