January 2010

Choices

January 21, 2010 12:45

Years ago, at the beginning of my violin obsession, I purchased a copy of The Art of the Violin and my father-in-law Walt, who’d just arrived for one of his regular visits, sat and watched the whole thing with me. It was a new facet of this man I’d known for fifteen years. He loved the old masters. Not a concert-goer, he nonetheless held an appreciation for the art and its artists. It was the only video—documentary or movie alike—I’ve ever seen him sit through, all the times he’s come to visit.

Yo-Yo Ma, performer extraordinaire, even by Walt’s standards, has come to San Francisco, performing a series of concerts. Back in August when I was buying tickets for me and my sister, who was planning a visit around a few of the concerts, my son begged me to take him as well. “Yo-Yo Ma is the only musician I really, really want to hear,” he said, nearly in tears. A quandary: my sister and I had made it a getaway weekend, just the two of us, staying in a hotel for two nights. My week-long fret with finding the right solution culminated with a decision to take my son to a Thursday night performance, the night I’d pick my sister up from San Francisco International airport. A win-win situation, an eagerly anticipated night.

But life got in the way. Or, better put, death did.

Walt died in his sleep last Thursday morning, following a recent diagnosis of a fast-growing brain tumor that was slowly but inexorably robbing him of his motor facilities. My husband, son and I headed south to Los Angeles upon hearing the news, in order to be with family and make arrangements. We returned late Sunday, the date of the actual service (to be brief and secular) pending.

Tonight, Thursday, is the Yo-Yo Ma concert. Today, Thursday, is the service, 375 miles away.

Choices.

My son made his choice with a conviction that makes me see the growing man in his ten-year-old body. He’s taking his grandfather’s loss hard. He’s at that impressionable age, discovering the curiously seductive slide into grief. How there’s great pain but, paradoxically, something wildly romantic about it, not unlike the high drama that hangs over wartime events and movies, eras that greatly interest my son. While we were in Los Angeles last weekend, my sister-in-law gave him a framed army photo of Walt, taken many years ago, during a military exercise. He’d been in a M.A.S.H. unit during the Korean War. My son’s attachment to this photo, to this memory of his grandfather is palpable. He insisted on joining my husband at the service, never mind that it would be a long drive, the service short with no fanfare, and that he’d miss the Yo-Yo Ma concert. The choice was clear in his mind.

Today, at noon, Walt’s remains will be laid to rest. I will be here, finishing up the day’s work early, before heading to San Francisco. I will pick my sister up at the airport as planned and I will hear Yo-Yo Ma in concert, as planned. A pang cuts through me at the magnitude of the choice I’ve made. I could have skipped the Yo-Yo concert tonight as well, hightailing it out of Southern California right after the thirty-minute service, and if I’d been late to pick up my sister, she would have understood. And yet, after eighteen years of acquaintance, I knew Walt. He was a good man, a punster pragmatist who eschewed sentimentality. Funeral services, to him, were for those who needed that sort of thing, which he didn’t. He focused on enjoying the present, not the past. He revered music, particularly Broadway show tunes and classical music (in that order). I sense the choice I made—as well as the choice my son made—were both right, ones that would have him nodding in approval.

This, then, is how I will honor the passing of my father-in-law. I will cease work at noon, the time of his service. I will pull out my violin and play a simple, soulful tune. I’ll wipe the tears that will leak out, chuckle at the memory of his good jokes (amid the sea of bad ones—he freely admitted that believed in “quantity over quality” here). A few hours later I’ll get into my car, drive to San Francisco, to Davies Symphony Hall, to hear a master performer. I’ll do it for myself, my son, and to honor the man who played such an important role in our family’s life.

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