I play in a band, which sounds kind of funny since I'm closer to 40 than 20, but it pays the bills and has put me through graduate school at Carnegie Mellon. It's a good band, don't get me wrong. 3 horns, lots of energy, some soul, some rock, some current stuff. I used to play music because I loved doing it. I loved that connection between me and an audience. I'd play on my back, or walk the bar, blowing crazy stuff on my saxophone...anything to chase that emotional interaction.
It's different today. I play for money, which means somewhere the love was sacrificed with a promise of some future return. One day, I seem to have said, I'll go back to playing the stuff I love. Sometimes, I feel like more than a sellout.
But this story isn't about being a sellout.
This story is about my grandpap, and a little nursing home in Tonawanda, NY. I was a sophomore in college, and my grandpap was dying. Phone calls were made and family members were advised to come and say our goodbyes. I packed my horn in my car, headed north, and somehow--this is pre-GPS, folks--found the tiny little nursing home on a side street in the very sad town of Tonawanda. My grandfather's room had to have been 90 degrees. He was in bed, propped up on a mound of pillows. He was wearing a heavy white turtleneck. His eyes were open and staring, but at nothing in this world.
"You can say goodbye," my mom said. I had little experience with death, and even less experience with the deep mourning of another human being. I didn't know what to say, I didn't know if I should hold his hand. I knew my voice would crack and then I'd be immature and afraid of how alone I suddenly felt, and I knew nothing of importance would come out.
So I did what felt right. I took my old horn out, put a reed on the mouthpiece, and played "Deep River." I played it through, feeling a sense of loss and confusion greater than any emotion I'd ever felt before.
When I was done playing, I had opened my eyes, and he had closed his.