“Are you sitting down?”
There is no good way to give bad news. It hits like an earthquake: suddenly, unrelentingly, and with countless aftershocks that are equally devastating. It is a rare moment where the emotional world manifests as a physical force, knocking us off our feet both literally and figuratively. I wasn’t sitting down, but even if I was this news would have pulled the floor out from underneath me. Receiving news like this is a fact of life that I have struggled coming to terms with for many years, a specter perched in the back of my mind akin to a ticking clock: easily covered up with white noise, yet persistently poking through the subconscious.
It wasn’t until 2 hours after that phone call that the news of Jason Ryan’s passing began to sink in. As I began my first show on the two show day, I recalled a text he sent me out of the blue several months ago when Hamilton opened in Orlando:
“Hey bud! I wanted to make it down for the show but I am still on the job search and haven’t landed anything yet. I would have loved to come and see the show! I’m sorry I couldn’t make it but keep me posted as to where you are touring!! Once I get a job I would love to come visit during a weekend.”
The thing is, I never asked him to come see me in Orlando, nor did I expect it from him. While many of the times we’d talk would be unexpected, a unique attribute of his character has crystallized as I reflect now on those sporadic conversations: Jason treated every friendship, opportunity, and experience he had as a blessing. In a world haunted by the past, obsessed with the future, distracted by fleeting things, daydreaming of greener pastures, and constantly making excuses, Jason created his own current with his unwavering hope, infectious love of life, and devotion to his friends. As if his uncommon perspective wasn’t enough to leave a lasting impression on everyone in his path, Jason didn’t know a stranger. He was simply unforgettable, and in the moment when you hadn’t thought about him for awhile, you’d get a message that would brighten your day.
In the Fall of 2010, I piled my life high into my car and caravanned with my parents to Stetson University for move in day. A haze of reluctance and insecurity hung in the air: after six years with the same class of just north of 100 students at Trinity Prep, I was fearful and ill-equipped to handle even the slightest of changes. Enter Jason Ryan. He was the first person I met at Stetson on Orientation Day as he was a Focus Leader. Donning a bright green plastic Stetson Hat and a voice full of joy, he was a ball of energy that quickly snapped me out of my timid reluctance to begin this new chapter. He was that upperclassman friend that invited me to join his group at lunch, included me on his crazy shenanigans with and without Nerf guns, instilled in me a love and pride for our School of Music, and inspired me to work as hard as I could while showing me that it was still possible to enjoy the ride.
He never asked me to join Phi Mu Alpha. He never had to. His genuine gravity pulled me in-how could I not want to be a part of the things to which he was so dedicated? When I discovered he was my big brother, I was ecstatic-but I could never have predicted how enduring and special our friendship would be. Aside from being such a great mentor, inspiration, and friend, he always made the time to go the extra mile. I’ll never forget one special Saturday he had told me to set aside completely for a surprise. A week or two before my initiation, he showed up at my dorm first thing in the morning and asked if I didn’t mind driving. It was about two hours down the road through the Ocala National Forest and off I-75 at a gas station in Lake City that he surprised me with two tickets to see the FSU football game, my childhood home team. While the Marching Chiefs played the National Anthem center field, he caught the attention of our entire section as his rich bass-baritone voice belted out the words, bel-canto style. Needless to say, in typical Jason fashion, we made a lot of friends that day.
Although we had not lived in close proximity after he graduated for most of this decade, our friendship endured. I visited him twice in Boston, first to attend his Master’s Recital at New England Conservatory, and second to stay with him and his soon-to-be fiancé, Matt, while I auditioned at Boston University for their Master’s program. Most recently, Raveena and I caught up with him and Matt months after they moved to New York while I was on vacation from Hamilton. Though it had been years since we had seen each other last, our friendship seamlessly picked back up as if no time had passed, and I could already feel his gravity adding to the force pulling me back to New York. As we talked more in the coming months, his presence in The City made me so excited for life after tour, a future of finally living in the same place once again after so many years spent at a distance.
There have been so many questions running through my head since Sunday: How could this happen? Why him? Why now? But the one that I keep coming back to is What can I do now? Nothing in life can prepare you for the death of a loved one, and I am at a loss trying to figure out how to pick up the pieces. What I do know for sure is that I have not cherished life and my experiences the way Jason did, I have not kept up with old friends and made every effort to make those relationships enduring like he did, and I have routinely talked myself out of tackling big goals instead of relentlessly whittling away at them with hope and passion as was so characteristic of him: needless to say, there is still so much to learn from him even after his passing. They say that after death we live on in the memories we shared with others, the love we gave freely to others, and the many ways we affected those whose paths we crossed…And while I had taken that statement at face value up to this point in life, I cannot think of a person this describes better than Jason and the legacy he has left on all of the people in his life. So thank you, Jason Ryan, for teaching us all what it means to be a great human, a kind soul, a loving friend, an inspiring artist, and a spring of hope.
To the Stetson School of Music community, I cannot think of another student who loved and believed in the School with the fire that he did.
To the Brothers of Phi Mu Alpha, I cannot think of an individual who better embodied those qualities we hold near and dear to our hearts.
I have never been to a Senior Recital in which a single musician both filled an entire 800 seat hall and simultaneously entranced each soul to gracious silence (and I haven’t heard of one since).
I have never known a person who loved life and the people he shared it with as much as he did.
The earthquake from his untimely passing has brought forth a tidal wave of love and beautiful memories universally from all of those he touched in life, a truly uncommon and incredible sight to behold.