It was always the music
— Lisa Bretones
There must have been music playing when my Dad came into the world. I can remember my Grandpa Jack always humming and singing, so I’m certain that my dad grew up surrounded by music. And then he gave that gift to us – he sang to me and to my sisters when we were children and gave us this wonderful gift of music. He lived his whole life like a song. To me he is like a folk song – a beautiful melody, purposeful lyrics, passionate, rhythm, harmony. Even Dad’s speaking voice sounded like music – deep, gravelly, unique, a tone of its own. You knew his voice when you heard it and it was wonderful.
Those who knew my Dad learned to appreciate his wit and his wise-crack sense of humor. He couldn’t resist a good joke – sometimes mumbled under his breath to those of us close enough to hear. There was the time in 2006 in Ireland when, after receiving enough blood transfusions to replace all of the blood in his body, he wrote a letter to the Irish Prime Minister requesting that he be granted honorary Irish citizenship now that he was a full-blooded Irishman (the humor was lost on the institution). He also got joy out of making us squirm when we were little girls, asking the mannequins at Macy’s for directions to the pre-teen department or breaking into an over-the-top version of “Hopelessly Devoted to You” on a random street corner. “Da-a-a-d!!” “Huh? What????” and then that smile.
Then there was Mr. Light. Mr. Light lived in his car and talked to us in a language only my dad understood and could translate. Mr. Light miraculously knew where we wanted to go for dinner (the purple Yet Wah? Again?), and he knew when the traffic lights were going to turn green. We spent years trying to find the “trick button” in my dad’s car that turned Mr. Light on and off, and very unsafely made my dad drive with both hands in the air so he couldn’t touch anything…but still Mr. Light kept talking. Blink, blink – hello girls (dad’s voice). Blink blinkety blink – pizza for dinner tonight? My dad kept this up for years and never tired of it….that was his tenacity, that was his way. He kept at things. I can imagine him sitting there with his hands up in the air, pressing wherever that darn button was…thinking, “Wow, wouldn’t it be amazing if years from now the girls still remember this?” I can imagine him there, consciously crafting a memory. Dad, you did it, you always did.
My dad grew up in Highland Park, IL – a suburb north of Chicago. When we were little, my dad took us to Chicago for a week every summer – once again, consciously forging memories, forging family bonds with our cousins, aunt and uncle and our grandparents. I know that Jennifer, Ashley and I hold so many memories of those summers – the kind that creep up on you when the sunshine feels just a certain way on your skin and you recall the Chicago beach – the one with the slide in the middle of the water, or the rain falls a certain way and you remember the Midwest Chicago thunderstorm that one summer at 2am, all of us gathering in Grandma and Grandpa’s dining room , watching the storm out the window, with Dad teaching us how to count the seconds between the thunder and the lighting; or stepping onto a tile floor and flashing back to afternoons of building intricate card houses on the cool linoleum floor of my grandparents’ sun room. My dad forged this family bond that would not have otherwise existed across so many miles. I am now living in Evanston, just a few towns south of Highland Park, and I am reminded daily of my dad – driving past the exit to the house on Ravinoaks Lane where he grew up, or hearing in a stranger’s words the way my dad never really lost the way he said “Chicuago.”
My sisters and I debated whether to talk about Dad’s 14-year long battle with myleofibrosis –we wanted to focus on all of the happy, positive times. Yet, this battle was such a huge part of his life these past years, and the way he confronted this enormous challenge reminds all of us of the stuff he was made of. Karen summed it up well – she said he fought with tenacity. His will to live was palpable and he took it on with the full force of his being. Let me share a story that will highlight what I’m trying to say.
A few years after his diagnosis, my dad decided that he wanted to go on another fox hunt in Ireland – he had done one before his diagnosis, and wanted to have the experience again. In a routine visit to his oncologist, dad explained his intentions and Dr. Damon told him it wasn’t a good idea. One of the side effects of the disease at that point was an enlarged spleen, and there was concern about it rupturing. But, Dad persisted as he always did….and Dr. Damon famously said to my dad, “OK, Harvey, but if you fall, just don’t fall on your right side – your spleen will rupture and you’ll bleed out.” Silence. “All settled then. Kar, shall we book the tickets?”
And then there was, quite simply, his love. Quiet, unassuming, unimposing love. Always there like an anchor, but never expecting anything in return. Watching him watch Karen, and watching how they loved each other – it was palpable, the pureness of it, the kind of love that poets ache over. And the way he loved me and my sisters is a gift I will carry always.
And then, it all comes back to music. I used to sit and watch my dad as he played the guitar and sang with us, how his fingers moved so elegantly and effortlessly across the fret board. When I learned to play, I only wanted to be able to make the same music as my dad, to evoke those same feelings.
When my sister Jennifer and I became B’not Mitzvah in 1984, my dad wrote and sang the song “Little Babies Mine” for us. Here is a part of what he sang to me:
“Lisa, listen well to what I have to tell
Listen to the message that I sing
As you go through this life, you’ll find happiness and strife
The key’s not what you get but what you bring”
“Bring flowers in the rain, bring an end to others’ pain
Bring peace and honor charity and love
Through your own you’ll come to know just how much I love you so
And God will smile on you from up above”
I listened, Daddy. I heard you then, I hear you now. I know that God is smiling on me, I feel the warmth of your love, and I will hold this beautiful gift you have given to me. I will cherish it beyond my own days, as I will pass it along to my children, and to their children, and on and on. You once sang, “Life is like a circle,” and now it is my duty and my honor to keep the circle spinning. I love you, Dad.
Karen asked me to read a passage from one of her favorite poems by Mary Oliver, University Hospital, Boston. Karen has been reading this poem throughout the past many years, and she feels this describes her experience of caring for, and loving my Dad. Her strength and fortitude is something I am in awe of – her unwavering dedication, her love for my father carried her through a pain that I can’t come close to imagining. We will continue to love each other, we will carry forward that joie de vivre that my father had, and the love he had for all of us.
“The trees on the hospital lawn
Are lush and thriving. They too
Are getting the best of care,
Like you, and the anonymous many,
In the clean rooms high above this city,
Where day and night the doctors keep
Arriving, where intricate machines
Chart with cool devotion
The murmur of the blood,
The slow patching-up of bone,
The despair of the mind.
…I look into your eyes
Which are sometimes green and sometimes gray,
And sometimes full of humor, but often not,
And tell myself, you are better,
Because my life without you would be
A place of parched and broken trees
Later, walking the corridors down to the street,
I turn and step inside an empty room.
Yesterday someone was here with a gasping face.
Now the bed is made all new,
The machines have been rolled away. The silence
Continues, deep and neutral,
As I stand there, loving you.”