By: Kevin Wallach
In 1939, on their first wedding anniversary, my Papa gave my Mama a piece of music he’d written just for her. He titled the instrumental piece “Melodie für meine Liebe,” but years later it would come to be known by my sisters and me as “Mama’s Song.” That music represented one year’s work, something he had written in secret whenever there was time.
Between Mama being pregnant with me and all the struggles of that first year I don’t know how he managed to find a piano or a few minutes alone. Only months after that first anniversary, they left Germany for America, for a chance at life. Each of them knew that the loved ones they’d left behind in Europe were facing the worst of times, and yet they knew they had to leave when the chance arose.
I heard the stories growing up. I know those stories like I know the Pledge of Allegiance or my multiplication tables. The way Papa told the tale of escaping Germany changed as my sisters and I grew older. As he held back less and less, the grim details came into increasing focus. I learned the most terrible realities about human nature by the time I was seventeen and heard the story of my parents’ journey from their town in Germany to New York City.
Papa’s eyes looked strange when he told me about the murderers, the Nazis. But that special tune he wrote for my mother came from him as gently and with as much sweetness as if he had never heard an unkind word or seen a man harm another man in anger. I grew up listening to my father play that song on the upright piano in our parlor in the little house in Brooklyn. Often he would play it while my mother would sit next to him on the bench. Later when I learned to play it, he and my mother would dance in the small open space near the piano, their dance floor an old faded rug.
For many years I forgot about that song. It seems strange to me now but I suppose it’s true that an old man lives many lives. I forgot a lot along the way from youth to wisdom. For a while I even forgot the importance of family. In my twenties and thirties I was enjoying success as a musician. I was lucky enough to do what I loved for many years. Then one day Papa didn’t come home from a walk and my sister Iris and my sister Jenny spent most of the day driving Mama around the neighborhood and to hospitals. I was in California and I didn’t find out about Papa’s death until the next day. I had not been in New York for over two years before I made that trip home. I had not seen Mama or Papa for most of that period of time.
Now it’s my turn to know what it feels like to have my child far away, if not in distance then in a much more powerful form of separation, years. I’m going to be seventy in six months and it’s been some time since I had my own child living beneath the roof I provide him. My son Michael has a family of his own, though he only lives twenty minutes away. But I wonder often what heartache I caused my Mama and Papa when I chose to move so far away. Of course they wanted me to be happy though and never let on how hard it was letting go.
After Papa died Mama sold their house in Brooklyn and moved closer to my sisters in Connecticut. She bought a small house blocks away from my youngest sister Jenny and for many years she lived there with Papa’s clothes and photographs. Meanwhile I was living my own life, having my career and a wife and child to keep me busy. I saw Mama a few times a year but something stayed between us two even when we were face to face. I can see clearly now but back then I believe I thought Mama was disappointed in me for not being there more. Now I know it was me who was disappointed in myself.
Mama and I are together all the time now. But she no longer knows that. My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s almost exactly two years ago now. At first she was with us most of the time. She’d forget little things now and then. After that she was still aware of herself and knew us all by name but she’d forget bigger things. Then she began to slip away almost completely for periods of time, and when she’d come back she would be terrified, somehow aware of lost time. Then she just went away and didn’t come back to us. I don’t have clear recollections of the days or weeks which marked my mother’s progression from one stage of the disease to another, but it seemed to me that she had fewer than the normal seven stages. It all seemed to go so quickly.
My wife Ruth, Mama and I live in Florida now. My son Michael and his family live not so far from us and we see them often. Michael and his wife Julie bring my grandchildren Benjamin and Theresa here a few times each week. Sometimes my wife watches them while Michael and Julie are working. We have a good life, and I’m grateful for all I have. But I’ve come to realize that something is missing. I keep thinking that I’ve missed out on things, and Mama serves as a reminder to me of just what those things might have been. But before I had these regrets and even before I did those regrettable things we were just a family, a happy one at that.
Again, my mind drifts backward. Far, far behind me.
“Benjamin, show Papa the poem you wrote.”
Is that really what Mama said to me back then? I must have been seven, no I was eight, I remember now.
“Show him Benjamin! Don’t be shy, it’s wonderful!”
Mama had pointed to the single page of composition book paper in my trembling right hand.
Papa smiled and pushed his glasses up, rubbing his eyes and folding his newspaper as if he were about to swat a fly.
“Bring it here Benny. Let me see what you did today.”
I stepped toward him as if I were walking a diving board perched too far above the water for comfort. I recall I was thinking he would not like my poem, and he’d be disappointed in me, and I would not be able to recover from such a failure.
Papa took the page from me and he smiled as he read. His eyes danced up and down and around the page. I could almost tell each word as he read it, so expressive were his eyes. I’d written a poem about a bird’s nest outside my bedroom window, and my teacher had made me read it before the class and sent me home to Mama with a note praising my work.
“Benny, it really is wonderful! Mama wasn’t just saying that to make you happy! Why didn’t you tell me you had such a knack for rhyming?”
“I didn’t know Papa.”
My Papa embraced me. I remember wanting the world to be perfectly still then. Perhaps children know at some moments just how fleeting their most precious things will be.
I hear another voice but it’s not one that belongs in this past.
“Benjamin? Ben-ja-min, what’s got you so dreamy?”
I face my wife and she offers me a cup of coffee.
“Thank you honey” I say as I squeeze her free hand in mine.
“What’s this? New?”
She shakes her head and I inhale the scent of the bitter roasted beans.
“Same as yesterday?” I lean in toward her and kiss her cheek as I try to see if she has the coffee bag in her hand. We do what looks like a dance as I try to get around her to see what she’s holding behind her back.
“Stop it silly. No, the coffee didn’t change.”
This time of morning is my favorite. It’s the quiet time when I can enjoy my first cup of coffee at my own desired speed. I can read or talk with Ruth or just stare out the window. This is also the time when the home nurse usually arrives. Sheila has become a fixture here and almost like family since Mama’s condition worsened months ago. Mama’s doctor also stops by, though not as often as the nurse. Dr. Araujo has been my mother’s physician since she moved in with us just over a year ago. He speaks English with a musical accent born of having Portuguese as his first language.
Ruth is loading the dishwasher and wiping the countertops.
“Benjamin, where were you when I called you before?”
I stop reading my newspaper but don’t look up when I respond.
“I was right here. What do you mean?”
“No, you were off in space somewhere. I called your name a few times.”
“It’s nothing. I was just thinking of a time when Papa was alive, when I was a little boy.”
Ruth sits next to me at our tiny kitchen table and lays the dish towel over the back of the chair opposite me. I trace the crisscross pattern of red and blue lines on the damp towel with my eyes.
I hear a snap and look toward it. “Benjamin, you’re doing it again.”
“I’m sorry. I’m just tired.”
Ruth eyes me with a look of concern. Then she shows me a design for a play ground she wants to put into our back yard for the grandchildren. Soon we’ve left the concern behind and we’re fully distracted with the plans. She hands me a list and I’m out the door, off to buy wooden borders to surround the swings, slides and bouncing bridge.
I shouldn’t but when I’m driving I often fall deep into my thoughts. I try not to do it until I’m sitting still at a light of course but I have caught myself daydreaming while our Volvo is cruising along at highway speeds. Two blocks from home I start slipping down the foggy road back to my twelfth year.
In my mind I hear my Papa’s voice.
“Benjamin, I’m going to the park with your sisters. Will you come?”
I remember this clearly. I don’t know why but I can picture the good silver teapot on the formal dining room table and I can see flecks of daylight reflecting in it. I can picture the trousers I had on, brown and rough to the touch, the long socks with the red and green design on them. There is Papa smiling, almost jovial. And there I am reflected in the teapot, frowning and sulky.
“Papa, can I go with Albert to the pictures instead?” The words echo in my mind. How many times did Papa’s face look hurt over the years? How many times did I miss the signs that he only wanted my time? Whether I’m remembering his expression correctly or not it pains me to think of all the times I may have chosen to do what I wished to do instead of what would have kept us close.
I have regrets. I have as the term goes these days “baggage.” I lost Papa before I had a chance to realize what I stood to lose. Now I am losing Mama and we never even said goodbye. I think I made an effort once, just a month after she moved to live with Ruth and me.
“Benjamin, would you hand me that?”
“This one Mama?”
“Yes, that’s it. That’s the one Papa used to favor so much isn’t it?”
Mama had been polishing the ebony pipe with the hem of her dress. I recall there were scorched remains of tobacco in the furthest depths of the old bowl.
“Did you know he stopped smoking for you?”
“How’s that Mama?”
“I told him one day when you were very small that it would break your heart if you found out Papa was doing something his doctor had advised him to stop doing. It couldn’t have been a week later that I found his tobacco in the rubbish bin.”
“Mama, were you angry when Papa died? I mean my being so far away, were you angry with me?”
“Benjamin, what gave you that idea?”
I recall that was where our conversation ended. Ruth came into the room and it was as if the courage that I’d grasped only briefly and lightly escaped me and didn’t come back. I certainly tried to talk with Mama many times after that but it always seemed to end in some distraction. I wonder if sometimes she didn’t have a hand in those distractions. Mama loves to laugh but seriousness was Papa’s talent. He had a wonderful heart, but he could be so stiff sometimes. They balanced each other well.
In the lumberyard the smell is what you might expect, but each time I am around a carpenter’s shop, a home supply store, a furniture store or a yard like this it still amazes me how affected I am by the scent of trees processed into building material. Sawdust may not be so pleasant to my sinuses but the smell of a two by four makes me feel happy, silly as that may sound. To me it smells like life’s beginning. Parked, and out of my car, I realize I forget Ruth’s list and go back to get it. Reaching for the pink slip of stationary paper, I notice one of my grandson’s toys under the driver’s seat, just poking its Cookie Monster eyes out far enough for me to see it from this angle. It reminds me of one of the last times Mama rode with us to go to my granddaughter’s piano recital. For a few seconds I stare up into my eyelids trying hard not to let tears fall. I collect my courage and go in to the yard through a chain link fence more than twice my height. When I’m finished there I go to the grocery store and find some baking chocolate my wife specifically asked for. Then I drive to a sandwich shop that makes a vegetable plate I enjoy guilt-free, but after that I have butter pecan ice cream in a waffle cone at a shop next door, not so free of guilt. My doctor has warned me about my diet. I really should skip the ice cream. But I suppose everyone needs to rebel at times.
As I go up the long driveway from the road to our front walk it occurs to me that I’ve not seen Mama today. I’ll play for her a while, I think. The room that is Mama’s now was once the room Ruth and I slept in, and it’s the largest bedroom in the house. I put a small, upright piano in there so I could play for her. This was well before she slipped away and stopped communicating with us of course. But I still like to play for her sometimes. I like to imagine it brings her some comfort.
Ruth smells like baking if you can imagine that there’s a single smell for it. On her are aromas born of a hot oven and double boilers melting concoctions of various delicious sweets. Her hands smell wonderful, and so I hold them tight to my cheeks when she kisses me hello.
“How’d it go at the lumber place?”
“Good. Just fine. It’s all set. They’ll deliver the border materials a week from tomorrow.”
“Thank you. And the chocolate?”
I set the grocery bag on the kitchen counter and show her the boxes of baking chocolate.
“I think I’m going to spend some time with Mama if you don’t need me for anything.”
“No, go on. I’ll be fine. Did you eat?”
“Yes.” I say this with a sheepish smile and Ruth gives me a disapproving smirk, her hands on her hips.”
“Ice cream or donuts?”
“It was ice cream today.”
“Okay Benjamin, I’ll let it slide this time.”
She hugs me tightly, and I’m pretty sure she leaves flour on my shoulder. I smell it as I walk away.
My mother’s room, which was once the room Ruth and I shared, is now sparsely decorated. The textured walls are obscured here and there by old frames containing even older photographs. The one window in her room looks out over the back yard where my grandchildren sometimes go to play. Doors are all around. A closet door, a door to the hallway which leads to a den and two other bedrooms, a bathroom door, and a set of double sliding glass doors that exit into the screened porch where the pool is. I imagine if my mother ever does regain her senses her first question to me will be where she is. Her second question might be why this room is so ugly and bare. I wanted to make the room much more like Mama would have made it but her doctor and the hospice company both advised against it. She is very weak and it’s unlikely she can walk on her own. But that was not the case when she first started having serious bouts of dementia and so we tried to limit the things she might hurt herself with. We kept everything simple. The piano was something I insisted on having there and though it went against the whole simple theme it was important to me.
As I sit down on the piano bench I think of Papa, the man who first taught me to play. My father would have turned this piano into a landscape of wildly dancing fingers. The pictures on the wall would have vibrated from his raucous playing. The house would have been made more alive than ever before. For a moment I look inside myself to find out if he’s there. Is any of him in me? Once, I asked him this question in an almost direct fashion.
“Papa, did Mama tell you about the invitation for me to play at the Foster’s engagement party?”
Papa was holding his pipe but not smoking. I remember him doing that often when he read.
“What’s that Benny?”
“Papa, I asked if you knew Joel Foster had invited me to play for his daughter and her fiancé and their guests this Friday?”
“Oh! No, I don’t recall you mentioning that before now.”
“They’ve asked me to play a song as the guests are arriving or maybe more and then a special song.”
“Benny, that’s a wonderful opportunity! Why the frown?”
This part is fuzzy but I remember he was packing a leather bag with groups of sheet music, getting ready to visit someone, probably for his work but maybe not. Papa was always doing this or that to help someone else and Mama was supportive of it even though she said he worked too hard at times.
“Papa, I know I told you I wanted to chance to play for an audience but the Fosters are our neighbors. If I make mistakes everyone will know.”
“Benny, come sit down.”
We sat facing each other, the legs of our dining room chairs nearly touching at the points where their feet set on a rug which covered much of the room. Papa put one hand on the arm of his chair and leaning forward put the other onto my right shoulder and gave it a squeeze.
“You have a problem, but I can help you with it so relax and just breathe.”
My Papa had a way of taking on someone else’s burden whether it was real or imagined and making that person confident that all would be well soon. I don’t know if it was his nature or something he learned but he was one of the most cheerful, compassionate and steady men I ever knew.
I looked into my Papa’s eyes as he spoke and he into mine.
“Benny, this is very important so remember this. Everyone you play for will come and sit down before your piano with his own problems. Sometimes those problems will have made the fellow or the lady bitter and that bitterness might sometimes be taken out on you. But most people will want a moment of relief from their troubles. If you flub a note, start too soon or trip going up the stage they may laugh. But what happens then is up to you. You can either give them a second laugh and warm their hearts or, like those poor souls who’ve been overcome by their hurts, you can take offense and feel mean inside about it.”
“So if I make a mistake I just try to make it so I intended it?”
“Now you’re cooking.”
Papa smiled his big, broad smile at me, and I knew he loved me more than anyone else at that moment. It was just us two for that brief time, and I had all of the wondrous quantity of love that existed in him, all to myself.
I played that party and I did fine. I don’t remember whether I ever thanked Papa for his advice.
Now I stand in Mama’s room and watch her eyes blink and her facial muscles move, but I don’t see any sign that she knows I’m here with her. Her hair is freshly washed and she has on a clean gown. The covers are clean and the bed nicely made, despite it looking so technical and cold. The bed is one provided by the home care company and is not alone as far as the medical equipment in the room. But for now with the home nurse not around it feels like I’m just watching her rest. I gently touch her cheek but she does not react more than a twitch of her mouth.
“It’s me Mama, Benjamin. I’m going to play for you for a bit now.”
She does not react at all, not that I can see anyway.
The piano bench has a few books of sheet music on it, some mine and some which belonged to Mama and Papa. I put most of them inside the bench and move just one book to the music stand on the piano. The bench creaks as I sit. Just for some warming up I play a Scott Joplin tune called Maple Leaf Rag. I close my eyes and imagine people dancing. Because of the sparseness of Mama’s room and the shape, the acoustics of the room are not bad at all. The happy sounds bounce around the walls and ceiling and I imagine that I’m playing for a crowd. But as it is I am alone today in a strange way. If Mama is aware of the music she must not be able to let me know. But the music is my companion. Air seems changed by it. Even light seems to respond to it. Nonsense, you probably say. I know. But in a moment of emotion music changes everything.
After the Joplin piece I tap around the keys without purpose until I choose another book of sheet music. This time a piece by Chopin, a rollicking beginning followed by a trickle of soft notes. The song is called Fantaisie Impromptu.
When I’m like this I never want the music to end. I sometimes feel I won’t be able to breathe when I stop playing, like a fish out of water. This need for music, is it in the genes or just impressed upon me by my parents, I don’t know which. Does it matter though? Who really cares whether a shell is dropped by a child or washed up by the tide? It’s your treasure when you spot it on the shore, just the same.
After Chopin it’s on to more playful fare. A yellowed copy of Rhapsody in Blue sits almost discarded under the piano bench. I groan as my body contorts into an upside down letter “U”, all to fetch some paper from the floor. It’s hard not to laugh at just how old I am. When did I become so old?
This song by George Gershwin is among my favorites. I could play it again and again. My father told me once Gershwin almost didn’t compose this piece and had turned down the commission originally. But he later relented and it went on to be one of his best known tunes, though it didn’t begin with universal praise from critics. He had very little time to write the piece and so it was on a train where he found inspiration and went to work, finishing the whole thing in just a few weeks. So much of what we know to be Rhapsody in Blue would not exist were it not for improvisation that occurred in rehearsals and even now we don’t know precisely what the piano improvisation sounded like when Gershwin played the opening that first time before a hot, crowded music hall. There is love in this song I think. Just like my father did in the music he wrote, Gershwin listened to and watched his world and felt it in his heart and in his music all of those things his senses trapped are living.
Too soon the Gershwin piece is at an end. For a while I just look across the room at Mama and listen to the silence of her room. Outside the door I hear voices and I know my grandchildren are here. My wife and son are talking and the children are showing off something they did at school today. My mother doesn’t move. Her hands, once so animated and beautiful, are rigid and still now.
The light coming through the cracks between the curtains is fading. I know soon my wife will call me to the table for dinner. Just a few minutes left. I spend them holding my mother’s hand and speaking softly near her right ear. Words about my father mixed with words about little more than trivial musings, all of them seem to fall into the silence and be swallowed by it. There in the quiet room I study the features on her face and her silver hair. She is the same person in my heart who fastened my shirt buttons when I was three and helped me prepare for university when I was sixteen. Inside, where life really happens, she must be trapped and desperate for a glimpse of the world outside. I feel beaten by her disease, just thinking how helpless I am.
Goodbye for now Mama. I love you. Please come back to me even if just for a moment.
My lips move a bit but no sound emerges. The words are trapped in my throat just as hers are within her mind. Almost like a prayer I talk silently to her as I travel the steps between her bed and the door.
Dinner is pleasant. My wife is in good spirits and we talk about the possibility of making a trip to see my youngest sister and her family, though we both know it isn’t likely to happen while Mama is here. The meal is rich and comforting. There are potatoes with little onions and garlic. I have a piece of chicken with a creamy hollandaise sauce and she has a salad with bits of salmon in it. The music is soothing and soulful. She’s put on a Sonny Rollins record on the phonograph. Later my wife and I both look in on this silent member of the household with whom we miss being. It’s as if we have a memorial in our home but neither of us will speak those words aloud.
Sensing my pain, my wife holds my hand as we stand next to the bed. The home nurse is here and a dim light is on to help her with her work. My wife and the nurse talk in hushed voices about Mama’s condition and the signs that her general health is worsening. I try to speak but find the lump in my throat too great to talk through. I try to hide these emotions from the nurse. I don’t know why really. My eyes float, blurry with tears and I excuse myself, wiping my eyes with my sleeve as I leave the room.
In the hallway, away from the voices and the murmur of the medical contraptions, I can hear the sounds of the house. There’s this symphony of white noise that I’m so accustomed to and is almost undetectable during the daylight hours. At night it commands much more of my attention. In this cacophony of pale sounds I struggle to find a quiet place to organize and calm my own mind. I know one place in the house that is nearly cut off from all the ticks and clicks and thumps and shuffles of mechanized things beginning and ending their respective tasks. The great room where the grand piano glistens in the dark is where I must go.
After the nurse has gone Sheila finds me asleep at the keys of the gorgeous ebony piano. Not a comfortable place to sleep but I suppose I found some comfort there. We talk very little on the way to our bed. Sleep comes for me very slowly but in time I’m able to rest. As I’m drifting off I’m thinking of sheet music and the grand piano and Mama.
Before light or sound I’m aware of a smell. I smell bacon. Like a roar my stomach loudly responds to the scent, and reluctantly I shuffle the covers, trying to decide which I want more, sleep or my wife’s cooking. Soon enough I’m there at the table. Today it’s Sheila’s turn to be gone for a while. While the house is empty I will play for Mama.
Sometimes when I’m sad or restless I scavenge through drawers, cabinets, boxes and other hiding places for things forgotten. In my mother’s room there is a small chest of drawers where old keepsakes are kept. Often when I’m alone with her these days I’ll look at photographs or other treasured items she saw fit to keep. I found a letter recently she wrote to her father, one which I can assume was never sent to him, after she and my father came to America from Germany. It must have been some time after Mama and Papa arrived in New York, because so much of it is in English. My German is only fair, but I’m sure I have the meaning wherever I don’t have the precise translation. In it she writes this.
Love, a formless thing, borrows us living souls now and again in order that it might make itself seen and heard. How do we know something we’ve never seen when it visits us by proxy? How? I do not know. But so moved are those in its presence that we who witness the meeting must declare that we know love’s face and have heard love’s voice. And having confessed such things our soul is laid naked and can never again claim the cynical armor of love being a child’s wishful dream. We must stand for love without regard to safety or convenience, or popularity then and forever, so long as we have warm blood.
She never saw him or her stepmother again. They died like so many others at the hands of a hateful mob too swept up in the roar of misguided patriotism to hear the pleas for mercy all around them.
As I’m placing the letter back in the drawer, among others of Mama’s things, I see a tattered, string bound portfolio. Untying the strings carefully and folding over the flap to look inside, I spill many sheets of music onto the top of the dresser. Among them I see one I immediately recognize as being in my Papa’s handwriting. I look closely at it and the other sheets above and below it. In a moment I know it’s the tune Papa wrote for his bride. It’s my Mama’s song.
Part of me feels confident I could play this from memory, but I haven’t, not for many years. It may be the most memorable piece of music from my parents marriage, but I think that may be exactly why I no longer played it after his death.
Over to the piano with the yellowed sheets of paper I go, without the feeling of having a purpose. But deep inside I feel something odd, almost a sense of being rushed. My heart beats a bit faster. Still, I’m not sure why.
Joy. That is how I would describe my mother’s song if I were given only a word to do it. Joy. My parents had a wonderful marriage but before that they had the good fortune to know loss and misery so that they could appreciate being happy, happiness born of a lack of great sadness. My childhood was filled with their love, and this piece of music that exists mainly in my memory is the soundtrack from that time of my life.
The piece begins softly. A heavy breath could almost keep you from hearing the first three bars. I asked father once why he chose pianissimo. He said to me, “I was afraid the first time I spoke to your mother. So afraid that my voice disappeared when I finally got up my courage to speak.”
And thus began their courtship. Father voiceless and mother’s long, delicate fingers gently touching her lips to cover her smile. She told me he made her laugh with his shyness, but at the same time he impressed her with his curiously intense eyes.
The music begins to build its tempo and becomes louder, just a bit at first. Mezzo piano is denoted by “mp,” which in my father’s handwriting looks more like “mo”.
Here are the musical recollections of dozens of formal meetings with family members as chaperons. The progression is all there in the crisply separated notes. No blending or sensual prolonging of notes here at the beginning.
Next bar a playful minor discord marks their first attempt to fashion a moment alone. A clumsy first try at a kiss or a clasped hand is remembered with this gentle conflict between notes.
Now a thrilling chord! So rich with complex harmony and beneath is a bass line carrying the heartbeats of two young people feeling life for the first time. Father’s heart beats steadily in the lower register while mother’s palpitations exist in the higher keys. Here and there are minor discords to recall the stumbling steps on their way to matrimony.
You must understand that this wordless “song,” this tune that the greatest composer whom I’ve ever known personally created, has the most simple theme. It’s just love.
What is love? As a boy I always thought so simply of it. Love is Mama and Papa. It’s all there in that song. All of it is there, each day, each memory held as in amber forever. In the chorus and the bridge I can hear my mother and father talking and laughing. I hear doors opening and closing. I hear hellos and goodbyes. I hear babies’ cries and the ice box in the kitchen tinkling. It’s all there in that song.
Then, something interrupts my playing. At first it sounds like a door opening, but then I realize it’s the hospital bed creaking from the other side of the room.
Mama is sitting up and looking at the wall across from the foot of her bed with her arms half raised. It’s as if she’s about to embrace someone.
The words that I felt would be shouted instead fall almost silently from my mouth. She does not seem to hear me. But then she speaks.
“I knew you’d come. Do you know how I’ve missed your playing for me? Must you really go? Please, just a few moments more.”
And with that said she slowly reclines back to the pillow, as if lowered down by strong hands. Her eyes hardly fluttered but simply closed tightly and then relaxed. She again was silent and still.
I stood there for several seconds with my heart pounding in my chest and a lump in my throat that I feared might choke me. When I feel calm enough, I call my wife. I call the home nurse. I even call Dr. Araujo. And I leave messages for them all. With no one to talk with about what I saw, I decide the best I can do is sit close to Mama. Maybe I sit still for a few minutes too long. Maybe I’ve not slept well lately. Whatever the case, I begin to drift toward sleep.
In a dream I find myself in a large rowboat, alone. I look out over a glassy sea, so still it almost looks like the boat rests on the clouds reflected in the water. Then the boat is no longer empty. Sparrows have come to rest on the oars and inside the boat. They are silent and still. Then a figure in front of me in the boat is there, a mere silhouette at first. But the fuzzy edges of the man’s body become defined and then overly defined, like a picture coming into perfect focus. Then the figure speaks to me.
“Don’t be afraid Benjamin.”
My father’s voice.
“Papa, is that you?”
My father’s voice sounds young and strong, but he speaks soothingly and with the same tone I remember as a very young boy.
“Yes, I’m here with you Benjamin.”
I sob and try to rise to embrace him. But my legs and my voice fail me. What comes out is a whisper, much like the hissing of air rushing from a punctured tire.
“I miss you Papa. Every day I miss you. And now I’ll miss Mama too. What is the point in it all? Why do it when the end is always so painful?”
“Benjamin, you don’t mean that. Do you know why life must always go on?”
I look down and study the wrinkles around my wedding band and the texture of my skin.
“Because of the music?”
I feel my father’s arm around my shoulder.
“No, the music is important, very important. The reason life must go on is so there will always be love. Love doesn’t exist without life. You keep me alive. You keep Mama alive now too. We will always live in you.”
“I feel inadequate Papa. I don’t feel like I’ve grown into a person as wondrous as you or Mama.”
“Benjamin, I felt the same way about my own mama and papa. You have grown into a fine man. You brought Mama and me back together. You saved Mama and woke her from that terrible sleep. You gave her back to me. You are more than we ever dreamed you might be, and we were always so proud of you. This is your time now Benjamin. Live! Let go of the hurt and live!”
The boat lurches and in panic, I fall into the water.
“Benjamin! Are you alright?”
Now I am awake. It’s my wife’s voice pleading with me to get off the floor. I’ve fallen from my chair during the fall in the dream, I suppose.
“I’m okay, I’m okay. Is Mama alright?”
“She’s the same Benjamin. I got your message and came straight home. What happened?”
I tell my wife the events, as I recall them. Before I finish Sheila, the home nurse is at the door. And she tells us that the doctor will be just a few minutes behind her. Though I know that my call to the doctor is probably the reason for him coming, I start to feel defensive, as if I now fear Mama being moved to a round the clock care hospice more than I fear what’s happening inside her.
Before the doctor arrives the house fills with family members Ruth had phoned on her way home. The sudden bustling activity in the house makes me feel more sure that my time with Mama is going to abruptly change. Everyone seems to be reacting with an urgency reserved for times like the one I’ve been dreading for so many months now.
I move to Mama’s bed and look carefully at her, searching for any sign of consciousness. In a moment, without any outward queue or precursor, she opens her eyes, looks around until she finds me, and then speaks clearly but with a tender softness.
“Please, play for me.”
That’s all she said. Play for me.
She said those words and closed her eyes. And just as quickly as she’d come back to me, to the world, she seemed gone once more.
Mama’s stupor isn’t entirely unbroken, but speech and particularly speech that is possible to understand has been rare for quite a while now. As I’m remarking on this to myself Sheila comes and touches my elbow gently to rouse me from my thoughts.
As I turn to look at the nurse, I realize the room behind me has become crowded. There is the nurse, Sheila, and Dr. Araujo. And there are my wife and my son Michael. My mother’s only remaining cousin Raizel and her grandson Jason are there too. For a time I just smile at all of them, with a heart full of pain and a desire not to hurt them by falling to pieces in front of them all. Without words, they all express to me that my mother won’t be with us much longer, and the effect is devastating. Sensing the struggle, perhaps, my son embraces me and he permits himself the tears I was trying so defiantly to hold back.
“Papa, the doctor needs to talk with you. Should I stay with you?”
Unable to utter a word without choking it with a sob I just shake my head and squeeze his shoulder gently. As they all exit the room, leaving only Mama, Dr. Araujo and myself, I do something I don’t believe I consciously intended. I sit down on the creaking piano bench and begin to play a song I was fond of decades ago, a song my mother would probably never recognize.
The song has a verse which was sung so sweetly by the musicians who recorded it, Simon and Garfunkel.
In the clearing stands a boxer,
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of ev’ry glove that laid him down
And cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame,
“I am leaving, I am leaving.”
But the fighter still remains
Maybe the song came to me because I thought my mother would last so much longer against this ugly disease. She was, in my eyes, always the fighter, no matter how gentle her disposition might have been.
Dr. Araujo stands near to the bench and waits patiently for me to finish playing.
Again I find words difficult to form without losing my composure. He keeps his eyes on the sheet music ahead of us.
“I hope my being here wasn’t too startling for you but I wanted to talk with you right away, and I didn’t want it to be by phone.”
I believe I manage a smile but it’s hard to know for sure. Everything seems to be closing in on me and even my hearing seems to be affected by the physical stress of what’s obviously unfolding.
“I believe your mother’s condition is worsening Mr. Zweiman. I know you wished for her to remain here with you and your family, but I wonder if it might be best for everyone including your mother if we moved her to a place where we’d be better equipped to manage her care.”
While Dr. Araujo is speaking I’m looking at the sheet music and thinking about my impetuous drive to play for my mother again, to revive her with my father’s music.
Finally I find my voice.
“May I call you Sergio?”
“Yes, of course,” he says, smiling.
His accent is pleasant. It’s full of that unique music that belongs to the Portuguese tongue.
“Please call me Benjamin.”
Silence blankets the room and for the first time I realize Michael’s children, my precious grandchildren are playing in the next room. For a very brief time Sergio and I crane our necks and smile the way fathers often do, long after their own children have stopped making a mess of the house and bringing it joyful noise.
Sergio gestures to the bench, and I gesture and nod. He sits down next to me.
“Please, may I tell you something, something not related to your mother’s care?”
I nod again, now looking at the piano keys.
“I lost my mother three years ago,” Sergio says with a changed, somber tone.
I don’t know why. It’s so unlike me to do this these days but for some reason I place my hand on his and pat it the same way my father would do when I was troubled. As if to make up for my strange behavior, strange by the customs of this country I call home of course, I ask, “Were you with her when she left you, when she passed away?”
Now he hesitated and looked some other place in the room. I thought I saw his eyes flutter for a moment as if to shun a tear.
“No, I’m afraid I was not. There was little warning. She was always so young, you know?”
He laughs with less than half his heart in it, and again I hear the music of his language.
“She just fell ill so suddenly. I was at a medical conference in Virginia at that time.”
His pause this time has great weight. We both wait for him to find the next words. When he speaks again he turns to face me.
“I do understand why you would want her here. I do.”
“I know I can’t give her the care she needs now. I just don’t know how to let go and see her in a place that isn’t home,” I say.
“Forgive me but I have been noticing the papers here on the music rest. Is this the piece you were playing for your mother when she became lucid,” Sergio asks me, with great emphasis on pointing to, but not touching the sheets of paper.
I nod and bow my head, again focused on those black and white keys.
“Please forgive me if this is presumptuous, but I feel that I understand how you feel. I can promise you that you and your family would be welcome around the clock. I would have preferred, just like you, she stay here, but now I am not only concerned about the decline of her immune system but also the risk posed to her if she becomes aware of her surroundings enough to want to try to walk on her own.”
Again I nod but now with a bit less of an exhausted posture.
“Can I discuss this today with Ruth and the two of us call you later to let you know our decision?”
“Yes, of course.” As he says this he takes a little notebook from the crisp front pocket of his jacket. Before I’d thought it was just a decorative fold but now I realize it’s crowded with many things. He sees me smile and remarks, “I have always been bad about filling my pockets with things I think I may need in a moment.”
“I am the same way. Do you know that every pen I ever have in my pockets fails me when I need to write though?”
We laugh at this and he puts his hand on my shoulder. His face is tanned and not at all like his age. His green eyes shine and I feel a warmth of empathy from him.
“I’m sorry you were not able to be with your own mother Sergio. You have my heart in that respect.”
“Thank you Benjamin. But I was with her in a way.”
“My mother was able to listen to the speech I gave that day because my brother Herman was there with me. He’s also a physician, did you know?”
“No, I don’t think I did. But how was it that she could hear the speech?”
“It’s funny but Herman has always been a technology guy and he’d just gotten a very nice new mobile phone. He placed the phone close by one of the speakers near the front of the auditorium so my mother…her name is Renata by the way…so my mother could hear me speak. She was very ill already, but Herman didn’t want me to be distracted. He knew how much that presentation of my recent work meant to my mother and to me. You see my mother worked so hard to get my brother and I through medical school here in the U.S. that she always put us before herself. Even in the last hours of her life all she talked about were Herman and my accomplishments that year. My mother died soon after my speech was finished. I did not speak to her directly but I dedicated the speech to her and wished her well and she heard me through Herman’s phone. So you see I was there in a way.”
We both look toward the door as the rest of the house rejoins us in Mama’s room.
“Benjamin, I hope you’ll excuse me. I have to get back to the hospital, but I’ll leave my mobile number with you. Please call me whenever you’re ready. No hour today will be inconvenient.”
I reach for his hand to shake in the American style but then he offers an embrace, and for a moment I feel less American and more human. This is not to say I don’t love my country. But there’s something odd about the culture’s resistance to men showing concern for one another without beating each other’s back as if both are choking.
We smile and say goodbye. My grandchildren run toward him and show their toys to him noisily as he says goodbye to the nurse and the rest of the family. Soon I am alone and the room is suddenly very quiet.
Later, once the family have all gone and the house is emptied of all but Ruth, Mama and me, I have time to sit and talk with my wife. The conversation is long, but very little of it about what we both already know must be done. In fact, when we do finally get to talking about Mama going to stay under full time care it’s just to talk about the when and the how of it all. The why and the whether or not have all been worked out by each of us, each in our own mind and own way.
That night, after my wife has gone to sleep, I return to Mama’s room and play the piano for her. This time she is not roused and does not move or even murmur. I give in and go to bed myself. And again I dream of Papa.
In the dream I am in Mama’s room.
Mama is sitting in a high backed chair, just like one she used to have in the parlor of my childhood home. Papa is standing beside her, looking from me to her and back again, his eyes beaming with love for us both.
“Papa,” I say. But the word is barely a whisper.
“Benjamin, do you know how much happiness you have brought your Mama and me?”
I shake my head but never take my eyes away from his.
“It’s time now Benjamin. Time for Mama and me to go. But we wanted to say goodbye and to tell you what we should have told you years ago. You were always our son, no matter the physical or emotional distance, and nothing you’ve ever done has made us love you any less than the moment we first laid eyes on you. In my heart and in your Mama’s heart you will always be our little Benjamin.”
My heart breaks inside me. I reach out for my Papa but like ripples in a pool he disperses and soon is gone.
I’m awake now, probably because of the effect of the dream. I look at the clock beside my bed. It’s too early to get up but too late to go back to sleep. I rise and head for Mama’s bedside, just to look in on her while I’m unable to rest.
As I watch her sleep, the thought occurs to me that this may be the last night I’ll watch her do so in these surroundings. Normally I would never touch the piano at such an odd hour, but the need to make the most of this time overcomes my better judgment. I begin to play the tune Papa wrote for Mama, but much, much more softly than before. I’m sure that it’s not loud enough to wake Ruth. Even I struggle to hear the notes at moments. I play through to the end and then turn toward her bed.
She still sleeps, still in the same position, no sign at all of the sort of awakening that I experienced the last time I played for her. But as I walk closer to her I realize I’m wrong. Her eyes are open, and she’s smiling.
Her lips move as if speaking, but I hear nothing. I place my ear inches away from her mouth. I hear her now, just a whisper.
“I’m ready,” she whispers, perhaps to me or perhaps not.
I’m not sure if I’m only now hearing the sounds and seeing the flashing lights on the devices near her bed, but suddenly the room seems alive with noise and flashes of colored light. Before I have time to reach for anything Ruth is in the room, on her phone with the nurse.
When my eyes fall on Mama again her arm is raised and her hand is reaching. Her eyes are open and she’s smiling at me. I see some pain in her face but mostly I see happiness and longing.
Her hand slowly motions for me to come near, and in a voice that is raspy and weak she speaks near to my ear.
“I’m going with Papa now Benjamin.”
The words come out in spurts, each one a labor for her to speak.
“Mama, please don’t go.”
“Benjamin, my sweet boy. I love you,” is her reply.
Then she continues, “your sisters, tell them I love them. Tell them I’m happy. Tell them Papa is happy. Will you do that for me Benjamin?”
I nod my head and I press my lips to her cheek. I have so much to say but I know now none of it will be said. So I say what I can manage with the time remaining.
“Mama, I love you. I will never ever forget. I will never forget my scarves and my guitar and my sled and your kisses. I love you so much. I love you so much Mama.”
And then sounds so horrible come out of my mother that I feel awful being pressed so close to her but I know that this is not my mother. This is a body ending and releasing and forgetting how to do what it did automatically for close to a century. This is death.
I hear people rushing into the room. I see see their faces. I hear sobs and wonder if it’s me crying. But no sounds come from me now. Now I sit and silent tears soak my hands and my lips, and I taste the salt and warmth of them.
Time becomes strange. All about me people are doing things, but I can’t grasp much of what’s happening. I just keep thinking that something is gone, someone is gone. Part of me is gone.
I wish I could say that all the happiness of a lifetime came to my rescue, but I would be untruthful if I said that happened. Tears and embraces filled the following hours until I was finally able to retreat to my bed. And here I am now lying awake. I know my wife is waiting for me to let her comfort me. She will let me have time before she insists on speaking consolations and holding me tightly. When I’m certain she’s asleep I leave the bed and return to the great room and to the grand piano. I sit down to it not quite sure it’s the place I want to be but I sit with purpose all the same. Like so many other times when I’ve been hurting inside I begin to play. I play “Mama’s Song” and imagine my parents dancing before me.
I should tell you something. I should say that grief can be overcome or something like that. I should say that the good memories will drive away the feelings of loss and the sudden emotional storms that leave our faces soggy and our bodies drained and weak. I would tell you those things and more, but I cannot lie. I will miss Mama and Papa, and that longing I feel for their smiles and their laughter won’t ever go, I know it now. But I promise you this. Love, and in particular the love that can be bottled up and preserved in music, will not die, and it will not desert you. As long as we love, life will go on.
Copyright 2015 Kevin Wallach, all rights reserved.