Tuesday, July 10, 2007

My Dad

Today is a day of anniversaries. Less so that it's the birthday of Marcel Proust, the author of "In Search of Lost Time" (formerly known by the Shakespearean inspired but less apt translation, "Remembrance of Things Past"), born on this date in 1871, than it was the anniversary of my moving back to my home town in 1980, having left the University of Connecticut and New York City behind me.

July 10th, I often explained, was the date of "my accident." The plan had been that I would move back to my parents to help with my dad for a while and in the meantime look for a new teaching job before moving on. Instead, I ended up staying, never really finding that job I had planned on, never writing the music I had planned to, nor living the life that had been part of my plan since I was a child.

Today is also the anniversary of my father's death. That hadn't been part of the plan, either, at least not then. It's been 22 years now, not a "major"anniversary like 20 or 25, but this is the first time since my mother died that I observe it without her. I didn't really think about it before, but I was talking with my doctor who had also been my mother's doctor and had known my father as a friend and patient, too: he mentioned that he hadn't really taken the time to mourn his own father's death until his mother died a few years later and I'm finding, perhaps, the same sense of a double loss as I go through the house they built together, finding pictures and memories that might not have come to mind in the past 20 years or so. I'm told, in talking to other people, this is not unusual: it is how we are. Our energies become concentrated on the parent that is left. Whether it makes the void larger in the end, I don't know. My focus in the past four months has been my mother, adjusting to life without her; but more and more I realize how much a part of those memories are of "them" and not just "her." And I realize how much more I miss my father that I had been aware of before.

Many of the pictures and memories are of my father sitting at the organ or the piano. The first photo (above), taken before I was born, shows him playing a little spinet over at a friend's house. Whenever there was a piano or a Hammond organ in the room, he always gravitated toward it. Friends knew if they were having a party and they invited my mom and dad, they wouldn't have to worry about entertainment because my dad would play for hours. He enjoyed entertaining people and he loved to play.

In 1978, when I was playing piano for ballet classes in New York, I wrote to my father how someone asked me to play "Melancholy Baby" and I, for all my classical training, had not a clue, once you got beyond a few bars, how it went. My dad sat down with a list he kept of the songs he could play from memory, collected over the years from the '40s to the '60s, and #1,000 on his list was "Melancholy Baby.

He had perfect pitch which meant if he heard a note he knew which pitch it was -- an A-flat or a C, whatever. They figured this out when he was still in school: the class had already begun singing "Happy Birthday" when he slipped over to the piano to accompany everyone and knew exactly what key they were singing in. It always amazed me to listen to him when I was a kid: he'd hear a song on the radio and could sit down and play it back - not just the tune but all the chords as well. I couldn't figure out why I couldn't do that myself - I still can't, for that matter. He never took lessons, in fact never learned to read music. When I started taking lessons at the age of 6, he would show me a new song he'd gotten the sheet music for but couldn't figure out this one passage: what was that note? how did this phrase go?

In 1947 (see right) he got his start as a "cocktail organist" playing some nightclubs in town. By 1955, he had a 15-minute radio show live from the Blue Mountain Hotel every Wednesday night (as I recall). I would be allowed to stay up to listen to it. It didn't seem extraordinary to me (I was only 5 or 6 at the time). After all, didn't everybody's dad have their own radio show?

I grew up with the Hammond organ and the grand piano in our living room, placed in such a way he could sit on the organ bench, play the harmony on the organ keyboard with his left hand, the bass line on the pedals with his feet and the melody on the piano.

My folks built their suburban dreamhome around this combination, the focus of the large living room. The original plans called for a dining room and a living room separated by an archway, but they took out the archway and placed the organ and the piano at the one end, the fireplace at the other end. In this picture, taken in the early-'60s, he was playing the piano. That's a Leslie speaker tone-cabinet behind the piano.

In the mid-60s, my dad started having trouble with rheumatoid arthritis and eventually could no longer play the piano which required more strength and stamina than his fingers could manage. When it became clear I was going to pursue music as a career and trying to practice in the middle of the house's activity was not very practical, we sold the piano and I got an upright which we put back in my bedroom. The organ, however, was different, and my dad continued to play it for a few more years, despite how his hands were deformed by the arthritis.

When he would go into the hospital, he would play the little spinet piano in the solarium for the other patients after dinner, a nightly sing-along. He had song-sheets printed up and he took requests. Soon the room was full and they had to move it to a larger lounge. It was good therapy for the patients but it was also great for my dad. When he was in for a more extended stay, J.H. Troup's, one of the major music stores in town, brought in a Hammond for him to play.

But eventually he could no longer play - at least not well enough for his own liking. After they became born-again Christians, my parents didn't want to get rid of the organ. They were always praying for the miracle that he would be healed and he'd be playing just like had been before. To sell it now would be an act of bad faith. Even though he could barely walk after a knee replacement, he still would slide over onto the organ bench to play some hymns for their friends who came by for prayer meetings. They often said how they came by to cheer him up and instead left feeling cheered up and blessed themselves.

At some point in the mid-70s, there was an accident and he broke his neck, riddled as his bones were with the rheumatoid arthritis. They put this "halo cast" on him to keep his neck immobilized, a steel ring around his head held in place with four screws that went directly into the skull with a brace around his torso. I don't remember how long he was in this contraption but as soon as he was able, he was playing hymns at the organ.

By 1979, he was confined to a wheel-chair. In early September, sitting opposite my mother at the kitchen table as they were reading their Bibles together, my dad got a phone call from a friend of theirs who had been led by the Lord to throw a surprise birthday party for my mother who would turn 60 that year. Now of course, he couldn't very well just blurt this out while she's sitting right there, so the guy started naming the months. My dad was sitting there saying "No, no, no, no, no" and then finally "yes." But now they had to get the date and so they did the same thing again as he went down the list, "1st? 2nd? 3rd?" My dad kept saying, "no, no, no..." and eventually "yes" without letting on that it was a little over a week away. My mother was looking at him like "what ARE you talking about?" The friend would make all the plans and do all the calls, but anytime Mom would walk out of the house -- to get the mail, to walk the dog, to make a quick run for groceries -- my dad would get on the phone and call them with more people to invite.

It almost didn't happen: they had planned it around a prayer meeting regarding some particular
need which, as it turns out, was no longer an issue the day before the meeting -- "an answer to prayer," my mother said but my dad was fretting about how they were going to get her to go for the party, now, without spilling the beans! My mother was not one to go out much, especially considering dealing with Dad and his wheel-chair, but they convinced her to come because it would now be a "thanksgiving meeting for answered prayers." When she got there, it was a complete surprise! I love this photograph, taken just as she wheeled my dad through their door. The look of surprise on her face is one thing, but the look on his face, delighted that they had all managed to pull this off, is priceless.

A little more than a month after I moved back from New York, my father had another accident. The doctor said if his bones had been healthy, it would have snapped his spinal cord and he would have died instantly (though of course one could argue if his bones had been healthy, it wouldn't have happened), but because they were porous and fragile from the arthritis, it merely pinched it, causing him to become a quadraplegic in a matter of minutes.
It was another five years of constant care at home, during which he regained use of his arms and legs and was able, for a while, to walk again, taking 66 steps on his 65th birthday, with one to grow on before a bad jolt in the wheel-chair broke his tail bone. There were occasional stays in the hospital before he went to the Lebanon Veterans Hospital where he had a series of strokes a month later.

One of the horrible things with rheumatoid arthritis is that it won't kill you. He had dealt with this for about the last 21 years of his life. His first visit to the hospital for some kind of treatment for it -- in the days when "gold shots" were the standard form but he was allergic to them -- coincided with my first week in high school: I was 15, he was 46. That, too, certainly wasn't part of the plan.

My dad was a typical dad who tried to interest his son in the things he loved. He was disappointed that I didn't want to play baseball -- or even watch it. When I was 6, they took me ("dragged me") to a Phillies game back in the mid-'50s when Richie Ashburn was the big name star of the team and I was so bored out of my mind, I sat there the whole time reading a pile of comic books I'd taken along. I guess they were hoping the excitement of seeing it live - the experience - would win me over. My father loved to fish but I didn't even want to kill the worms, much less the fish. But I loved being outside in nature, wading in the stream, watching the birds, catching newts and crayfish. I didn't always like getting up even before the crack of dawn to get to the good spots before the fish would start biting, but then what teenager would?

But when I started to show an interest in music, my father was behind me 200%. He didn't know anything about classical music but he had a few friends who did. My folks found out what that tune was I was listening to all the time on one of my little kids recordings when I was 3 years old and when I was 4 or 5, they got me my first record, an LP of Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherezade" though it took them a while to find one without a belly dancer's midriff on the cover which they didn't think appropriate for a 5-year-old. I was probably 10 when my dad came home one evening with a book he'd found for me: Rimsky-Korsakov's autobiography, "My Musical Life" which I read from cover to cover.

After I had started taking piano lessons, he wanted me to also take "theory" lessons about the language of music, more than just reading the notes but finding out how it works. When he saw me copying out one of the little songs for my lesson -- an exercise in learning notation -- he got all excited because he thought I was actually composing it on the spot. When I really did start to compose my own music a few years later -- certainly by the time I was 10 -- he was there but never pushy or judgmental. I had written a short piece for orchestra when I was in 7th Grade and he told a friend of his who played in the Harrisburg Symphony. So my dad took me into a rehearsal at the old William Penn High School Auditorium to meet the conductor, Edwin McArthur, and hand him the slim score I had completed. When he told us the orchestra would perform the piece on a children's concert, my dad contacted friends he knew at the paper, on the radio, at the TV stations, and we did a round of interviews and photo sessions. It wouldn't have happened without his effort and I know I took it for granted -- this is what you do, this is how it happens. Doesn't every father do something like this for his child?

But he never stopped being my biggest fan. When I had works performed at Susquehanna University, my folks would make the hour's drive up from Harrisburg even though by that time it was difficult for him to walk, much less sit that long in a car. After I conducted a Harrisburg Symphony concert he couldn't attend because by that time he was bedridden at home, my Uncle Bob congratulated me by wishing his daddy could've been there to hear this -- my grandfather, who had died about 4 years earlier, played the trumpet when he was younger and was the member of several bands in the area -- and when I responded in the same tone of voice that I wished my daddy could've been there, too, Paul Beers, a local historian and columnist with the Harrisburg Patriot-News, overheard this and assumed that meant my dad, who was no longer working as an uptown businessman or playing the organ in the clubs any more, must have died So he referred to me in his article as "the son of the late Norm Strawser" which got a number of Dad's friends shook up, since they hadn't heard. Much to their surprise, he answered the phone when they called the house to find out what had happened (Paul wrote a very gracious correction รก la Mark Twain in his next column).

When it finally did happen, we were all there with him to say good-bye. Though he had on occasion been confused following the strokes -- mostly language things, like nouns not having their accustomed meanings which made it rather difficult to communicate some times -- mentally he was still very good and his faith was still very strong. He had always prayed for healing and it took a great deal of faith not to be discouraged when he wasn't. But at the very end, with minutes left, I realized his eyes were once again the brilliant blue they used to be, not the milky nondescript off-blue they'd been the past 15 years or so, as if that too was a side-effect of the arthiritis or the medication. The healing had begun. And then, his breathing slowing down, he went peacefully and without any apparent additional pain or fear.

It struck some people as odd, but we buried him in his red fleece jogging suit rather than the more traditional suit and tie, the kind he had worn most of his life as a businessman or an organist.
21 years later, when we were making arrangements for my mother at the same funeral home, Fackler-Wiedeman, they still remembered that red jogging suit. But his Christian friends who'd come to the house for prayer understood: red was "the blood of the lamb" and when he went to be with the Lord, he would be jogging in heaven.

Dr. Dick

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