18 November, 2011

Portrait of a Friend: Lilly

land of the stately pines [de-dah-de-dah]
I remember, probably more vividly than any other call, the moment Lilly heard the news. Kent and I were seated on my bed, still in pajamas and both totally stoic. I remember wanting to “be” there when he told her, but not wanting to do it myself.

So he told her.
I don’t recall what he said, what I do recall was the depth and ferocity of her wail, and how much I envied it.

She loved him. Everyone did.


Meet Lillian Townsend Copeland.

No, she is not related to Aaron Copland (though she enjoys referring to him as “Uncle Aaron”). Townsend is her mother’s maiden name.
Lilly is from Virginia.
Her parents are both doctors (her Dad, in fact, saved my eye from extinction in 1999 when a corneal cut turned into a very infected corneal ulcer and I nearly lost the whole darn thing…but that’s another story…). Her little brother William is a swimming sensation.

Lilly and I met at Interlochen Arts Camp in 1996, we weren’t always close but we were around one another a lot (in fact I think we took a Modern Dance class together somewhere in the mid-nineties). We became close Junior year of High School once we’d both made the leap from spending our summers in the North woods of Interlochen to attending the year-long Interlochen Arts Academy full time, Lilly majoring in oboe performance and I, in Theatre. By the end of Junior year we had resolved to fill a four person suite in Thor Johnson House, the senior girls dormitory, with two of my fellow theatre majors (Chrissy and Katie).

Thor Johnson House (also known as “TJ”) was shaped like an “L” and divided into six areas— four dorm hallways named according to their location— Lower Short, Lower Long, Upper Short and Upper Long. There was enough friendly rivalry and Hall Pride for a Big Ten Conference (and by 'friendly rivalry,' I mean, 'a total lack of tension,' and by 'Hall Pride,' I mean ‘none’). Still, we presided over the mustering of a you’re-in-boarding-school-now-ladies kind of enthusiasm that some eating dancers and/or people who weren’t in a practice room for seven hours a day, appeared to enjoy.

There was a main lobby with a front desk, a toaster (with a magically endless supply of toast with all the fixings), student cubby-hole mailboxes, and fluffy sofas some people sat and spoke on well into the night. There was also a downstairs greenroom where we would have our house meetings, complete with an “adult approved” and “highly voted upon” television for movie nights and the watching of “Friends,” and off this downstairs area were two long corridors of practice rooms and the offices of the woodwind and accompaniment departments.

Lilly and I were both the über official “HAs” (as in, Hall Assistants) for Upper Long. At this, we inarguably left a little something to be desired. I'm not saying we were abysmal or anything like that. I am merely saying that one could take a convicted arsonist, and give them a pack of complimentary matches, escort him to the log cabin of his childhood nemesis where you are to be spending the night,  instruct him to “have a good time,” and your predictably charred evening would be preferable to having Lilly and I be responsible for you in High School.
That's all.

We were likely candidates I suppose, returning “lifers” who “bled blue”— terms used for students that had been at Interlochen as long as anyone could remember, and thus bled the uniform colors— light blue on top (with a visible collar), navy on the bottom (the intricacies of which became more and more creative as the school year progressed). As HAs Lilly and I were supposed to make certain everyone was comfortable, felt at home, felt like they had a place to talk if they needed to. That was the part we were good at. The social, caring big sister stuff. The helping to plan the hall party stuff, the making sure the Chinese piano major who doesn’t speak English gets everything she needs in order to find her way to class (in classrooms located in the forest) on Monday stuff, the “I-just-moved-from-South-Africa-and-my-childhood-boyfriend-and-I-are-apart-for-the-first-time-ever” stuff.
That stuff.

But we were also there to attend HA meetings about house life, we had to make certain everyone in our hall attended the big school “community meetings” held every Thursday before lunch. We had to clean things and organize community service. We had to make sure everyone was “there” in a fire drill. We had to attend the fire drill.  We had to have not pulled the fire alarm ourselves. We had to be good examples. We had to be quiet. We had to obey the freaking rules—all of them. And that part, we were crap at. Lilly and I, after all, shared with Chrissy and Katie, both of whom were really, really fun, and the four of us were cool, and boisterous and had an illegal television (with a VHS player!) hidden in a giant Tupperware that we watched movies on after we were all supposed to be in bed.

One time [1], in a rousing flurry of Senior-itus, Chrissy and our next-door-neighbor Essie decided to
    1. paint their naked torsos with tempera paint
    2. Walk around the entire dorm (during school hours—so even teachers and boys might see them) and
    3. Video tape it.

And who video taped it? Lilly and I.
And who tagged along? All of Upper Long.
And how does this video tape end? With our (incredibly cool, but also incredible adult) Dorm Leader (and fabulous human) Angela Duncan, staring deadpan into the camera and simply saying

    “Um: NO.” Then she looks at Chrissy and Essie and our entire entourage and repeats, “NO—no no no.”

And it cuts out. Oops.

Five minutes later we are all in our room, the sun is setting on Green Lake outside our window. Chrissy and Essie have on both t-shirts and looks of mild shame. Katie is crumpled into our womb chair in the corner and Lilly and I are standing, military-style in front of Angela as she explains that she knows we have 6 weeks of Senior Year left but we all really need to get a freaking grip on ourselves.

    “I love all of you so much but seriously: COME. ON.”

We all nod. It is ridiculous.

    “Additionally: Alexandra Michelle and Lillian Townsend you are HALL ASSISTANTS!! You are supposed to be leaders, set examples, you are supposed to be the first line of defense when all the parents paying thousands of dollars and visiting from Asia for the four concerts this week alone want to know where on earth they have sent their children.”

She was right. Double oops. Actually, quintuple oops— for good measure.

    “I can’t believe I am about to say this, I literally cannot believe I am about to say the following sentence but; PLEASE, dear women of Upper Long, please do not cover your naked bodies in paint, roam the public hallways during working (OR non-working hours for that matter), and above all, please, please do not video tape it.”

We nodded again, with even more shame.

    “Dunc?” Chrissy said, lifting her head. “Please, there is just something I want to get off my chest.”
    “Please: say it is not your shirt.”
    “Yes!—I mean no! I just—” she grappled, “we’re sorry.”

We were. [2]

    “Accepted. We all got it?” she said, her hands in the prayer-position, “I’m gonna go now.”

Remember the last five minutes of every sports film in the history of cinema where you are inexplicably filled with the exultant joy of a game well played and a life well lived in a those-sure-were-the-best-of-times sort of a way? —We felt the opposite of that.

But man, did we have a great year. Some people might be intimidated to share their dorm life with three boisterous theatre majors, but not Lilly. Lilly was honorary, she was drama and flair, she was theatrical and powerful and loved it. Sure, sometimes she didn’t want to talk about Tennessee Williams anymore. And the sounds of Chrissy and I warming up in our communal shower must have been unpleasant at times, and I’m certain there were times where if she heard us talk about Theatre Department politics one. more. time. she was probably gonna kill us. Oh alright, and sometimes she had to explain the basics to us. Like the time Katie stared at “The Beeping Box” in total, wonder:
    “Listen guys” she said, shoving her face ever closer, “…it's like Morse Code…"
Lilly just stared, eyebrow cocked, voice ever-patient.
    "Actually, it's called a metronome…"
But if she ever truly contemplated roomaticide, she never showed it. "Do your theatre stuff" she would say, and Lilly just kept on making her reeds and doing her homework and more often that not, joining right in—picking out our outfits before auditions, expressing her monologue preferences, and, most memorable of all (with her signature scrupulous exactness), helping me learn every single line and lyric as I prepared to play Amalia Balash in She Loves Me. Lilly got so involved in the process she would often ask to “work” long after I was memorized, she would talk through the notes I got from the director.
    “I think you need to be a little ‘sobbier.’”
    “Lilly, if I got any ‘sobbier’ I'd be Meg Ryan."
    “Well then sob away—you’d have a cute haircut. And quite a career.”
Oh how she belted “Where’s My Shoe?” with all her heart! How she melted just like “Vanilla Ice Cream,” and how she detested the title song (which she referred to scathingly as the “Well, well, well” song— Adorable).

How we loved her. And how could we not? Her bewitchingly piping voice, her short hair she sometimes wore in spriggy little pigtails that looked something like a cross between broccoli and the thing on top of Bam-Bam’s head, her Southern accent that only came out when she was exhausted, how much she hated making reeds but dutifully made them anyway. She was a foreign creature to us theatre people and we were happy to be amused by her music-major culture.

In the first week of school all of the auditions for the coming year take place— theatre majors audition for the first two shows of the season (in our case, Lysistrata and She Loves Me [3]), voice majors get placed in their studios, dance majors are placed in their level classes and cast in the coming Winter ballet (Coppélia our senior year. Snore), and most stressful of all on our predominantly orchestrally-minded campus, all of the instrumental majors audition for the entire week for their “chair” in the orchestra.

I suppose this is the point where I tell you a little secret: Lilly is so insanely talented a musician, and so gifted at the oboe some might call it unjust. To listen to Lilly play is like listening to a person sing— actually sing through their instrument, with all of the individuality and soulfulness of a raw, vital, pulsing human voice which manages to capture the beauty of existence just as film captures an image. Or honey captures light. One can hear her own expressive soul come through the instrument and, though I know I am biased, I have never heard her bettered. Listening to Lilly play is like watching Ann Reinking dance next to other dancers: flat out unfair to others.

So it was no surprise to the rest of us the day the chairs were posted. Lilly lay in, buried in her duvet distraught that she had “blown it,” thus ruining her senior year, her chances at getting into college and possibly her entire life. The rest of us woke up early and looked at the posting for her—certain.

And as we screamed and celebrated in the main lobby, jumping up and down in characteristically un-music-major-like fashion, we flew upstairs, burst in and jumped on Lilly screaming like the lunatics we were
    “First chair, Lilly! First freakin' chair!

Lilly sat up and beamed. She laughed her Southern sun-shiney laugh and eventually, after Chrissy decided party music (in the form of Simon and Garfunkle’s "Cecelia") was “called for,” joined in our carousing dance of celebration.

Lilly might have slept through her concerto competition final were it not for Katie and I keeping track of the time, throwing her in the shower and running her to the recital hall with minutes to spare.

And (prepare your thesaurus) just imagine what our respective language lexicons would be like were it not for the nocturnally concocted memory tricks we cogitated for every word of Mr. Hintze’s notoriously (some might say opprobriously) formidable vocabulary assessments?

And maybe we all went to MORP [4] on a great big yellow school bus.
Chrissy and I chose vintage picks.
Lilly in a Catherine Silber original.
Katie made her own dress—out of duct tape.

Yes, we had a lot of adventures.
And it was, without question, a collection of favorite memories I shall hoard forever, like jewelry, or marbles, or the very last Double Stuff Oreo.

But all this being said, Lilly was something else.
Despite not being a theatre major, Lilly “played a different role:” She was my very closest friend.
She was the only one I really spoke to about my Dad’s increasingly concerning illness when the going got tough.
And it did.
Get tough.

Dad started out the year with his fifth (or so) round of regular ol’ chemo (in nine years). If there is such a thing. A bald head was the only giveaway, Dad was an ox: six foot three inches of pure, Herculean, I-have-cancer-but-remain-symptom-free-for-a-decade type strength. No one saw the end coming. No one.
That somehow made it all the more ruthless.

Previously-mentioned virtuosic musical gift aside [5], Lilly is rife with what I like to call “goods.” And I will now list them (because as we know, I love both Lilly and lists). It doesn’t take a genius to notice that Lillian Copeland has the biggest, most gorgeous hazel eyes you’ve ever seen. But let me tell you something else: this girl is compassionate, capable, and feisty. She looks right at you and waves sneakily with her oboe during the orchestral bow when you are standing and screaming for her solo (…from the front row of the stalls…with signs…) She is delightfully kooky; for example, she doesn’t refer to her oboe as “the oboe” but rather as, “Oboe,” the proper noun, as if “Oboe” is “his/her” name [6] — both delightful and kooky, you see! She is the just right amount of perfectionist and sees the great virtue in “being cute.” Yes, OKAY, fine: she has killer legs with perfect ankles that look amazing in heels.

But reader?
Lilly is the kind of solid you only think is possible in prairie people. With a sense of empathy so intuitive it makes you ache.

She would drive to-and-from Ohio more times than anyone could count. [7]
She would entertain the less-desirable members of my extended family. [8]
She would visit me in every exotic city I would ever come to live in. [9]
She would hold me while I couldn’t cry.

This is one phenomenal friend.


Of the central circle, Lilly was the last to arrive.

She arranged a leave of absence, caught a Greyhound Bus up from Oberlin the following morning set to arrive around lunch time, though she didn’t arrive at the house until dinner time because despite our Black-Ops-worthy planning, somehow, we forgot to pick her up. For hours.
    “I’m so sorry,” Grey said when he finally arrived in his Rav 4 after driving nearly 150 miles that day alone, “I don’t know how we missed you Lil. We had everything planned down to the mili-second.”
    “It’s okay,” Lilly laughed, tired, but not even the tiniest bit irked, “I understand. I was just a little freaked out.”
    “Because you were young woman alone in the Detroit Greyhound Station? No worries there.”
    “Right” she said. Even her laugh was still sunny and Southern. [10])

Lilly rang the bell at 1367.
    “Hi” she said “I brought Oboe.” Obviously Lilly was going to play at the funeral. Obviously.
    “Come in” I said. And she did.

We arranged the sleeping situation: Grey and Kent opted to sleep downstairs in the lower guest room (which had previously doubled as my mom’s design studio)— it had its own bathroom (which seemed to be a masculine virtue), a dark window facing the Rouge River, and a trundle bed below the day bed we bought when we moved to Michigan because I had seen one once on “The Price is Right” and thought the overly enthusiastic models made it appear outstanding. Lilly and I shared my room— also on twin trundles amidst what suddenly felt to be the fragmented souvenirs of a now forever-lost childhood, and Mom, felt understandably un-enthused about sleeping in The Bed of Death and thus took the spare bed in my Dad’s former office (an office he hadn’t used in months as the disease took full control of him), which Mom would remain in for weeks, until we all sojourned out to Art Van to get her a new bed.

Lil and I settled into my room, she put her bags down, pushed the hair off of her weary face and sat next to me on the bed.
    “Al?” she said.
    “Yeah Lil?”
There was a pause so gorged with meaning the air almost went opaque. Her voice was quiet. Sure.
    “I’ve got this. We’ve got this.”
    “I know…” I replied.
    “You’ve got this.”
    “Thank you, Lilly.”

She hugged me. That said it all. 
We immediately went downstairs and got to work.

There was  an entire extended family of unhelpful people to play offense with. There were 7000 people to pick up from Wayne County Airport, The Greyhound station (which we later discovered to in fact, be three Greyhound stations, all sixteen miles apart). There were people to call, housing to arrange, people to feed.
And of yes: a funeral to plan.
And three eighteen-year-olds would do it all.
All of it.

Because some people can plan funerals when they are eighteen.

[1] at band—school? Literally…
[2] Stir-crazy iiiiiidioooooots.
[3] Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s glorious musical take on The Shop Around the Corner
[4] the Interlochen version of Prom—MORP is “Prom” backwards
[5] …like it can be placed to the side. But you if you will, I would like it, for now, to be placed to the side
[6] I am not certain if Oboe has a gender.
[7] Now that’s love. Plus a lot of unnecessary time on The Turnpike…
[8] Often.
[9] Including Alpena. That’s real love. More on that later.
[10] Okay, we actually were

1 comment:

  1. This made me weep in every way. What a love and what a tribute.



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