After the flurry of activity that was the 2015-2016 academic year, I was wistfully hoping for a relaxed, carefree summer. My schedule naturally softens in this hot and humid season. Things slow down and there is time to recuperate and recharge for the flurry of activity that the fall tends to bring.
Life had other plans. I have intentionally gone out of my way to schedule activities that would be enriching to my life. I’ve played as much tennis as possible. I’ve taken art classes and read some great books. I’ve had time to think and time to reconnect with great friends. But unfortunately, this summer has also been a season of mourning.
In mid-May I sat with a friend on a park bench facing the bay. During that conversation, we talked about how people weave in and out of our lives. How every connection holds some meaning. There are no accidents. There is always some growth and some lesson. I’d like to tell you about two such persons in my life, both of whom departed this earth, in my mind, far too soon.
I know just a few words of Bulgarian because of Kristian. When I arrived as a student at the University of South Florida in Tampa, I discovered that there was a Bulgarian contingent present within the student body, particularly in the piano department. Before long, I was introduced to Kristian. I needed a pianist in my lessons on a weekly basis to play the repertoire that I would be performing on my recitals at school. Not only was he at every one of my lessons, but we spent time rehearsing outside of lessons as well. He was our studio class accompanist. Needless to say, I saw Kristian often and we became friends.
Kristian was a calming presence as I took some of my first steps in the singing world. He accompanied me both in my Junior and Senior recitals ahead of Graduate school. As I discovered my love of French song literature, he was there, playing Poulenc’s harmonies for me. When I got very sick on the day of my Senior recital and sang with a flaming sore throat, he was a calming presence through that. He was there when I began my then tenuous relationship with Mozart’s aria, Dove sono, i bei momenti. He was there when I stepped on the stage for the first time to perform an art song recital.
While I worked with Kristian as my accompanist, he was also a brilliant pianist and performer in his own right. After he graduated with his Master’s degree from USF, he continued on to the Cleveland Institute of Music to earn his Artist’s Diploma. We were still in touch once he moved to Ohio. I saw him once more after that, when he returned to Florida to play a gig here in Sarasota. We spent some time having gelato downtown and then ended up at a park with beautiful banyan trees, looking over the bay. We talked for a while before he had to leave for rehearsal. This was perhaps a decade ago. It was the last time I saw him. After he returned to Bulgaria, we didn’t communicate as much and I lost track of him, mostly hearing from him over Facebook.
I found out yesterday that Kristian passed away. He was not yet 40. It seems so senseless to my mind, how this could happen. But indeed, it happens every day. People coming and going. I had no idea I’d make a Bulgarian friend when I started studying at USF. Just by being who he was, Kristian inspired me to become a better musician. He played so well– I just wanted to sing as well as he played! He unknowingly pushed me to improve. This isn’t anything I ever thought to tell him myself. He was patient, he was kind and he was important to me.
In March 2012, I began to cantor at Our Lady of the Angels. That was when I met Fr. Dan. Fr. Dan was the Pastor at OLA and quite a character. You always knew where you stood with Fr. Dan. He was as straightforward as they come. Good or bad, he was authentic. Luckily, Fr. Dan liked having me around. I have an easy sense of humor and a hearty laugh. He appreciated that about me. When he needed to hire a new Director of Music at OLA, he wanted me to take the job. It didn’t matter to him that I hadn’t touched an organ in more than two decades….actually, that I wasn’t an organist at all. He knew I had a background at the piano. He literally did not care if I made the keyboard in the church sound like an organ. He just wanted me to take the job. He told me he knew I could “figure it out.”
And figure it out, I did. There was so much more to this position than I anticipated. And in the early days, when things felt rocky on a variety of fronts, I would have run screaming had it not been for his steadying support. His support of me did not stop in my capacity as an employee. I know in my core that Fr. Dan cared about me as a person. If he knew I had a recital coming up, he’d announce it from the pulpit before Mass. Of his own volition, he asked that notices about my recitals be printed in the bulletin. He loved to hear me sing and he often said so, publicly. As I navigated through a major life transition within the last two years, his support was steadfast. He was amused by my tennis playing and routinely called me “Andre Agassi.” I’m not quite sure why that was, but he could be random like that. He liked to give people a hard time and in more recent times, I felt comfortable enough to dish it back! (Within reason because he was my boss! And a priest!)
Over time, I earned his trust. Fr. Dan took a chance on me four years ago and gave me the space to grow and develop as a leader in my position at OLA. I know I am not the same person who walked through the church doors four years ago. Particularly in the beginning, it was trial by fire. But in this case, the fire burned up an old version of me and a stronger version had the opportunity to emerge. A version that is far more confident as a leader. Far more confident, period.
On Father’s Day, Fr. Dan passed away at the age of 52. My last interaction with him was typical of our relationship – he was giving me a hard time and I was giving him a smart answer back. Laughter was the period at the end of the sentence and I’m grateful for that.
Perhaps one of the hardest singing assignments ever came just after his passing. I sang during a prayer service at his wake and the next day, I sang for his funeral. Somehow by the grace of God, I sang for both of those things well and with composure intact. Until I was finished. Then the tears flowed because they couldn’t wait any longer.
Last Saturday, I noticed the church had hung up a nice picture of Fr. Dan in the hallway that leads back to our offices. He’s smiling big in the picture. And I smiled when I saw it. But that soon lead to feeling choked up. The picture is there because he is not. He was a major presence in my life and now he is gone.
I’ve enjoyed the luxury of waking up every morning for the last 14,973 days. And during those days, I have been lucky beyond belief. Blessed to have met so many wonderful, interesting people who have enriched my life. Every experience, positive, negative or neutral leaves an imprint. I’ve learned, I’ve grown….and especially in the presence of the gentlemen I’ve mentioned — I’ve evolved.
I’ve spent a good time staring at water this summer, feeling a wide range of emotions. Staring at the pond behind where I live, staring at the bay, breathing the salty air by the Gulf of Mexico. Combined with the chaos of the world at the moment, it feels like this summer has been a period of mourning not just personally, but also collectively.
I bow in gratitude to Kristian and to Fr. Dan. Gratitude for who they were and gratitude for the experiences they brought into my life and the lives of others. The emotions I’ve experienced as I’ve processed their departure show me the extent to which I cared and how I loved them. Again, not things I ever said out loud. Hopefully, my respect and admiration for them was felt. And that in their core, they knew they were loved, too.