Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Birth and Death

I have had a very pivotal year this year. Not that major life changing events have happened in my life, but I have seen things happen around me. A number of folks I know have had babies in the past couple years but a few months ago, I learned that my best friend is pregnant. We have been friends for 22 years now. As an only child I have the gift to be able to choose the people I get to think of as sisters, and she is about the closest thing to a sister I will have. So, in spring next year, I will become an aunt!

On an opposite note however, I have seen the family of some good friends struck with some unbelievable tragedy. A friend of mine from graduate school was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 29, a few months after we graduated and a week after she married another classmate of ours. In May, 3 years after a great 35th birthday celebration at her parent's home in NC, five and a half years after she was diagnosed, she lost her fight with this disease. I have been meeting to write about her, her wonderful spirit, and the joy with which she embraced life for months now. And I will do so soon.

But tonight I wanted to write about another friend of mine, who I mentioned in an earlier post. Ryan was living his dream, getting the recognition he deserved and being able to earn a living pursuing his passion --- opera singing. Ryan attended Morehouse University as a voice major and was a proud member of the Morehouse Glee Club. After graduation he went on to pursue a masters degree at Ohio University. But after school he struggled to earn a living singing. He secured a few regular paying gigs, including parts with the Atlanta Opera and as a featured tenor with a church in the area. But after numerous rejections, he started to give up on his dream. In a last attempt, he decided to audition for the Metropolitan Opera's Young Artist competition, a yearly competition that whittles down approximately 11,000 applicants into the 6 most promising young singers in the industry. The cut off age for the competition is 30 and this was Ryan's last year of eligibility. And in 2007, at age 30, Ryan became one of the winners of this pretigious competition. As a winner, he finally started getting recognition for he talent. He performed in a couple Met performances. He won an internship to the Summer Opera program in Sante Fe, New Mexico, something analygous to Summer Stock for opera singers. Agents were starting to take notice of him. He won a position this year as an ensemble member of the Lyric Opera of Chicago and started in the cast in April of this year. As an ensemble member with a regular salary, he was finally able to make a living solely from pursuing his passion and also given regular opportunity to audition for larger roles in Opera performances.

Unfortunately, Ryan was diagnosed with stomach cancer in late March of this year and started going through treatment while in Chicago. Initial accounts were encouraging. Burkitt's Lymphona is considered one of the more treatable forms of cancer and he was expected to recover quickly and be back to singing at the Opera. He went through 2 rounds of chemo and was back at home recuperating and started attending rehearsals again. Then, he got an infection and had to return to the hospital since his immune system was so compromised from the chemo. He did not end up leaving.... At first, I would talk to him pretty regularly on the phone. And then, the calls became less frequent. Me and his best friend discussed going to visit him. We were not able to go the same week, so he and some other friends went up one weekend and I went up the next. I am not really sure what I expected when I got there but I have to say that I was startled when I first saw him in the hospital.

Honestly, I could have walked by him 5 times and not known it was him if he hadn't opened his mouth! Ryan had been working out and losing weight before he went off to Chicago but he had probable lost another 50 pounds since then. Also, apparently, an affect of chemotherapy can be the darkening of skin because he was probably 4 shades darker than he used to be. Also, the shape of his face and facial features had totally changed. He had very little soft tissue on his face so his nose was even shaped differently. His teeth had an orangish hue from the medecine he had been taking. It was startling. But he was the same Ryan. I sat there with him and his family all day. He dosed in and out and we watched the documentary from his MET competition. To see and hear him perform was amazing! It was just beautiful! Such a gift! And to be watching it in him hotel room was particularly poignant. We all teared up..... It was hard to know what to do other than just be there. His parents were upset by the latest discussions with the doctors which seemed to not give them much hope. They had started trying to sneak herbal therapies into his room. A friend from NY had sent a reiki therapist over to do a treatment on him. I came back to see him the next morning on my way to the airport.

Three days later, on my birthday, I heard that the doctors had reported that his tumor has shrunk 40% so they were encouraged and were going to try to boost up his immune system for another round of chemo. It never happened. Ryan died a few weeks later. It was awful...... so much promise unrealized..... so young, only 32......

With all these tragedies happening amongst my peers, it has really gotten me thinking about my age. For me, there is not really anyone around generationally older than my parents. Death is a much closer reality for me now after this year. I reflect on what I have accomplished in my life and I don't really have regrets. I have had some great experiences, wonderful friends and learned a lot from the challenges I have worked through. I have not yet found the person I want to spend the rest of my life with and have children with but I understand that this is something that cannot be rushed. I don't particularly feel anxious about it personally. But what I am starting to comtemplate is that I really want to give my parents the experience of seeing me married and meeting their first grandchild. I know two friends whose mothers died right before they gave birth to their first child. So it is not for me that I feel anxious, but for my parents. However, my parents are not the kind to pressure me about these types of things and I know that they would not want me to rush into something that was not fulfilling for them. So, I will just concentrate in enjoying all my moments, my experiences with the people I love, searching for other fulfilling connections with new people and not taking any of it for granted!


Kim said...


I dated Ryan when he was at Morehouse and I was at Spelman. I am so sorry to hear about his passing. I wish I could have found him before he passed on I have been looking for him for a while now. He was such a great talent and I missed him all these years.

Nickname unavailable said...

About Ryan, I miss him, too.