Thursday, February 07, 2008

A Heartfelt Tribute to a Dear Friend

Given on 2/5/08

We are not here today to speak of what could have been, but to celebrate what was. For the past few years, Chris’ life was rather dark but the many years of bright, vivid life outshine those few years. I must confess it took some time for me to get back to that Chris. Like an archaeologist brushing off ancient dust to reveal something golden and brilliant, I dug into my past to unearth the magic that was Christopher Vattuone. Through photo albums and boxes of memorabilia in my basement, I pored over pictures, letters and a collection of odd things that represent a friendship spanning over 25 years. These pictures and things were never discarded for they, like Chris, were always valuable to me. Looking back on all of these memories, something inside me ignited like a stove being lit or a rose bush coming back to life after a long, cold winter. The vivid passion of Chris was alive in me again. Soon I was laughing among the tears as the memories flowed. I was young again and inside the wild and wacky world of Chris.

Chasing a skunk through Old Town to get sprayed on purpose, driving backwards through a McDonald’s drive through, wearing high heels to see the movie “High Heels”, making an annual pilgrimage to Karen Carpenter’s grave, never tiring of “The Poseidon Adventure”, calling Hollywood to try to audition for the remake of “The Poseidon Adventure”, watching the “Price is Right” everyday, being a contestant on the “Price is Right”, Helga Beasley, loving every horror film ever made (no matter how awful it was), loving every roller coaster ever made. If anyone of these statements doesn’t sound familiar, then you don’t know Christopher Vattuone.

Chris was a fireball of life and energy that swirled into my life back in 1981 in drama class at Point Loma High. Our friendship was cemented during “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum”. He was outlandish, funny, crazy and helped us all realize that we didn’t have to conform to some dry, restricted clique. He made the bizarre and the dramatic seem as normal as can be. We would spend hours making up stories, creating characters and acting out the parts, fleshing out our own strange world, laughing at it all.

Post high school, the friendship continued as Chris and I worked at the Village Hat Shop together, putting our creativity to work on a whole variety of hats that either flew out the door on peoples’ heads or sat around for months begging to be bought. Besides being a creative place, the hat shop was a place where we learned important work skills too. We both had our time as managers of the Horton Plaza store. After I left the hat shop for San Francisco, Chris took on the role of manager with a sense of professionalism and maturity. He had a retinue of regulars who loved him and he would always greet them warmly when they came in to buy a new hat or just say hello. When his time at the hat shop ended, he fulfilled a dream of becoming a flight attendant, taking on the job seriously and professionally. I never had that Northwest flight with Chris as flight attendant but I’m sure he did his best to make the skies oh so much friendlier.

Our lives grew in different directions but our friendship was always solid. Chris was one of those friends who you could see once a year and pick up where you left off. Like an old glove that slips with ease on the hand, we carried on as if we saw each other just yesterday. Wherever the winds took me, Chris was always sure to visit. Whether it was San Francisco, New York or as far away as Russia, Chris was one of the few friends to make the trek. The laughs, the stories would continue no matter where in the world we were and new ones added to the collection.

Chris was a man of great flair and passion and his enthusiasm for things was intoxicating. He created a buzz that quickly swept us off our feet. Sometimes that meant making a movie in the span of a few hours or having a spontaneous costume parade down Kettner Boulevard on a cold January night. Whatever or wherever it was, we were all along for the ride. I remember when he visited me in Russia he brought a book about the Carpenters. On a long train ride to Siberia, we discussed and debated the life and career of Karen Carpenter. Who else but with Chris could you spend a 28 hour train ride through Russia talking about the finer points of a dead celebrity? By the end of the trip I was as enthusiastic about her as Chris. When we got to my apartment in Ekaterinburg, we played Carpenters CDs over and over and over. I never knew I couldn’t get sick from their music (but I’m sure my neighbors felt differently).

In his short life, Chris touched and inspired us all in so many ways. Maybe that inspiration didn’t lead us to the dizzying heights of Hollywood celebrity or President of the United States, but it moved us to greatness on a day-to-day level. Chris’ bravado, self confidence and belief that he could do anything (no matter how ludicrous it sounded) were so infectious. He was our Don Quixote—fighting windmills that were dragons. If he said those windmills were dragons, we too believed and fought right along side him. Even today when I doubt my abilities or lose motivation, I think of Chris. He’s like coal for my locomotive, feeding the fire to keep the train moving fast. In a place like New York one needs a little Chris in them to bolster them against the sea of naysayers. We all need a bit of Chris in us.

Chris didn’t leave this earth donating millions to charities but he did leave a very rich man. The wealth of lifelong friends he has is a reflection of his generous spirit. He was kind and caring, showing honest love and concern for his friends. He saw the beauty in everyone he met and made them feel great about themselves. In the past few weeks of his life, the myriad of friends who dropped everything to come see him at his time of need was tremendous. A regular Who’s Who of people who brought flowers, held his hand, massaged his feet, cut his hair, sat with him, put lotion on his face, made a photo collage. It was the right thing to do for a friend who gave us all so much. Family was utmost important as well and his loyalty and devotion to his family was immense. Over the years we all got to know his parents, his brother and sister and their families. It was not hard to see the source of love that made Chris such a special person.

I wish I had a magic wand and could make this day go away. I wish I wasn’t standing up here reading this eulogy. I wish we all weren’t here in this church saying goodbye to someone so dear to us. I wish. But, unfortunately, we are. And someone as illustrious as Chris deserves to be celebrated with family and friends gathered around, tributes of flowers and speeches, tears shed. I don’t feel that Chris is gone. He is with me wherever I go. Like the sun he shines on, warming our hearts and souls. A memory may trip me up when I least expect it, bringing a smile to my face or a tear to my eye. Chris’ presence will be felt in my life for a very long time. His memory is a reminder to us all to never lose passion in life, always have enthusiasm and keep close family and friends. While his life may not have been long, it definitely was eventful.

I’d like to end my tribute to Chris with a poem by Langston Hughes:

I loved my friend.
He went away from me.
There’s nothing more to say.
The poem ends,
Soft as it began—
I loved my friend.

And I still do. You were our star on earth Chris, now you’re a star in heaven.
I hope you have found peace and happiness wherever you may be. Ciao Bello. Caro mio. Farewell.

After the End-Epilogue

Sitting on an airplane, flying back to New York after the trip home to say goodbye to Christopher. Funerals and viewings make a lot of people uncomfortable but they are important rituals that need happen. It is the final celebration of a life, a celebration that every human being deserves. To be honored with dignity and warm words no matter how long or short, happy or sad a life. It is also a time for family and friends to write tributes to the departed and speak for no priest can capture the life of someone they did not know. That’s why I wrote what I wrote for my dear friend Chris.
I still don’t believe that he is gone. We all kept saying to each other, “OK, when am I going to wake up”, or “When is he going to get up out of that casket?” It would be just like Chris to pull off such a macabre stunt like this, appearing from the back of the church, walking down the aisle to see who his real friends are. But alas, his hands were cold, his body stiff as a board, his face a frozen, made up mask of peaceful rest. I made him a special photo button of the five of us: Carla, Chris, Eric, Tamara, and myself with the words “Friends 4 Ever” written on which I pinned to his lapel. As I pinned it on his lapel I did so with trepidation, waiting for him to open his eyes like a slumbering vampire to scare the shit out of me. While I wanted this happened, it didn’t, and instead I was comforted by the fact that his oldest and closest friends are with him, next to his heart that used to beat strongly and loved so much.
My years at PS 42 trained me for viewings (we went en masse to them when a colleague’s mother or relative died). Some of my friends were uncomfortable with the whole thing but I encouraged them to come see him, weird as it may seem. Wakes/viewings are important rituals, a chance to say goodbye, visit with friends and family and being in the presence of the departed one last time. The hard part was leaving at the end of the viewing for that’s the last time you can see them. Once the casket is closed, that’s it. We friends were the last to leave and as we were all trying to leave, tears galore, I decided we needed to do a groin pull for Chris. Groin pulls are a 4-step movement which ends with grabbing your crotch, something that Chris made up and we all did in our crazy youth. So all of us lined up in front of him and with a one-two-three-four, gave our dear friend a big chorus line groin pull one last time. The staff of the funeral home was a bit taken back but we didn’t care, we needed to do it. Believe me it helped elevate the sad mood and was closure for all of us.
The Catholic funeral mass with rosary to start was so un-Chris, yet so Chris. The chanting, candles, flowers, music, incense were a great dramatic touch, the grand finale to a dramatic life. The blah-blah-blah of the priest and the very dry eulogy to Chris, was the un-Chris part. I’m glad I got up to speak for my friend, for if I didn’t the whole affair would have been so grim and sad. He was about happiness, not sadness. My eulogy came from the heart, and captured the essence of Chris; his humor, craziness and generosity. Not to brag, but I had them laughing and crying at the end. It was a great eulogy for a great friend and lifted the mood of the church from sadness to wacky happiness—the way he would want it.
His coffin was a navy blue with a seagull motif. I guess they wanted to tie in the fact he was a flight attendant with something aerial. Inside the lid was a flock of seagulls and the words “Going Home”. I got into the seagulls and maybe I’ll be inspired to put them in my art as a tribute. As we said goodbye to him at the cemetery, a Northwest plane flew over as if in tribute to one of its former flight attendants. The cemetery entombment was short yet poignant. The last time we will be near Chris. Once we left, they put him in his tomb in the wall and there he will rest forever. At least we know where he is from now on.
I took three roses from his floral spray on his coffin. A reminder of what I just went through as I make my way home, back to New York, back to reality. I strapped them on to my messenger bag for a bit of flair, for all to see. The day before the funeral, Tamara, Jenna, Linda and I went for pedicures. A little glamour for our glamorous friend. I opted for the outlandish blue glitter toe nail polish in his honor. The nail technician (I believe that’s the term they use these days) was a bit surprised but I didn’t care. It was what I wanted and seemed as normal as can be. Just like Chris would do.
Tomorrow is the start of Chinese New Years. Now that this is all over and Chris has been laid to rest, it’s time to start the new year finally. I am full of new energy and optimism. I feel Chris’ enthusiasm in me and am ready for new challenges in this year. Maybe I’ll just have to go down to Chinatown tomorrow and ring in the new year with my PS 42 colleagues. To mark the end of something and the beginning of something new. Chris would like that.