Karaoke Night: The Microphone Is Yours

I am sitting here this weekend and my mind is taking a great roam down memory lane. Sometimes, it is a pleasant stroll. Other times, it is a painful run that does me good in the long term but, in the moment, is nothing short of unpleasant. I think I will at least try to start in the former category.

In the fall of 1985, I was serving as a hospital corpsman in the US Navy in South Carolina. I lived in an apartment off base with two other corpsmen. I was not quite 20 years old and, occasionally, my roommates and I  had two primarily goals: have some laughs and have some fun. Sometimes, in the pursuit of such laughs and fun, I could be a bit of an immature troll but I never truly meant any offense or harm.

One night, we had a party and invited a few friends from the hospital. One of my roommates was soon accompanied by his girlfriend. I had seen her a few times before. She had big, permed hair (it WAS the 80’s) and a noticeable “Yankee” accent. She was a few years older, divorced, and had three kids (Jennifer, Melinda, and Stephen) who were occasionally seen running around the complex (especially when the ice cream man showed up).

Everything was going nicely this evening. Not a lot of people showed up for the party. The moment came when I started to introduce my roommate’s girlfriend to my date. I then realized that I didn’t actually know her name. You see, among her other features, she had a somewhat prominent nose. It wasn’t freakish, just prominent. So how did I address her prior to this awkward introduction?  I normally called her “Pinocchio”. Like I said, I was a bit of an immature troll. She enjoyed me squirming in the awkwardness and then introduced herself to my date: “I’m JoAnn.”

I would also come to find out quickly enough that JoAnn had something else very significant in her life – Type I diabetes. This meant that, several times a day, she was poking her finger with a small needle (to check her blood sugar levels), then using a syringe with another small needle to inject insulin into her body (to keep the “balance scale” of sugar and insulin as even as possible). Many times her sugar levels would become very unstable which would result in a several day stay in the hospital.

Life, as they say, goes on. Within the next year, I was out of the Navy. JoAnn and I had kept in touch and eventually become a couple. Well, let’s be honest, I stole my roommate’s girlfriend (another immaturely trollish decision). I had relocated to Atlanta after my discharge but would occasionally drive to South Carolina and visit with JoAnn and her three kids (with whom I had also bonded). It was quite an adjustment sometimes being barely 20 years old, barely into adulthood, and being in a relationship with an older woman with three kids. I would still make jokes about her nose and comments about “generation gap”.  JoAnn, on the other hand, loved the occasional discomfort I would feel about clearly being the youngest adult in the room.

By early 1987, JoAnn accepted a civil service job in the Atlanta area. 5 months later, we were married. I was still adjusting somewhat to post military life. Things would get rocky over the next year. We relocated to Western New York (where JoAnn grew up) partly as a means of giving our life together a fresh start. I was a Southern fish out of water. Over the next two years, we would have two more children in our lives and a house of our own.

Unfortunately, as it happens to many, we would divorce a few years later. I have since re-married and our kids have grown.  Things would get tense over the years but in the end, we learned to adapt. JoAnn would occasionally babysit my two younger kids (Brianna and Caleb) while my wife, Renee, and I were at work. We would share in the joy of seeing several of the seven children (in total) grow up, graduate, get married, and have children. I served as pallbearer for both of Joann’s parents at the times of their passing.. When my mother passed away, JoAnn was one of the first people to call me and extend her condolences. Whenever Joann and I had occasion to share each other’s company, she would be very quick to tell me (and everyone present) how much she enjoyed my writing and tell me I should have my own column.

Of course, nature of the beast that is diabetes, the hospital stays would get more frequent and more severe with every passing year. Joann had many close calls. Most recently, I was notified by my older son that JoAnn had a severe heart attack. My wife and I visited Joann several times at the hospital over the following weeks. Early on a Thursday morning, my older daughter called me. Her voice began to crack as she said: “I don’t have great news, Dad.” Joann’s heart grew tired and she passed away. I stood there in the hospital as the kids I had watched grow into adulthood said goodbye to their mother. I know that feeling all too well and would not wish upon anyone. The last thing I said to her before I left was: No more hospitals! No more injections!

One of the things that all of us who gathered at the hospital remember and cherished about JoAnn was that she loved to sing. One of the kids even joked that there was surely a karaoke machine in Heaven just for her. I would ask this of anyone who reads this and can relate to someone they know who struggles with diabetes. Please consider a donation to the American Diabetes Association (https://donations.diabetes.org/) to fund research efforts to find a cure. If you do make that donation, please also consider singing your favorite song out loud. After all, karaoke is for all to enjoy.

Joann, Thanks for the memories, your support of my education (and my writing), and your willingness to co-parent with Renee and me. Most of all, thanks for putting up with an immature troll with a warped mind. The microphone is yours. You pick the song.

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Thanks A Lot, Richard. Yer Cool!

Sometimes, you meet a person that makes an impression that lasts a very long time. Sometimes, that impression lasts a lifetime. It would be too easy for me to say that I don’t do impressions; I do humor writing. The problem is, I know the former part of the preceding statement to be false. Others might argue that the latter part is also false.

1991 was a rough year for me. I had just endured the end of my first marriage and was living with a couple I knew from church. The wife of the couple was the church receptionist. On Wednesday nights, I would hang out at the church a couple of hours before service since the couple’s home was about an hour away. We’d hang out, attend the service, and go home afterward. In the hours prior to the service, I would often sit and play my guitar to pass the time. After the service was over, a young, bearded man approached me. He extended his hand and said “I’m Richard. I rather enjoyed your playing earlier”. I thanked him for his generous compliment and introduced myself. He mentioned that he owned a 6 string acoustic as well as a 12 string. He offered to bring his 12 string to church at the following service. I told him I looked forward to it and we both went home for the night.

Richard and I would meet rather often over the next year with our guitars. We played everything from Johnny Cash to John Prine to John Michael Talbot. When we got tired of songs by people named John. We’d gravitate toward the silly side. We always include an old Ray Stevens favorite named “Fred”. “Fred” was a song about a dog that was typically hard to finish because the lyrics made us laugh so hard. As we got to know one another. We discovered that we both had a love for puns. Richard and I would trade puns back and forth every time we saw one another. Sometimes, it was done in a manner of two blues musicians riffing in a call-and-response pattern. Other times, we were clearly trying to top one another. We usually wouldn’t stop until the other began laughing so hard he couldn’t continue.

I would also come to find Richard to be a model of chivalry and generosity. I didn’t have a car when I first met Richard. He gave me many rides. He offered me many meals as he loved to cook. Whenever anyone thanked Richard, the response was always the same – “You’re always welcome”. If you did Richard a favor, the response was also always the same – “Thanks a lot. Yer cool. You really are.”

Over the years that followed, Richard and I would go through some changes. We both got married. Richard even drove my wife and me to the hospital when she was in labor with our youngest child. One night, my wife got an email with some devastating news. Richard was in the hospital and had been diagnosed with leukemia. We visited with Richard and his wife while he was in the hospital. We, of course, traded puns as we enjoyed one another’s company. As my wife and I were leaving, I shook Richard’s hand. We made tentative plans to go out for a bite after he got out of the hospital.

Richard passed away a few short days after our visit. My wife and I went to his memorial service. There was a lovely display table of many mementos. What caught my attention the most was his guitar that was displayed on the table. My mind went back to when we played together many years before. Richard and I, unfortunately had the same aggressive attack on our instruments. As a result, we broke strings often. It was always the same string. Richard and I were constantly replacing the G string for each others guitars. After the memorial service was over, I went back to the display table and gazed at the guitar. As I stared and remembered, I noticed something about the guitar. The G string was missing. You could even see the windings in the tuning machine where the string broke. I couldn’t think of a more fitting tribute for my friend. Thanks for all you’ve done, Richard. YER COOL!

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