Thursday, October 17, 2013

Let It Show While You Can

Down in my mind where I don't care to go
The pain of a lesson is letting me know
If you have love in your heart let it show while you can

Yes now I understand
But now my only chance
To talk to you is through my prayers
I only wanted to tell you I cared

from "Through My Prayers" on The Carpenter by The Avett Brothers

Standing at six feet four, my brother Allyn is still my "little" bubby. He was named after my dad's closest confidant and spiritual mentor. The original Alan, just a decade older than my parents, was a young priest when he befriended my grandparents and their children in the early 70s. For over forty years, he has seen my family through everything from births and marriages to illnesses, job losses, and deaths. If there's a joy to share or a burden to unload, we all know Alan will rejoice or grieve alongside us. Wisdom and grace, love and acceptance abound.

As Allyn grows older, I think he recognizes the weight of his name. Next week, my little brother will turn 29. He's done an awful lot of living in those short years. At 30, I feel like I have too.

Amanda Bostain shared my brother's birthday but was three years his senior. She was my best friend. I don't know if I've ever met such an authentic hippie. She loved without hesitation and was a passionate advocate for those who needed justice. Her brother Jason was my other best pal. The three of us functioned almost as a unit. We spent hours laughing, creating, dreaming, debating. Nothing was off-limits. We were free to be ourselves.

Amanda was one of the most important people in my life for half a dozen years. A few nights after she graduated high school, that dear girl fell asleep and never woke up. She died of complications related to the extremely rare genetic syndrome she and her brother shared. I was seventeen when I served as eulogist and pallbearer at my best friend's funeral.

During those first days after burying Amanda, my brother was so sweet. He confided that he couldn't imagine what I was going through. He mentioned the loss I was suffering would be like if his best friend AJ passed. He couldn't really empathize, but in those days and months when I needed my brother more than ever, Allyn was ever-present and sympathetic.

Of course, I never wanted my brother to be able to truly understand the immense pain of losing a best friend. But eight years after I lost Amanda, AJ died suddenly of undiagnosed inherited heart disease two days shy of his 23rd birthday. 

In an instant, my brother, who had been his best friend's rock ever since AJ lost his younger sister in a car accident, knew my pain. In the handful of years that have followed, Allyn continues to show his undying love for his dear friend. He has become a surrogate son and brother to AJ's family. 

Eleven months after we lost AJ, my family welcomed a new little AJ. Knowing the importance of a good name, my brother christened his new daughter in loving memory of his dear friend.

Allyn and Little AJ
My brother is such a good daddy. My niece looks so much like him. Tall and golden, all smiles and legs for days. But she also takes after another Allen. AJ was short for Allen Rufus Estes, Jr. He was known for his big heart, perfect hugs, and ringing laughter. Little AJ carries that same magic with her.

Losing a best friend unexpectedly at a young age does something to a person. A piece of your heart breaks and never quite heals. There is a sense that there could have been more - that there should have been so much more.

Yet, life goes on. Babies are born, new friendships are formed, milestones are celebrated. And in the midst of it all, you always half-expect to see that old friend walk through your doorway or call you up. 

I happen to believe in a communion of saints that reaches beyond the limits of this lifetime. I still feel connected to Amanda and AJ. And, as sappy as it may seem, I live in the hope of seeing them again.

Amanda's brother Jason, who was also very close to AJ, has become my other brother. Not only to me, but to Allyn. He offered his love when we lost our dad's best friend Jeddy to cancer and our darling grandmother Sparky to a heart attack. We all lead busy lives and don't see each other as often as we should, but we are never far from one another's thoughts or prayers.
Allyn and Jason at Jason's wedding

This summer, 13 years after losing his sister, Jason got married to a beautiful girl. My family and I celebrated with tears in our eyes as Jason became a husband to his new bride named Amanda. As I offered a toast, raising my glass to Jason's family, it was sweet to welcome a new Amanda Bostain into our lives.

As All Saints' Day approaches, I give thanks for the saints in my life. For Amanda and AJ, for Jeddy and Sparky, for so many. 

I find myself wishing I had said, "I love you," more often than I did. 

At my grandmother's funeral, hundreds and hundreds came to pay their respects. Sparky, a fifth-grade teacher in a little community in West Virginia, had impacted the lives of thousands. Every single person who came through the receiving line told one variation or another of the same story. My grandmother had made them feel special. She had taken the time to find something unique about each person. And then, through her authentic warmth, she helped them see their true worth. 

I don't think my grandmother left this life with too many words left unspoken. She spent her life loving people. When she died, she didn't have much more than some funky jewelry to pass to family and friends. But she left a legacy of wisdom and grace, love and acceptance. Perhaps she learned it from Alan. Perhaps he learned it from her. More likely, those two saints helped one another along this life. In the journey, they found the best in each other, and the goodness multiplied.

May it be so for us who follow after them.

Friday, October 11, 2013

You're Free to Go

She hit that highway / With every ounce of faith she could summon
When courage finally comes / You never see it coming
Right outta nowhere / You open your heart / And that changes everything
You're going somewhere / And all you need to know / Is that you're free to go
-from "Right Outta Nowhere" on Kathy Mattea's album Right Out of Nowhere

The first time I met Kelsey Cooper, I thought to myself, "this little chick is going somewhere." The angelic 16-year-old with flowing turquoise locks had a voice that belonged on Broadway. 

She was one of the shining stars of a traveling youth choir. I had been a part of it when I was a teenager a decade earlier. My colleague Ron, the director of the choir, asked me if I would lead the group's drama troupe. I was excited about the opportunity to utilize my old musical theatre skills.

Kelsey was a natural. She owned the stage. But she didn't suffer from the all-too-prevalent diva attitude that has plagued so many talented performers.

For the past two years, it's been my privilege to work with Kelsey. I still get chills when she sings. I'm moved to tears when she makes one of my characters her own.

But I've known and loved an amazing number of talented people. If Kelsey was simply a great entertainer, I would be impressed. But she is so much more than that. Kelsey radiates love and goodness. I think her main concern in life is being kind. 

She drives forty-five minutes to volunteer with a children's choir every week. If I need help, she's one of my first calls. She makes time for her friends. She's a giver. 

Kelsey being funny at her AMDA audition
And she's leaving. In a couple of days, she'll be moving to Manhattan to study musical theatre at my alma mater - The American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA). I couldn't be more delighted, but I hate to see her go.

I moved to New York when I was eighteen too. I didn't know a soul living there. Manhattan seemed overwhelming to this West Virginia native. Living most of my life in western North Carolina had not prepared me for the hectic pace of the city that never sleeps.

But I grew to love New York. 

There's a creative energy there that I don't think exists anywhere else. 

The city was exotic and beautiful. I felt incredibly out of place but somehow also at home. I think it was the odd group of friends I was beginning to collect that helped create a sense of unexpected comfort. Drama queens, divas, serious thespians, dancers, and belters infiltrated my life. This behind-the-scenes girl was learning what it meant to express herself outside of words and paint.

To this day, some of my dearest friends are those I made as a fledgling actor in Manhattan. Just this week, while I was recovering from a painful surgery, I received words of love and encouragement from Jeremiah, Luis, and my old roommates Greg and Rahannah.

I seem to stay in a perpetual state of shock at my good fortune. How is it that one person can have so many diverse, brilliant friends?

Within a year of moving to the city, I realized I actually didn't want a life on stage. I loved writing and directing, but being the center of attention had never set well (and still doesn't). I enjoyed the craft. It was thrilling. Rehearsals were energizing. But performing in front of an audience - even a small one filled with my supportive classmates - made me sick. I made one of the most difficult decisions of my life and chose to leave the city that had quickly captured my heart.

I never expected I would ever encourage anyone to leave all they know and head to New York with dreams of marquee lights. Until I met Kelsey. She's the real deal. I see in her what I saw in those friends of mine - the ones I knew from the very first day of rehearsals would spend their lives in theatre. Kelsey, along with my old roommates and classmates, share this extraordinary passion and ridiculous talent. I fully expect to see Kelsey's name in bright lights one day.

And, like my still-working-in-the-field friends, Kelsey will find some semblance of balance. She will keep her authentic sweetness and joie de vivre. 

As Kelsey hugs her family and friends goodbye this weekend, I hope she knows our love goes with her. I hope she makes interesting, unique friends who fill her heart with a sense of home. I hope that when the city becomes a little too much, she finds a sacred spot amid the craziness. I hope that her reality surpasses even her biggest dreams.

Sweet girl, you're free to go.

To learn more about Crossflame Youth Choir - the incredible vehicle that brought Kelsey and Lindsay together - visit