Friday, October 11, 2013

He came in through the bathroom window. . .

An inspiration for re-engaging in my blog was a writers conference I attended on October 5, 2013. It was time well spent with other writers and learning something new, proving once again the truth behind a phrase I've heard many times which is that it's "never too late in the afternoon to learn something." I had been at the conference all day and it was upon exiting that I received a phone call that changed my life forever. In one second I learned of the death of one of my oldest and dearest friends, someone I had lunch with less than 24 hours earlier. It has been a heart-breaking few days. 

I met Keith Stafford in 1978 when I was in 8th grade at Clara Barton Junior High School in Royal Oak, MI.  He was a larger than life kid barely out of 6th grade but made his presence known in a big way when one of the first things he said to me was “So, I understand you are dating my sister. I’d like to know just how serious you plan on getting with her.”
Yep, that was Keith. And yes, the word precocious was an understatement.
I moved onto high school and was spared anymore grilling until a year later when Keith became a Freshman at Dondero when I was a Sophomore. We were together more than most students were because of marching band. 
The Stafford’s have a long legacy of great musicians in their family. His big brother Rick was the drum major my freshman year and his booming voice and serious tone was commanding. (I know where Keith got his maturity)  Anne of course was also in band; an awesome oboe player during concert season and part of the percussion section (I know where he got his good looks) Then I finally met Harold and Jean all the pieces fit perfectly. They were all their mother’s and father’s kids. Jean and the “Big H” have always been people I admire, and this is why I’ve always admired the entire Stafford family.

 I knew Keith looked up to his siblings. He adored and protected Anne and wanted to be like Rick. But he also wanted to be like Anne. The only difference between Keith and Rick was that Keith used Anne’s eye shadow to thicken his mustache and Rick didn’t.
Another one of his possible role models besides his older brother may have been Alex P. Keaton, the loveable character from the show Family Ties played by Michael J Fox. Why do I think this?  It’s because Keith was the only kid I knew who came to Dondero his freshman year carrying a briefcase.
He was also the only person I ever saw dance to Gordon Lightfoot, “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by himself.
Being in the percussion section we spent more time together than most in the marching band. The season started before school was in session, we were on the field every morning and competitions allowed us the fun of traveling by bus together to many places. Naturally, the entire section had to be tight in our execution, so you learned to be close to one another in both proximity and in preparation. You had to trust the person on each side of you and you had to know them.
Keith and I were also competitive. During the three years we played together he beat me out for first chair at each audition and I tried not to resent him because he won; fair and square. Later I found out that when he beat me, it was only by one or two points at its largest margin.  However, he did need to be knocked down a time or two when he was becoming too much like a dictator, but in the end, especially when we were awarded best percussion section in the state of Michigan for tier 2, his demanding demeanor was worth it. He got respect from people the old fashioned way; he earned it.
But band was not always all work and no play.  During Keith’s freshman year we were led by two upperclassman; one was Damien McCann, who, in addition to being a great drummer also had the zaniness necessary to holding a young percussion section together.  I think this is where Keith learned to lighten up and about the time he also taught us that tampons were great for muffling a drum set.

We had quirky traditions, such as splashing worchester sauce on the ground before every halftime performance or competition. During concert season we kept Damien’s tradition of strategically placing the bottle among all the percussion equipment when we had our group photo and then laughed like the kids we were when it showed up in the yearbook.  
We’d  “cover “ for each other, creating a diversion when the code word was  given signaling one of us had to readjust our private parts during rehearsals carrying drums that often chafed our. . .well. . .you know. Kudos to Ann and the other girls in the percussion section for putting up with that.
But Keith could also take a ribbing.  He was as athletic as much as any of us were qualified to navigate the space shuttle. Watching him trying to throw a football was like watching that one poor girl who was always picked last in gym class try to throw a forward pass. The only difference was that she did it better.
He was funny, a team player, he was an encourager. In high school he used to put notes in the instrument case of his girlfriend’s younger sister saying things like “this is your conscience speaking, have you practiced your trumpet today?”
But, as is high school. . .there were some people who for whatever reason just didn’t like him. These were guys on the football team who were just. . .well, guys on the football team. I remember the story of how a math teacher, who was also the football coach was giving Keith the business one time for not being an athlete. “why don’t you play sports Mr. Stafford, are you afraid? aren’t you good enough?” he was reported as saying. The jockstraps in the class played right into the coaches BS and challenged him to “come on out after school and try playing a sport.”  The teacher continued to egg Keith on until Keith explained why he didn’t want to play football. “The truth is coach that I am too busy. I have several drum students I teach most days after class and currently I make about $15 an hour, which I think is pretty good for a kid in high school, wouldn’t you agree?”
It was reported that steam came out of the coach’s ears like a cartoon character and his face turned red as an apple and that topic was never discussed again.
But life was not all “just band.” Life became a deeper more convoluted place for Keith and I when our mutual best friend Scott Mitchell died in 1985.  It was a brutal time for both of us and often times still is for me, especially now.  Losing your best friend at 19 is not supposed to happen. Losing your friend at 47 isn’t supposed to happen either. But looking back, perhaps the greatest thing I took away from losing Scott was gaining Keith. 
We were together through all things friends do when you are trying to console the inconsolable. We got to spend time in the UP at our family cabin. One year we took Scott’s younger brother Lee. The cabin is a rustic place, which meant bathing in the lake. Lee was not too keen on this and refused to put his head underwater for fear of getting minnows in his hair.
I was the best man at his first wedding and made numerous trips to Kalamazoo to visit before and after his son Aaron was born. As life continued at its frantic pace the trips became less frequent but we remained in touch and continued as best we could until we began a stretch of only seeing each other every few years and then every several years.  Still, the friendship would pick up where it left off each time we were together, up until last Friday when we saw each other for the last time, never knowing it was to be our last, but treating it as if it were.
Whenever we’d reconnect, the first thing he would tell me about was his terrific son Aaron.  I have not seen Aaron since he was a young child but would always get an earful from Keith about the noble work he was doing in school, at the church and how he admired the great man he was becoming.  He was a professional bragger who loved and admired his son, second only to God.
He was also his father’s son. I learned about a trait of his that he got from Harold (the big H) It mean when he was done saying what he had to say on the phone, he’d announce it and then hang up. Keith’s version of this was “Well buddy, I don’t want to run your bill up, so I gotta go.”  Sometimes I think he was afraid of talking about how he felt about me, but nothing was held back during our last time together on this earth.
Our lunch together last Friday was probably what I will remember most about him because it is so fresh.  We talked about our ex-wives and politics (but did not dwell on either very long) We talked about drumming, campers, his new red truck, the cabin up in the UP, his girlfriend Christy who he loved dearly and anyone who knows Christy knows why he did. We also talked about his relationship with God, his new drums, his beautiful son Aaron, his parents and my new book, where only moments before I had written the words “To Keith, with love and respect.”  I meant it.
In the middle of the conversation he put down his fork and told me how sorry he was for the voids, disappearing acts, unreturned phone calls and time we’ve missed being an active part of each other’s lives. I tried to stop him and said “If you need to say that for your sake that’s fine, but you don’t need to say it for mine.” He knew I was telling the truth. 
When he was done I put my fork down, looked him in the eye and said “Look, I love you brother, I’m always going to love you and if I don’t see you for another month, year or ten years, it’s ok because I know that our bond is constant. It will always remain and our friendship is always going to pick up right where it left off with no hard feelings and no games, only the truth. It’s what friends do.  Everyone is a fuck up in life with something and the past doesn’t matter. “
He thanked me and I know he understood. 
But our lives were full of so many memorable moments.
Often when he’d call, I would be greeted with his low, Old Man River, baritone voice on the other end as he recited an obscure line from a movie we watched together. We loved watching moves together and we loved each other, only it took us several years to be able to say it out loud.
I was always a bit envious of his hairline as it never seemed to recede. It’s too bad he could never have the mustache he wanted to without the help of his sister’s eye shadow. The world is less interesting without him. His sudden loss is difficult for many people right now, especially those who may read this and walk back into whatever other grief they are experiencing in this stone hard joy filled life. There is never a good time for these things in life and they only are becoming more frequent in mine.  The comfort will come; it always does even though there are days upon days when it feels like it's just not coming through at all. This is when you discover what faith really is.
 I will miss Keith’s sidesplitting humor, laughter and smile. I will miss our meaningful conversations, but perhaps what I will miss most is the conversations we had when we were talking about nothing at all.

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