What Do You Do When the Tears Keep Falling?

7 Apr

What Do You Do When the Tears Keep Falling?

in memoriumThis title almost sounds like it could be a Country song, but seriously, what do you do? Tissues have become my new best friend since my old friend has departed this life. Gone in advance of when I ever thought he would. Bear with me while I process this pain. –Should I stop envisioning my friends as how I might wish them to be? Tsk, tsk… Checking out before turning 70 was not part of the plan.

Ray Keller - 1970sJames Ray Keller…what can I say about the man, the myth, and the legend? Honestly, he was all three to me. He is legendary because of how long I knew him; more than 40 years. I literally watched him turn from a teenager into a man; always knew him as Ray. Mythic because thanks to some odd quirk of fate across space and time we found and formed a unique kinship. He is someone I could rely on as far more than a friend. As one of the few people from my school days Ray defies definition. He was, using today’s terminology, an influencer, blazing trails as he made his way.

Record Label - courtesy of DiscogsThinking back to when I first met Ray, we were part of the Frankford High School Ambassadors of Song. He was a baritone, I was an alto, and we became fast friends. Ray had a keen interest in music, as well as many other things, but cared little of actual notation—preferring instead to write note names alphabetically and with arrows to indicate octaves. As one fortunate to learn the structure of music, Ray was a maverick to me; someone who thrived in the unexpected. Ray Keller at Queen show MGM Park Las Vegas 090218He could play piano by ear and using his personal notation taught himself to play Queen songs from the radio and records. A huge fan of Freddie Mercury, we got to see Queen in person back when they were popular, and in very much a rivalry with Kiss.

Ray was a fan of Horror while the genre was still in its relative infancy. He turned me on to the writings of Stephen King, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, and more, back when books were just about the only way to escape. Back when books were the main way to tell a story and imaginations could run. Boy, did they run….

Stephen King BooksWhen movies like “Carrie” and “Christine” eventually came out, you know we were among some of the first in line. Horror movie marathons featuring older film stars were a common occurrence in theaters and later at home, as Betamax gave way to VCRs. Fans of musicals, we also shared a common interest in “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” sneaking out to the midnight showing down on South Street. I guess you might say we kept each other in and out of trouble in varying degrees. Sometimes, drama was not limited to the silver screen.

Within the sphere of the cinema, Ray had a keen interest in special effects. I can recall the occasional evenings in his basement bedroom that included a video camera, ropes, knives, and quite a bit of stage blood. Imagine walking home after dark to explain that to your parents as a teenager. We soon kept ‘theatrical garb’ for just such occasions, so as not to draw quite as much attention; live and learn.

Family 2010Ray’s mom, Hannah, also holds a special place in my heart for letting me into her family, even though she already had another daughter with the same name. Ray had a brother and sister older than him, and three younger sisters who treated me like one of their own. I felt part of the clan, always welcome to come by anytime, sit and stay, admire their many pets, play Scrabble, or watch TV.

Roller skating was Ray’s favorite mode of transportation, when he wasn’t walking fast. As a person with much shorter legs, it was not easy keeping up with him in so many ways. But he’d grab me by the hand and off we would go. He lived with my family for a few months while still attending school, and despite the somewhat rocky road we made an interesting time of it. Ray got a job working with my mother for a little while, but he eventually had to leave a most stifling situation.

Ray was to graduate in 1977, the same year as my friend Sandy, but just missed having enough credits. This meant a stint of summer school that technically meant we graduated together in 1978. After graduation, we went different ways, sort of. We both found employment and would meet to catch up with what each other was doing. Ray holds a distinct place in my life of being the first man to ever purchase clothing for me, “just because,” an Easter outfit from a downtown shop complete with hat. What started out as ‘window shopping’ turned into something totally unexpected, as was generally the case where Ray was concerned. He was also the first person with whom I had a drink, and several.

Barbra Streisand Donna Summer Enough is EnoughWithout going into too much detail, which could fill a book or two, we were in and out of each other’s lives over the next few years. The two of us literally dancing around Center City clubs and Frankford neighborhood hangouts. Ray would get an apartment, then I would. Donna Summer was our favorite singer during the heyday of Disco, when LPs and extended singles were in fashion. Together, we would sing and dance to Donna Summer songs. When Donna teamed up with Barbra Streisand on “No More Tears” we had much fun singing parts. This eventually led to an interesting video shoot in the street outside Ray’s apartment, amid traffic no less, lip synching to “Last Dance” in full costume with mic. It was quite a hoot.

Just after 1980, while I worked as a legal secretary, Ray worked as an optician two blocks away. This meant we could ride the el back and forth together. We would compete on the ride into town to be the first to finish the crossword puzzle in the Inquirer, then the one in the Daily News on the way home, and we would check each other’s answers. If work schedules permitted, we ate lunch together many days.

Then he moved, and I moved again and met my first husband through my new neighbors. Ray stood with me during my marriage, then after a few weeks said our farewells as I traveled out of state. He was my rock just a few months later when I returned to Philly very much alone and pregnant. Ray essentially returned the favor of staying with me by generously taking me in for a few months and caring for me as my belly grew, and I slowly got back into my family’s good graces.

About a month after I moved back with my parents in 1982, he became “Uncle Ray” to WOF Vanna Patmy firstborn son. We already had such an unconventional relationship, in raising each other into young adulthood. So, it was especially meaningful when he found his soulmate in Jim Campbell. Ray found success on a trip to California, with significant winning on the TV show, “Wheel of Fortune.” I remember being invited to travel for the taping, to be part of a small cadre of friends to cheer him on, and regret being unable to make the trip. Of course, Ray rose to the top, convivial soul that he is; sorry, was. He was the big winner with over $30K that day, and I most likely still have the episode stashed away on VHS.

Marriage of Ray Keller and Jim Campbell 100998Not long after, Ray and Jim made the decision to move to California. The power of the internet took over where phone calls were once the norm. For more than 30 years, I got to eavesdrop on their lives together as much as they would share. Legally married in 2008 (hooray!) they posted many photos of their cars, dogs, Legos, friends, trips to Ikea, holiday decorating, life changes, vacations, cruises, and special trips back home to visit family. I messaged Jim more than Ray, really; and admit to being a lurker in Ray’s later years, while maintaining contact with his sisters.Ray & Jim Cruise 2018

And now Ray is gone…seven weeks shy of his 59th birthday. One of those people I could never imagine ever being out of my life. A caring soul who lived his life and touched others with such passion, artistry, and fullness. Our own existence is diminished by his passing. So, the shedding of tears happens quite readily. Once the sadness ebbs and stock in Puffs rises, the celebration of life will continue, in much the way Ray taught me many years ago. Rest peacefully; as John Holland says, ‘Your loved ones are just a thought away…,’ and this is and has been very true. Influencer that he was, no doubt Ray Keller is enthralled by his more cosmic surroundings; cheering the rest of us on from the multiverse.


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