In My Life

Has it really been ten weeks since the last time I wrote anything here? Yes, I believe it really has. It’s true that time flies when you’re having fun. What nobody tells you is that time just flies, no matter what you’re doing. It has the tendency to stretch out unbelievably when I’m in front of a class trying to answer a question – say, about Balzac’s caffeine habits – with arcane knowledge (my possession of which defies both logic and memory). It speeds up when I’ve got nineteen things that absolutely have to be completed by three o’clock. Yesterday. And sadly, that is most of the time.

In these last ten weeks, I have been writing, and teaching, and rewriting, and playing music. I’ve been practicing clarinet, and guitar, and violin, and piano. I’ve been singing, and writing songs. (And of course, there have been meetings – and meetingsandmeetingsandmeetingsandmeetings – and departmental commitments and library trips and not-long-enough afternoons with favorite novels.) And if I haven’t been coming here to write, it’s not for lack of music or thoughts about music. It’s partly because the weeks have melted away. And partly because every time I think about my music project, all I can think is “the year is complete.” December went up in a hiss and a puff, like the sulfur smell of a lit match. January slunk in around the corner of time and then slunk balefully out. February dropped into my lap like one of the stinging caterpillars that live in the trees down here.

And suddenly it is March, and the camellia blossoms have fallen like great crimson heads, the azaleas are exploding into Kodachrome vivacity on every street corner, and the sky out my office window is regularly more blue than grey. 2011, the Year of Living Musically, is officially only a memory now.

*****

Where does memory live? I have heard all my life that scent is the most powerful sense, the source of memory going back beyond consciousness. Memory happens sometimes in laundry soap, or cologne, of early-morning coffee. The play of a breeze across jasmine flowers in the first dew of early-summer dawn. The ocean, the pale sting of salt and the whip of wind and white-frothed water, gulls circling, wheeling, screeing overhead. Pine needles left over at the bottom of a car seat folded down, from last year’s Christmas tree. Baby powder. St. Ives aloe lotion. The smells of last things, breath, tears, even the scent of forgetting as scent fades.

But memory lives elsewhere too. I have found it in sound, in the process of weeping over a broken string, the late-night insomniac touch as I caress the back of my violin as if it were a child’s body waking from a nightmare, as if it were the one crying, not me, and I could comfort it. And in the sound of a voice I feared forgetting, Dad’s many voices, teasing or compassionate, angry, teary, his patience tested, or biting back laughter from a joke I would not get.

The Mozart clarinet concert. Bach on the oboe. Dvorak on the cello. Fingers on the piano, in the darkened rooms of a house filled with waiting or sleep or loneliness.

I had forgotten so much. Music has opened a door to some of it, a side gate to some more, a window to the rest. Mostly, I have learned, I have a lifetime to remember. And a lifetime to remember it with. And a voice with which to sing it, to call it forth again.

I had my Dad’s grand piano shipped out to Louisiana. The day it arrived, I sat at the glossy black bench and stared at the keys. Could I even play it, here? Is this the life for this instrument? Can I ever call it “mine,” or will it remain “my Dad’s piano” forever? I set my fingers on the keys and began to play without thinking – and the music that came forth, the first thing played on the piano my Dad chose with care and research and hope and love, was the song he wrote when I was born. Fanciful chord progressions, melancholy cadences, a cascade of major and minor that almost remains unresolved. And the change from B minor to E major, the trick of a replaced pinky finger in the left hand, the place Dad always caught himself playing the wrong chord and grumbled under his breath … I heard my whole life, my whole soul, in those notes. A gift, every weird breath and fumble and arpeggiated harmonic cadence.

The Year of Living Musically has ended. Typing that sentence just brought tears to my eyes – unbidden, uncontrollable. Every day away from 2011 feels like a step away from the moment during which I was that close to Dad, and to my own unbelievably weird and cool project that brought him back to me, a little, in the first rush of heartbreak after his death. I have not written the words before today because I did not want them to be true.

But not saying them does not mean time stops. It is 6 March 2012. I sit at the desk in my office, staring out the window for a moment. The tree between my building and the next department sways in a sudden breeze, revealing a dozen indescribably different shades of green. I find myself wondering – with the Year of Living Musically over, what do I do now? Even, who am I? The work and art of music, its logic and its lilting, its possibilities and the ways it changes you, has become so much a part of my life that with this year over, I feel adrift. Unmoored. Alone, all of a sudden.

But I realize that I have done more than walk through the days and weeks like a tourist. I have taken a little bit of the music up into myself. It is in me. I am in it. I carry it, wear it, breathe it, in the words I choose and the way I hear the steady hum of the air conditioner (a low-frequency F) and the understandings that wash over me as I move through space and time … Music is who I am. It is who I have always been.

I am a musician’s daughter. A writer. A teacher. A sister, a daughter, a friend and mentor. And I have become, am always still becoming, a musician. I am alive, and as Marie Howe wrote, this is what the living do. I am living, and I remember you.

*****

I dreamed last night that Dad was alive.

That it had all been a joke, a fake, part of a bigger plan. I was shocked.

“But I saw you,” I told him dumbly. “I closed your eyes. I watched them cover you with a sheet.”

He laughed, and I grew furious. “Are you kidding?!”

All the months, the heartache and grieving and the confusion and how we never truly healed, and the things we fought over, the stupid things like who gets that green glass bowl or the “Beethoven’s Fifth” bottle opener (I could just hear my grandfather saying “yuk, yuk”). The bleak mornings with no color. The shroud over everything and the various ways we found to prick holes in it, so we could at least breathe, if nothing else.

And after the anger came a wave of grief even deeper. Because of all I had left undone and all I had done wrong, every harsh or impatient word, every time I said “fuck” too loudly, every unkind word or impatient gesture – because you want to think that when you lose a piece of yourself, a piece of your heart, the rest of you becomes more attuned to other people’s fragilities, other people’s pain.

Sometimes it does.

Sometimes you are just struggling to wade through the morass of the day.

“What are you so upset for?” he asked then, in his most provoking voice, half petulant, half magnanimous. “Would you rather I was gone?”

“What?! Of course not.”

it’s just …

I think, Daddy, I can finally breathe without you, for real. I have started imagining my life, for the whole rest of my life, without you in every day. It has started to feel normal. I think I might just get through it OK. And I don’t know if I can lose you again. I think it might break me.

“It’s just … I have done so much, since you died. The days have been full, bursting with life and grief and more than grief, so much more than grief. Replete. And I couldn’t tell you about it. And now … It all seems meaningless, but I want you to know. To see. And I don’t know where to start.”

He grins, his buck teeth shaping the smile into its familiar quirky angles.

“Rosebud,” he says, in the voice I carry in every cell of my blood, “don’t you know? I’ve been right here, the whole time.”

I woke with tears on my cheeks, a strangled feeling in my throat.

The house in that first bereft wash of grey-rose dawn light hummed and sang. The day, already, at this hour reaching toward morning, full of music.

*****

A last song for the Year of Living Musically : Valentine.

Thanks for being part of my most amazing year.

Love and music,

Romy

A Voice as Big as the Sea

“All my life I thought I was crazy, that I had ghosts in my head or something, simply because I could hear music. And of course, I didn’t know it was music. All I knew was that it was something beautiful, and painful, and right.”
– Lorne, from

    Angel

***

Dear Daddy,

the night after you died, I fell asleep on your black leather couch. My brother and I had worked to move all the hospital furniture and equipment out of your front room, to turn it back into your room. Then we moved the couch back in. We took off some of the acoustic stuff you’d had sprayed onto the ceiling back in the 1980s, that textured white popcorn-like stuff that your parents had had sprayed on, with glitter. Their dining room looked like a pale sea of constellations in the darkness. We never had the glitter at home, but still, when the corner of the couch gouged the ceiling in the doorway to your front room, I felt as though a star had fallen.

Neighbors came. They brought chili, bread, flowers, cheese. Cookies. Some – an artistic, enterprising couple you had always appreciated, the parents of my brother’s good friend – stayed and chatted with us around your dining-room table, the too-small one, the perfect one. After half an hour or so my sister stood and walked to the door, saying she was going to go home and would maybe come back after, that she just couldn’t deal with everybody’s normal.

Everybody’s normal came and went, and we somehow became part of it. We found a different normal, the new world we would stumble into like a discovery, the world we would have to map because every step through its landscape was foreign. And then the neighbors left, and the food went stale, or got eaten, and nobody touched the cookies so we threw them out, and the flowers held on until they couldn’t, one white petal after another falling to the countertop, or the living-room floor. (Suddenly that space seemed so ironic : a living room, holding this waxy bouquet of flowers because you had died.)

I fell asleep, pulling your music-patterned fleece blanket over myself, leaning into your thirteen pillows in various states of cleanliness, breathing in the fragrance that fabric held of you. Baby powder and aloe lotion, sweat and the metallic zing of blood, bland shampoo and Ivory soap. At least three decades of the layers of your scent, like the voice of your own body, saying different things at different times. I fell asleep, and it was as though I had fallen asleep inside you, even though that makes no sense : I felt cradled, and comforted. The lights were on their dimmest setting, the jazz station was turned off, the dog was somewhere else. The hospital bed was gone. The IV pole, gone. The breathing machine, the thing that beeped every time air got into your feeding tube, the awful awful awful smell of medicine and sterility was gone. And what was left was you, and even if it was in bloodstains from fifteen years of gamma-globulin infusions and skin mites, it was you. I breathed it in and faded.

And in my sleep I floated off to where you were, as if I could touch you for real, feel you in my fingers, caress your thinning hair, rub the spot at the center of your forehead that your mother had rubbed when you had your migraines as a kid. I brushed your strong arms with my hands, felt your warm touch on my head, soothing me the way you must have done when I was a baby and could not sleep. I laughed to remember, in this floating dream, the story of my infantile insomnia and you getting up to drive me around the neighborhood, because the motion of the old VW could rock me to sleep. We would circle the block, and then another block, and you would sing or talk to me in a low singsong voice, and I would calm my fussing and drift into sleep. Then you would pull into the driveway and stop the car, and inevitably I would awaken and howl, and you’d turn the key and circle the streets again : Woodstock, Kensington, Main Way. Maybe as far as Gertrude or Silver Fox, on a rough night.

Mom woke me when she was leaving. She had not known where I’d gone, had come down the hall to find me buried in your pillows and your blanket, and had flipped the lights on high and called my name loudly, and the sudden rupture of our communion was like being born into a world of emptiness and bleak loss, a place I never wanted to live. I sat up startled, then crumpled, weeping. You were gone. I had been with you, for ten minutes or twenty or ninety, and then the drifting dream shattered and I had to get up and go on with whatever had to happen next. Whatever it was, awaiting us all the next day, cleaning or organizing, or paying the newspaper six hundred dollars to run your obituary, or deciding what the flowers should look like for your funeral, my God, your funeral, the words didn’t even make sense, and this was the new world and I had to keep moving through it, giving it my credit card, stilling the quaver in my voice, and somehow finding a way to love it even though you weren’t there. Because that was how you lived it, and I wanted to do right by you.

And days passed. And I have found a lot to love. I hope that through this musical year I have managed to do right by you, by what you taught me and what you would have wanted. I don’t know what you would have wanted, truth be told. And it is hard to speak for the dead. Sometimes I don’t have words. I have to borrow them, or let the instrument speak. I’m not always good enough at it. Tonight is Christmas Eve, the second Christmas you’re not here for, and I had too much work to get to California so I’m alone in my house in Louisiana, the house you never saw. I went down to the levee for the bonfires with some friends, and felt a sense of malaise the whole time. As though a piece of me was missing.

A piece of me is missing. I am missing my Dad. I am missing my family. I am missing the life we shared with you. And I am missing the sense of purpose and hope that came with every new month of this weird, wonderful, crazy, heartbreaking year, every new instrument and every discovery.

I’ve spent the week in a kind of funk, mourning you and wishing for the world “White Christmas” describes in the lesser-known introductory section, the part about blue skies and palm trees on December the twenty-fourth. I stayed here because of work, but also because, I think, I fear going back to California where your scent has faded from even the most stained pillows and I will never have another night on the couch in your front room where I could feel you reaching across time and life and touching me, consoling me about the life you had and lost, and the one I have. Since I could not quite stand the sound of twenty-four-hour Christmas carols pealing through the house, I have been playing bitter songs on the guitar about deceit and desire, songs about love lost, about people lost. It’s hard to feel the Christmas spirit when you’re singing a “somebody done me wrong” song.

So tonight I sang as much as I could – before the tears got me – of the Christmas song that always made us both pause and wipe our eyes as surreptitiously as possible : “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” You heard it as a wartime carol, Bing Crosby in 1943, in the persona of an American soldier on the battlefields of the European Theatre. I heard it as the anthem of my own war with loving the place and people I came from and knowing that my life lay elsewhere. I remember years of Christmases on the couch next to you, holding your hand when Karen Carpenter scooped into a note and back out again, both of us breathing wheezily and sniffling until the final chords dissolved. So here you are, Daddy, a Christmas song for you.

Love and Music,
Romy

***

The Voice

For every other month of the Year of Living Musically, I have had a specific project or goal : discovering an instrument from scratch, challenging my knowledge of an instrument by taking myself in a new direction, or assigning myself a piece of music that could reflect the process of learning to play, as well as the art available for that instrument.

The voice is different. Every day since I officially ended Guitar Month, nearly halfway through December, I have sat down in front of the computer or the video camera, and made a recording. I have sung pop ballads, rap choruses, Christmas carols, Romantic lieder, Gregorian chant melodies, and of course showtunes. And I have erased every recording (except the rap chorus because it cracked me up, and no, you don’t get to see it), and come to this blank page and sat back and thought – I have nothing to say about the voice.

It isn’t true. I have a lot to say. But what I do have to say is overshadowed by my fear of saying it. I sing all the time : alone in my house, sitting in my office on campus grading papers, driving in the car with the windows down, wandering through the aisles of the supermarket, while running on the treadmill, at church even when the rest of the congregation mumbles or remains silent, in my choir … my head is full of songs and lyrics that punctuate my days. I love to sing, and most of the time I think I’m pretty good at it. Not opera diva quality, but enough to make someone reconsider me when s/he thinks s/he knows all there is to know. I love to sing. The thing is, I kind of hate my voice. No, not hate. Fear. I kind of fear my voice. Fear letting it ring out completely free. Fear where it might take me if I let it take over.

I have sung all my life. When I was growing up, the girl down the block and I used to tie kitchen towels around our hair and act out The Sound of Music in my front yard, with the record player spinning faithfully and the window thrown wide open so we could hear the accompanying orchestra from inside the house. (Sometimes we did this on roller skates, which added a whole new dimension to “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?”.) I still remember vividly the day I finally hit the high sustained note in “Climb Every Mountain.” It felt as though a door had just opened in my brain, to the world, and stepping through it brought a new level of possibility to the world, like a shimmer. Then, telescoping forward through time, there was the year in grad school when my choir sang the Bach B-Minor Mass, and I understood how to reach the high D in the alto line in “Sanctus.” I heard my own voice belling out around me like a whirlpool of light, and the sound grew and swelled. I had never heard myself that way before, not in that register. It was exhilarating. It changed me.

At the same time, I have years of memories of performances that my Dad attended, when the high-school choir would perform complex choreography to medleys of James Taylor or the songs from Footloose or Bye-Bye, Birdie, interspersed with solos when one hopeful Southern California golden child after another got up and belted out the latest Madonna hit or a tear-jerking Christmas carol. Sometimes that kid was me, on the stage, only I never felt golden. Trapped and self-conscious, I stood in the pool of the spotlight terrified that I would forget my lyrics or lose my footing or, God forbid, have my voice break (a fate worse even than farting). Given the number of performances we did, statistically there must have been a time when I let go and enjoyed singing on stage. I don’t remember it. I don’t recall ever forgetting myself enough to stand there and, simply, have fun. I was always too afraid of getting it wrong somehow, of hearing myself go nasal or flat or hiccupy or forgetful or whatever. And in the car on the ride home Dad would kvetch about the fact that we never sang classical music, and then he would offer criticism. Of the performance, of my performance. Other kids’ parents brought flowers, hosted cast parties. My Dad brought knowledge about how to be a better musician. And he never seemed to realize that his comments took all the air out of the evening for me, so that the next time I stepped into the oval of light in front of the microphone I was even more afraid of screwing up.

It feels like betrayal to say, but my happiest performing moments probably came during the summers, up the mountain at Arrowbear Music Camp, because I could sing my heart out in front of other musical kids on our Tuesday- and Thursday-evening talent nights and know I was safe. Dad wasn’t there to hear me.

This changed in grad school and, later, when I lived in France and conducted a choir, and later still, when I came back to Boston and sang the Tenebrae for Holy Week, and later than that too, when I moved down to Louisiana and auditioned for the Symphony Chorus and we performed Handel and Bach and Rimsky-Korsakov and Verdi and Orff. All I wanted, those years, was for my Dad to come hear me sing. I wasn’t afraid anymore : the choir was good, better than good, and I had found my anchor. The song moved through me, fixing me inside the music the way a lightning bolt would nail a person to the ground, and while onstage all I was was music, sound like fire. One year I had a solo in Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. But Dad was too stubborn, and then too ill, to travel for the concerts. I sent him CDs he never listened to. I called him from rehearsal, every week, during our 15-minute break. I would walk outside into the steamy Louisiana night, and press the buttons that pulled up Dad’s inimitable “Rosebud!” when he answered. Minutes would tick past and I’d catch myself grinning as I talked about the struggle for an in-tune soprano unison, or the one bass who sounded like Kermit the Frog and never could blend, or the conductor’s little jokes – about “hairy alto sound,” for instance. Dad would give his wheezy chuckle, a short bark of laughter that led to a coughing fit, and I’d look back at the door to the music building, over which hovered a chorus of tiny white-bodied night insects, and we would tell each other “I love you” twenty times apiece and then I’d dash back in, hanging up as I took the stairs two at a time, scurrying breathless to my seat among the other Alto 1s, thinking what a luxury it was to run and make myself breathless as my Dad struggled for air, as we launched back into the evening’s rehearsal piece.

I am carrying all of these memories with me, the bittersweet and the breathless, the hard and the holy. So my goal for Voice Month is not to perform anything in particular, but to sing a multiplicity of things that I love, in different styles and with different backgrounds – classical, rock, folk, Broadway (the answer is still no about the rap chorus). Because the most important difference about this instrument is that I cannot simply say “the” about it. This is not an absolute, nor a televised singing game show. This instrument is intimately, intricately, mine. And more than the process of learning to read sheet music or a new clef or developing better finger technique or even a new way of breathing, the main thing I need to do with this instrument is let it sing. Accept its limitations and open myself to its offerings, its possibilities. Because though I’ve carried it with me all my life, we are still learning each other.

To begin with, since December is the beginning of the liturgical year and full of gorgeous somber traditional music, I recorded some Gregorian chant : a favorite Marian hymn, the “Ave maris stella.” I did this on 17 December, and so combined one of the great “O” antiphons into the verses of the hymn as a separate track. In the recording, you’ll hear my voice amplified and reflected back – Gregorian should not be a solo venture, but sung as part of a communal celebration. So I did what I could – Garage Band helped – to increase the number of mes singing. And since I made only an audio recording, I decided to set the music to a little photo-anthology video. The photos come from monastic settings and secular places on my map of the world; they represent Christmas and winter (on three continents), along with scenes of holiness from any season, scenes of beauty. The sacred is all around us at all times. That’s part of the Advent message, I believe – learning to see the numinous qualities of every leaf, every spark, every stone, and in every face, every sound, every voice.

Qitaar

One morning in November my Arabic teacher gives us the word qitaar, train. The word is a gift, a small basket of noise that means something, each element glittering with newness. It sounds like “guitar,” only different : the beginning harsher, the final vowel darker, the closing “r” hushed and rolled instead of round. I practice pronouncing the glottal sound of the “q,” the long dark “a” at the end, the rolled “r.” Qa, I mutter over and over, all afternoon. Close the throat. Force air through the lock. It should stop and click, before forcing forward into a vowel that comes from a very different place than anywhere anything lives in English or French. Qa. And then change the vowel, trying not to choke on it : Qi. Add the second syllable. (Look in the mirror as you do this, despite the sense of humiliation at your own pulsing throat muscle, despite the vulnerability of sounding like a person trying to relearn the capacity of speech after a brain trauma. Those strangled sounds are how you learn, remember; how you discover.)

The teacher talks about trains. They used to be his passion, as a boy. He wanted his own sons to share the passion, but it is difficult in the United States. Most people only ever get as far as the train that runs in a circle around the Christmas tree.

Sitting in the classroom, surrounded by 20-year-old International Relations majors who absord and repeat these Arabic gifts every day as if it is a joke they’re all in on, I am suddenly in tears. In my mind : my Daddy, kneeling on the dark-brown living-room carpeting to snap together sections of LGB track. It is Christmastime, my brother is 8 or 9, and Dad has invested in more track this year so he can help my brother set up an elaborate train system : around the living room, under the dining-room table, through a loop behind the tree. His voice is high with excitement. I watch from the doorway, home from college and hovering outside this boys’ afternoon. Dad’s hands are strong and firm, his fingers skilled and deft. Years of clarinet musicianship have given him the dexterity to manipulate the tiniest metal catches. My brother laughs and shrieks in delight when the electrical connection lights up and the train chuffs to life, picking up speed as it rounds the curves of track, getting stuck occasionally on a thread of carpeting, then righting itself. Dad cackles his triumphant “ha-HA !” and smacks his palms together the first time the little locomotive completes a full length of the course they have laid out. Christmas lights – in the era before LED, before miniatures – twinkle placidly from the branches of Noble fir.

Years later as he lies in a hospital bed struggling for breath, Dad will tell me that he loved being a little boy because of the time he got to spend with his own father, who got down on the ground and played with him. “You did that too, Daddy,” I remind him, but he shakes his head slowly. “My Dad was like a kid,” he says, “Everything was a discovery for him.” I smile at him and say I see no difference, then lean down to kiss his forehead. I lean my cheek against his head for a long moment, wishing – not for the first time – I could soak him in through my pores, every memory, every sensation. I am already afraid there will be a day when I stop seeing him clearly. I am already missing him, weeks before he dies.

A month after Dad stopped breathing, my brother starts receiving large boxes shipped from various places in the USA and UK. They contain train parts for the old LGB set, which he has pulled out of the cupboard Dad built in the family room and set up across the (now hardwood) living-room floor. As his design gains complexity, looping all the way around the couch, under the dining-room table and out to the family room and back around the base of the Christmas tree, I feel ghosts in the room. Dad stands thoughtfully stroking his chin and suggesting improvements to the design. My brother himself sits next to the tree, studying the patterns of track and electric connections, weighing down certain cars so they won’t tip over on the curves. And I am there, too, myself at 19 or 20, watching from the doorway into the hall, wishing I knew more about trains.

I blink and blink until my tears recede. I have successfully fought the urge to raise my hand and tell my Arabic teacher about my Dad and trains. I think he would appreciate the story. It has all the good elements : fathers, and sons, and physics, and the art of freight. But this is not the moment, and I don’t trust my voice. Instead, I close my throat and practice saying, Qitaar.

It is a year and six weeks since the day Dad died. Four hundred seven pages torn off the only calendar I’ve ever been faithful to.

Guitar Dreams

Strange things have been happening in my house. The air is charged with melodies. I hear them throughout the day, humming in the background as I wash dishes or type on the computer. And objects have been changing places, as if the things themselves had come to life. At first I blamed their random relocations on the kittens who have taken over the house in a swarm, and who frequently appear in one room or another carrying things in their tiny mouths that I had believed lost : a pink sock, for example, last seen in 2006, suddenly reemerged in the living room three days ago, trotted out by the tiny calico I have named Hermione (for though she be but little, she is fierce). I gaped at it blankly, my jaw hanging open. Guess I should not have given away that pink sweater set, I muttered, to nobody in particular. The kitten, perhaps.

Several weeks ago I got an email announcing that an article I had submitted had been accepted. I wrote it about my grandfather’s service as a musician in the U.S. Navy during the Second World War, based on his correspondence with other musicians. I needed to revise certain sections of it, and needed the letters in order to verify what I had written back in 2010 and double-check all the quotations. Only, I could not find the letters. A stone sank to the pit of my stomach : had I lost Papa’s letters? I ransacked home and office, emptying bookshelves and filing cabinets, disturbing the rest of a large and subsequently bisected cockroach. No letters. I wrote to colleagues, friends, all over the country, hoping against hope that I had – in some bizarre moment – sent the letters off to someone else for safe-keeping. Nobody had the letters. And, worse, the photos I had taken of them two years ago had disappeared from my hard drive. A friend recommended that I focus on other work for a while, forget about the letters. I tried to distract myself, but to no avail. I could almost taste their papery smell, that scent of old wood pulp and bleach, my grandmother’s perfume, and something like leaf mulch, an organic oddity that made their age all the more poignant. Weeks passed. One night, late, I heard a kitten mewl plaintively in the kitchen. They like to jump up on these large boxes I had not yet managed to unpack, and one of them had got stuck in the open part of the packing tape : he looked like Winnie The Pooh stuck halfway in and halfway out of a box of old mugs. I pulled him out and ruffled him gently, set him on the kitchen floor, and then pulled the tape all the way apart to avoid future kitten casualties. At the bottom of the box a glimpse of paper flashed, and I pulled the box flaps down so I could investigate. Pulled out an old newspaper, a file folder containing the programs from Dad’s funeral, and the plastic archival folder holding my grandfather’s letters. I stared at the turquoise folder as tears popped into my eyes, partly in surprise and partly because I knew this was a communication. Here they are, Rosebud, I heard my Dad saying. See? Nothing is lost.

And this morning as I sat at the computer sipping my coffee, the living room began to echo with the unmistakeably tinny sound of a music box. I don’t have a music box that plays “The Entertainer,” I thought. Then remembered : the hammered-copper geometry of a miniature piano, with a copper figurine holding a book of music in one hand and a beer mug in the other, which I’d found in one of the innumerable boxes I shipped here from Dad’s house. But I had not wound the music-box up, and no kitten had passed through the living room at an altitude that would make its sudden song make sense : it sits at the edge of a high bookshelf, its wind-up mechanism too close to the wall for casual bumping, even if a kitten managed to clamber all the way up there.

A hundred, five hundred, five thousand California evenings floated to the surface of my mind : that moment when, after dinner and the McNeil/Lehrer News Hour, Dad would stand up in the living room, stretch, and pad his way out to the piano. Snap on a light over the keyboard and sit down, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose, peering at an old book of simplified Scott Joplin tunes. The familiar D-D#-E-high C melody would plod slowly out from beneath his fingers, and inevitably he would make a mistake in the second or third measure (in the left hand, the switch to a minor seventh harmony, or else the accidental F#). He would grunt in amused exasperation, start over, and tickle the song meticulously from its hiding place behind the black and white keys. And then give it a lavishly uncomfortable ending chord, like a G# minor with an augmented sixth, and cadence into one of his own compositions, whose notes – weirder, less familiar – came more readily to hand.

OK, Dad, I said to the room, raising my eyes and looking slowly from object to object, surface to surface. I’m listening.

It may sound improbable, but these moments are like my Dad leaving me little messages. I went in to my office on campus with a heart full of peace, and ragtime in my steps.

***

October 2011

I have been dreaming of my father. It is not quite a year since he died. Sometimes I catch myself imagining the biological processes of decomposition going on inside his coffin. It is not horrifying. And I find myself wondering about this flatness in myself. Have I watched too much CSI? I have no fear of the exposed jawbone, the roots of the teeth. The pushing roots of hair. The thick fingernails – a split like a scar down the right-hand index. I force myself to imagine everything I can. Shreds of flesh against the femur.

We did not have him embalmed. (Would his stomach have exploded by now, filled with the gases of death?) Doctors spent 35 years flooding his bloodstream with chemicals to fight the rare disease that ultimately claimed him – or rather, did not claim him, but diminished him to the extent that something else could. (What happens to the heart when it stops pulsing inside the ribcage, second to second? What shape does it adapt, as it lies deflated against bones that no longer hear its singing? How long does it take for a heart to dissolve against the bones of the chest and leave only the cavity that held it?)

“No more crap,” we said. We did not want that done to his body. We wanted to keep him as whole, as natural, as we could. The funeral home charged us for refrigeration.

Dad’s first nurse told me she had flown to Côte d’Ivoire after her brother passed. Those are her exact words : “I flew to Côte d’Ivoire after my brother passed,” she said. “I had to do everything.” A pause. “I dressed the body.”

(I thought of the clothes we had chosen, my sister and I numbly sifting through Dad’s closet of patterned shirts on dry-cleaner hangers. When did he do this? we wondered. He had fallen ill with pneumonia in July, had barely left the house after that – except to go to the hospital. We chose a dark blue shirt with a batik motif of pale green exotic leaves and flowers. Dark jeans. Fresh boxers. Socks and shoes.

“Daddy always wore shoes,” my sister said, thumbing a tear out of the corner of her eye. I pictured him coming down the stairs early in the morning, his jaunty gait, the way the steps resounded with each footfall. “No matter what, no matter how bad he was feeling or if he had to go out or not. He got up, got dressed, and put on his socks and shoes. Because that’s just what you do.”)

I told his nurse : “I would have liked to dress him.”

She looked at me sideways, shaking her head.

“Nobody needs to see that, sweetheart,” she said. “You don’t know what you’re wishing.”

But I did.

The first dream : we are a family. We are a family at lunch. It is summer. We stand in line at Burger King, the one on the boulevard, where all the soccer players go after practice, where the ballet girls do not eat the salads their parents insist they order. The one where Dad used to whistle Mozart, my brother on the melody, Dad doing a descant for “Rondo Alla Turca,” while my sister looked away and pretended to belong to other people. Silent people. Soccer people. We stand in line, plastic trays already making grooves against the tender flesh of our forearms. It is just like a summer afternoon from my adolescence. Only : I am 40, my sister 35, our brother 30. We go up to the counter one by one to order. Nobody pays : we know Dad will pay. (Does anyone else carry the sense of uncertainty? Does anyone else wonder if they should buy their own fries and shake? Or does that precariousness belong only to me?) Dad looks at each of us slowly. His words come as though underwater. Each syllable protracted, stretched. Rippling. He tells my sister she has done a good job with managing the trust. I smile and nod in her direction : See, I knew Dad would be proud of you. He tells my brother to get a job. I keep my smile to myself. To me he says nothing. I feel deflated as a teenager, leaping with my hand in the air to get my favorite teacher’s attention. I am invisible to my father, in a dream about my father, in my own dream.

I wake disoriented and spend the rest of that day groggy, feeling lost. Every night when I get into bed I pray to fall back into that same dream : that sunny California afternoon with the scent of mown grass sweet in the air, the gentle fatigue of feet and calf muscles and the familiar colors and textures of the place where I knew what my Dad was thinking. Most nights I sleep with no memory.

And in the daylight I dream of a body slowly falling apart. Press a hand to my own chest, because some days I can’t be sure I’m still intact.

***

Guitar Month has brought a wealth of discoveries to my musical project, not all of which I can put into words. Or rather, I can put them into a single word, which encompasses them vaguely : confidence. Ever since I first picked up my grandfather’s old battered guitar in college, I’ve had the problem of “dead finger,” when a note comes out twanged or strangled, as if the finger lies dead against the string. As I have worked with Frederick Noad’s book and practiced chord changes and various fingering patterns, this month, I think what I have learned is that the problem is not that the finger hits the string too heavily; rather, it’s that the finger lacks decision on the string, and does not press down hard enough. Sometimes, an accompanying problem is that my left wrist or the heel of my left hand has been hitting the edge of the string. But a solid month (plus) of practicing classical guitar has taught me better hand-posture, better control while fingering. And given me more confidence as I pick up the instrument and strum a chord.

I’ve made a lot of progress in learning to read sheet music for guitar, as well. It is sometimes surprising to me, how simple it turned out to be once I had a method for learning it. But there you are. The other day, I was practicing something, and found myself talking through the chord position I was doing not by saying “one-two-four,” indicating where the fingers fall in relation to the frets and strings, but by saying “F-sharp on the low e string, then the open a, open d …” all the way up the chord. It was a thrill.

I get the same thrill when I hear my chords bell out clear and picked arpeggios ring out solidly, each note just what it should be. Part of what comes from intensive practicing is learning how to understand – and, if not control, at least work better with – the strings’ action, too, so notes don’t randomly buzz with an unexpected and jarring sforzando.

It takes a lot more than a month to play guitar well. But Guitar Month has been a tremendous gift, and an adventure, for me, musically and subconsciously. I have begun to play guitar more knowingly, with greater attention and intention and understanding of the way it works. This month has given me a foundation on which I can build as I put this instrument down – and when I pick it back up. And in November, my Dad came back to me in dreams. These have not all been good, but his mere presence there helps me understand things about my relationship with him, and the permanence of both life and loss. It sounds like a paradox, but somehow dreaming of my dead father brings him to life for me. I open my eyes to a life continuing, and a legacy that lives on in every chord I play, every note I learn, and the process of learning it.

***

We are seated at the dining room table, the tiny one Dad calls “perfect” even though it takes an effort of geometry and patience to fit us around it. We are in the present day, it is early morning, I am visiting California. Dad has come downstairs with his usual energetic step, his shoes tap-tapping the hardwood floors. I hear him on the stairs and come out of my bedroom, the little one at the back of the house, which he redid to have a guest room : deep grey-blue walls, rich dark-red curtains and comforter, his mother’s antique mirror. An old pipe stand that I think belonged to his grandfather. He has already turned on the radio in his front room – classical KUSC this morning, and as I stand in the doorway breathing in the fresh light morning I realize I recognize the music playing : it is the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Glück’s Orfeo ed Euridice, which I learned to play on the clarinet during the first month of this Year of Living Musically. I shake my head, confused. How can I remember something that belongs to the year following Dad’s death, when here Dad is? Carrying his steaming coffee mug, grunting a sarcastic “Hey” at Dexter, who has taken Dad’s place on the black leather couch, balancing his clipboard with the daily crossword puzzle against his knee and thigh. The house is full of him. I blink, and we are sitting at the dining-room table again, which is also covered with copies of his death certificate, and Dad is sipping coffee and spooning oatmeal into his mouth and I am shaking the morning’s bewilderment out of my eyes. How is he here? I decide I don’t care. Decide to make the most of this moment.

“Daddy,” I say, “Let’s go for a walk with Dexter this morning. It’s a beautiful day.”

“Hey now, you,” he says. “Let a guy finish his breakfast.”

I put my hands up, placating. “OK, OK. It’s just that …”

He looks up.

“I want to tell you how much you mean to me,” I say, stumbling on every syllable. It is an awkward thing to say, first thing in the morning, and the spoon stops halfway to Dad’s mouth.

He gives me his classic gape and non-understanding sound. “Hunh?”

“One day,” I start again, “You won’t be here. And I want to be sure I have this moment to remember, so I can look back at my life and know that I told you how important you are to me. How much I love you. How much you’ve given me, and inspired me. And to say thank you.”

Dad stands and places the oatmeal bowl on the floor for Dexter, who laps up the leftovers in quick snorts.

“Did you hear me, Daddy?” I sound pleading, and hate my voice like this. But the moment could fade at any second, and I want to know I did everything I could. Said everything I want my Dad to hear. A lifetime of I-love-yous and thank-yous that too often got pushed to the side in the hurry to do something else, be somewhere else, be someone else.

“Sweetheart,” he says, turning from the sink, silver water splashing over his fingertips and the scabs on the back of his hands, these little wounds that never seem to heal, “I know.”

That’s all I want. It’s all I get. The alarm goes off, the radio playing Saturday-morning Bach, and I realize as I climb forward out of sleep that my cheeks are wet, I am crying. California fades into the chill of a Louisiana December, Dad and Dexter are gone again, there is no sun in my morning windows. I get up, put on yesterday’s jeans and a red pullover, pull on socks, shove my feet into clogs. This is what it’s about too, as Dad knew : you get up, get dressed, and keep going.

“I know.”

As I wake up and make the first motions of what will become another full day with/out my Daddy, I hope it was true.

Goodbye To You

A year ago on Thanksgiving, I sat with my family around a table none of us really understood. It was Dad’s table, the always-too-small one that he called “perfect” with a smirk, the one at which we had seated eleven and twelve people even though it was made for four. We extended it with a second makeshift table, covered them both with cloths and some ancient candles in the shapes of brightly clad pilgrims that we found in one of the drawers of the hutch.

“Remember these?” my sister asked, holding up a miniature pilgrim boy with a tall black hat, and a miniature pilgrim girl with an apron and bonnet.

“What do you think, 1978? 1979?” I replied, and we looked at their smudged faces, white as the people-figures in our history books would have been, as no agricultural émigrés’ faces would have been.

We set them on the tablecloths, one per too-small table, and I wondered if this year would be the year we actually held a match to their perfect wicks. If this year, of all years, they would finally burn.

We put the technology on music and football and Caillou for my niece. We sat in front of the fire, taking turns with our backs directly in front of the flames my brother and his girlfriend had coaxed into existence with poking twists of newspaper. I sat there, eyes closed, until my skin itched from the heat, listening to the clamor of the New York Giants fans on TV and the strains of early Christmas carols coming from the jazz station in Dad’s front room. Eventually, we ate. I’m sure, knowing that I come from a family of cooks and foodies, that everything was delicious. But in truth all I remember is the apple my brother’s girlfriend cut up and that we had as an appetizer. It was crisp and cool, sharp. It cut through the dull, painful haze of the afternoon.

The next day Dad’s friend Charlie drove down and gave my sister and me a clarinet lesson. He taught us about posture, and how to breathe by using your diaphragm muscle to push your stomach out, and hand position, and the positioning of tongue and teeth. We played a slow, lopsided scale, starting from middle C, each note sounding a bit like a honk and a bit like a squeak. And in a way, it is as if my memories of the first year after Dad’s death begin then : that late-November morning with pale light coming in through the bay window, soaking into the floor, and the new discoveries of sound that, somehow, remained possible even in a world without Dad in it. We had made it through the first holiday. We were still thankful.

Every day since then some part of me has relived the moment Dad left us. The gasping breath, the cold flesh, the staring blue eyes. The last words he said to me the morning he died were “No – stay,” and I couldn’t, I had an appointment in L.A. and had to drive and everything took longer than it should have and I got home in time to stroke his head as he slept and I didn’t realize he was letting go. And then he was gone. And I’ve replayed the day a hundred times – more than a hundred. How many days in a year? How many times a day? I’ve replayed the day a thousand times, three thousand times, imagining it differently – and every time, no matter what I change or reenvision, I lift my head to the new world Dad isn’t in anymore and it doesn’t matter, nothing has changed. And for the year and some since that October day, I have carried the memory of my father dying. Lifted his suffering body to my shoulders, into my eyes, felt him grasp at the roots of my hair, and brought his death forth into the world with me like a color. It has been as if that was the only Daddy I had ever known, the one with a bloated belly from the feeding tube and a weak voice and legs with wounds that never healed and a mattress that hurt him in every position and which we had to line with plastic sheeting.

I’m not sure when it happened. Perhaps during the month of October, a month without music, when I dreamed vividly about Dad several times and woke up reaching toward a shape that dissolved in the air, convinced if I had opened my eyes thirteen seconds sooner I’d have caught him. Or earlier, during Violin Month when I wasn’t dreaming at all. But at some point, my father’s dying body fell from me, like a cloak I had shrugged off. And I got a glimpse instead of his living self, at different ages of his life and of mine. I saw him dancing in his Halloween costume – when was it? the year he was a flasher, in a huge brown velour cape which he wore on our driveway? or the year he was a nun, with a piously upturned (and mustachioed) face? the year he dressed as a genie, in shiny blue harem pants and a headband? – across the entryway of the house, cackling to himself. I saw him holding the kitten my college boyfriend and I had adopted and named Neko Chisai (a mysterious appellation meaning “small cat”), nuzzling her ear and making his high-pitched whimpering sound, the way he did with cute or hurting creatures. I saw him rounding the baseball field in his coach’s uniform, trim in his beige baseball pants and red jersey. I saw his gestures, the way he would rub his index and middle fingers together against his thumb when he didn’t have a napkin. (The way he would, alternately, while snacking on peanuts, wipe the salt on his socks.) The exasperated glance he would give the phone, with a sigh as if he were steeling himself, followed by a carefully enunciated, “Hello” that had no question mark. And the way he would shout at telemarketers. I felt his skin – soft at the base of his neck where he liked to be rubbed, rough on his hands that had always worked, dry on his legs – whose warmth seeped upward into my own fingers.

And I began to hear his voice. Not the ill, peevish voice of his suffering, nor the breathy voice telling us how lucky he was as he lay on his back in the CCU, but his Daddy voice, the one that sang “I rock my doll” as he swept my sister up higher and higher into the air, the one that sang “How Could I Ever Know” from The Secret Garden when I came home from grad school with the sheet music and a crush, the one that shouted “OH, FUCK OFF” to the caller from the Press Telegram whose subscription-renewal attempts he had already rebuffed. Extra emphasis on the “CK” and the “FF.” The voice that always greeted me when I lifted the receiver or pressed a button on my cell phone to a call from home : “Rosebud !” – the interval not quite an octave, the inflection perfectly musical. Always punctuated with an exclamation point.

One year and one month ago, I lost my Dad. And at some point in the month after it had been a year since I lost him, I got him back. I can’t explain it ; there was no real catalyst. At first it was very disorienting, and quite hard. I wanted to pick up the phone and dial the number that is still marked “Daddy Peters” on my speed dial. Knowing that it wouldn’t be him who picked up knocked me flat, sucked the air out of me. I sat back and had to bury myself in work so I wouldn’t think about it too much. Thankfully, there is always work that needs doing : papers to grade, articles to revise, emails to send or to answer, students to see. And work at home : boxes to unpack. The dishes to load into the dishwasher, or load out of it. Plumbing to repair. Trim that still, two-and-a-half-years into my life in this house, needs to be painted. Leaves to rake. Music to practice, and to play.

I’ve been doing everything I can. Work, mostly. I found out a few weeks ago that an article I had written about my grandfather’s years as a military musician was accepted for publication, so I’ve been revising and revisiting that subject with emotion. I’m not a historian, and I submitted the paper after a conference at which I gave a version of the talk, and the whole process made me very nervous. I knew that I was working on a topic that would be sacred, and that even more than anything in my primary research focus this article had to be perfect. It made my Dad so proud to know that I was writing on his Daddy’s music. And the process of writing about my grandfather, and a part of his life that I never truly knew, made me better acquainted with Dad, too. And the whole time I fretted that I did not know enough, and that the honor I carried of this invitation should go to someone who could tell this story better.

But I wonder if anyone could. Part of what makes my grandfather’s letters so extraordinary is knowing that he never once, after the war, talked about the war. Music, yes. Family, yes. The Germans who were POWs in Idaho and who helped babysit his son, my Dad, while he was rehearsing the hospital band, yes. But the war itself, and the military … no. It is a buried history, a secret microhistory that doesn’t even appear secret unless you know the silence he guarded about it. And I think, especially after the past year of writing about my Dad and his music and his life and our lives through music, that there is a kind of knowing that comes from outside research, and a kind of knowing that comes from the stories you never realize are important enough to tell. Music carries all of these stories. It carried my grandfather, and it carried my father, and now it carries me, and sometimes the enormity of the role I have given myself in this project hits me and I have to sit back and breathe : I am narrating other people’s art. I narrate their passion and their foibles and their love. And sometimes I don’t have the words for it. I have to rely on chords or harmonies or metaphors or silence.

So I’ve been practicing, and playing. Frederick Noad has been an immense source of knowledge, technique, and help ; and as with so many things before during this Year of Living Musically, I found the book just when I needed it. As if my Dad – my living father, not the dying body, but the vibrant spirit with the irrepressible guffaw and the off-color sense of humor – had put it somewhere I would find it at just the perfect time.

On 22 November, St Cecilia’s Day, I sat down with the guitar and exorcised some anxiety. I started with Carcassi, then practiced some of Noad’s exercises, and then some other chord-based songs. I practiced arching my fingers in order to avoid dampening certain notes (I’ll talk more about this in my next post), and shifting between positions more smoothly, with less self-doubt and more confidence. And then, riffling through the front pocket of my guitar case, I came across a stack of printed chord-sheets for various songs I have tried to play off and on. They are mostly pop, a couple country songs, a bluegrass ballad, some in Italian, some in Greek, songs that have struck me as lyrically and emotionally meaningful over the years.

I played the song below as I realized all I had held on on to, and believed in, and grappled with, and all I have let go of, in the past year. I made mistakes. It was a hard weekend and I was preoccupied, a fact I could not hide when my fourth finger insistently hit the high C# instead of D#. I’m not as good as I would like to be, at either singing or playing. But I played it, in tribute to goodbyes, and to the strength of continuation. This is not a song for Dad – or not for all of Dad. Maybe it’s a borrowed narrative for my dying father and a suffering body that brought me to a more sublime understanding of death, and life, and the song in everything.

That is a lot to be thankful for.

The Six-Stringed Cipher

The thing about the guitar is, you can play it badly for years. “Play” it. Get by. Strum and pick and make it up as you go along, and as long as you sing louder than you play and smile widely while you sing, it — kind of, almost — doesn’t matter. This is what I’ve done since the first time I learned how to form a G-major chord (you know, the one that looks like an improbable claw). Bono once chanted, “All I’ve got’s this red guitar, three chords, and the truth.” I had neither the red guitar nor the truth, so had to make do with three chords. Mine were G, C, and D. And I’ve done the best I could with three chords. I even added three more : A, E, and Amin. Eventually, B7. And F#min. Still, eight chords — of which I could only play three with any certainty — hardly make a person proficient. I’m including pictures in this post, and they make me laugh. Not because of the stripey hair (Hair From The Past), but because of my finger position ! And bad wrist posture ! And the way I am staring at the fingerboard as if an elf might just pop out and point silently to the place I should put fingers down next, since I clearly haven’t figured it out for myself.

Learning to play the guitar for real is a challenge. And what I’m discovering is that what was true for playing it poorly — the way hours can disappear into sound that is never quite right — is even truer for playing it well. The fingerings are less of a mystery, the strings are beginning to make sense, and now that I’ve started learning how to read sheet music for the guitar I even understand why the G falls where it falls (though I have yet to understand the logic of string arrangement that determines a G-major chord will look like a claw).

Yes, I have started learning to read sheet music. It feels like unlocking an ancient mystery, as if I were tunneling through the guitar at Indiana Jones’s side, excavating harmonies and tracking the placement of index, middle and fourth fingers, tracing out patterns that might provide the key to some eternal riddle.

Learning to read the music took a single afternoon. Well, to be honest, in the larger scheme of things, that really means it took about twenty-five years and a single afternoon. I found a guitar method book in Dad’s sheet music back in California, and it has proven a wondrous guide, a Virgil to my dazzled poet wandering through forests of lost chords. It was written by Frederick Noad back in the 1960s. “One note at a time,” Frederick Noad reminds me, as if directing a wobbly-legged child along the path of stones that crosses a stream. He hand-lettered the notes onto stoic staves, even spelled out the little acronyms music teachers use to get children to remember how the notes fall on the staff : Every Good Boy Does Fine for the lines, F-A-C-E for the spaces between the lines. And then wrote out individual staves for each string, organized from the top (string 1, high E) down to the bottom (string 6, low E), with the notes of each string spaced neatly in small scale-phrases so the learner can pick them out and hear how they work individually (presumably, to avoid getting overwhelmed by the guitar’s three octaves and tuning in fourths).

So, today, I played the first thirty-three exercises in Frederick Noad’s book. Yes, that was the first thirty-three. Some of them, the earliest ones, are simple hops from the high E down to the high B, with an index finger pressed down to get a C and make a rudimentary chord. I played a lot of these. Then added a middle finger, a fourth finger, and another string change for a little jig-like melody. I stopped when Frederick Noad had me playing competing melodies, one in the low strings and one on the high ones. One tune at a time, there, Frederick Noad ! I told the book as I started to fold it closed.

As I flipped the back cover toward the front, the corner of a piece of paper caught my eye. It was an enveloppe, paper-clipped into the back of the guitar-method book. Inside it, a type-written letter on the letterhead from the public television station of my childhood, KCET 28, Los Angeles, addressed to my father at the house he grew up in, the one he lived in all through college and graduate school and starting his first teaching job, leaving only when he got married.

Dear Mr. Peters,

Thank you for your letter of March 9th and your request for the instruction book for the guitar which will be forwarded to you shortly.

Regarding the name of the collection compiled by a 19th Century musicologist on the March 9th program, these six pieces are from the Chilesotti collection published by the Columbia Music Publishing Company in Washington, D.C. They are obtainable here through DeKeyser Music Company on Hollywood Boulevard.

Again thank you for your interest in our program.

Yours sincerely,

Frederick Noad

A minor mystery opened before me. I found myself incredibly touched, both by the fact that Frederick Noad had written personally to my father and by this sudden vivid whiff of memory — Dad’s fascination with ethnomusicology, the PhD he decided against, the collection of unusual native instruments in a lovingly hand-built cabinet in the family room, the way a piece of music or literature would get in Dad’s head and he had to write it down, find it at the library, read everything about it. For a moment the loss engulfed me. That whole way of learning, gone. That passion and curiosity, that encyclopedic knowledge, that willingness to ask questions, to write letters, to spend hours with a book or an educational TV program or an instrument. Gone.

What did Dad see on TV that inspired him to write a letter to the public television station — to Frederick Noad himself? What were the six pieces Dad had heard and wanted information about? And who was Frederick Noad?

I typed “Frederick Noad” into my browser’s search box, and discovered he was a premiere guitar performer and educator. Noad was born in 1929 — ten years before my Dad. He died in 2001 (again, almost ten years before my Dad). He founded The Guitar Foundation. He created a PBS series — The Guitar with Frederick Noad — that ran in the mid-1960s, then again in the 1980s (in color this time). Apparently, you can still catch it on PBS stations from time to time. I resolved to look out for it. I felt a certain kinship with Frederick Noad, not just because he actually took the time to write back when Dad wrote requesting information, but because his letter seemed to “get it,” Dad’s fascination with something beautiful and of which the brief glimpse he had caught was not enough. I found Noad’s response gracious and informative. The reply of an educator, of a music teacher. He had this Great Thing he knew about, and he wanted to share it. I found myself thinking that Frederick Noad was probably a lot like my Daddy, and I was terribly, terribly sorry he was gone. Wikipedia says he died suddenly, and that made me sad. He was seventy-two years old, the father of a school of guitar-education, and not nearly old enough to be gone forever. I think if he were still alive I would write him a letter and tell him what I had found in Dad’s guitar method book, the one from Noad’s PBS series, and that the book was in not-quite-pristine condition : Dad had taken care of it, but had used it, and learned from it. Every couple of pages I found a little grid-box, the kind I draw for myself when I can’t remember how to do a complicated chord, and in the box a fingering indication, in Dad’s funny, angular handwriting.

My eyes filled all of a sudden. I wanted very much to tell Frederick Noad about Dad’s handwriting. Wanted to tell him about a lifetime of letters and funny little sketches and encouraging notes on student papers and hand-written lopsided music notes across the printed staves, about lists of mystery novels by a few select authors and jazz setlists for performances and birthday cards that always featured love and pride and appointments in a diary where every other page was a drawing by M.C. Escher, or Georgia O’Keefe, or a painting by Van Gogh, or a World War II airplane, or an odd musical instrument from somewhere in the world where Dad had never travelled except in his capacious listening, in his imagination, as the ethnomusicologist he became in his dreams. I wanted to know what the six pieces from the Chilesotti collection were, what had grabbed Dad’s attention so strongly he actually wrote to the TV guitar-teacher to ask about it. I wanted Frederick Noad to know that Dad had kept his letter. Had kept his book. Had written in it. Had even made a correction : in the “Notes on the Third String” section, page 22, which mistakenly declared “G open, A 3rd fret,” Dad had crossed out “3rd” and written in “2nd.” I could picture the twist of Dad’s mouth as he realized the error and his own cleverness in catching it. It made me laugh out loud, one of those sharp cackling laughs that Dad used to do, a laugh that cut through tears or awkwardness and opened a new door. The laugh even cut through the memory of Dad’s last diary, where every page was filled with doctors’ appointments until, suddenly, they just weren’t. No more appointments. Five months with nothing written, because Dad wasn’t there for the last three months of the year, because Dad was gone.

I decided Frederick Noad is my guitar hero. He taught me in an afternoon what twenty-five years of playing on my own never did, and he did it seamlessly, almost without my noticing as it happened. And he gave me back a piece of my Dad, a way of learning and seeing and hearing and remembering, a way of seeking more. And I opened his book again, and practiced through Exercise 38, one note at a time. And sometimes, because Dad and Frederick Noad had given me confidence in guitar-learning, two.

The Guitar

The first thing I needed to do – predictably perhaps – was clip my fingernails. However, before taking that drastic step, I needed to document the fact that I had any fingernails to clip in the first place.

Weren’t they lovely? I thought so too. Even in length, contoured to a gentle slope around the curving edge of my fingers, and glossy in the light. Possibly the best set of fingernails I have ever had, and I had to cut them.

This occasioned some grieving. My fingernails have been a lifelong source of insecurity : in high school, it was almost a badge of deep personal merit for a girl to have long, beautiful fingernails. My short, stumpy nails, at the tips of short, stumpy fingers, made me want to hide my hands in shame. As if the lack of glossy, perfectly shaped fingernails made me somehow less of a girl; indeed, less of a person altogether. Whenever they have managed to grow out past the barely visible white horizon beyond the quick, I have felt like celebrating. I’ve painted them purple, vermillion, black, silver; have filed them to a point or a breathtakingly arched perfect curve; have scratched more than one back in friendship or pleasure. Because let’s just get this on the table right now : long fingernails make a girl feel sexy. Short, stubby (= string player’s) fingernails, on the other hand, make a girl feel, well, stubby, more Irish-washer-womanly than womanly. So I have gone back and forth between a desperate desire to wave beautifully manicured hands with a flourish, and the equally strong though conflicted desire to cut my nails and not care, cut them to the quick and be the kind of ruddy-faced country peasant who I imagine would not care about such trivial matters as keratin protrusions. If I didn’t type all the time and love creating music with my hands, I would seriously consider becoming a vocalist. At one point I owned a perfect rainbow of nail-polish colors, everything from deep metallic purple to demure pale peach. At another point, trying to reconcile myself to the stubby nail-less-ness of my hand profile, I threw it all out.

So I cut my nails when Guitar Month began, every last one. Then I cut them again, ruthlessly removing even the narrowest sliver of white extending beyond the peach color of skin at the fingertips. I sighed deeply, and picked up the guitar. For a few weeks there, I had really beautiful fingernails.

Throughout the centuries, people have suffered for their art.

But oh, there is no feeling on earth that compares to the feeling of a fingertip flush against a guitar string. The way the first note expands to fill the air around you, the air itself vibrating within a sonority that lies somewhere between metal and breath, the hum that sings before it fades, singing and fading, like the filament of crimson in a sunset gone to indigo as night falls. And then : the way the fingers lift up, hours having passed within an instant, fingers lifting up dented, shaded in charcoal and aching with triumph. The way the sound of the guitar lingers in the dark of an empty room, playing off the corners and against the glass of darkened windows, night pressing in closer to listen.

Unlike any other instrument I know, the guitar speaks the language of darkness, its contours and its shadowed hues, as if the instrument draws its notes right out of the river of time between dusk and dawn. Those hours, indigo-grey and brick-purple, shot through with streaks of silver or gold luminosity, the gentle silk of moonlight and the flash of a streetlamp’s lamé gleam through fog – those hours hold the weight of hope and grief, like the endless arms of a heavy bowl or the lapping succour of an ocean.

The first night, I merely played. And I do mean “play,” in the strictest etymological sense of the term : letting go of goals, letting go of guilt, even releasing a bit the tight grip of expectation and perfectionism that continue to haunt me, I unleashed my unknowingness into a reckless, joyful shout and just had fun. I knew three chords automatically and by heart; I played them, and made up words to go with their progression. Other chords came back to me as I played, so I added them. The progression might have gone something like : G – C – D – A – E – Emin – Amin – ohyeahDsus – andohyeahC7 – G. It sounded weird and promising. The D chord always seems too high when played in first position, but I don’t know any other positions at this point, so I shrugged and played it. Fabulous. The A sounded tinny. I shrugged again. Meh. Overhigh D, tinny A, wonky Emin, strained C7 … it didn’t matter. The only important thing was getting notes into the air. They rang out and seeped into the hardwood. I let them go and played other ones. It was wonderful.

After an hour of playing, my fingertips were swollen and tight from the pressure, and a groove marked each fingerprint like a gutter. I thought of chords like rain, falling into the gulf between street and sidewalk, the channels along rooftops, the worn paths down hillsides where rivulets have formed mineral patterns. This is what guitar music does to the body : it forms deposits that become a part of your physical being. You wear your callouses like a badge, fingertips peeling until they don’t, the harder callouses underneath strengthening so you can slide, and extend, and hammer on, and pick, and strum.

I put the guitar down until the following day, when I pulled out actual sheet music and a tab guide and a book of my grandfather’s on how to play classical guitar. It occurred to me only some seventy-two hours later that, in the thrill of playing, I had not thought about my discarded fingernails once. Not a single time.

My goals for Guitar Month are threefold :

- 1. Learn to read sheet music for guitar and identify where the notes are positioned on the strings. You would think that, as I’ve been reading music since I was four or five years old, this goal would be a minor challenge. You would be mistaken. I learned to play guitar the way many folk guitarists have learned, which is to say, by imitating someone else’s hand position and knowing only a smattering of the actual names of chords. Giving names to the lines and spaces on the staff, and understanding how each finger corresponds to a line or space on each string, requires a kind of mental calisthenics that so far has me feeling breathless, as if I’d just jumped rope for an hour or slammed my solar plexus into the lower of two uneven parallel bars.

- 2. Increase my knowledge of chords and perfect at least one harmonic progression. Yes, that includes bar-chords and things like F, Bb, and Bmin, and means learning a much better technique for hitting the frets at just the right place and developing the confidence to play a progression without staring at my left hand or halting in between parts of a song. So yes, Guitar Month will also feature some singing. I’m nervous about this, and excited too. I’d like to learn to play some things out of first position, too. Explore the upper frets more than I have done up to now, and let their resonances ring out.

- 3. Learn to play Matteo Carcassi’s Étude III, Opus 60. This is my classical goal for Guitar Month. I have loved this étude – might even call it my favorite guitar piece, though that’s quite a tall order for such an amazing repertoire – since my friend Joaquim gave me a CD of Rita Honti playing guitar favorites as a goodbye present when I left Boston for my first faculty job. In the back of my mind, I want to play this for Joaquim. So he knows how his gift has touched and inspired me. And that means I have to play it really well, if not perfectly, because the piece was the reason he chose that CD to give me in the first place.

These may be tall orders, but I prefer to think of them as honorable ambitions. And already, after one week, the guitar has become a close friend all over again, filling my days with the kind of yearning that a deep friendship creates : I can’t wait to get back to it when my working day is done, can’t wait to get home so I can bruise and groove and blister my fingertips. I find comfort in the company of these breathy chords, and the ways they reach and lift and breathe into the room, this room, this ordinary living room, transforming it into a breathing chamber full of the light and logic of music.

A Month Without Music

It was just the way it happened, only it wasn’t, the way dreams are.

I walked into the viewing room. We had gathered in the hallway outside – my mom, my sister and brother, my brother-in-law and niece, Dad’s companion, his caregiver – and a quiet young man in a dark suit opened the door for us. He was respectful, the young man. In a somber charcoal-navy-blue suit with a nondescript tie. I remember thinking that they probably had a dress code, just like fast-food employees, and then I hated myself a little bit, and also had to keep from giggling. You want fries with that? Only, we were in the funeral home. Surrounded by death : its preparations, its mourners, its shell-shocked, its palpable presence. You want flies with that? I bit my lips. There is a fine line between hilarious and hysterical.

We had come to see Dad one last time. The Viewing : to be pronounced in a voice all the way at the back of the throat, a baritone, an intonation. It was noon on a Wednesday, the funeral was Thursday, it was unseasonably hot outside for the last days of October, and inside the funeral home air-conditioning flooded the rooms silently, its cool current the temperature of silk.

We walked in together, variously crying. Holding each other’s hands and clutching the small offerings we had brought : a rhinestone bunny pin, a long letter, a drawing, a poem, a photograph, a driver’s license, a worn baseball glove. One by one we took our turn at Dad’s side, alone, stroking his cheeks and murmuring thanks and promises. The room itself was beige, or ecru, a half-hue, subdued, and curtained in gold, a sedate color with no glitter to it. We were quiet too, weeping and reaching for each other. Hoping, each of us I think, to touch a little piece of someone else whom Dad had touched and find our fingertips brushing Dad himself. As if it had all been a misunderstanding, somehow, or a kind of jest. There you are ! We knew you would be here. Because it was unfathomable that we could all be there together and he would not be with us.

We were mice, the girls kissing Aslan’s face, Cinderella’s birds knotting the terribly untangled lines of an echocardiogram and touching him, his face, his eyelids, his hands, his fingertips, the bruised place – there – the fold of his neck, did they cover that scab with makeup no good Dad wouldn’t want makeup. His Hawaiian shirt open to the second button the way he always wore it, the white t-shirt neatly symmetrical underneath the way it never was. Jeans, socks, shoes. We could not see the shoes. Was he wearing shoes? Maybe they left them off? Maybe they covered his cold feet in the white ball of athletic socks we had brought in, given the shoes to the poor cousin of the dubiously legal guy hired to wash the bodies? We will never know. We will never again see Dad’s feet.

The dream takes over. I stand in the doorway of the sedate gold room, its muted light like a pale hum you can’t pinpoint until you walk out into the air and take huge gasping gulps of breath, what was that sound that color that feeling, the silence, the pressure, the way the walls pulse inwards until you realize you haven’t been breathing, how can you breathe in this pale gold room where every fleck and centimeter of quiet tells you your father is dead, that’s why you are here, he is dead, dee-ee-ay-dee, dead, dead, dead. And the silence chokes you like a hand around your larynx, be quiet be quiet be quiet. You are not to scream. You are not to wail. You are not special. This is not special. There shall be no ululation. Everyone’s father dies. But beyond the dull buzz of that beige door something piles up and buzzes louder, louder, louder, and you have to run run run get out out out but you can’t get out and even if you could it wouldn’t matter, he would still be dead, this is all there is. Gasp in the doorway and feel your head go light as something separates from you, this is the only reality, this gold room and the dead body in the coffin the pretty one you helped pick out, the Hawaiian shirt with a rhinestone bunny pinned to its front pocket. This is all there is.

Daddy?

In the dream I have legs but they only go toward him, not toward the door and breathing and light, and I am standing over him again, staring at his dead face which unreasonably looks thinner than it ever has, as if all the skin were stretched back, and his two uneven teeth will never laugh that horsey laugh again and the rhinestone pin catches a dull overhead light and sends sparks gliding slowly across the room but high, out of my field of vision, everything is slowed down. Tears drip from my eyes onto his eyelids. I brush them off then leave them, it is another offering to send into the eternity of the grave.

Daddy?

I can’t hear you. I can’t hear anything. We are burying you tomorrow. The sentence doesn’t even make sense. Daddy please, answer me, tell me where you are? Tell me it’s better this way, like they say, you’re not suffering anymore. Tell me anything. Tell me about Grandma, tell me about baseball, tell me I ask weird questions. Tell me you forgive me for moving away from you all those years ago and staying so far all these years. Tell me you hear me? Anything? Please?

He sits up, eyes confused as they were the night he had a heart attack in the cardiac unit, looking at me with uncertainty but sure I shouldn’t be there. He sits up. I clasp his hand and weep in joy. He’s sitting up ! It’s a miracle ! I hear us already, back on his black leather couch with the ball game on too loudly in the background, talking about my phoenix tattoo and his Lazarus death, these unlikely returns that connect us, the way he came back to us on a day we all thought we were lost. The bees are in my throat and I want to shout it to my sister, my brother, the whole world pressing toward this gold cold space from the beige hallway, even the young man in the somber suit, but nothing comes. And then Dad turns his blind face toward me, his thin face with the skin stretched back and the mouth drawn tight over those irrationally wonderful teeth, shuts his eyes again and lies back down. I cannot yell “no !” but my throat is full of broken glass. He has said nothing, heard nothing. He is done. He is gone. There are no miracles.

I wake up kicking, trying to run from the nightmare of my father’s rejection. It is five o’clock in the morning. I am in Korea. Dad is thousands of miles and hundreds of days away. I am too tired to cry.

*

If there were no music, I could not get through …
I don’t know why I know these things, but I do.

~ Shawn Colvin

Violin Month ended with a whimper and a broken promise. For the first time this year, I found myself grieving whenever I picked up the instrument. I ran through scales and arpeggios, did the exercises Chris Howes recommends, for agility and smoother bowing and volume and jazzy technique. I took photos of the violin and of myself with it. I played with my classical group and practiced every day, even when it made me cry.

It made me cry. I sat in front of the computer, webcam recording, and wept into the familiar glowing wood of the violin my Dad bought when I was twelve, from my grandfather’s neighbor. It is a Jacob Stainer, a 17th-century instrument, with a beautiful sheen and a throaty tone (though I have always thought my own playing was too thin for it). A contralto instrument, capable of gravelly Dietrich-esque melodies in the low register and breathy lilts in the high one. And on about the 27th of September, I put the violin away. I apologized profusely to it. I just could not play, because playing made me remember innumerable Friday afternoons from elementary school through my senior year of high school in the lesson room at my violin-teacher’s home, Mr Carter talking me patiently through one technique after another, admonishing me to cut my fingernails (and sometimes cutting them for me), giving me instructions on bowing, fingering, expression … while Dad worked a crossword puzzle in the chair behind me. Sometimes, Mr Carter told me just this past summer, Dad would nap surreptitiously, letting his head nod backwards slightly to the far-from-dulcet sounds of a teenager’s adventures in arpeggio bowing. I picked up the violin and remembered the drive down Katella toward Long Beach, past the El Dorado Park straight into a lowering sun, the sky alight with crimson and gold. I caressed the neck and felt his silence as I first learned the graceful downward shift in the second movement of the Bach violin concerto in a minor. Laaaaa, da-dum-da-dum-dum-da-daaaaaaaa … And lowered my head into the curve of the instrument’s back, inhaling as if the wood might hold some echo of Dad’s voice, or his scent, his own breath, the steam from the mug of coffee that always went cold on the end table to his right, as he sat watching the Tour de France or the Angel game, or the latest episode of Bones (his favorite, since he had discovered Kathy Reichs’s novels). I breathed in the violin’s fragrance, that ting of varnish and resin and metal, and wept because it was so much of what I remembered of Dad, and it was so little of Dad. I closed the case.

I’ll be back, I promised the violin. I’ll be back.

And then suddenly it was October, and I was leaving for a conference in South Korea, and barely had the time to finish my presentation, much less play music. On my birthday, which I celebrated in Busan, the host university had a lavish reception with dinner and music — three gayageum players, beautiful willowy young women coaxing melodies from horizontal harps, some with twelve strings, some with twenty-five. One of them sang. I was transfixed. The music had an endless quality to it : the melody would reach a certain cadence, and I was sure it was about to resolve, and instead it transformed, turned the ending sound into a new beginning and curled the initial theme through this new pattern, until I no longer knew where it had started, only that I did not want it to end, that I wanted to follow it wherever it led — across the starless sky, into the ocean, past the gleaming lights of the rainbow bridge, into the hillside forest where an ornate temple wept silent lotus flowers from every beam as carved wooden fish painted orange and blue and gold basked in the newness of pilgrim souls in very grain of rice in a 20-kilogram sack brought as an offering. When the gayageum music ceased, I looked up dazed, uncertain where I had been, knowing only I had found something of myself there, something I did not even realize I had misplaced.

There was a table with tiny cakes on it. I took one, a square of raspberry foam that exploded with flavor then melted away like champagne. I ate it alone in my hotel room, after the banquet, and smiled. One year ago, my Dad was still alive and had called me from the hospital. He left a message to wish me a happy birthday. A year later, I had no father, but I had music and myself. In a way, Dad was in Korea with me.

I returned the following week, and realized I had no instrument ready to go for October. In fact, I wasn’t quite sure I was done with Violin Month, so I had left it hanging and not planned something new. And the days evaporated in a haze of trying to recover from the worst jetlag I have ever experienced, plus a family visit, plus a party, and classes to plan, and essays to grade, and books to read because I was teaching them, and one morning I woke up and it was 21 October, the day my Dad had died. I did not know how I felt. I did not know how to feel. How do you celebrate the anniversary of a loss? And then it was a year to the day since we had buried him, and again, I did not know how to feel. How do you honor that day? I stayed at home, feeling sick, feeling exhausted, thinking about the clarinet player who had stood up at Dad’s graveside and played “Memories of You”; thinking about the Honor Guard and the crisp soldier who played “Taps” on the bugle and handed my brother ou father’s flag; thinking about the hot afternoon and the leaves that still swirled in an eddy on the driveway because, summer heat or not, it was late October. Late October, and Dad was gone, dead, and buried, and we had touched his cold face and sent tokens with him in his polished wooded coffin to be buried, with him, forever : a poem, a photo, a letter, a drawing, a driver’s license tucked into the breast pocket of his Hawaiian shirt, a rhinestone bunny pin, a baseball glove. The month had disappeared, and only distant strains of other people’s music cradled it. I sat at the piano in the dark, gently touchinga pattern of keys over and over again, and then lifting my hand away as if I might burn the piano. I had nothing to say to it. Even my voice has gone raspy, asthmatic, my breath insufficient to carry a phrase to its conclusion. I felt bereft, in a way I had not felt since the day we watched Dad’s life leave his body.

I decided I had been wise to listen to my reactions to Violin Month and give myself some time off from this project. I also decided that it was time to get back to it.

On my computer at work, every day, I’ve been playing a CD of the gayageum. The music swirls and eddies, lifts and falls, turns and curls and expands. It holds time within each fingertip that strokes a string. Endings, and beginnings, and resolutions, and recommencements.

Saturday I went out and bought a set of guitar strings. The girl at the music shop asked if I wanted tie-end or ball-end and what tension and what brand, and I smiled and told her : “I’m a beginner.”

*

from last summer : a fond memory of old musical times, with my longtime friend and violin teacher, Allan [Mr.] Carter. Thanks for the best duet of my life, Mr. C.

The Bug Variations

I’m losing my edge. Last night I returned home from a party after midnight, wondered briefly if it was too late to play the violin for a while. I picked up the violin and felt its familiar smooth scroll, then set it down and went into the kitchen for some fuzzy water. There, I the unmistakeable presence of something else in the room. I raised my eyes slowly from the counter edge and saw a palmetto bug — the Gulf’s polite euphemism for GIANT FLYING COCKROACH (GFC) — sitting contemplatively atop a (thankfully unopened) box of crackers. And perhaps it’s the new silence in the house, the fact that I have nobody here to sing to just now : I talked to the bug. (After a preliminary shriek, of course. I’m not so inured to the entomological life of Southern Louisiana that I can see a GFC without my adrenaline spiking.) I tried cajoling. Come on, now, you don’t want those crackers. I realize you think you want those crackers, but trust me, you don’t. The GFC tilted its shiny mahogany head at a slight angle, toward my voice, then skittered down the side of the cracker box. It sat behind the box, next to a clear vase. I tried bargaining. How about this? You hop down from the counter, and I will simply usher you outside where you belong. I’ll even throw out a couple crumbs of something for you. Promise. The GFC scurried behind the vase. I shoved the vase gently against the backsplash, and the GFC was forced out of hiding. It ran across the remainder of the counter, toward the shelves holding my kitchen appliances. I lost sight of it for a moment, then heard its legs rustling on something — a box of teabags, right at eye-level. I tried reasoning. Now, you know you don’t want tea, for Heaven’s sake. You’re a Giant Flying Cockroach, not Prince William. The box tilted toward the back of the shelf, the GFC lost its balance, and again I lost sight of it. I sighed and pulled out the bug spray. There comes a point when negotiations simply stall. We needed a mediator, the GFC and I. Fortunately (for my team), the mediator came in the form of Raid.

I took no delight in spraying my contemplative companion, however. Over the past year and some, I’ve seen too much of the wondrous in what makes a life to find any satisfaction in ending one, even that of a GFC. And the encounter reminded me of a few things : first and foremost, that it is time to call the bug guy and have him come spray. He brings some super-potent chemical that ensures the bugs have nowhere to hide, inside the house or on the porches; and for a few months after his visit, all insect life is invisible. It’s brilliant. Brilliant, and comforting, and illusory. Bugs, after all, are part of the reality of life in the Gulf States, life everywhere really. They are the uncomfortable underside of a natural economy that makes the world turn the way it does. Kafka knew this. His Gregor Samsa, turning into a hideous scarab, became the locus for everything his family sought to keep beneath the surface : jealousy, disdain, selfishness, shame. His presence in the house unleashed their anger, their humiliation too, that such ugliness could exist right in their midst, could reflect their own ugliness right to their faces, and they couldn’t do anything about it.

Shortly after buying this house, I sat in the living room on my couch. It was late one summer night, and I was hot, and tired. I was teaching a summer class, then coming home to unpack boxes and paint trim. The house seemed perpetually filled with fumes, and full of surprises. I melted into the couch cushion and called Dad. We talked about whatever we talked about — my class, his current mystery novel (he had recently discovered Kathy Reichs, and was outpacing me in reading the Bones series), his health, my research — and suddenly I let out a yell.

“Sorry, Dad,” I said. “There’s a huge gigantic roach running across the living-room floor.”

“What is it doing in the house?” he asked, with undisguised disgust, outrage in his voice.

It’s just something you get used to, in Louisiana, but that’s hard to explain to a Californian who has never come face-to-face with an insect that eats your tax receipts and kitchen towels if no chocolate is available, leaves droppings that you can mistake for mouse poop, and flies from room to room. You learn to wear shoes indoors at all times. I don’t remember how I answered Dad. I do remember thinking that his question held distinct merit, as I grabbed for the broom handle with one hand and a tennis shoe with the other, ready to shoo-and-or-stomp my unwelcome visitor. What do insects ever do in a house? Eat and breed and startle and, well, bug people. They look for food and try to stay hidden, concealed in places we don’t even know exist, behind and beneath and between the elements of the world visible to us and which we interpret as all there is. But there is always more. There is always the piece we hesitate to explore or acknowledge. The part we only learn about later. The things we fear to excavate. There is always something beyond the certainties we think we hold.

Dad loved the natural world, and he passed this down to his children. He could sit in the backyard for hours, working a crossword puzzle in the shade of a leafy ficus tree. When he had finished his puzzle, he would lean back in his lawn chair and watch the yard. The pine tree (later supplanted by a ficus), the lemon tree where a colony of bees hummed at pollination, the way a line of ants would swivel around a small piece of gravel in their path, the hummingbirds who hovered delicately over the fence, drinking from the neighbors’ trumpeting morning glory vine. And the large, wide-branched tree two houses down, towering high enough over our not-next-door neighbors’ fence that we could watch its colors deepen and glow in summer, pale and slip away in winter. Its leaves held four or five different shades of green. Some afternoons, as I sat inside with a book or homework or my violin to practice, I would look into the backyard in surprise to realize that Dad was still outside. Then even more surprise to realize he was awake. That he was contemplating the details of the natural cradle that held him, like a great cupped hand. This was his place, and it marvelled him.

I follow as much of this as possible, in my own life, but I am in possession of a sadly foreshortened horizon when it comes to patience for nature. Plagued with arachnophobia my whole life through, I can only tolerate a moment or two of sitting on the grass, no matter how lovely. Grass harbors spiders, sometimes quite large hairy ones, and the spider race and I have only recently reached a state of détente cordiale — by which I mean that I will not kill spiders outside my house, unless they happen to be extra-large or poisonous. (Inside the house, the gloves come off and the Raid comes out.) But there’s something else, too. Seeing the beauty of multifoliate green, or a budding or fading flower, or a particular curl of vine-tendril, I am compelled to find my camera, or my notebook. I start itching to record the experience, to put my fingers to work in service of its brightness, its saturation, its dew-tipped newness, its nuances. Whether in photography or in words. Something to capture the image, the instant, and remember it later, and share it. So being in nature empty-handed leaves me feeling somewhat anxious. The camera is right within reach ! My mind starts to flip through chromatic vocabulary as I ponder the spine of a leaf or the curve of peeling bark : is that viridian? sepia? ash? What color is birch, exactly? If I write birch-colored will the phrase with its rhythms and hues evoke the exposed flesh of the tree I am seeing?

*

A year ago I flew out to California for a long weekend visit. I had left in August, the day Dad was being moved to a nursing facility where he could do physical therapy two or three times a day. He hated the facility, and refused to ask anyone for help, and the fourth day he was there, a Friday, he got up to use the toilet by himself and fell. He broke his hip. The nurses on-site took x-rays but they were indeterminate. And so they took Dad back to the hospital, where he stayed over the weekend, unable to move because of the hip, unable to have surgery until the doctors rotated back in early the following week. During the days he lay waiting on the surgical wing, he developed a bedsore that went untreated and worsened until it was a Stage IV. The hip surgery was successful and quick, but the recovery was challenged because of the bedsore and because he had lost so many days of mobility. I went out as soon as I could. I felt awful that I’d not been there for his surgery. Long-distance reports from my sister and brother offered only marginal reassurance. When I got there on Thursday night, Dad was sitting up in a wheelchair and scooting himself down the hall using his legs. The left foot got stuck every so often, and he was frustrated with not having full mobility. The weekend was less than idyllic. Dad was in a foul mood. He was in pain. He had to sit up, to encourage circulation in the repaired hip and around the bedsore, but he had no energy to sit up or move. He didn’t want to eat. He didn’t want to drink his Ensure shakes. He didn’t want to do the physical therapy Larry had prescribed. He didn’t want to go sit outside on the beautiful sunny autumn afternoon. He complained about his caregivers’ harshness, about our family presence, about the doctors’ expectations. He wanted to be left alone, and we wouldn’t give him that. I wouldn’t give him that.

Come on, Dad, just one more hand-clench, I urged while he grimaced at the PT exercises. You can do it. Hold on to the counter and pull. Center your feet. Come on, up. Stand up. And down. And up again. The doctor said five times. You can do it. You have to do it.

Oh, for God’s sake, he snapped. I don’t have to do it. I can’t do it. Just leave me alone, would you?

I breathed deeply. His nurse stood to the side, watchful. No, Daddy, I won’t leave you alone, I said. I’m here to help. We’re going to get you stronger. Remember? Come on. Go ahead and be angry, but stand up out of that wheelchair again.

I saw him grit his teeth. Our jaws, a mirror : two bright white curves of bone grinding in unspoken frustration. He grasped the counter and stood halfway up, one more time. I bit my tongue and gave him a hug. Then I went to the store to get ingredients for dinner. I had an idea in mind. I was going to cook something he wouldn’t be able to resist. I bought tilapia filets and fresh cashews, an exotically shaped jar of delicate white-wine mustard, baby spinach and tender white mushrooms. Back at Dad’s house, I crushed the cashews into a fine powder and mixed them with some corn meal. I coated the fish in egg white and mustard and laid each piece in the crumb mixture. I sautéed the mushrooms first, with white wine and a little bit of garlic, then spooned them out of the pan and added the spinach to the leftover sauce. The kitchen filled with wholesome scents, a tang of spice and the honeyed odor of baking cashews. Mom set the table while I filled the plates, making sure Dad got a full but reasonable portion. Dad’s caregiver helped wheel him down the hall, letting his feet work at propelling him forward. It was slow going, and he was grumpy by the time he got to the table.

Everyone complimented the meal. Everyone except Dad. It was too dry, he said. He couldn’t swallow the spinach. I rolled my eyes and determined to let every remark slide off into oblivion. Just eat what you can, Dad, I said. He grumbled something I refused to hear. His caregiver pulled a forkful of fish and twined a leaf of spinach around the edge of it, held it to Dad’s mouth. He ate. I was so thrilled to see him eating that I got out my camera and snapped a picture, then another one. I wanted to remember this, the evening I had cooked something that Dad ate. Even if he complained, he was eating. One of the pictures I took caught both him and the nurse in an unfortunate pose, mouths open, chins at unflattering angles. I showed the back of the camera to my sister and we giggled. Dad muttered something. He took a mouthful of spinach from the nurse’s proffered fork, then spit it out into his lap. My sister joked that we had two two-year-olds at the table, her daughter and her father.

Thanks a lot, Dad said, offended. You know, you all are being very impolite.

Oh, Daddy, come on, we’re just teasing.

He turned toward me the way the velociraptor in Jurassic Park turned toward its prey, his eye flashing. And you, he said. You just want to take pictures of me so you can show them around to everybody and make fun of me later.

I blanched, stared at Dad. Is that what you really think?

Yes. His voice was petulant.

I was stung far more deeply than the comment merited. A voice inside me reminded me that he was sick and hurting, that he didn’t mean what he had said. Another voice — much louder — screamed that being sick and hurting does not give you the right to be nasty to everyone who loves you and is trying to help you get better. That you have been beastly all day and everyone is here to be with you, for fuck’s sake. That yes we are annoying and persistent and silly when we encourage you to stand up one more time, to flex your muscles, to raise your arms, whatever the fuck it is, because you’ve done nothing but complain about it over and over again and it’s the only thing that is going to get your strength back, you keep complaining that you have no strength but how the fuck do you think that’s going to change if you don’t do anything you’re supposed to do? What do you want us all to do? Just let you lie down and give up and die? Not gonna fucking happen. And yeah, I take pictures. I would take a picture of you right now if I wasn’t screaming at you. You know why? Because I don’t get to see you every day. This is what I have to keep you close to me when I can’t be here. And if you don’t fucking understand that, then you know what? I’ll just stay in Louisiana. I flew two thousand miles to be here. I came to be with you this weekend because I love you, you asshole.

That voice smashed into the table with both fists and careened off the dark dining-room windows. It licked the far wall of the living room and touched its fiery tongue to the muted television screen. It seared a swath through the buttery leather couch, jack-booted the loud low piano keys in dissonant intervals, and shot out the door into the backyard where it planted itself in the untended grass like a dagger someone had thrown, tip pricking the earth, blade quivering silver in the moonlight.

When I looked up Dad’s eyes had crumpled and his whole face reflected grief. I’m sorry, he said.

I’m going for a walk, I told the family and stormed out of the house. It was nearly nine o’clock. The streets were black. I half-walked, half-ran down the street I had grown up on, my throat raw from shouting, face burning in shame. My hands were red and swollen from striking the table, all my limbs trembled in rage and sorrow. And I sobbed. I wept as I anger-walked, openly and baldly, aching with hurt, and mourning, and fear. I passed a man walking his dog; he looked at me curiously as I strode past shuddering with tears and barely able to breathe. I walked up the long street that arcs around Dad’s neighborhood like a rib, thinking one block would calm me. One block passed, then two, then three, then ten. I found myself turning near the elementary school none of us had attended. My steps had finally slowed, and the wracking sobs had smoothed out into steady tears. I could not make my eyes stop crying. The night was blacker than I remembered September nights being. I found myself in front of Dad’s house, afraid to go back inside. The light was low in his front room, the room we had converted to a hospital center. I sat on the curb and watched shadows flicker against the lowered blinds. My sister had called and left me a voicemail while I was storming through the neighborhood. “I’m driving around looking for you right now,” she said. “And for the record, I think you said exactly what needed to be said and exactly the way it needed to be said. Dad finally heard it.” I turned the message off and sat in the quiet air until I could see clearly. I felt no elation at having my explosion validated. Mostly I just felt deflated. I thought of the nine hundred better ways I could have said something to Dad. Or said nothing to Dad. I thought of times when I had behaved badly and he had refrained from lighting into me the way I had lit into him. And he was dying. The sentence came unbidden to my mind and once it was there I could not dislodge it. I was losing my father. My Daddy was dying.

I stood up, feeling about a hundred years old, and walked quietly back inside. My brother gave me a hug and a sympathetic look. Mom told me that she had been worried and was glad I was safe. She said Dad had gone to bed, but wanted to see me when I got back. She left and I squared my shoulders and walked down the hall. I heard his radio softly playing Bach, the oboe concerto. He lay on one side, distributing the pressure more evenly so his bedsore would get a break. Next to his hospital bed my brother had set up the buttery leather chair that made a set with the living-room couch, and had set up the little dog stairs leading up to it so Dexter would have a comfortable place to be near Dad. Dexter was curled up in the chair. I sat on the bottom step and watched Dad sleep, trying to remember him in his baseball-coach uniform, the fitted red polyester leggings; or in the suit he had worn when our family rented a limo to celebrate after my sister’s high school and my college graduation; or in his old brown corduroy shorts when we were kids, the only shorts he owned for years (because why would you replace perfectly good shorts?). I tried to see him hale and even a little jowly, his contented belly after one of our mother’s home-cooked dinners, the creases in his shirtless sunburn from the place where his chest folded over his gut. I heard his high falsetto singing to my baby sister as he lifted her up in the air; his quavering tenor trying to follow along in the aria from The Secret Garden when I had just discovered this music and begged him to sing while I played; his almost-breathless intonation, counting down “one … two … three …” before he whistled the first little song Violet would learn to dance to.

Dexter raised his head and looked at me blankly, a growl low in his throat.

I know, buddy, I whispered, stroking his head. I blew it. This is our Daddy, after all.

When I looked away from the dog I saw that Dad had opened his eyes. He looked at me slowly, as if gathering energy for words.

I’m sorry, he said again, and his lip trembled like a little boy’s.

No, Dad, I’m sorry, I said, and felt my eyes fill again. I should never have yelled at you like that. (I’m so afraid, Daddy, the quiet voice went on in my mind. I’m terrified that I’m losing you, and I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know who I am without you in the world. Can you stay long enough to teach me how to be here without you? Because you are my touchstone. You are my anchor. You’re my compass. Jesus, you’re every cartographical, masonic, and maritime metaphor there is. The point is, even thinking the words “lost without you” makes me lost. And I don’t want you to be gone before you’re gone. Can you hear this part, Daddy? I’m scared. I want the years back when I didn’t think you were special. I want to make sure I tell you how much you mean to me, every chance I get, so that when this moment comes I’ll know you know. I don’t want to be sitting here feeling guilty and selfish because I’m so afraid that you’re dying.)

He reached one swollen hand over toward the railing of his hospital bed and I sat on the floor so I could be closer to him.

No more fighting, Dad said, eyes spilling.

Do not go gentle into that good night, I heard. Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.

Yes, fighting, I told him. Just not me. Fight this. Because we need you. I need you.

He nodded. I wiped his eyes with my sleeve, then my own, and we both laughed tearily. The strains of the Bach filtered into our consciousness, the way I used to look up from homework in the living room as the sun began dipping down below the horizon, and suddenly saw afternoon light flicked with gold, the aspect of the world altered as dust took on color and shape. I stayed at Dad’s side, kneeling sideways on the floor next to his hospital bed, holding his hand through the railing. I closed my eyes and leaned against the cool metal bar. Dad stretched his fingers forward and scritched the top of my head, as he would have done with Dexter; as he did when I was a child, home with fever or a cough. My heart felt heavy and flat and full. And when Dad spoke next, it was to comment on the tone of the oboe : That is the most beautiful thing.

The following day he did all his PT without complaint, even stood up and down in his wheelchair. We sat outside, he wearing a t-shirt that read “Musicians Duet Better” and a pair of pyjama bottoms that were too loose on him. On his head, the Harvard baseball cap I’d given him nearly twenty years earlier, when I had first been accepted to graduate school. He drank his Ensure. Mom had a heartfelt talk with him. My sister and I felt hopeful, a little. He’s just clueless, we decided. He’s got to realize that he’s not going to get better if he doesn’t do anything to help himself get better. I sat with Dad late into the night, drinking cup after cup of steaming tea long after he had fallen asleep. I flew back to Louisiana in the morning.

*

A month ago my sister called. Our brother had been hospitalized with a recurring severe stomach problem, and she had gone to be with him in the ER. Walking through the halls of the sadly familiar hospital, she had crossed the path of one of Dad’s respiratory therapists, a lovely mature woman who took extra time with Dad and asked him about his life as a jazz player, his family, his students, his music. Melissa was crying into the phone, her voice broken.

“She said he knew he was dying,” she told me. “He talked to her about it, late at night, when she would come in for his treatment. He would be awake and he would talk to her about it.”

Old age should burn and rage at close of day, I murmured to myself, wondering for the first time how David John Thomas had actually died and if he had gone through a long enfeebling illness beforehand. Did he aspirate his food, even milkshakes? Did his white-blood-cell count just keep mysteriously increasing, until it became clear the body was fighting itself at the end? Did his hands swell, his fingers so stretched and rough with bloat he could not play the clarinet or hold the dog? Did he know his poet son’s voice, did he ever read or hear the famous villanelle? Or was it the kind of poem that could only be written after loss? With absence itself as a sorrowful muse?

“He knew,” my sister insisted. “I didn’t know. I didn’t want to know. But Dad knew. And it’s just so like him. He kept it to himself and protected all of us from the fact that he was dying. He knew he was dying, and he had to lie there all alone.”

He didn’t have to, I wanted to respond. God, he could have just told us. He could have told me. If I’d known he knew, I would have listened to him better. I would have paid more attention. I would have taken the semester off in full so I could be with him. I would never have shouted at him. I would have treasured every second.

But I knew I was wrong, that these thoughts were wishful thinking of the most egotistically revisionist kind. Dad had seen that he couldn’t tell me. My father, who always read me beyond the surface level, heard in my tantrum that September night all the terror and loss I could not express. And he kept his own terror and loss to himself, offering me the one illusion I could accept — that he still thought he could get better. As long as I thought he had that hope, Dad knew, I would be able to tell myself he hadn’t given up, and that would comfort me. When Melissa and I hung up that afternoon, I went outside and sat on my front porch. It was a beautiful afternoon, even at one hundred and four degrees. I watched a squirrel slink upward around the trunk of a tree across the street. A bright green anole climbed onto a leaf nearer the porch and thrust out its throat-bubble a few times when it saw me, then darted away. Dad would have loved that lizard, I thought. I wiped tears away surreptitiously, thankful for Louisiana’s August heat that made it look like I was sweating.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
.

*

Last night’s GFC got me thinking. It so very earnestly, so meticulously, wanted something on the kitchen counter. I didn’t feel my usual horror at the sight of it. Mostly, I felt curious, and then a bit sad. It’s just not as easy to kill something now as it was a year ago at this time. Maybe that’s another thing that so much music does for a person : it brings more of life in, and closer, and makes it more relevant, and more interesting, and harder to isolate oneself from. What was the bug doing inside the house? It made me think of Dad, his fascination with insects and the ways they construct their universe. And it reminded me of some of the things I did not want to think about, as I try to write about Dad : my own ugliness, my own often confused place in the intricate harmonies that make up this world. Music is its own entomological force, sometimes. The ugly notes — the notes I can’t play well even after months, years, of practice, pull on pieces of memory I’d be more comfortable keeping buried. The music brings memory to the surface, and the surface doesn’t always have room for it — the kitchen counter is so exposed, so smooth and clean around the bug, which throws the whole illusion of order and hygiene into disarray, reminding a neat little world of things like grease traps, and sewers, and gutters. Anger. Selfishness. Hypocrisy. Cruelty, its deliberateness and its accidental afflictions. And memory : the unbelievable way I can still, even after the past year, push aside my own knowledge of the bug’s world because forgetting it makes my daily life one iota easier. And the way it judders back into visibility, with a shock and a late-night gasp, the recognition of this place I thought I was safe from. Without the cockroach on my counter, I am telling the story of my Daddy the hero, and of myself his devoted daughter learning to remember his voice through a dozen things he gave me the inspiration to learn. This is my hidden treasure, and music its cipher. It is a sad, funny, quirky, cool project, and I like being its narrator. And it’s true. The backstory is also true, the cockroach lurking just at the edge of that familiar picture. That my Dad could be a terrific asshole : a demanding, cantankerous, brutal, callous jerk from whom I inherited a raging temper I am ashamed of and a remarkable capacity for stepping into emotional quicksand. And that I can be a terrific asshole too, so blinded by my own need that I could blow up at the mere shadow of his.

I have not called the bug guy just yet. I’m not entirely sure why; I don’t want to have a nightly showdown with the GFCs in my kitchen, or living room, or anywhere really. But something tells me to let the bug’s life play out. Because you have to live with them, the bugs. Our time together is so limited. A theme and variations rippling out through the rooms, across freeways and backyards and time, in the shadow of a giant tree whose leaves hold more green than the eye can measure.

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