A Musician’s Saddest Task

This week, the joy and excitement of playing in ensemble and making music with others is bookended by the sadness and grief of losing an ensemble member and saying goodbye.

Last summer the evening recorder ensemble lost Ruth. She was hospitalized the week of our spring concert – after all her work to learn our challenging repertoire, she could not play with us. At our last class meeting I learned that she chose to only have palliative treatment for the leukemia that took her life only two short months later. But I had the chance to say goodbye, to tell her how welcomed she made me feel as a new member of the ensemble, and to fulfill the request she’d made many times – to play the harp for her.

Ruth played in this group for close to thirty years. When her daughter asked us to play at the memorial service, it seemed exactly the best way to honor Ruth’s memory and to say goodbye. The afternoon was a celebration of a life lived large, a life filled with love given and received, and a celebration of our own lives being enriched by having known and played music with Ruth.

Yesterday I said goodbye to John – too soon gone, killed as a result of a freak accident. He is someone I’ve known for years from attending concerts of the many ensembles he played in. A classically trained clarinetist, there was not a wind instrument he couldn’t play. The more ancient and obscure the instrument, the better, which is undoubtedly why he became a master of the hurdy-gurdy. He played in almost every ensemble at the community college – early music, baroque, big band – as well as more ensembles in the community that I even knew existed, including Celtic, Renaissance, contra dance band and klezmer. Almost any day I was in the music department I would see John, either with his head in his locker searching for music or an instrument, or scurrying to his next rehearsal.

He was so welcoming and supportive when I began playing with the early music consort last fall. He had a wicked sense of humor, and sitting just one chair over from me, he could always make me laugh and relax when the sight-reading and rhythms were just too much for me. Every week he reminded me that playing music was about having fun together. I so looked forward to many more years of playing together in consort, to many more years of getting to know him. I was just starting to say “hello” and now I already must say “goodbye.”

His brother asked that the consort play a prelude to yesterday’s memorial service. The church sanctuary is huge, seating a thousand people. Our joy at knowing John, and our grief at losing him poured into our recorders, and we filled the soaring space with sound. The music we played was from our hurting hearts, and was never sweeter or more beautiful.

The reception after the service included musicians playing a Celtic jam session. It was the kind of gathering that John loved; the kind of music-making where he would have pulled out any number of instruments from his backpack and played along.

So on this day, death is bookended with the sounds and songs of the living. For a few blessed minutes, there is just the music. For a few blessed minutes, healing can begin. The music binds us together, holds us tight against the sudden emptiness where John should be. And perhaps, if we squint hard into the fading sunlight, music allows us a glimpse of our absent friend, and gives us our only golden chance to say goodbye.

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23 thoughts on “A Musician’s Saddest Task

  1. Beautiful sentiments of two people you loved and were encouraged by, making them a part of your life forever. What a treasure for you to have known them. Blessings as you continue to heal from their loss.

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  2. Janet, you possess the soul of a poet … beautiful words, wonderful tributes to two lost friends. I lost a friend in February this year to leukemia. I was south; she north and I couldn’t get to her in time to say goodbye. We had one painfully beautiful phone call a few days before she left. She was the older sister I never had and I will always miss her.

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    1. Thank you, Cheryl. It seems to be one of the greatest challenges on this planet, this learning to let go of those dear to us long before we are ready to let loose their hand. And yes, we will always miss them.

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  3. I don’t make music, but I know how music connects us with those who have left us. I am saddened by your loss just as I read your post. I trust your friends know, feel and appreciate your thoughts. And you too, stay strong and take care.

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  4. Hello Janet: My sincere sympathies to you for the loss of John and Ruth. Life is too short sometimes. Since I am not a musician I do not understand totally the closeness that can develop between people who play music together, but I would imagine it could be significant.
    It brave of you to write this post and I hope it was emotionally cleansing.
    I think it is wonderful that you can preserve their memory in your heart and the hearts of others through the music you shared. 🙂

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    1. Writing this post truly helped my heart, and seemed to help others who knew him as well. Writing is always what I turn to. Somehow hard things are helped by writing my way through them.
      I am thinking a lot about the bonds that develop between people who play music together. It’s not like anything else I ever experienced. More writing about this is in order…..
      Thank you so much for your kind words and your kind heart. Janet

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  5. You made me cry, Janet! But in the best, most healing way. Today is really hard. Maybe I’ll go honk on a shawm…I bet he’ll hear me.

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    1. How could he not hear you honking on your shawm?!? I would bet he will be playing along….you know he can’t resist, whatever plane of existence and time stream he is currently occupying.
      I know the emptiness must be settling heavily on your shoulders today, without the distractions of travel and the memorial service. I am glad these words helped healing tears flow. I hold you and John in my heart. Janet

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  6. Thank you so much, Janet. You managed to put in words what everyone was feeling, and so beautifully.

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    1. Thank you, Theresa. Your comment helps put me at ease – losing John is so personal and close to so many of us, I was not sure I should post it. I am glad the words can help. Janet

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