It’s February 10th, 2018, and Bret and I are at a friend’s annual Valentine’s Party. Bret is in the middle of a daunting but ineffective round of chemo so he feels physically puny and he must be mentally freaked because their is an elephant trying to push his way through the doorway to our home. One giant leg and a trunk are already through and though I keep pushing back, I am losing traction. Yeah, we are both freaked. Because of chemo and elephant and Bret’s frequent bouts of social phobia, I had pretty much decided that we would not be attending tonight's party, but Bret insisted. He did that for me. Our last Valentine’s Party. For me.
We’re having a good time. There is yummy food, wine and bubbly French 75’s that create an effervescence in the room, tickling even the bleakest of moods. As the party settles in the evening, we break into small groups. I’m sitting talking to my friend Becky and across the room Bret is chatting with her husband, Dewey. But after a bit I notice that the air has shifted and though I cannot hear what they are saying, I know that the conversation has become serious. I allow this for a bit, eavesdropping while still pretending to listen to Becky then finally I pause her with a lifted finger, turn toward the guys and say, “What’s going on?” I can see Bret’s eyes scanning the room while his engineering mind determines the next action. I am pretty much convinced that he will deflect my question by saying we will talk about it later so I am absolutely stunned when he fully turns to me and calling me by my nickname says, “Slinka, this is important.”
“You know I want to be cremated, not embalmed.” he says. I nod. I know. “No funeral. No funeral - no viewing, no Church. I don’t want any of that,” he says. I do know this and I reply firmly, “I know!” “No sadness,” he says (as if that is an order that can easily be followed). “Have a wake - a good time. Have friends over to the house and laugh and tell stories and listen to music and raise a glass or two to me. Celebrate.”
By June, as I was futilely dragging Bret to clinical trial researchers who had the grace to evaluate him, even though now, as I think back on it, their generosity feels like the cancer equivalent of a mercy fuck, Bret agreed that it would be nice to have friends to the house and so a First Day of Summer Party was planned. That evening, the morning rain just a faint memory, our flower-filled yard overflowed with friends and love, good food and wine - and to my surprise Bret stayed up and about the entire evening - taking it all in.
Our young adult son Trevor - never one for social events, embraced the day fully, holding court over the wine he had selected for the evening, breathing in the magic - his eyes seeing his dad through the hearts of others. He and I both knew that this is how we wanted the wake to be...all of this, minus one.
Ten years earlier Bret had accepted a little part time gig as the Technical Director of the Frierson Theatre at the Girls Preparatory School in Chattanooga. The offer, coming during the Great Recession, provided regular cash flow during the very shaky economy. Though he didn’t know it at the time, this new role would end up being the great culmination of his life’s work - blending his knowledge and talent in sound, lighting, stagecraft, physics, and music with his humble and generous nature - he was well suited to mentor a generation of students in the pay it forward atmosphere of the school.
He taught the students how to mix audio, stepping back to allow them full control of the sound board. And if something would go wrong, as it often does during live production, the student turning to him in panic, he would coach, “think it through” allowing the student to apply all of his lessons to troubleshoot the problem. I know this because this is what he would say to me (and now in this time after his death, my mind turns to him frequently when I need help for what feels like an overwhelming problem - “Think it through, Carol. Think it through”).
Few people knew that he had been a professional rock drummer. He didn’t talk about it, but he would bring pieces of his vintage drum kits into talent show auditions to help students get a feel for playing on a real instrument. Once, helping a student tune a drum, he jumped behind the kit and started playing stunning those in the room and I overheard one student turn to another and say, ”I want to play in a band with him.” That day another layer of respect, of gravitas, was added.
One day the student techs hanging out in the soundbooth were frustrated with a physics concept that they needed to learn for an exam. Within moments, his notebook open to illustrate the idea, Bret began to teach. Word quickly traveled and the tech booth became an impromptu study hall as students from outside the performing arts program began dropping by for a lesson. And over the years Bret took great delight in knowing that some of those same young women went on to earn degrees in physics.
During tech week, that period of time in preparation for dress rehearsals and “show time”, Bret’s alter ego, the aging Aunt Martha, would talk through the headset system to the students running the production - making sure that were getting enough sleep, doing their homework, brushing their teeth - you know, all the things that an aging Aunt Martha would ask! She’d croak a few words of encouragement, and then quickly make excuses for not being able to stay and visit because she had left cookies baking in her oven. Around his second year at the school, Bret told me about Aunt Martha. Smitten, I finally asked, “So where do you get the cookies?” He had a perplexed look on his face and so I inquired a bit more firmly and with a tone of judgment, “You do get them cookies, right?” And from that day on Aunt Martha and I would bake cookies to be delivered to the crew.
Some years it took days before somebody would realize Aunt Martha’s true identity and usually that smart student would keep the knowledge to herself. Despite the mystery, the empty cookie tin always made its way back to the tech booth carefully placed next to the sound board. In the days following Bret’s death as friends gathered in our home, I took great delight seeing the puzzled look on his colleagues faces each time a former student mentioned Aunt Martha. She had been part of Bret’s special relationship with the students.
Beyond stagecraft and cookies, Bret occasionally gave relationship advice, telling the young women that were often hanging around the booth because a “cute boy” was in the production, not to dismiss their own abilities. Slowly he would distract them from their love interest giving them small technical lessons and tasks to complete, and over time the original reason for hanging out with the techies became a memory as that young woman discovered her own abilities and talents. And now as I tell these stories I am shocked by the sudden awareness that this is also what Bret did for me...stopping me from hanging around waiting to be noticed by encouraging me to develop my own interests and skills. These young women became his friends and as he approached death, these women became my friends too.
And though I knew that Bret loved the school and that the school loved him back, I was surprised when the Head of School offered the Frierson Theatre for his memorial service. The generosity and symbolism of this overture was not lost on me and as the days counted down, a tribute began to take form in my mind as I realized that the theatre was the most perfect place to honor Bret - a place so filled with the essence of his talent and spirit.
Trevor balked. “Dad didn’t want a funeral. He wanted a party,” “This is not a funeral,” I said. “No viewing. No hours standing in a meet and greet. No flower arrangements that smell like death. No obligatory chicken salad sandwiches and veggie tray. This is not a funeral,” I repeated. “I’ll make this a celebration - the way he wanted and then we will have a party at the house,” I said. And so as the cascade of final days tumbled to an end the decision was made to honor Bret in the theatre that he so loved.
A week and a day after his death, I stood on that stage for the first time. Off of stage left, peeking out from the leg drapes, I could see the door to Narnia - the storage closet for all the ramshackled bits and pieces from productions past. Standing in the wings to my right were Bret’s colleagues, mourning and yet helping guarantee a smooth production. Up in the tech booth former students ran the show - giving tribute in the best way possible and as I looked over the audience to the back of the theatre, to the opening in the wall placed there so the sound engineer could hear - in that spot where a generation of student performers would look out from the stage and see my husband working - I saw our son, standing there, in his dad’s place and I don’t think in my life I will experience another thing of such perfect completion.
In preparation for the memorial, I had a momentary thought that it might be nice to record the event but I pushed it back in my mind - the school was doing so much already and in my sleep deprived state I couldn’t visualize making the request without sounding macabre. Later that day with everyone gathered in our home, I learned that the program had been recorded. Of course it had been filmed - the school knew how to put on a show!
The service has been out there, on the cloud, for a while now and from time to time I watch snippets because it is quite good. I’ve been holding that day tightly, waiting until now to share it with you...with those of you who could not attend because you had a show, or another obligation or because you lived a thousand miles away.
From day one of this journey, Bret and I set out to try to control a situation that was bigger than us - to face this challenge with our own strength and intelligence and humanity. To be true to who were were. Who we are. And in that process I think we gave a lot of you something to think about.
If you want to experience the very special moment that speaks not just about Bret but about how we can all choose to live and ultimately die, I have provided links below. The first four are links to the songs that were played as people were coming into the auditorium, so if you really want to get in the mood start there. The last link is to the service.
It has been my honor to have all of you by my side on this journey.