When Life and Work Collide Part 2
Ever since she passed away my life has been covered in a haze; an infectious malaise coating all of my new memories, like cataracts. Some trivial moments have now become profound, but there are times where I want to relish in the present but my mind seems bored with the prospect.
Wednesday, November 28th, 2016, Myrtle Beach International Airport, Coming home for Thanksgiving.
I've just landed in Myrtle Beach. The last time I landed here was for my grandmother’s funeral. On that flight in May I cried quietly, or at least quietly when compared to the jet engines, for nearly two hours. During this flight home I had the faint awareness that she wouldn't be at the airport to greet me, but as I walk into the terminal it comes on like a drug. A memory of her waiting at the bottom of the escalator pops into my head. Her smile had infected her whole body, and nothing could take her out of that moment. She never was proud of her teeth, having been made fun of as a child for having buck teeth. She had developed a smile that attempted to hide her teeth from the world. When she was overjoyed, that practiced smile was always obliterated. You could see on her face that she couldn't hold back her happiness. I remember so vividly the shape of her mouth, and the Christmas lights reflecting off the red glitter of her white, green, and red holiday sweater. As I descended the escalator she started to slowly walk towards me, gaining speed with each new step. I walked up to her and hugged her, bending low so the side of my face could touch hers. I kissed her warm cheek, and she greeted me with her usual hello, "Hey Shug." Now, as I descend the escalator, I can see that memory juxtaposed over the reality of her absence. She won't be able to call me "shug", a nickname meaning sugar. Instead of embracing her, I'm left with embracing the fleeting comfort and content bottled in that memory. A fear wells inside me that with each drop of the memory elixir I consume, it's potency grows weaker. I hurriedly push the memory away, in hopes that I can lock it in a cellar deep in my mind for later. I inhale the humid southeast air, and walk towards the baggage claim. Tears well up in my eyes, and I bite my lips in hopes of hiding it from the people crowding around the baggage turnstile. After several deep breaths the tears subside and I call my mom to let her know that I am here. She's so excited she stutters over her words, eventually getting out that she and my grandfather will leave the cell phone lot asap. My bag shows up, and gently glides towards me. I put my violin case on my back, thread my arms through my backpack so it's now on my belly, grab my travel duffle bag from the turnstile and hobble outside to the curb.
A cold front is softly coating Denmark and the rain is gentle but persistent. Doug and I have just finished rock climbing and riding the ferry across the canal. In the morning Doug will catch a flight out to London and then I’ll have a few days alone on the Danish coast. Doug and I have been sharing our vacation in Copenhagen, spending way too much money on coffee and food at the paper island. I've known Doug for a long time, but we had never traveled together for fun. I love being around his spontaneous and fearless energy. That energy for new experiences brings us to a coffee shop on a boat in one of the canals. Being around a culture that is more accepting of smoking cigarettes creates a craving for one inside of us. It seems like the perfect opportunity, an open air cafe, sitting on canal as cold autumn rain kisses the placid and dark water. We make friends with the baristas, and after ordering our drinks Doug takes the initiative to bum two cigarettes. After lighting up we inhale with relish, both of us bathing in the transient moment and contentment. Doug sips on a beer, I nurse a frothy cappuccino, and a mild lightheadedness suddenly hits me. Despite having smoked before, this is the first time I recall feeling any effect. I tell this to Doug, and even though he probably deep down thinks I’m spinning a tall tale, he laughs in support of my telling.
September 4th, 2016, Copenhagen, the Capital Region
I inhale and hold the hot smoke in my lungs and think of my grandmother. What I’m doing now is the thing she repeated for many years and it eventually led to her cancer. This happened to her body even though she quit smoking for nearly 15 years before she was afflicted. I imagine the burning feeling in my chest was something she had felt too, and a wave of anxiety and guilt washes over me. Surely I should know better. But only my logical thoughts feel that way, the rest of my body and mind are silently saying fuck it. Fuck the fact that she died, that I'm going to die, that Doug will die, that my partner Sarah will die. Fuck the fact that the day will come that my body will no longer be able to move because of my will, and certainly fuck the fact that I have to go through the death of a parent or sibling more than one more time in my life. All of these thoughts race through my mind and I inhale once again. The burning in my lungs now feels like an old friend saying hello. Doug and I put our cigarettes out in my coffee glass, and we start looking for food. We ask the locals about the best places nearby, and eventually just walk towards restaurants that look clustered together on yelp. It proves immensely difficult to find something open on Sunday evening in Copenhagen. We find a small place and take the opportunity to dry off after being in the cold rain. As we eat dinner, my mind continues to wander back to my grandmother and the feeling of that hot gaseous ash in my body, despite our conversation visiting topics far from family or smoking. I quietly wish that I could forgive myself.
July 28, 2016, Harbin, China
We just learned that we got second place in the Alice and Eleanor Schoenfeld Competition, Chamber division. It is a great honor, and it feels really good to finally get some recognition. Every competition we entered before this, we had lost. Of course winning isn't everything, or even necessary in the arts-- some would even say it’s counterproductive-- but it still feels thrilling and exhausting, as well as humbling.
I stand in a practice room at the Harbin Conservatory of Music, feeling tired but also wanting to practice violin. The others in Friction have gone into town to eat. I sit down at the window of the third floor, watching dark summer showers rolling towards the school. The person I want to tell the most that we won is my grandmother. Her elation would have been annoying at first, but so joyful to hear. I can hear her voice in my head, "I told you Kevin, I told you they would pick you. You are the best violinist I have ever heard, and I'm sure the best they have ever heard. Now tell me why you didn't get first place? I bet you it was because the first place group was better at politicin'." I would give anything to be able to hear her say something like that again, something that would simultaneously make me happy and proud, and piss me off. This feeling leads me down a path of things I wish I could still do with her, like rub her arthritic feet again, or to listen to the thump of her Bible. Suddenly, I begin to think about one of the last times I was home with her. It was right after she had gotten diagnosed. We had thrown her a life celebration ceremony. It was a bit like having a funeral, but with the intent of celebrating her life with her. All of her siblings were there. It was the first time they had all been in a room together since their mother had passed away. I had played a song for her that she had never really talked about until that visit home. It was what people in the south call "an ole timey hymn". Typically it's a honky tonk, proto-bluegrass song. The lyrics are essentially about going to heaven, "I'll fly away." If you've ever seen Forest Gump you might recall a scene where Jenny asks God to make her a bird so she can fly far away from her abusive father. I remember watching that scene as a kid and understanding so vividly her desire to fly away from her traumatic life. I had a gut feeling about why this song was suddenly popping into my grandmother’s head. The doctor's had recently told her she was terminal, likely only having six months to a year left. Who wouldn't want to fly away? After the ceremony, off to the side of the food hall, my grand aunt’s farm worker came up to me. His name was Jose, and he was an evangelist of the charismatic cloth. He didn't introduce himself. Instead he immediately grabbed my left hand, and put his right hand on my forehead. He closed his eyes and began to half talk to me, half pray out loud to God. "Kevin, you are an extremely talented violinist. But you are arrogant. You think it is your hard work, that it is your discipline that has gotten you where you are, but it is precisely these things that hold you back. It is only through the hands of God that your hands are able to have success. And until you trust the hands of God, you will go nowhere." I wish I could say that was the end of the prayer, but in effect he repeated these sentiments three times over, merely paraphrasing each successive loop. Afterwards he told me that God had told him that He would open doors for me now. This memory seems peculiar to me as I sit smelling the storm that was slowly enveloping Harbin. I could see my grandmother saying, "See I told you so," but it feels false to me in some way. I prefer to keep my personal beliefs on the subject private, but suffice it to say they aren't the same as Jose's. These same people had been convinced that if GG had total faith in God's healing, and if those around her did too that she could be healed. I know without a doubt that they did believe, that my whole family, and many of the local churches believed. She still passed away. I don't want to cast doubt on any person's belief system, but I was feeling angry at them and at the parts of the Bible that promised this kind of healing. While I am lost in thought about all these things, not practicing, a bird lands on the windowsill. Suddenly the world grows quiet, my mind quiets, and all that is left is this small miracle of life. We stare at each other, transfixed, breathing the same air, and hiding in the same dark room. The ole timey hymn begins to play softly in the background of my mind, followed by my grandfather's favorite hymn, “Sweet By and By”. Large and heavy tears slowly roll down my face and I pull out my phone to listen to one of the last voicemails my grandmother ever left. "Hey Shug. I'm Just calling because I am so excited to see you from September 4 through September 9th. I can't wait to spend time with you, and you better not spend all your time playing video games with your nephew. I love you very much and I am so happy to see soon. Bye bye now." The atmosphere mirrors the torrent of emotions rapidly swinging through me, the bird on the windowsill takes flight as lightning flashes in the distance. I fall to my knees and wish so deeply that somehow my thoughts could travel to the place that she is in now, that she still had some kind of existence and awareness, that she was in a place of love. Christians call it Heaven but I don’t care what it is called. All I know is that the person deep inside the marrow of my bones wants her to be surrounded by the greatest and most pure love, the kind of love that transcends our physical reality. The kind of love that transforms into a bird. The kind of love that helps you fly away.
April 18, 2016, Cornish College School of Music, second floor practice room.
The sky outside is a warm and softly textured yellow, like the blond hair of a small child that spent their summer in the sun. I unpack my violin and can hear my former teacher Bettina saying "It is fundamental to the playing of violin to play long tones. Find your sound, find your violin's sound every time you two meet to play." I play an open D string for a long time, going back and forth, feeling my back, my upper arm, my shoulder move in a slow curved and continuous motion. I think of Galamian describing it as rowing a boat. Instead of thinking down bow, up bow, I think of the French translation, push, pull. I watch the string vibrate quickly back and forth, taking on the shape of an extremely long and narrow ellipse. I simply wish for the oval to widen and my sound grows, then I wish for it to decrease, to become as narrow as possible before the sound gives out, and the sound softens dramatically. I do this for several minutes, until I reach a state of mind where I no longer am guiding the playing, but merely observing the sound and movement. Abruptly the sound cracks on a bow change, my body feeling angular and stilted. My eyes are heavy, ready to harvest the tears I'm holding back. Only a few hours prior my Grandmother had woken up and spoken to me. She was wearing an oxygen mask so it was immensely difficult to understand what she was saying to me. My mother was holding the phone and was speaking loudly enough for me to hear the translation. "Hey Son." My grandmother had taken several deep breaths, each inhalation resembling a jet engine spooling up for take off. These painful and desperate breaths littered her words to me. The internal physical battle that must have taken place for her to be able to tell me what she was feeling had been palpable, despite being 3,000 miles apart. "I'm not gonna make it. It's my fault. I'm sor... I'm sorry. It's my fault. I'm sorry. I love you. I'm proud of you. I'm proud of you. I'm proud of you. I'm...pro... you..." Her breathing had become more rapid as she faded back into unconsciousness.
Her words keep replaying in my mind. She must have known that I was experiencing a deep guilt and regret for not being able to come home. She knew me well, and in that moment she wanted to take that from me, wanted me to know it was ok. I didn't realize it at that time, but these were her last words to me. I can’t continue to play violin with the memory of that conversation taking complete control of me. I place my violin in the case and stare out the window at the infinite variety of greens coloring the oak tree nearby. I turn around and sit at the piano. I play through the melody of “Sweet By and By”. The lyrics of the chorus play in the background of my thoughts.
We shall meet on that beautiful shore.
I try imagining my body placed inside the resonance of the piano, feeling the sound transfer through my fingertips. Like the state of mind I had entered warming up, no longer guiding my thoughts and actions but observing, I begin to play something new. I no longer guide my fingers through "Sweet By and By," I simply observe my hands as they search through the dust and crumbs of the hymn. I hit record on my phone and start listening.