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Thursday, December 1, 2011

My Mother's Kiss

Searching for clues, always. The red dot in my vision persists. The two other times chorioretinopathy afflicted me the red dot faded away in about a month, a relatively short amount of time. Often, six months is the rule of thumb. But it has been a few weeks already with no sign of diminishing.

I have thought a lot the past week, and I apologize for being behind on my emails to many of you. It is helpful to me to soak in a lot of your private comments and write some more "out in the open," so to speak. Sometimes, I wonder if I miss out on some universal truths if don't do it this way. The very nature of a public blog encourages me to be very honest.

The most interesting thing from my past week is another early memory that surfaced, one from my time in Australia in the 1970s when I attended a private all-boys' school in the first through third grades. The third grade was when I started on the oboe, and (the way I have remembered it so far) my interest in music began around that time. Before that I was into coloring, but after starting the oboe I was hooked. That was the way I assumed it happened.

Until I remembered something this week.

In the first grade we sang. Every morning we began in an assembly, all of us in school uniforms, coats, ties, caps, and we sang hymns while looking up to the podium lorded over by the Snape-like presence of our headmaster. He wore flowing black robes and when we didn't sing well he stepped aside the podium, halted the pianist, and criticized the lot of us. I hated singing.

But one day I remember clearly now. In the afternoon, our teacher took us to a different part of the school and opened a box full of jangling metal items. It was close to the Christmas holidays, and I took an instant liking to the twinkling sounds. I wandered over to the box and looked in at the shining items.

"Take one each, children!"

I picked a triangle made of chrome. A string dangled from it.

"Hold it by the string, Alexander, and hit it with this piece of metal."


The teacher organized us on risers and taught us a simple song where we didn't have to sing, only hit our instruments on cue. I loved it.

When we finished rehearsing our portion of the school's program, the teacher asked, "Which one of you would like to conduct this?"

I raised my hand.

"Alexander? Come to the front, please."

I walked to the front and faced the rest of my class.

"Now take them through the piece we learned," she said.

I conducted the whole piece with my triangle beater.

"Good!" my teacher said. "Do that on the concert, will you?"


At the performance, my mother sat in the audience. A few months prior, she had dropped me off for my first day of school here in Melbourne. She rolled down the car window and wanted me to kiss her but I would have none of it. As I reddened, she took note right away and rolled up the window so as not to embarrass me further. She drove off. On the day of the concert, I saw her in the audience but barely recognized her. Fancy scarf, styled hair and makeup. Not the mother I saw at home, the one who often yelled at me.

When our number came up we formed into rows on the risers and sang a hymn. Then we picked up our percussion instruments and I walked to the front. I conducted the song where we didn't have to sing, the one with just sparkles of sound. Then I went back in line and sang another hymn. Then the concert ended.

I wandered up to my mother, expecting to be led by the hand, wordlessly, back to our car. Instead, she astounded me by hugging me deeply and kissing me repeatedly on my cheek.

She bubbled, "You didn't tell me you had a special part! You were so good and I was so proud of you!"

I didn't think I had done anything special, but I took notice. Whatever I had been doing until this moment to impress my mother hadn't been working, but this one day where I happened to raise my hand and volunteer to conduct had blown the roof off her expectations of me.

Getting such a glowing response from her was never easy after that. I can't think of a time between then and the day I received my acceptance letter into Juilliard where she showed the same degree of careless glee. Not even the day I played my first oboe concerto in high school after winning a competition; she wouldn't even sit in the audience for that. She hovered in the doorway of the performance hall, reserving the right to wander off on a moment's notice.

Six years later I passed my first preliminary round of a professional audition. It was second oboe in the Metropolitan Opera, a top job. In the first group of seven oboists playing behind a blind screen I was the only one chosen to pass to the semifinals. (I didn't get farther than that.) But when I called her to tell her how I had finally made it past a first round, I was so excited, almost crying. She cried too, telling me on the spot it was the best phone call she had ever received.

The day I actually won a real oboe job, I called her too. She was more reserved about this call, saying things like, "Okay. Good. Okay. Okay."

The day one of my orchestral compositions had its New York premiere in Carnegie Hall, I bought all the tickets in the front box, closest to the stage. The box filled with family members who had flown in, everyone eager to watch this rite of passage for me. My mother was there, too. After the final notes (my piece was last on the program) the conductor called me to the front of the stage for my bow. It was a full-house standing ovation in Carnegie Hall. Not bad. As I walked off the stage I looked straight up at my family. Enthusiastic applause. My mother was clapping, too, but I knew how to read her eyes which squinted just a bit. I kissed my fingers and blew a kiss up to my family's box as it disappeared under my head.

Back at the hotel, I went to my parent's room to visit before changing for the after-party. My father beamed with pride, but I saw my mother with crossed arms standing quietly behind him.

"What did you think?" I asked her.

"I liked the violin soloist," she said. "Now she was good."

Well, I asked for it. And I knew the kind of response I would get.

A year after this, an MRI found she had glioblastoma, a deadly brain cancer, and a few months after that she was gone. Even on this trip to New York I wondered if something was wrong. I couldn't figure it out because she seemed too young to be going senile, yet straight lines of logic often eluded her. She would say we should walk to Lincoln Center, then right after that ask what Lincoln Center was. I should have known. In fact, I did know something was wrong but I didn't know what to say about it.

The morning after she died my father and I stood next to her open casket. He asked if I wanted a moment alone with her. I did. When it was just my mother and me alone, a sensation overwhelmed me. I felt she would rise up. But she did not. I didn't touch her hands, but I leaned over her face and kissed her forehead softly. The coldness on my lips told me she really was gone. I said only these words: "I promise to be a good son."

At her memorial service I composed a piece for four percussionists in memory of her, just sparkles of sound, bells and triangles twinkling for ten minutes. I can't believe I never saw the connection until now, the reason why I had to write for only percussion. Even the piece's title, "Memory Box," evokes in my mind not her own memory box but the box my teacher brought out with all the chiming metal instruments in it, the first time I knew such things existed. Also, it was the first time my mother showered me with affection.

We performed "Memory Box" in Detroit's Orchestra Hall, and right after that my father and a close friend endowed an oboe chair in her name. During the performance, MJ and I also flanked the stage, holding crystal goblets, running our fingers across the tops of them to produce a celestial hum. Towards the end of the piece, three triangles chime at different pitches while a log drum beats slower and slower like a heartbeat peacefully fading away. When the instruments all fade out there is only MJ and me, at opposite ends of the stage, running our fingers over the crystal, holding onto our notes. MJ lets go of her note, then it is just me running my finger over the crystal. Then I let go too.


  1. Ale,
    I've said it before, whenever I read your posts, I am completely there. Watching. Hearing. Feeling. At times I think we had the same childhood; Other times, they are so different. It isn't the places, it is the emotions and thoughts. So eerily similar. Perhaps we all feel or have felt these things as we grew up and just never thought about it. Your words make me think about it. I love thinking about it.

  2. Anything I could write after reading this seems trite. I have tears in my eyes as I read this, and my heart totally embraces that little boy.

    When I spoke with you today I was acutely aware of how 'there' you were, and how deep you are, and kind, and empathetic, and wise....and I felt that I was in the presence of greatness. Which sounds cliche, but I do not choose those words frivolously. You have endured much sadness. I am sorry for that, and I see it in your eyes. But there is a groundedness and a strength in you that is so are a blessed person as are those who have the honor and privilege of being close to you.

    All of this being said, critical and with-holding mothers aside, and soon-to-be ex-husbands who are acting and putting on false fronts in desperation and in spite....a little (or a lot) of humor definitely softens the edges. You have a twinkle in your eye.....I have always seen it, even not knowing you personally, and I have always been intrigued by everything I have known about you externally. These blogs, and our conversation today, are a gift. To me, and anyone else who might be in a place to 'see.' Please keep sharing your thoughts and opening the door to your soul, because you have the ability to make intangible concepts and feelings accessible.

    And I am still angry that you have to continue this horrid role as 'patient.' But I will let that be for now. And I will look forward to happier conversations where wry humor can rule the moment instead of gut-wrenching realities.