The first time I met Craig, I was sitting in a local restaurant north of Pittsburgh eating a tuna fish salad sandwich and just minding my business. Suddenly, a deep, operatic voice was heard about 20 decibels (it seemed) above the lunchtime diners. He was singing “Happy Birthday” to the young woman behind the counter. She covered her twenty-something face in embarrassment as he took his sweet time to deliver each note as though he had taken to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.
While the woman taking the orders was completely flustered, Craig had no inhibition or restraint in delivering a “Happy Birthday” worthy of the best of Pavarotti. When he was done, the restaurant exploded into applause. They knew Craig well enough to inform him when an employee (or customer) was celebrating a birthday. He is also known to deliver his song at the local coffee shop and, every so often, at the bakery, but you’ll never catch him singing at the local pub.
Craig is kind of a testament to redemption. Over the years that I knew him, I came to realize that the applause his birthday song received is as much about acknowledging Craig’s ride as celebrating a person’s journey.
No longer living in Pittsburgh, I have been updated that he is now close to 70. He must use a walker, usually dresses in a t-shirt and sweatpants and resides at an assisted living facility. When his friends cannot pick him up to take him out for a meal or coffee, he spends the majority of his time in his room or the recreation center of the residence. His shaking has gotten worse, and, sadly, his balance problems have worsened.
Craig was born with a mild case of cerebral palsy. When he was young, his parents made him and his brother part of their vaudeville act. He had an amazing voice, but by that time, vaudeville was in its last stages. Shows were few and far between. His parents decided that he should stay with an aunt rather than be on the road. They kept Craig’s younger brother with them. They moved Craig to a strange town where he was mercilessly bullied for his cerebral palsy.
Craig started drinking in high school. He could not hold a job. He descended into alcoholism, and as he grew into his 30s, he developed diabetes and, not long after, his shaking grew worse until they confirmed he was in the earliest stages of Parkinson’s disease.
By the Grace of God, Craig found Alcoholics Anonymous, and for the first time in his life, he found people who could reach him on a spiritual level. If you ask Craig to show you his most prized possession, it is a “coin” studded with gems that signify more than 30 years of sobriety.
He never married, he has no children. He has a few devoted friends, his AA meetings and his coin. Recently, Craig’s mother passed away. I was invited to the funeral. Instead of a eulogy, Craig sang a song he remembered from the vaudeville days. He wore his one suit with a black tie. His voice filled the service. It reached every seat and touched every soul.
Just Being Himself
When Craig shows up and sings the birthday song, he is never embarrassed. Customers unfamiliar with him don’t always know what to make of him.
“Who is this strange guy in the walker?” they ask. “Is he some kind of fool?”
No, he is not. I believe he sings so freely and so unashamedly as a way of giving thanks for his life and for overcoming a terrible journey. He wants no riches, no house and no car. He wants only to make people happy. In fact, he loves to think up jokes. While most are what you might describe as downright corny, some are really very funny. He never uses four-letter words, and I have not once heard him mock or demean anyone. He is never bitter. He could be, I suppose, but he isn’t.
I sometimes wonder if many of us often expect too much. We are often told we can have it all. Perhaps we sometimes need to realize that the greatest gifts of all are right in front of us. They are not in the next town or that person giving us a certain glance or the fancy luxury car or new boat we don’t need and purchase with money we don’t have.
While attending my stepfather’s funeral a few weeks ago, I visited the local restaurant where I first met Craig. I reminisced about the many people I have encountered who are rich and poor, important and common, high and low; but none like Craig—a person who could consistently make people feel happy and loved. His song has never made anyone sad. His songs tell them they are loved. As I sat eating my favorite sandwich (tuna fish), I realized something. Craig doesn’t sing because he’s happy, he’s happy because he sings. Those who wish to sing always find a song and someone who needs to hear it. Thank you, Craig. I needed a song, and visiting the place where I first met you was the perfect reminder of how blessed I am. You make my heart sing!