AJ can’t be with us today, so his mother, Christine Perrelli, is going to speak for him.
She promised him she would.
He was her first-born. He was imaginative and intelligent. He was a dancer and an actor. He lit up a stage even when the lights were down. He had a big heart.
You would have loved him. Everyone did.
Which is why his death six years ago, at age 26, was so tragic.
AJ had so much going for him.
He had toured the world performing in “Disney Live! Three Classic Fairy Tales” and had started taking acting lessons.
“From the time he was a boy, he wanted to be on Broadway,” says Christine.
And he was eagerly awaiting the birth of his first child. Luca, who is 5, never got the chance to meet AJ.
“He looks just like his dad,” Christine says, showing a photo of the little boy.
As Christine is telling AJ’s story, she’s helping her 4-year-old granddaughter, Mia, get ready for her dancing class.
Christine’s an upbeat woman who wears a ready smile and loves to hug.
She pours syrup on Mia’s pancakes and reminds her to put on her little black tutu and brush her teeth.
On Oct. 10, 2013, when Christine was on a trip to Baltimore, AJ went outside his Astoria apartment to smoke a cigarette.
When he hadn’t returned 20 minutes later, the two friends who were staying with him went to look for him.
The found him, bleeding and crawling on the ground.
Doctors discovered he had a brain bleed, and by the time Christine arrived at his side, he was non-responsive in the ICU.
“I felt like I was in a movie or a TV set,” she says. “I used to put my hand on his chest and my head on his chest as a way to get through to him.”
Six days later, AJ was declared dead. His heart, kidneys, liver, pancreas and corneas are keeping five people alive.
Everyone grieves in a different way, and Christine chose to create a nonprofit to honor AJ’s memory.
“While I was saying good-bye to him, I told him that the world will know who you are and people will hear your story and through you, the world will change,” she says.
The AJ Project was not something Christine planned. AJ’s friends donated money to pay his funeral expenses, and she was determined to use the leftover money to set up a fund in AJ’s name that would benefit the arts.
“It was like divine intervention,” she says. “I was laid off six months after AJ died, so I had time to figure out how to do this.”
The AJ Project creates performance events that promote organ donation education, something Christine says is sorely needed because New York ranks 50th among the states.
She also sees The AJ Project as a way to promote local performers.
“I looked at AJ struggling to be an artist in New York,” she says. “Everyone always asks people to perform for free, and that’s not right. I pay the artists who participate and use my sources to help other nonprofits connect artistic people with projects.”
Christine, who is a native of Hollywood, Florida, is a lifetime lover of the arts. Her father is a jazz musician, and at an early age, she learned to play the flute, piccolo and saxophone. She also sang and taught herself to dance.
“I’m one of four,” she says. “We didn’t have money to take lessons.”
When she was 13, she met Anthony, her future husband, in a swimming pool at a hotel.
“We were on a staycation because we didn’t have any money to go anywhere,” she says. “He had come to Florida from New York for a real vacation.”
They become periodic pen pals and later started a long-distance phone relationship. By the time Christine was at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida, they had lost touch.
“When he was moving, he found my number in a drawer he was cleaning out,” she says. “He called, and we have not stopped talking since.”
Christine, four credits shy of graduation, dropped out of school to come to New York to be with him.
“New York is expensive, but living here was cheaper than paying for all the phone calls,” she says. “I don’t know what I was thinking – if that had been my kid, I’ve have killed her.”
Fortunately, things worked out – Christine and Anthony have four children and have been married 32 years.
For a time, the couple ran their own video company. As the business took off, they moved to Florida, where they did a variety of things before moving back to Astoria in 2009 to take care of Anthony’s father.
Around the same time, Christine was battling breast cancer and AJ was ending his dancing and singing tours for Disney.
She’s come to terms with AJ’s death, but it bothers her that she’ll never know what really happened to her son.
“We all have our theories about how he hit his head,” she says. “It’s like not being able to find your real parents if you were adopted.”
This month, for the first time, Christine is going to meet two of the people who received AJ’s organs. She doesn’t know how it will make her feel.
She pulls out her iPhone and plays a recording of AJ’s heartbeat that was made as he lay dying in his hospital bed.
Up until a year ago, she listened to it every night.
Mia twirls in her tutu; it’s time for Christine to take her to dance class.
Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 22, 2019. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.
Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling