On this day 26 years ago we lost someone truly special. Derick, the world is less without you in it.
When I was 20 years old I moved in with a couple of friends I’d made at a party on Monument Avenue. I’d gone with a friend of mine who was my sister’s boss, and I remember feeling nervous and scared because I didn’t know anyone there. No worries though because everyone at the gathering was friendly, outgoing, and raucously funny. Most of them were gay and all of them were drinking. It was a fabulous time. I started talking with Graham, found out it was his and his boyfriend David’s apartment, and they needed a roommate. I jumped at the chance since I’d recently moved back home after a truly awful breakup.
The next week I moved in the few things I owned and explored where I’d be living. I noticed a framed snapshot of David on their mantle and was overjoyed to also recognize a good friend, Derick Van Milford. Derick and I had gone to high school together. He always called himself “Van” Milford but to this day I don’t know if that was his name or an affectation. It suited him though. He was wonderful, totally gregarious, friendly, over the top funny and charming. He was also the star of most of our high school productions, the official ones, as well as the non-official ones he persuaded the school higher-ups to allow him to perform. He was two grades ahead of me and I loved him, not only for his humor and grace but because I envied his courage. He was fearless, loud, and popular. Everything I wanted to be. Holding the photograph and smiling to myself, I casually mentioned to David that I knew Derick and asked about his whereabouts. “He’s a good friend. But he died last year. Car accident.”
I was stunned. I actually remember a sharp pain entering my heart right then like a stab. Imagine the soaring hope of being connected with an old friend you adore followed by the frightening crash of learning you’ll never see him again all in the same moment. I got spots in front of my eyes and felt faint. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t. That someone so vibrant, vital, and with so much energy and passion for their art would be snatched away like that.
Back in high school I loved theater and movies and wanted more than anything to be an actress. Just one problem. I was painfully shy and suffered from severe social anxiety. Just the thought of speaking aloud in front of a group of people made me want to puke. Or stab myself in the eye. Or puke. We performed the musical Carnival in my sophomore year, and I hid in the chorus as always. It was only when Derick, who was acting as Assistant Director to our Theater teacher Miss Sanchez, announced he needed someone to play a puppet in a key scene with him, that I saw my chance. Here was my opportunity! I could play a major character, an actual speaking role with lines. And those lines could be spoken BEHIND A WALL. I’d never be seen. It was ideal.
Except it wasn’t. In practice I failed time and again. And each time I stumbled I feared replacement. If you’ve ever acted in live theater you know projection to the back of the room is important. Now imagine doing that behind a puppet theater. Now imagine doing it with severe social anxiety. What the hell had I gotten myself into? I was flummoxed. No matter what I did I wasn’t loud enough. I wasn’t boisterous enough. My opera singing wasn’t up to par. The character was supposed to be an opera singer who sings REALLY badly but who thinks she sings great. I was accomplishing neither. Instead of being a cartoon, my character came off as a half-ass robot.
Thankfully Derick possessed major amounts of patience as well as talent. As the other puppet in the scene of course he was flawless. After hours and hours of practice under his direction I began to notice slight changes in my voice. I got louder. My voice got more rounds and edges to it. It got fuller. And under his direction I really learned to let go. I allowed myself to make mistakes in the opera singing and then to amplify them times ten. To let go of the fear of not being perfect that always prevented me from speaking up. To really belt it out and to do it badly. On purpose. To say fuck it and just go for it.
Acting with him was something I’ll never ever forget. We played off each other’s lines so well the audience was howling. It was and is the best role I ever had, not just because we made the audience laugh, but because he taught me it’s okay to speak up even if it makes you look like an ass. It’s okay to make mistakes. In fact it’s a good thing. It’s only by biting the bullet and actually TRYING that you find out what works and what doesn’t. In teaching me to be a puppet, he also taught me to find my life’s voice. Now? You can’t shut me up if you tried. And for that I’m grateful.
It’s hard to describe but often now I’ll find myself in a social situation where I’m scared beyond belief, but instead of hiding I’ll just bust out in a really loud, gregarious and hopefully funny comment to mask my fear. Nine times out of 10 it works. And when it doesn’t? Eh, fuck ‘em. Just keep going to the next line in the play. Maybe they’ll catch up. Derick taught me that.