Tonight I will take the stage in Dayton at a show to honor a friend of mine who passed away in 2012.
Drew and I were on the road together, working a club in Kentucky. I'd brought him in as my middle, because he'd done the same for me a few years before in Dayton. It wasn't JUST that -- friends are one thing, business is another. Drew was funny as hell. As a comedian I don't do references much simply because those lines can become blurred. Someone has to be credible as a comic for me to put my name out there. I've always said I'm more apt to give a comedian a kidney out of love than a referral out of friendship. You have to be funny to merit another performer putting their name on the line for you, and Drew was beyond worthy of this kind of help we can, and often do, extend to one another in this business.
The one thing about Drew was that beyond that strict business criteria is that we were indeed friends. It wasn't an odd occurrence for him to randomly call me so we could talk about comedy, about our kids, and general life topics. The week before our time in Kentucky we spoke several times like two kids who couldn't wait to trot off to Summer Camp.
Our week was Wednesday through Sunday. We did our Wednesday show and as always, Drew destroyed that stage. He had a rough crowd, exhausted from the string of newer comics who'd paraded the stage, and brought them around to his side of comedy. They laughed. They loved him. I don't know anyone who didn't love Drew.
That night he left the condo with chest pains, headed to the hospital to get checked out. He called me after he spoke to his family, just to update me that the doctors suspected he'd had a heart attack on stage that night. That fact FLOORED me. It was not anything one could see watching him strum his guitar to his Johnny Cash bit, energy an all time high, entertaining strangers. And a funny thing happened before Drew got off the phone that night. Mind you he'd just talked to his wife and family before me, and did the habitual, "Okay well I'd better go. Love you!" ending to his phone call. He made a slight "oops, er, uh," noise and I laughed, I told him, "That's okay Drew. I love you too" before I hung up.
.....and I was the last person to speak to him. That night he had a major heart attack and went into a coma.
Drew never came out of it.
He died that Saturday.
I found myself reflecting on that last phone call for months, even years now, at first embarrassed and feeling unworthy of BEING the last voice of anyone he knew before he slipped away, but then glad that I let my walls down and said to a friend -- even though we were being silly about it -- that I loved him.
It has been since that time I have been far less reserved in speaking my real feelings to people. There are countless memes floating around about how you never know when it will be the "last time" you speak to someone. That phone call with Drew is the embodiment of that very idea. I could've busted my friend's balls about blurting out a knee-jerk phone conversation ending, especially because we're both comics. I'm glad now that I simply said "I love you, too." It wasn't just the last words he heard from me, but from anyone. Sometimes that still feels too big to be in my hands. It belonged to his wife, or one of his kids, not me.
Later that same year, my biological father died. Before my Dad but after Drew, my friend Tracey's husband Chris died.
2012 was a rough year for grief.
I thought I might escape 2013 without a funeral, but near the end another beloved friend died. Pasquale had been fighting cancer when I met him, and he lost his battle.
This year, my Mother passed away in June. She loved to laugh, and she loved my comedy. She wasn't entirely supportive at first and would ride me to the rails about leaving my kids and going on the road. Just at first. When she saw how happy it made me, that my sons were not worse the wear for it, that Pat was fully behind it, she shifted to the idea of supporting it.
She worried, you see. She worried it would put a strain on my marriage. She worried my sons might act out that Mommy sometimes left for days at a time. She worried about me getting into car accidents on my long drive. She worried about me getting mugged at gas stations or raped at rest areas. She worried with the heart and mind of a Mother.
But she sure loved to laugh. And she managed to make it to a show in August of 2013. It was glorious to have her there in the audience. It was a gift to show her "Mom, this is what I do." The pride that lit off of her that night as she went person to person, post show, saying "I'm Katrina's mother," or "Did you KNOW I'm her mother?" when standing next to me to ANYONE who would listen showed me that even my Mom believed in what I am doing.
Not even a full week after Mom passed, another light in my life was snuffed out. My dear old friend Brian -- my "first love" -- died from cancer. He left behind a wife and five children. He left behind a legacy of kindness, of music, and the 13 year old tucked somewhere in my heart mourned deeper than I thought possible for a friend I only had random contact with through my life.
And now? The world losing Robin Williams? It almost feels like it's all just too much -- this weight of grief. It sticks to you like swimming in a wet t-shirt. It's suffocating and it grabs at you and you can shift that shirt and pull it away from your skin for some relief but it will still manage to suck right back to you and squeeze, chafe, and make you forget the sun is trying to shine and dry it out.
And you know as a comedian you are called to bring joy to people. It IS a calling, for so many of us. You don't just STOP being a comedian. You look across your life and realize you've always been that one person to crack a joke, bring about laughter, do silly shit to get a rise out of people, only now you're getting paid for it which means you do it on command.
It's not like an office job where you can slink deep into your little cubicle and say to others around you, "Hey, I'm having a bad day. Can I have some alone time while I work?" and let people know you're at your limit and need a breather. I've worked that kind of work life. I know what that's like.
Now, you are charged with a task of reaching into the mixing board of your brain like a DJ's set up and finding the "Sorrow" button and pushing it to low while amping up the hilarity and madness everyone is depending on. You learn to manipulate every emotion you have that at times, yes, it is acting. You do NOT "feel funny" but you do, indeed, have to BE funny because this is one time in life what others EXPECT from you is what you damn well better deliver. Period.
And you realize it's like a phone call from a friend in the hospital. You realize that the norm is not for friends to say "I love you" (and ask yourself why we all fear that so much?) but when you're called to take your walls down to make someone feel less alone, less silly in their own skin, you say clearly "I love you, too" and you do what is expected of you. You don't do it with the sulking weight of a martyr. You don't make the career you've fought for your entire life, even before you knew that's what you wanted to be when you grew up, a burden.
You realize you are Honored.
Honored that you have been given not only the ability, but the chance, to stand before a crowd of people and take some of THEIR pain away. Your magic wand is the mic, your jokes your bits your set, the magic incantations to the soul, to weave a spell of healing.
Especially on nights like tonight.
My heart, heavy with its own weights, will NOT be the heaviest in that room tonight.
As we all gather to raise money for Drew's kids' college funds, you buck up and know that other people are seconds away from tears of grief, too. Grief. Longing. Anger.
Grief. Longing. Anger. You look in your bag of tricks and you say, "I have a cure for that. It might only be temporary, but I'm gonna take the hurt away for a while." ....and in doing it for other people you realize you're also doing it for yourself. The gripping wet shirt dries for a while. The mind and the heart take flight. It doesn't matter they'll crash with the reality that exists: Friends are gone. Your parents are gone.
For a while you get to NOT HURT, and help others NOT HURT.
And yes, it is indeed an Honor to be the person to do it.