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Building a Dream Deck With Paul Lafrance

I usually don’t like “theme” decks. But this time, when I was asked to write about building a deck that would be an inviting place for musicians to gather, my inner voice reminded me that I had a great story to share straight from the heart, about something I believed in.

On a Tuesday, in June 2012, I received a phone call from my good friend Mike Sheerin. Mike is a busy guy who isn’t fond of talking on the phone. When he calls, I pick up. He told me the story of 17-year-old Johnny Mavroutsikos. Johnny had stage four kidney cancer and the doctors had given him very little time to live. Mike told me Johnny’s last wish was to have the crew of Decked Out come and build a deck for his family, so they could have a place to be together after he was gone. Whoa!

How can you say no to that? How do you design something like that? Talk about heart-wrenchingly personal!

I spoke to Johnny's father for some insight into his son, and he was so open and candid that I was moved to tears. He also talked about Johnny’s love of music, and that he was a fellow guitar player. Then I spoke to Johnny. He was so weak that he could barely talk but, even through the phone, I knew I wasn't talking to a victim. I was talking to a warrior.

We decided we would stop everything and head down on Thursday.I had one day to design the deck.

That was a long day.

At 2am, after hours of seeking some divine design intervention, I passed out on my desk. It was five hours before construction would start and I wasn't sure about the direction the design had taken, but there was no going back now. We had to go with it.

I drove to Johnny's home that morning hoping what I had designed in my emotionally exhausted state wouldn't have his loving parents Steve and Bessie asking me to leave!

I designed a deck that looked like a stage for a rock band. It had a curved front edge, planters that looked like stage monitors, a retractable awning, and a 17' long replica of Johnny's favourite guitar hung on the stage backdrop, which doubled as a privacy screen. It was a design that went against my normal rules. But this wasn't a normal deck.

When they saw the plan, I knew the tears in their eyes weren't the ones I had been afraid of. This deck was Johnny's wish. He didn’t want to be remembered in a somber, silent place. He wanted loud music, laughter and life!

I sat and talked with Johnny, and every hour we spent together the more I felt like the boy looking up at a man. "I'm not scared Paul, I know where I'm going. I just want to see everyone else not hurt anymore. I want everyone to have fun and enjoy life, not be so deeply sad." His whispers took all his strength and I hung on his every word.

The sun beat down. The build happened on the hottest days of the year, but it didn't matter. The TV crew worked hand in hand with my gang and me. The feeling on that site was not foreboding or full of sorrow, but more like a good old-fashioned love-in! There was loud music, laughter and life. People that were non-huggers were fully embracing the profusely sweating person beside them. It was beautiful.

Johnny watched it all from the shade with his parents and his incredible little sister Chrissy. They repeatedly thanked us all for the gift we were giving them. I'm not sure that they fully understood that it was they who were giving a gift to all of us!

The deck was soon done, and family and friends flocked to it. They ate, talked and, of course, played music. A number of benefit concerts were held in the coming months. As Johnny took in the music, it was becoming clear that even smiling took too much strength.

Johnny passed away four months after our three-day journey with him and his amazing family. To this day, I often wonder what he was thinking in the shade as he watched us build his final wish. I think of what he said to me about wanting everyone else's hurt to end, but also wanting to fight to stay for as long as he could for the people he loved.

I wonder if he held on until the last of the warm summer air was gone. Did he stay until the stage was emptied and no more songs could be sung; until it was time to move inside for winter, and that last opportunity for memories to be made on "Johnny's stage" had come and gone? Perhaps that meant that he now, too, could finally go.

If musicians are revered for their courage and ability to step onto a stage and pour out from their heart, then the last song of Johnny Mavroutsikos makes him a true rock star. We will be forever humbled that we got to build the stage beneath his feet.