Turning to music at a time of loss can bring great comfort
I have struggled with whether to share my experience listening to music over the past several weeks with people who don’t know me personally, as that experience has been profoundly impacted by a recent event of monumental impact in my family’s life. With some reluctance, but with an open heart, I offer this post.
As fate would have it, 2012 got off to an enormously difficult start for my family. At the end of December, and on the last day of a beautiful family vacation in Mexico, my beloved mother Connie suffered a stroke. Two weeks later, she died peacefully in a hospital in New York City, surrounded by her children. She had never been sick before, and the shock of losing her so suddenly has been more painful than anything I could have imagined.
My sister and I were enormously close to my mother, part of her daily life. My sister and her family lived just five minutes from her in Westchester, and they saw each other, and did things together, many times each week. Over the past year, following the death of my mother’s husband Steve, I spoke with her each and every day on the phone. I was doing my best to make it clear to her that she was not alone, and that I was close by even if I didn’t live down the block. I treasured each of our conversations. She was my mother and I was her son, but we were also the closest of friends. We talked about everything, but most importantly, about what really made life worth living. She was beautiful, fun, wise, ceaselessly loving and generous almost to a fault. She had a knack for telling the truth but never offended anyone. She was a Bronx gal with a brash streak, and so much of her children’s personality came from her. She was a mentor to many family members and friends. She was truly beloved by everyone who knew her.
It has been less than two months since my mother died and I know it will take many months for life to return to even a semblance of normality. Thankfully, I have a large and generous group of friends and family around giving me their support. Spending time alone can be very hard to deal with, but despite having difficulties with focusing that have made it difficult to write, or read, music has remained a constant inspiration and a source of hope.
On the day after my mother’s stroke, I sat with my sister and sister-in-law in the waiting room of a hospital outside Cancun and waited as the full scope of my mother’s stroke began to be revealed to us (in the course of her hospitalisation in Mexico and New York, she never opened her eyes). I felt as though a huge thunderbolt had struck our family and taken away the most precious thing in our life. Sitting there in the waiting room I felt utterly lost and inconsolable. Everything had changed. The three of us were devastated.
Unable to read, or even flip through a magazine, and unable to go in and visit my mother yet (intensive care hours were strictly monitored there), I found myself reaching for my iPod. And there, on the worst day of my life, I listened to music that even in those awful circumstances was able to speak to me and bring light to me at a time of seemingly impenetrable darkness.
I started flipping through the albums on my iPod and listened first to the last of Strauss’s Four Last Songs. Next, I listened to ‘Mitternacht’ from Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, followed by ‘I Know that My Redeemer Liveth’ from Handel’s Messiah. At this point, I can’t remember the particular artists that I was hearing, but I found myself hanging on every word as though these works had been written just for me.
Then I turned to a work that quickly emerged as the music that most accurately captured how I was feeling: Brahms’s A Major Intermezzo, the second piece in his Opus 118 set of piano pieces. I had just recently downloaded a recording of it by Murray Perahia, which I am very grateful to have discovered, and that’s the version I had on my iPod. I have long loved this piece, but suddenly I fully knew why it was so important to me and what it was saying to me. Here in this heartfelt musical confession was the simple truth that life was profoundly, inexpressibly beautiful, but at the same time it was inescapably fragile and sad. Nothing much more needed to be expressed about how much I cared for my mother and how difficult life would be without her.
A few weeks later, as the horror of losing my mother settled in, as the routine of my new life became real, the realisation that music would still be there for me has been a source of extraordinary comfort. I am lucky to have so many loving friends to support me at this very difficult time in my life, but I also feel very blessed to have invested so much time in collecting and listening to music over the past three decades. Now, even at my loneliest moments, the sounds and stories of Brahms and Bach and Mahler and Debussy and Messiaen and Haydn and Chopin and Wagner – and countless other composers that I have listened to before and since my mother died – are all around me. They are inextricably woven into the fabric of my soul where they help keep me rooted and continue to give me hope.