In 2004, I got a call that my best friend died. Mark Jamison was a neon artist from Roanoke, Virginia, who was electrocuted after he was blown into a power line while hanging a neon sign. He was only 35. A month after he died, his girlfriend discovered she was pregnant.
Mark and I had been friends for nearly 18 years. We met in a jazz band in college. Toured around with the band for a few years afterward and then, for the next decade, I traveled around the world looking for answers and he stayed in Roanoke, opened up a neon shop and looked for his own answers. Mark was always my north star back home. When he died, it was like my sense of direction disappeared with him.
Although we remained friends throughout our lives, the year before he died, we had become extremely close again. We were both going through a divorce and so we would call one another each every Monday, check in, and play therapist.
His death coincided, not only with my divorce, but also with my bankruptcy and a trajectory towards my fortieth birthday. I came to the realization that the most important things in my life were far away and I no longer wanted to take them for granted.
I decided to move back to my hometown of Richmond, Virginia, joining not only my entire family (nearly 70 members in all) but also a growing movement of other Gen-Xers in my city known as “Come Back Kids.” – those who left the Capital of the Confederacy only to return at some point for some mysterious reason.
I moved in with my mom and started working for my family’s furniture business which was pretty humbling for a few reasons. One, unless you live in Italy, living with your Mom as a grown man isn’t exactly the coolest thing in the world to do. Two, I had originally left home for college and grad school to escape the blue collar fate of my family. And three, I had big plans to become a famous artist when I left home at eighteen and a lot of people were sold on the idea that if anyone had the ability and luck to make it happen, it was me. Coming home with nothing to show for all my effort through all the years filled me with an incredible sadness.
On top of it all, the one person in the world I could have shared all of this with was now only available through my prayers.
Nearly nine months after Mark’s death, his son was born. I remember reading an article about the birth of Mark Jr. in our local paper.
The journalist described the home birth as “unique.” In the living room in the old house where the birth took place there was an old grandfather clock that hadn’t worked in nearly a hundred years. The article described how, when Mark Jr. came into the world, the clock began to chime. The journalist wrote that it was probably my friend Mark coming to say hello to his son.
Something happened when I set the article down. I felt a stirring inside my heart, like there was an ember there, heating up. My Jewish grandmother would have defined this odd feeling as “the restlessness of my Pintle Yid.” She often referred to this Yiddish word that described a tiny reverent ember that exists in our heart and waits patiently until we receive our calling in life and then bursts into flame.
By the time I set the article down I also had butterflies in my stomach – a sign I realize (in retrospect) that something deep in my spirit was calling to me. That night, I decided to write down every memory I had of my friend, to create an encyclopedia of friendship so to speak, and mail it to his son. I knew that best friends can often offer a glimpse into us that no one else can.
By the next morning, I was consumed with my mission. And every morning, for the next six months, was the same. I’d wake up at 4:00 am, write down all the memories I had of our friendship and then at 8:30 am I’d go to work. A lot of that time was spent in tears.
Six months later, I had 300 pages of unorganized memories. I put them in a box along with put a couple of other mementos that reminded me of my late friend (a letter he had written to me after my first story was published, a CD of our jazz band, a poem he had written on a paper napkin during a road trip with our jazz band). But, I never mailed it. Why? The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a less than ideal introduction – a distant way for a son to get to know his father.
I decided that in order to create the proper care package for Mark Jr. and his family, I needed to bring these memories to life. And so, I called Mark’s parents and told them I had an idea. I wanted to create a show about friendship, specifically my friendship with their son.
During the next six months, I began to organize those 300 pages around seven themes: Trust, Love, Joy, God, Nourishment, Passion, and Mission. Within the year it became a thirty page one man show about friendship that I entitled, “The Neon Man and Me.” I composed an original music score for the show, brought in a director, began rehearsing, and took it to the stage.
From the beginning, I felt there was a presence surrounding the project that had very little to do with me, like I had suddenly become a passenger in the seat of a car being driven by something or someone much powerful than me. For me, that someone is God. I’ve since come to understand that when a calling chooses the host and the host accepts, all kinds of invisible networks and support suddenly become visible.
After the first show in 2005 and after each show thereafter, it was like an invisible door opened on stage which revealed the next step in my calling. I would open the door walk through and it would lead me to the next door.
The production would go on to enjoy four national tours, win awards, run Off-Broadway, help raise over $80,000 for non-profits, including children’s hospitals and bereavement groups, be featured in the Washington Post, The New York Times, American Theatre Magazine and on NPR, and grow to include a public school curriculum called “Healing Community: Helping Students Come to Terms with Tragedy Loss, and Violence,” taught to over 10,000 teens students so far. Underwritten by ADEC (The Association for Death Education and Counseling) in March of 2010, the televised version began to air as a PBS special on stations all over the country. (All of this inspired from a guy who never took a theatre class or acted in a school play).
I feel the success of the show reveals less about my own talent and is more of an indication of how hungry our world is for something real, something profound, and something inspirational. After shows, people line up for hugs, go home and e-mail their best friends, and call their parents to tell them they love them.
In creating the “The Neon Man and Me,” I feel I’ve created a surrogate North Star. I’m blessed that it has shown so brightly for me. It has acted at times as both a calling and a distraction. In some respect, I’ve found my calling as a bereavement storyteller by complete accident. And now as I continuing to follow my calling, and begin to write about the topic, I’m just now beginning to understand the huge gift my friend Mark gave me when he died.