My family frequently comments on how similar I am to my grandfather. They call us both Renaissance men. We both have a deep appreciation for the simple things in life, like sitting on the porch of the old, rickety double-wide at the Farm during sunset; watching a thunderstorm roll in with book in hand and a glass of gin—him, not me—an arm’s length away; rooting on the cardinals from the comfort of our homes, surrounded by family—he, unlike I, was a very fair weather fan; or sneaking away at nearly every family gathering to simply observe our loved ones in gratitude. We both were sticklers when it came to money. I attribute all of my frugality to my grandpa, who hated to spend money and would reuse the same McDonald’s coffee cup for weeks on end and carefully ration the Thanksgiving turkey until Christmas. I learned from him that money doesn’t buy happiness and that when you truly do what you love, money should not be an objection. We also both loved music. While I have always been hesitant to sing in front of my family, nearly anyone could prod my grandpa to sing a verse of “The Streets of Laredo” or “Danny Boy.” His deep, gravelly voice evoked peaceful feelings and emitted a sense of powerful authority, silencing any room he was in. It was not uncommon to see him picking away at a piano during family gatherings and, despite never having taken any formal lessons, with the help of his fantastic ear, easily picking out the tune singing along to “Amazing Grace” or “Red River Valley,” one of his favorites. Although he loved working away at a simple melody, he even more loved to hear others play. If there was anyone playing the small, old, wooden upright in his family room, he was there watching and listening with awe. He loved the piano and the beautiful melodies it could produce. Music brought him peace and comfort, and for the last few months of his life as his health rapidly declined and his bedroom was moved to the family room because he was too weak to walk up the stairs, it was one of the few pleasures he still had.
My obsession with the music began well before the summer of 2017. I began taking piano lessons in second grade but did not take off with the instrument until the summer going into seventh grade, when I found inspiration from my all-time favorite genre of music: film scores. That summer, my mom began a phase of playing soft piano music from Pandora.com during our dinners and occasionally a film score, such as “Concerning Hobbits” from Lord of the Rings, would pop onto her station. Instantly, I fell in love with the blend of the strings and woodwind and the deep pounds of the percussion. The complex orchestral elements of classical music coupled with more modern melodies made a thrilling and passionate sound which I became obsessed with. Despite film scores being wordless, I heard lyrics that tugged at my heart in a way foreign to my twelve-year-old self. I left behind all of my old pop music and adopted this rather unpopular genre. When my friends talked about One Direction and Snoop Dogg, I responded with the Boston Pops Orchestra and Harry Gregson-Williams. Relentlessly I was teased about the silly titles and lyricless music I so dearly loved, but I brushed the cynics off as uncultured swine.
Several weeks after my obsession began, my family took a vacation to Yellowstone National Park. I prepared for the 22 hour car ride by replacing all of my ‘old’ songs, like “Wake me up when September Ends,” “I Want it That Way,” and just about every Taylor Swift song, on my iPod with my favorite film scores, such as “The Battle,” “Tennessee,” and “Requiem for a Dream.” Most of the ride I could be found in the back seat, with film scores playing through headphones in my ears, gazing out the window and daydreaming my crush or my future career, which would surely be an orchestra conductor. As we drove past vast fields of wheat, I played peaceful tunes like “Waiting” from Rudy or “Main Title” from The Cider House Rules, and when passed by the violent geysers and other majestic natural wonders of the West, I put on dramatic and impassioned songs such as “Arrival to Earth” from Transformers or “Strength of a Thousand Men.”
As I became acquainted with this new music, I noticed many of the pieces involved the piano and did not sound too complicated. “I could tackle them,” I thought, and decided as soon as we returned home, I would seek out sheet music to a few of my favorite scores. Finding that a quick Google search could give me just about any, albeit bootlegged, sheet music I wanted, I began to gobble up everything I could lay my hands on. But after exhausting the list of songs I wanted to learn, I found I wanted more. My search for more film scores led me to discover many modern pianists, such as Ludovico Einaudi, Helen Jane Long, and Brian Crain, who composed pieces that, just like my film scores, were filled with expression and spoke to my heart. With each new discovery, I moved further away from the strict, rhythmic works of Bach and Haydn and began to develop a voice of my own that reflected the joys and sorrows high school brought me. But I was not the only one who found joy in the new pieces I had learned; I had many fans who asked me to play for them.
Out of all my family members, Grandpa was my biggest fan. Upon hearing me play my new music for the first time, he immediately requested I play more. He would never insist, instead humbly ask. He, along with my grandma, would encourage me to bring music whenever I went to their house. Embarrassed by my new fame, I would conveniently forget my music at home and claim I would “for sure bring it next time.” My relatives would gently smile and say it was ok, boosting my confidence in the lie.
At the end of my sophomore year, I learned my grandpa had terminal lung cancer. He was already old, but he still seemed to have years of life in him. Nearly every day he would go to his coffee group at McDonald’s and then to clear brush or do paperwork at his office out in Warrenton. He still played scrabble like a pro, regularly scoring 400 plus points, and read every chance he got, but no matter how much he fought, the disease had its way.
Early into the summer my mom suggested that once or twice a week, I go over to play him in Scrabble and afterwards play the piano for him. Despite the fact I was a rising Scrabble prodigy and that I did love my grandpa very much, I resented the thought of having to stay alone with him for an extended period of time. I only wanted him in short doses. However, I reluctantly agreed. Much to my surprise, I found I deeply enjoyed and appreciated my time with him. I began to go over three to four times a week, sometimes to watch the cardinals, sometimes to play scrabble, but every time to go sit at that old, wooden upright, pull out my binder of sheet music, and play my songs as he lay, resting in bed. Although we never had any deep conversations—or for that matter, much talk at all, as we were usually engrossed in one game or another—we formed a strong bond simply existing in each other’s company.
As our relationship grew, his health declined. The cancer soon caused my grandpa’s sharp and quick-witted mind to become slow and forgetful, and he became unable to keep up with my scrabble playing, which had improved exponentially. Eventually I beat him—I still have the score card of my first victory tucked away in my dresser. I was proud of myself. I only now realize it really wasn’t I who beat him. Being the sore loser he was, our evenings were reduced to only Cardinal’s games and the piano. But due to the Cardinal’s God-awful season, our relationship became centered around his piano and my music.
Two weeks into school, he was put on hospice care. The week before his death was bittersweet—more bitter than sweet. Family who lived out-of-town came to visit and say final goodbyes and everyone seemed to grow closer as we packed into my grandparent’s house, each day hoping he would live to see the next so more people could come to say goodbye. I spent every moment I could out in St. Charles, sitting at his old, wooden piano, playing my music as people filtered in and out of the bedroom, saying goodbye for one final time. I was given the task to break the silence which had descended upon the house and each one of our lives. But none of that mattered to me. I was playing for grandpa. I played in hopes that I could ease the pain and fear he felt and to tell him I loved him. With each sick, gurgling, phlegm-filled cough he gave I forced myself to stay focused on my music and not waver in my play. I had to be strong for him.
He was in a coma for the final two days of his life. Even though he couldn’t talk, move or respond to stimuli of any sort, he could still hear we were told. We all knew if he could still talk, he would tell me to keep playing—that’s what my aunts and uncles told me. So, I did. The first night of his coma I poured my heart into “Embers,” “Nuvole Bianche,” and “Memories.” Instead of crying tears, I wept through my music, trying to comfort my family with “An Inspiration,” “River Flows in You,” and “In Dreams,” playing until my grandma kicked us out of the house because it was time for her to go to bed. I regretfully pulled myself away from the piano, promising I would return the next day as soon as I could.
On the day he died, I returned to his bedside just in time to see the local parish priest anoint his head, chest, hands, and feet. Each person present knew this anointing was it; his pain and suffering would end that night. He would not live to see the next day. With this heartbreaking thought in mind, I sat down and played the songs I had played so many times before, not able to fully focus on the music. But instead trying to beat down my emotions inside of me. I was afraid to cry. I was afraid to let go.
My fingers swept across the keys as two of my younger cousins came to say goodbye to a grandpa who they, unlike I, never had the opportunity to grow close with, and I fought back tears as I reminisced on the time we spent together. But tears began to stream down my face, and I turned my head to hide them. I wept as my aunts and uncles individually came into the room to thank their dad for the childhood he gave them and the role model he was. After everybody said goodbye, we came together one final time. My relatives filled the room as the sounds of “In the Garden,” “Danny Boy,” and “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” the last song I played for my grandpa, echoed into the empty silence of the small room.
With my final song, I got up from the piano, walked to my grandpa’s side, kissed balding head, and, holding his feeble hand in mine, began to say my own goodbye.
My expectation of the moment was different than its reality. I knew the moment was coming and had carefully planned what I would say. Through the influence of movies and television, I expected death to be accompanied with heartfelt background music and an exchange of words before watching your loved one breathe his or her last breath. But I received none of that. I never heard any music to ease my pain and he never spoke to me with his dying breath. The music in my own heart had been extinguished and no matter how much I searched my soul I could not find it.
I tried to thank him for our time together and tell him how much I loved him, but no words came out of my mouth. All I could do was stand and let my tears dampen his bedsheets. I was scared to admit he was going to die. I tried again but could not bring myself to say that the past months had been among the best of my life. I kissed his head one last time and walked out of the room.
My biggest regret in life has been not being brave enough to say goodbye when it was time to. I wanted to tell him so much, but when the time came, I could not bring myself to say how I felt. Yet I know that music was my medium. What I could not voice aloud was made loud and clear in the notes, the love notes, I played for him.