03 February, 2015

"Some of it's magic, some of it's tragic"

When I first wrote the post toward the end, about how I started playing the piano and flute, and started all over again as an adult, I didn't realize how often - and how movingly - my dad had written about music on this blog. I originally included his post, "Guitar, Interrupted", with mine, because we chose it to read at his memorial service and because, when I read it, it was the first time I thought deeply about music as something he had "lost."

As some readers know or may have picked up on (and others will understand), I didn't follow this blog closely before my dad died. I knew, from a fairly young age, that his health was not good and that it was simply not likely that we would get to have "a long, long time." Like me, his "speaking" voice and his "writing" voice were strikingly similar, and so I saved his blog for the time when I would need to hear his voice and it would be the only place I could find it.

But when I started writing in this space, my first goal was to help attract new readers, who would then be able to discover his best posts...as I was discovering them, too. Over the last couple weeks, I've been adapting and editing some of his posts into essays for publication elsewhere, mainly those on his personal experiences with catastrophic illness and physical disability. In the process, I found that I had glossed over the depth and beauty of his writing about music. So I came back with my original goal in mind and rewrote this to do it a measure of justice.
My dad playing the guitar at his fraternity house
in Charlottesville, c. late 1960s

In addition to "Guitar, Interrupted" (which still appears below), he also wrote about his love of music here, in "See Me - Feel Me - Touch Me - Heal Me." He wrote about his friend and fraternity brother, folk singer Rod MacDonald several times, but most recently here, in "{this memory} 87", after Rod had played his third concert in our backyard. And he wrote about some of his favorite songs here, in "Up Pumping."

My favorite, though, is this post, "Singin' On the Brain", about how he started playing the guitar, singing, teaching and performing. He also talks about reconnecting with both a former student and with the wife of his high school duet partner online. I think that the guitars in my living room now (just waiting for his grandson to be big enough to learn) are probably the same ones he describes in the post. I can't recap it meaningfully - if you haven't already, you have to read it, even if you skip the rest of this post.

Did you read it? If not, go back to the beginning of the previous paragraph.

A lot of the best moments in my life have been music-related. A patient in his early twenties bringing his guitar when he was admitted to the hospital and playing for anyone who happened to be around in the evening (reminding me, of course, of my dad, who would have been about the same age when he was treated). Singing "Amazing Grace" by candlelight on the Lawn at UVA with hundreds of other students on September 11, 2001. Mumford & Sons at Red Rocks the night after someone close to me had died. Wondering if the senior faculty - taking over the dance floor at a conference gala - understood the lyrics of "Blurred Lines", and trying not to smirk about it. Ah well, I'll save the full stories for another post.

My dad posted this in August, 2010; you can link to the original here. One of my cousins read it at his memorial service, before the music.

Recently and for the second time, I watched Sir Paul McCartney receive the Gershwin Award on PBS's In Performance at the White House series. Such wonderful music. I watched entranced as performer after performer came out to offer an interpretation of this or that miracle from his musical treasure trove. Almost every melody and lyric could evoke a tear but none so strong as when he finally rose to give us three or four himself.

My emotion reached its crescendo when he concluded with Yesterday. He described how the melody just came to him - fully formed - during a night's sleep although he admitted the lyric took some massaging. I'm left to pray that just once - even if it's just for me and no one else ever hears it - I could be so inspired. It is MUSIC that tells me that I am human. What a gift! What power to move the human spirit.

Jefferson wrote "I cannot live without books." I don't want to either, but it is music that I cannot live without. It communicates the essence of life, and I know that the inability to perform - to share what I am feeling in this most intimate fashion - is what I miss the most from my younger and healthier days. It is a loss most profound.



When I was a third-year medical student rotating through the internal medicine service at the VA, my attending was an adult oncologist, recently divorced. He was very direct and asked blunt questions. I liked working with him; he didn't play "Guess what I'm thinking?" Near the end of the rotation, whilst our team was out having dinner together, he learned that I was planning to specialize in pediatric oncology. He didn't say, as many more senior people did, you'll change your mind! Instead he asked, "What are you going to do to cope [in that field]?"

There was something unsettlingly intimate about the question. An unspoken potential hovered in the air: this could be either deeply profound, or a little creepy. (Strange how fine the line is between those two.) At first I shrugged and pointed to my close-knit family, my empathetic parents and sister. He shook his head. He might have assumed that they couldn't possibly understand. Or he might have been trying to push me toward a different kind of insight. "What do you do for fun?" he said.

"Well, I like to ski. And rock climb." 

He frowned. Still not good enough - that was clear. "You can't just go do those things anytime you want to. What else?"

"I row."

"Boats???!!!" This time, he was nearly scowling, leaning back in his chair, so it rested on just two legs. I tilted mine back too, so we were eye to eye. I was tempted to point out that rowing was a much more plausible hobby in Georgia in the spring than skiing.

"What else?" he demanded.

I paused. "I play the piano." 

He relaxed. "That's good," he said. "That will save you."

Before I could figure out how to reply, one of the residents pulled up a chair between us and changed the subject

When I was six, my dad tried to teach me to play his guitar. I wish I had a real memory of hearing him play, but as he wrote here and also here, by then he was already losing function in his left arm. Around the same age, maybe a bit younger, I became obsessed with playing the beautiful, shiny silver flute (which I now realize is like the pretty girl of musical instruments). In my elementary school, we could sign up for Suzuki violin in second grade (which I did - really, really badly - for what was probably a long year for my parents' ears), but wind instruments weren't offered until fourth grade - a date which loomed magically in my mind. Even so, every year or so, my mom gamely asked my sister and I if we wanted to take piano lessons. We always refused. Then I finally got my beloved flute, and soon after, I changed my mind about playing the piano.

Estes Park, Colorado, July 2011
After high school, I played less and less - once or twice a semester, I went to the practice rooms near UVA's amazing music library. For awhile, I could still play everything I had once learned, but I stopped learning anything new, and then I found one day that it was a struggle to try to play anything new. About a year before the "talk" with my insistent attending, I had picked up a book of "easy" classical pieces and tried out the practice rooms at my medical school. Even they were painful to work through, and so I resorted to playing only Für Elise, over and over. For my medical school graduation, my mother gave me the smallest electric piano we could find - easy to move around the country with - and I bought a book with Moonlight Sonata, which my dad had always wanted me to play, but I didn't seem to make much progress. Playing the flute was only a little better - I was an orchestra member, not a soloist, and I found it unsatisfying to practice without the goal of performing in an ensemble. Someday, I thought, I'll find the time.

Then, after my son was born, I realistically assessed my other set of hobbies - the adventurous ones my attending had rejected because they demanded planning, expensive equipment, suitable weather and time to travel - and decided some of them needed to be put on hold, temporarily. I couldn't row with my iPhone in my pocket - what if I flipped my boat? - and I didn't want to be out of touch. 

A girl - at least this girl - needs a challenge, and I wanted Finn to grow up hearing music played, living music, every day. And I was also a little bit curious to find out if what my attending promised years ago was true.

Originally posted 13 November 2014

Isis River, Oxford - I think I'm in the stroke seat (i.e. second girl from the front), November 2006