Remembering Erin

2 Feb

Undergraduate school was, for me, a charmed life. I had the best friends I would ever know in my life and we spent almost every waking moment together singing and dancing and painting sets and making costumes and basically living the dream of anyone who wants to be in the arts. It was like a Mickey and Judy “Let’s put on a show in a barn!” movie, only we had to go to class, too. We were silly and we laughed and, despite our ages, we played as if we were children. Rather than going out drinking or getting into trouble, my friends Maria and Julie and I would color. Granted, we would rewrite the stories being told in the coloring books to fit our whimsy. They weren’t always in good taste, but they were always hilarious and always well colored.

A sampling of the art that Maria, Julie and I created with mere crayons and coloring books.

A sampling of the art that Maria, Julie and I created with mere crayons and coloring books.

The music and theatre kids would go to big parties in the park that our friend Marc would throw, but there weren’t any drugs or booze there – just lots and lots of cheap Bubba Cola, loud music and a lot of fun. One night a bunch of us went to a white trash party, and, being artsy people, we dressed the part. I went in a white undershirt that I stained and I blacked out my teeth and gave myself a black eye. I dressed my friend Nathan in a robe and pajamas and made him up to look like a crackhead and put tons of blue eyeshadow on his girlfriend’s lids while Maria teased her hair. And then we walked through Wal-Mart dressed like that before going to the party. Because that’s what we did, and I loved every one of those freaks. We even threw a Titanic-themed “Prom.”

Lauren, Nathan and I prepare to go to the White Trash Party.

Lauren, Nathan and I prepare to go to the White Trash Party.

It was an innocent time where money had no hold over any of us as long as we had enough money in our pocket or on our Racer Card to get lunch. We didn’t have credit cards or student loans to pay off yet, we didn’t have to think about health insurance or whether our vacation time would be paid or not. Really, we just had to show up to class and do what we loved to do. What I wouldn’t give to go back to that sometimes.

My junior year of college, though, all of that changed. I was living with three friends in a small house off campus called the HAPE (pronounced ‘happy’) House. The name came from the first initials of the original four people living in the house – Heidi, A.J., Patrick and Ellen. The name was later changed to the JAPE house when Holly moved out and Julie moved in, and when Patrick and Ellen started realizing they had some feelings for each other, Patrick decided it was best to move out, so I moved in. We never bothered to change the name after I came in, but I didn’t care. I loved being with my friends and, ultimately, I would need to be near them soon enough. 

One of the courses I was required to take as part of my degree program was Opera Workshop – a class in which we basically learned an aria or duet and staged it. My old voice teacher, Norman Wurgler, was taking over Opera Workshop, which really excited me because he was willing to introduce some musical theatre pieces into the curriculum, like Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd which, if you’re getting really technical, is an opera. I loved Mr. Wurgler and I couldn’t wait to spend the semester working with him and all of my friends.

Monday, February 2, 1998 started out as any old Monday usually would. We started the day with Music History, which was about as interesting as it sounds. Erin Conn, a beautiful young woman with long, silky brown hair, a giant smile and freckled hands with long, thin fingers, came into class that day with a giant mug of hot coffee to try to keep her awake. Her father had been suffering from cancer and was scheduled to go into surgery that Friday for what they hoped would be a lifesaving procedure. Obviously this had been taking a toll on Erin, though she rarely ever spoke of it.

Honestly, I thought Erin hated me in our first couple of years of school together. She had been dating this guy named Justin, who I was certain hated me because he’d been my Big Brother when I’d pledged Phi Mu Alpha, which I dropped out of after three days. I just knew that the two of them had a mutual hatred of me, so when I was assigned a seat next to Erin in concert choir I thought, “Oh, joy! This’ll be fun.” It turned out…it was

During the fall semester in choir, she and I found that we made each other laugh. We bonded over some great music and really started getting to be friendly. She’d come over once to study and we baked cookies and we passed little notes back and forth during our required weekly recital hour. We did the chamber choir madrigal dinner together and she had done the small walk-on part of Sleeping Beauty in our recent production of Into the Woods. She and I were finally friends.

The poster for the 1998 Murray State University production of Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods"

The poster for the 1998 Murray State University production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods”

I could tell that Erin wasn’t herself that morning, but I chalked it up to exhaustion and stress. Later in the day, we had an advanced music theory class together, which we both hated, so we sat together toward the back of the room. At some point during the class, she reached over and grabbed my hands and said, “I am so cold.” And she was. Icy. She sort of shrugged it off and stole my highlighter out of my hand. In my textbook she drew a smiley face and wrote “A smile from Erin.” 

During choir that day we were rehearsing a piece by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina called “Super flumina babylonis,” or “By the waters of Babylon.” Erin leaned over to me and whispered in my ear, “I think this is the music the angels sing in Heaven.”

After choir, I went to the costume shop in the basement of the theatre to do my required hour of work for the day and then I headed toward the new music building to go to Opera Workshop. We were rehearsing in the new Performing Arts Hall, which we called “Pah.” As I approached the front doors of the building, I noticed an ambulance parked out front. As I took the stairs up to the second floor, I started worrying that maybe they were there for Mr. Wurgler – had he had a heart attack?? When I stepped into the recital hall, I wasn’t at all prepared to see Erin laid out on the stage, laying completely still as her gorgeous brown hair pooled around her head. 

The EMTs had been just ahead of me and they immediately started their work on Erin. The entire class, including Mr. Wurgler, had moved to the back of the hall and everyone was in full panic mode. The girls were crying and the guys were trying to comfort them, though they were white as sheets themselves. Poor Mr. Wurgler looked like he had no idea what to do. Who would? I can only imagine that as a teacher and a parent, he was living his worst nightmare. As they put Erin on the gurney and wheeled her out to the ambulance, I could see that she had started to turn blue. 

I tried to get someone to tell me what had happened. From what I could piece together, Mr. Wurgler had asked everyone in the class to get up onstage, one by one, and pantomime a scene and the rest of the class was to guess what they were doing. Erin got up and pretended to open a refrigerator door and then dropped to the ground and started to convulse. Everyone thought this was part of her scene, but it went on just long enough to make them realize that she wasn’t acting. I don’t remember all the details very clearly, but I think one of the guys in our class had CPR training and had been giving her mouth to mouth until the medics got there. I may be wrong about that, but I think that’s right.

After the ambulance took off, class was obviously cancelled. Erin’s roommate, Lauren, who was also in Opera Workshop, headed off to the hospital as did Mr. Wurgler and a few of the other kids in class. I headed back down to the costume shop – I don’t know why that was my first instinct – where I had a full blown panic attack and meltdown. Randy, the costume shop manager, couldn’t understand anything I was saying at first, so she sat me down, gave me some candy and waited for me to calm down a little. She kept reassuring me that Erin was young and healthy and would be fine, but I had seen her…I had seen her face and I knew that she wasn’t fine. Randy encouraged me and some friends to go to the hospital with our friends, so we did. 

The waiting room outside the emergency room at Murray-Calloway County Hospital was packed with friends and teachers. The room was pretty much silent as we waited for what seemed an eternity – the silence only broken by an occasional sob or a soft prayer being said in the corner somewhere. Hands were being held, hugs were being given freely – we were all there, just waiting to hear that she was going to be fine. 

I saw Erin’s mom run in and she was immediately ushered into the emergency room. She and her husband lived a good hour and a half away and she had rushed down as quickly as she could, but obviously her husband was in no shape to come with her. By this time we’d been waiting for a long time, though I couldn’t tell you exactly how long, but it felt like days. A little while after Erin’s mom arrived, a doctor came into the waiting room to talk to us. The poor man looked terrified as he entered the room and had to face us – there had to have been 50 or more of us there. All I heard was, “We did everything we could do…” and I heard Mrs. Bates, Erin’s voice teacher scream. After that I didn’t hear anything else. “We did all we could do…we did all we could do…” and that horrible shriek just kept playing over and over in my mind.

I got up and left the room because I thought I was going to throw up. I went outside and started pacing, hyperventilating with my hand to my mouth and burning tears streaming down my face. I kept walking around, looking at all my friends who were suddenly, equally burdened with this awful grief, and it was as if I didn’t recognize any of them. My friends didn’t cry – we sang and laughed and loved our lives – but here they were trembling and weeping and making sounds that I didn’t know could be made by human beings. I couldn’t find my voice. I couldn’t make a sound. I didn’t understand or know what to do. She was only 22 – she couldn’t possibly be dead! 

I don’t remember much of the rest of that evening. I can’t remember going home to the JAPE House at all, but I got there somehow. I do remember calling my parents. My Dad answered and could hear that I was crying. When he asked me what was wrong, the words literally exploded from somewhere deep within me, “She’s dead! Erin is dead!” My poor Dad didn’t know who I was talking about and when he asked me, “Who? Who is dead??,” I answered, “Erin! My Erin!” 

The next day most of our classes were cancelled but a department meeting was held in one of the recital halls where we were offered on-campus grief counseling. The only class we had that day was concert choir. Our choir director, Dr. Almquist, thought it would be best for us to continue with our regular routines – to keep some sort of normalcy – and to honor Erin’s memory by coming together to make some of her favorite music. He spoke to us frankly about balancing our emotions with our ability to do the task at hand and I hated him for it. I know now that it was the best thing he could have asked us to do. He distributed a new piece of music by Johannes Brahms, Erin’s favorite composer, and told us that were going to sing it at her funeral. It was the fourth movement of the German Requiem, “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen,” or “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place.” We started working through the piece and I completely broke down. Before I knew it, Justin had his arms around me telling me everything would be OK.

The funeral was Friday – the day that Erin’s father was supposed to have his surgery. We piled into the church for the service and, to my amazement, Lauren – Erin’s roommate and best friend – got up and sang. I still don’t know how she did it. When it came time for the choir to get up and sing, I literally had to prop myself up on the railing just to stay standing upright and I’m fairly certain I didn’t sing one note. In addition to singing the Brahms, we also sang the Palestrina piece that Erin had told me she thought was the angel’s music.

When we arrived at the cemetery, we gathered around Erin’s grave with Mr. and Mrs. Conn and Erin’s sister sitting under a tent that had been set up. After the graveside service, as we started to walk back to our cars, a light snow started to fall. I couldn’t help but think that Erin was looking down over us. Maybe she was preparing the way for her father, who passed away just a couple of months later.

For months after that – and sometimes even now – I feel like Erin’s nearby. It’s been 16 years since her passing and I still find myself thinking about her and that incredible time when so many of us came together to love and support one another. Her death brought me and Justin closer together, for which I am so very grateful. Lauren and Nathan grew closer, too, during that time and are now married and have a family in Illinois. 

Erin’s death touched all of us and changed things for us. We all grew up, whether we were ready to or not. I think of her often and wonder how her mom and sister are doing. A couple of years ago, while I was visiting Western Kentucky for the first time in years, I stopped by her gravesite to pay my respects. Being there brought back so many memories of that time and of those marvelous people that I call my friends. We got each other through that horrible time. It wasn’t easy, but we did it, and we would be there for each other again the next year when we’d lose another student in our department. 

But that’s another story for another time.

Today I want to remind the world that there once was a woman named Erin Conn. She was bright, funny, talented, kind, generous, smart, loving and beautiful. I cherish the time I got to spend with her and I will remember her always.

There is an Erin Conn Memorial Scholarship at Murray State University in her remembrance. The music program at MSU is one of the best kept secrets in the country and any student should be lucky to study there. If you feel inclined to do so, please make a donation to that scholarship. Email msu.music@murraystate.edu or call the music department directly at 270.809.4288 for more information on how to make a contribution.

The program and dedication page from my Junior Voice Recital at Murray State University.

The program and dedication page from my Junior Voice Recital at Murray State University.


Edit: A friend who was there just confirmed that someone did, indeed, perform CPR until the paramedics arrived. Two someones, in fact:  Matt and Autumn. 

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7 Responses to “Remembering Erin”

  1. christina reinhart February 2, 2014 at 3:22 pm #

    Jason, thank you so much for sharing this. We had a conversation outside right before she went into class. I will never forget thinking how especially beautiful she looked with the sun glistening in her beautiful hair and her creamy skin – like an angel. She was so excited for the weekend and seemed very peaceful and happy that day. It has always stayed with me. Still to this day I think of her.

  2. Matt Hinz February 2, 2014 at 4:18 pm #

    Erin was a very special girl who I know touch many lives during her time at Murray State. Thank you Jason for sharing what you remember about her and that day. 16 years ago and that day still sticks with me, but it also helps me to not forget about all the good times with her too. Thank you again!

  3. Stephanie Rea February 2, 2014 at 9:26 pm #

    So nice to read this. Such a tragic loss. I began teachig at Murray State in August 2000. Sorry I didnt meet hav rhe hane to meet Erin. Best to you, Jason.

  4. Julie February 2, 2014 at 10:15 pm #

    We will sing with her again someday, and not as we do now, but in a time and place where we can hug her and see her smile – and hear her voice blending with ours again. Thank you for posting.

  5. Casey Guardiola February 3, 2014 at 11:44 am #

    Erin was my cousin .I only met her once not long before she unexpectedly passed away, but she left me wanting to know her better and thankful I could call her family! Thank you for posting this story as it gives me more insight into who she was…

  6. Leland Jones February 3, 2014 at 9:30 pm #

    It’s amazing how that day still haunts me as I know it does you. It was the singular event that made me realize how fragile life is. After the funeral, Lauren gave our daughter, Amanda, a wrapped Christmas gift Erin had yet to give her. It was a small, stuffed Ernie doll. I think we still have it. She was so caring. Thanks for sharing this, Jason. I’m glad we’re friends.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. And Now Back To Our Regularly Scheduled Programming… | Confessions of a Merch Whore - February 4, 2014

    […] been quiet the last couple of days since posting the entry I wrote about my friend Erin’s death. It was a long, heavy piece that stirred up a lot of memories and emotions not only for me, but for […]

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