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  • Photograph by Phyllis Graber Jensen

    Frank Glazer, b. February 19, 1915 —  d. January 13, 2015

    My Uncle Frank died. It pissed me off in a way. I thought he was immortal. He burst my balloon. He was 99, just a month shy of 100 at which time he planned six concerts in four states within 19 days. He was a concert pianist. He was the most driven, disciplined man I knew. He also never compromised on quality; it had to be the best; you had to do your best. In his mind, that was what art was all about.

    A few facts to put him in perspective: At age 17, recently graduated from high school in Milwaukee, two sponsors gave him a third-class ticket on an ocean liner to go to Germany to study with Artur Schnabel, considered the best pianist in the world. Schnabel’s teacher was a protégé of Beethoven. The year was 1932. Frank knew no German.

    At 21 he debuted at Town Hall in New York City. He went on to play several times at Carnegie Hall and gave Carnegie premieres of Piano Sonata by Igor Stravinsky and of several pieces by Aaron Copland. He was the only pianist anyone knows who tuned the Carnegie piano on the day of his performance. Jeans in the morning, tails in the evening. There had been a tuners’ strike; he was a licensed tuner; he didn’t want to miss the chance to play at Carnegie. Fair enough.

    He played with major symphonies — London, Cleveland, New York, Boston — he played with Leonard Bernstein. He played with world-class chamber groups. He toured community halls in Alaska in 1955 in a bush plane; “No one brings a lousy piano to Alaska,” he said. He had a teaching career — 78 years, in fact — at University of Indiana, Bennett College, Eastman School of Music, Bates College.

    I could go on. And on. As he did. On. And on. Like a metronome. It was such fun to visit because in the middle of the night you’d awaken with Brahms or Chopin or Mozart or Berg (now that’s an awakening!) “I woke up,” he’d say, as if an explanation were needed.

    He was huge in my life. Not just during the times we were together when he made me feel special, just as he did with so many people. And not just during the times my Aunt Ruth was alive. (If you think Frank was a force, you should have seen Ruth. She had been a soprano. Then she led choirs, started festivals, advised college presidents, managed Frank’s career, baked a wicked amount of chocolate desserts. She not only filled a room, or a hall, she took it over, with her laugh, with her encouragement, with her radiant interest in you. Just like Frank.)

    No, he was also huge when I was not with him. I thought of him every day. When I felt old, as in 63 is old, I would think of him. I would feel younger. When I heard music, I would think of him. And I would hear his laugh, and his words of encouragement, and his questions about me and my wife and my kids. How are they doing? And I would hear his latest plans. His stories.

    Ruth died in 2006. It was not pretty. She had lost her sight three years previously and she was ticked off about it. At the time, at 92, she held down three jobs (she stepped down from two others when she’d turned 90) but she realized she couldn’t do them without her eyes. At least not at the quality she wanted, demanded. Hearing a theme here?

    Frank lost not only his love and his companion of 54 years, but his audience, too. “Every time I played, I knew she was listening,” he said once. Meaning, every time he played at home, on the same Steinway he played every day for 70 years, she was there. Or would soon be back from the market or tending to one of her projects. And every time he was in a concert hall, or a church, or a community hall — Frank would play anywhere, it was the audience, not the glamor, that interested him most — she was there. And so he played for her. And then she was gone.

    He lost heart for a while. He continued his 2006/07 concert series at Bates College but something wasn’t right and when he got to the end of the season, he said, simply, “I’m done.”

    But he wasn’t. He was only 91 after all. And in the late spring after her death, he found a project that excited him. And then another and another and another until all of a sudden he was playing at least one concert a month, practicing, still, 4–6 hours a day, thinking out programs years in advance, but mostly aiming for his 100th birthday when he had a present for us. “It’s a great program,” he said.

    The projects kept him going. The music kept him alive.

    And then came his dying. It was characteristic. Once he decided to do it, he was, like, well, let’s get on with it. One time, when he awoke in the hospital bed, he expressed his annoyance: “I thought you were going to get the nurses to give me something to put me to sleep,” he said.

    “They did,” I replied.

    “No, I mean, sleep forever.”

    “Er, Frank …”

    We don’t like to talk about dying or death or what happens before or during or after. It’s almost un-American. We’re afraid of it. We’re afraid to talk about it or plan for it. We’re afraid it will hurt or we’ll be alone or that there will be nothing afterwards. That’s why we like religion, and we fight as to which of our holy predictions are more likely to be accurate. Heaven? Virgins? Our soul will find another body? Frank didn’t care. “Bury me as close as humanly possible to Ruth.”

    Mostly, though, we are afraid to leave living. And when someone we know dies, we don’t want to talk about how it happened because, well, it seems to take away from someone’s life. Frank’s death took days, a blink compared to 99 years. He did so much. Touched so many. Why talk about it?

    But I need to tell you. Just a few quick stories, I know you can’t take any more than that. I need to tell you that his death was good because somehow we got our act together to support him — he had a friend and me beside him and a hospital that was trained, equipped, prepared for doing good death. And lots of friends out there who were able to say something to him.

    So, two stories.

    Frank wanted me to get in touch with some people. So some, I phoned. But most I emailed. I sent out updates to a list of people — students, younger colleagues, friends, relatives — all over the world. The list grew to 132 people and they, in turn, shared my email with their circles of friends. And many wrote back. Or called. And all of a sudden I was deluged. And, when he was awake and ready, I would read some of them. Or I’d tell him the gist of the calls. Or I’d read some of the cards that were coming in.

    Picture this: Frank is sitting up in bed. He has done the arduous chore of getting up to pee, in part, for the reward of a back rub. I am massaging his skin with my left hand and scrolling down my iPhone with my right. I am reading to him emails from Wisconsin and Texas and Syracuse and Vienna and Japan and Maine and Florida. He is telling me to “enunciate.”

    Sometimes he tells a story about the person. Sometimes he just smiles or laughs and tells me to read another. Grand nieces, nephews, cousins, students from 50 years ago and 30 years ago and a 13-year-old girl who’d been coming out every summer for several years for a week, with Frank, just playing piano. They tell him how much they want him to get better, how they had been looking forward to his concerts in February, or they share a remember-when. His brother writes, a 95-year-old on email: “Frank,” he says, “make sure you turn on the TV tomorrow at 1:05 p.m. Green Bay is playing the Cowboys.” It was a Wisconsin thing. World-class Wisconsin pianists root for the Packers.

    So on Sunday at 1:05 p.m., fortified with a hearty meal and a momentary interlude from the meds, he sat up and watched the Packers. And so did someone in Montreal. And London. And Albany. And New Orleans. People who don’t watch football, don’t understand football. Singers and artists and cabinet makers and teachers and musicians. “I watched because I wanted to watch it with him,” wrote one later.

    After a while, Frank got the idea: He was loved. So many people in his life were dead, but there were still a lot who weren’t. And he had touched them. Made a difference. He could die now.

    On Monday, when he was definitely crashing, his awake times were shorter, sometimes weird. We told him the violist in one of former chamber groups had called. We asked him who the cellist was in that group. A few minutes later, eyes closed, he listed every member of that group from when it first began to when it ended. Decades of musicians. And then he went back to sleep. Another time he raised his hand, conductor-like, and sang, “dah, dah, dah, dah, dah,” a melody lost.

    And then there was Katie, the nursing assistant. Katie is that nurse you always want — bright, sparkling, looks-you-in-the-eyes type. She is studying at the local community college to get her nursing degree. She met him Sunday, tended to his every call, called him “honey.” On Monday afternoon she came in to tell him her shift was over. He was asleep. She leaned over and gave him a kiss on the cheek. He awoke immediately.

    “Friend, Katie,” he said, with a smile. She was astonished, struck, surprised; her eyes welled-up. He mumbled something.

    “What did you say, honey?” she asked, leaning forward.

    His eyes were closed. He couldn’t get the words out again.

    I told her. “He said, ‘Thanks for your understanding and care.’”

    She cried.

    And there he was, just 11 hours from death reaching one more person, leaving one more touch, one more chord. Just like that. He did not regain consciousness.

    In the middle of the night, I got up and went over to him; his breathing was slow and shallow and quiet. I kissed his forehead, stroked his thick white hair and then watched him, realizing, only after a while, that his breathing had stopped, almost imperceptibly. Here. Gone. Not a sound.

    A half-hour later I sent out the final update:

    “…We are all so sad. But try to see him: Dark, perfectly pressed suit, shocking white, neatly brushed hair, as he makes his way across the stage to the corner of the piano, as he takes his bow, turns, sits, adjusts himself, puts on his glasses, perhaps gives a little cough, and begins to play …”

    By the time I made it to my car, the last of the hospital stuff in hand, the bitter winter wind finding its way inside my bones and had settled in my idling, warming car, I had five replies. The Web was behaving as it should, as it was intended, connecting us in private and intimate and thoughtful ways, as one strand shakes, the others feel it. At 3 in the morning.

    One reply came from a singer, a man in Montreal who had performed with Frank over the years. He said how much he appreciated the updates, that he felt almost like he was there with us, all of us.

    He added: “We are Frank now.”

    To read a story I wrote about Frank in 2010, click: Frank. Also, it is worth listening to an interview conducted in 2012 by Dick Gordon of The Story, an American Public Media show that has since gone off the air: Frank Glazer on March 2, 2012.
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