We created identical self portraits, until we got to the hair. Round blue faces with crooked smiles across the paper. My brown crayon circled all over the page while his yellow crayon made crisp straight lines. The clicking of heels in the front of the room signaled the end of art time. It was time to learn who would be chosen to escort the beloved milk cart to the cafeteria. This week, neither of us were selected. We weren’t too disappointed since it meant we would have more time to practice our joke telling.
“I got one,” I giggled. “What is black and white and red all over?
“What,” he asked.
“Ok. My turn.” Even then he was prepared. “How do you make a tissue dance?”
“Put a boogie in it.”
Our squealing was hushed by the clapping of our teacher. “Okay, boys and girls. It is time for lunch. Please line up so the monitors can pass out your milk cartons for today.”
Perhaps the other students loved the position of milk monitor because it meant they could drive the crickety cart down the chalky blue lines in the hallway, but for me it was just the prelude for the main event: watching Sean eat his lunch.
He was methodical with his mess. First, he would bend the cardboard into the prescribed triangle formation, large enough to insert a straw. While the rest of the room would stop there, Sean was just getting started. He would pull the other sides of the cardboard open, one at a time, creating a perfect square at the top of his milk, usually chocolate. Then, with a smile as large as the milk opening, he would crumble his sandwich into the container. Whatever else his Dad had packed would go in as well, chips, apples, even an apple sauce. When he grabbed the straw, it was our signal to look up from our own snacks and watch him devour the concoction of the day. It was the perfect elementary school smoothie.
It was also the first thing I thought of when I read he had passed away.
We hadn’t spoken in the last twenty years. There was no more reason for it than what happens in the most natural of friendships, people move in different directions. I was never too far away to learn when the choir he directed won a prestigious award or when he would deliver a humorous speech at a wedding. I would zoom through images on social media, celebrating him from afar, as I had grown accustomed to doing since the days of milk monitor shakes.
I always loved to watch him. His eyes changed when he hit the stage, escaping into the lives of his characters. It is the same look I see in my own students thirty years later, pure joy to be doing the exact thing you love, and doing it well. Sean did not just do it well, he was phenomenal. When middle school boys were lost in a caterwaul of hormones, Sean’s baritone voice soared above them. Year after year, show after show, he would belt out the 11 o’clock number transporting the audience from Jersey to Brigadoon or the South Pacific. I would stand in the wings, watching the joy on his face, and eager to take yet another cast photo to add to my growing album.
It is the same album I turn to tonight to make sense of a devastating loss. Frozen moments capturing decades of memories. Class photos with sweater vests, cast party celebrations, and camping trips. When I zoom in a bit, I can hear his voice. I’ll stay with you backstage until you feel better… Let’s go to the dance together, it will be fun… I’m so sorry, I broke your nose. (Drama Banquets are not for the weary). Identical portraits bursting with smiles.
There are no words for an untimely loss. Tonight I share my love with the devastated family, friends, students, and audiences of his life. I will sing my boys “Some Enchanted Evening“, the sound of her laughter will sing in your dreams, and teach them the proper way one should drink their milk for school next year.