Monday, June 26, 2006

Philadelphia freedom

I didn’t have time to upload a song for Musical Monday today, but if I did, ‘Philadelphia Freedom’ would have been my pick for this week.

On Saturday morning I dropped Brendan off at summer camp. It’s a four-week overnight program, so for the next month I will have the luxury of unstructured time every single day. I plan to take full advantage of it—staying downtown after work to see more of the city at night, trying new restaurants in the area, heading up to NY for an improv show, and just leaving myself open to whatever else the day might bring.

I also want to get away somewhere for a few days. I don’t have any particular destination in mind—right now my idea is to play Travelocity roulette and keep my options open. My plan is just to head off to whichever place sounds the most intriguing with the best deal at the moment. I'll keep an overnight suitcase packed and ready to go--anything I forgot to throw in will be picked up when I eventually arrive at wherever it is that I’m going.

I figure the important thing is just getting there in the first place.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Stop me before I sing again...

Last night I karaoked.

Three times, to be exact.

A friend of mine had called earlier in the day and said she was getting a group together to go out for a night of karaoke next week. It had been awhile since I had grabbed a microphone and channeled my inner rock star, so I figured that a solo practice run might be a good idea. Of course, “good idea” turned out to be a relative term.

Here’s a helpful tip from Karaoke 101: Before you begin to project your electronically amplified voice across a bar filled with a crowd of strangers, you should probably be somewhat familiar with the notes and actual words of the song that you will be performing ahead of time.

I had heard “Hands Down” by Dashboard Confessional during the morning commute into work, and it had been in my head all day. Once I got home I downloaded the song and ran through it a couple of times while I made dinner. I thought it sounded okay in my kitchen (the best acoustic spot in my house), but apparently they must have used a different kind of tile or something to cover the walls of the place that I’d be singing in later that night...

My name got called by the DJ within 5 minutes after arriving at the bar and telling him my selection. Things got off to a decent start, but as the notes began to climb higher towards the end of the song, my vocal cords showed a sudden stubborn reluctance to follow along in spots. Helpful Karaoke hint #2: Allow at least 10 minutes after your first drink of Southern Comfort to fully take effect before operating heavy karaoke machinery.

I returned to my seat and seriously considered wiping my prints from the bar and making a quick getaway from the scene, but when the two whitest girls on the planet got up to sing Kanye West’s “Gold Digger,” I decided to hang around for a little bit longer. In hindsight, I had sounded fine, but it’s always strange to hear how your voice sounds from outside of yourself.

I redeemed myself somewhat about an hour later when I sang Simple Plan’s “Welcome to My Life.” Actually, my redemption came courtesy of ‘Billy’, the guy who immediately preceded me. He looked like Michael Douglas’ older, seedier cousin, with his slicked-back hair, too tight muscle shirt, pleather pants, and a weird orange complexion from some fake tanning product. I thought that the DJ might have cued up the wrong track when the first few measures of U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)" began to play, but Billy dove right in.

He certainly had an interesting delivery to his performance, turning his back almost completely to the audience and hunching forward to read the words as they appeared on the 10-inch monitor next to the DJ’s table. Unfortunately the speakers projected every tortured note back towards us in perfect surround sound. I know that U2 is a very socially-conscious group advocating world-wide peace and charity, but they are also Irish after all. I have no doubt that had they been present in the bar, the Edge would have thrown Billy into a headlock while Bono rained blows down upon him until the desecration ended. I’m sure that the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. would have looked down in approval as well.

There were actually several very talented singers who took the stage throughout the evening. The best song of the night belonged to two women who brought the house down with “Take Me or Leave Me” from ‘Rent.’ And two college kids got plenty of intentional laughs with their full-throttle performance of Bon Jovi’s “Shot Through the Heart.” Another girl did a beautiful job singing Eva Cassidy’s version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

Mindful of the saying that bad things tend to happen in 3’s, I decided to press my luck and go for one more song before last call. By that point I had completely wound down from my day and was just caught up in the fun of singing again after such a long time away. “Black” by Pearl Jam was my third choice, and out of the corner of my eye I noticed several heads around the bar begin to nod along as I sang. Even Billy got back up again later on to sing a not completely cringe-inducing version of Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon.”

All in all, it was definitely a worthwhile night, for no other reason than to have a vocal tune-up before going out with my friends next week. And in the end I realized that no one goes there to hear pitch-perfect singing, but just to let loose for a couple of hours and have fun. It felt good to get up and sing before a crowd again. I’m thinking that it might not be so long next time until I do it again.

“Ladies and gentlemen, TJ has left the building...”

Thank you very much.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


A steady wind blew forcefully across the top of the dunes. Thin trails of white sand swept along the surface of the empty beach as they twisted their way down to the sea. I walked along the shoreline in an attempt to quiet an unsettling feeling that had remained within me for days since the 11th anniversary of my wife's death at the end of May. The open view and constant sound of crashing waves in the background helped bring focus to my thoughts.

The beach was practically deserted except for a few families determined to brave the overcast skies and cold wind that had been blowing all day. Three little girls played in the surf up ahead, looking like tiny sandpipers as they skittered down to the water's edge on tiptoe and then raced back up the beach just ahead of the advancing tide. Off in the distance a young boy was flying a kite. Actually from the looks of things, the kite appeared to be flying him. The bottoms of his feet hardly seemed to touch the sand as he ran on and on with the wind.

My thoughts went back to an earlier summer spent just a little bit further up the coast on Brigantine beach. Brendan had been about two and a half years old and spent every moment possible playing in the ocean. Liz and I would stand on either side of him in the knee-deep water, holding his hands and shouting in mock suspense as a wave would begin to roll in steadily towards us. Each time he would burst into fits of laughter as his body was lifted into the air at the very last moment while the wave rolled beneath him, and then would grip our fingers in eager anticipation with his small hands as we waited for the next one to approach. Within five minutes after Liz dried him off with a towel upon our return to the beach chairs, he would take off running across the sand down to the water's edge once again. That went on all throughout the day until he eventually wore himself out, finally coming to rest as he slept in his mother's arms while they sat under the cool shade of a beach umbrella.
* * * * * *
Last night I looked through some photographs from that summer. In the past, I had always felt a strong sense of sadness whenever I got to this picture and saw the look of contentment on Brendan's face.
It would tear me up inside thinking that no matter how many hugs and kisses I would give Brendan for both Elizabeth and myself in the years to come, he would never again get to feel the comfort that can only be found in a mother's embrace.
This time I considered things from a different perspective. I realized that the one person who had experienced even more joy than Brendan on the beach that day was Elizabeth. All she had ever truly wanted out of life was to become a mother, and she cherished every day spent with her little boy more than the one before it. A series of random coincidences had brought us together on the first night we met, which led to us getting married and eventually starting a family. Another equally arbitrary chain of events fell into place which led up to the night that she was taken away so suddenly.
The expression on Liz's face in that photo left no doubt in my mind that had she been given the choice, she wouldn't have traded those three brief years loving our son for the chance to live one hundred years without him if we had never met. And as I continued to gaze at that moment captured so many years ago I had a glimpse of another moment yet to come. Through her eyes I could picture the day when the three of us will be together again, finding ourselves in each other’s arms as we meet upon a distant shore.

Thursday, June 08, 2006


The final notes of the overture lingered for a moment and then quietly faded into the darkness. I was sitting among the audience at the Academy of Music as The Savoy Company’s final performance of ‘The Mikado’ got underway. The curtain rose and the set came alive as the men’s chorus began the show’s opening number. Several scenes later the women’s chorus made their entrance, gliding in from offstage beneath flowing kimonos. I watched as they arranged themselves into smaller groups all across the set, moving their silk fans through the air in perfect unison while they sang. After a few moments the director of the show leaned over in his seat and said in a low whisper, “She was standing over there, downstage right.” I was his guest at the show that evening and appreciated the gesture, but his words were not necessary. I had already known for certain where she had been the moment my eyes came to the empty space onstage.
* * * * * * * *
Twenty-four hours earlier, my wife Elizabeth had been in this theater performing with the cast on the opening night of the show. Eight hours later a doctor stood before me telling me that she was gone. Both of our families had rushed to our apartment that morning as soon as I gave them the terrible news. The day was spent consoling each other and repeating the same details over and over in endless phone calls.

At one point I called the director of the show to let him know what happened. After he got over the initial shock he began to talk about a dedication that evening in her honor. I understood his intentions but made him promise me that he would not say anything to anyone before the show. The news of her death would be a huge blow to the cast, and I knew that its devastating impact mere hours before the opening curtain was the last thing Liz would have wanted. The director said he would make up some excuse for her absence and would only tell the choreographer beforehand. They would wait until the following morning before spreading the word among the rest of company.

As we spoke, I decided to make one other request of him. The world had become completely surreal since I had gone to sleep the previous evening, and I was trying to come to grips with what had happened. The guilt that I felt when I pictured her sitting alone in the dark during her final moments was unbearable. I wanted to see where she had spent her last hours doing what she loved most, singing and dancing alongside some of her closest friends. I hoped that it might begin to replace the images and sounds that had flooded my mind constantly over the past several hours.

Little by little, I began to get drawn into the show. The vivid costumes, elaborate sets, intricate choreography, and beautiful music all unfolded in splendor before my eyes. The sense of joy pouring out from the stage gave me a moment’s peace, as I imagined the expression of delight that would have been on Liz’s face the night before. As the finale built to its finish and the chorus members sang with all of their hearts to fill the entire theater with sound, it was Elizabeth’s voice that I heard.
* * * * * * *
Three years later I found myself once again in the Academy of Music, listening as the orchestra began to play another overture. Except this time I was standing in the wings offstage, a member of the chorus in that year’s production of ‘The Pirates of Penzance.’ It was opening night and the cast had been buzzing with energy in the moments beforehand, but I was nervous for a different reason. Earlier in the season the same director had approached me to see if our son could be a part of the show. He had an idea for a flashback scene that would take place onstage while the orchestra played during the overture. There was a role for a young boy and the first person that he had thought of was Brendan.

I watched with anticipation and pride as Brendan followed his mother’s footsteps onto the same stage that she had performed on during a night like this just a few years ago. He hit every one of his marks perfectly and acted with remarkable grace and presence for a six-year old standing before two thousand people in a gilt-covered opera house. I know that Elizabeth was there watching over him as well.

The rest of the show went smoothly and after the set was cleared everyone began to head off to the official cast party down the street. The crew turned down all of the lights in the theater except for a single bulb atop a stand at the front of the stage. There is an old tradition that one light should be left on in a theater at all times. The ‘ghost light’ is set out to welcome the souls of all those who have passed on to return to the stage and perform with each other once again.

I walked with Brendan out into the small circle of light that illuminated center stage. Together we tied a bouquet of flowers to the stand, eleven red roses from me and one pink rose from him. We said a quiet prayer and told Elizabeth that we loved her and missed her. After a moment we heard some of the cast offstage laughing and dueling in a mock sword fight. Brendan looked up at me in anticipation and I nodded my head in permission. I watched as our son ran off from the stage with pure delight, filled inside with his mother’s spirit and spreading her light out into the world before him.

Sunday, June 04, 2006


Wake up...
I slowly became aware of hands shaking my shoulders as I began to come out of a heavy sleep.
The shaking grew more urgent.
Please, Tommy...wake up.
I opened my eyes to see my wife sitting at the edge of the bed, leaning over me with a worried look on her face. I had been home babysitting our 3-year old son while she had left several hours earlier to perform with a local theater group downtown. "What's the matter?" I asked, still a little groggy. "How was the show?"
Something's wrong...I can't breathe.
* * * * * * * *
I quickly sat up in bed and got the full story. Liz had skipped dinner before heading to the theater and ate some food that had been placed offstage for the cast just before the show began. She felt her lips, mouth, and throat begin to swell up, and had immediately recognized the symptoms of an allergic reaction. During intermission she repeatedly used her asthma inhaler and took some Benadryl that another cast member had offered. She felt a little better but decided to skip the cast party and instead began to head straight home. While driving on the expressway to our house, her condition took a sudden turn for the worse.

I tried to calm her down and set up a nebulizer machine with a mask that fit over her mouth to force the asthma medicine down into her lungs with compressed air. After several minutes her condition didn't seem to improve, so we began to get ready to go to the nearby hospital. She went downstairs to get her purse and search for a stronger inhaler with steroids, while I pulled on some jeans and carried Brendan from his bedroom. I had just reached the front door when I heard the engine of our car begin to roar furiously at full throttle from the parking lot outside.

I hurried past the other apartments and approached the open driver's side door. "Jesus, Liz. You're going to wake the whole neighbor--"
My words cut off as I looked down to see Elizabeth unconcious behind the steering wheel, her foot locked into position as it continued to push the gas pedal all the way to the floor. Brendan's hands pressed against his ears as I set him down beside the car. I reached in to turn off the engine and lifted Liz out of the seat so I could place her flat on the ground. I tried doing mouth-to-mouth but could see that my breaths were not reaching her lungs at all.

We lived about two miles from Chestnut Hill Hospital, which lay on the other side of Fairmount Park and could be reached by a single road that wound down to the bottom of the Wissahickon Gorge and climbed back up to Germantown Avenue on the other side. I quickly decided that driving her there would be much faster than waiting for an ambulance to reach us at this time of night. I strapped Brendan into his car seat and laid Liz out across the rear wheel wells of the compact 2-door car that we owned at the time. I took off through the park, steering with one hand and reaching behind me with the other to shake her as I called out her name. Brendan looked down and asked "Mommy, are you sleeping?" I told him that mommy was sick and that we were going to the doctor's to make her all better.

Right about that time I took a curve too fast and our car drifted off of the road. The driver's side front wheel slammed against a large rock and blew out. We were near the top of the hill on the other side of the park and just about a mile from the hospital. I threw the car in reverse and drove back onto the road. As we turned onto the main street leading to the hospital, the rubber tire came completely off of the axle. I continued to drive forward and could see sparks flying up past my windshield as the steel rim cut into the asphalt. The steering wheel kept pulling hard over to the left but I pressed down even harder on the accelerator, not caring if the car flew apart so long as it got her to the hospital in time.

* * * * * * * *
We pulled up to the ER less than a minute later. I ran inside and shouted for help. I went back to the car to lift Liz out and was met halfway by an orderly with a stretcher, which was immediately surrounded by several nurses and a doctor. They quickly pushed her through a set of security doors separating the treatment area from the waiting room, and from that point on she was out of my sight. A nurse explained that no one was permitted back there while the doctors treated her, and she led us to a private family waiting room with several chairs and a small bed. She promised to give me updates as soon as they knew anything. I dimmed the lights and tucked Brendan under the covers, climbing into bed next to him to wait until he fell asleep. I looked up at a clock to get my bearings and saw that it was just past one o'clock in the morning. The room became still as I lay beside my son, but no matter how hard I shut my eyes, I couldn't block out the sound of a screaming engine from piercing the silence.