I wasn’t with Mom when she died. My last time with her was about a week before her death. I had come from my home in North Carolina to Virginia for the weekend, as I had every weekend since my mother’s diagnosis of stage 4 brain cancer three months earlier.
It must have been a Sunday and therefore time to make the drive back, because I had my clarinets with me in the hospital room. Mom lay there dying, for all real purposes comatose – her brain function had slowed tremendously and her body had begun to shut down. All throughout that day the machines monitoring my mother’s condition continuously beeped and hummed, a monotonous and terrible metronome that kept ticking down the time as we all sat waiting for nothing. As the time came close for me to leave, one of Mom’s nurses noticed that I had brought my horns with me and asked if I would play something. Now, in a normal situation I would automatically decline that request. This was not a normal situation. After a moment of hesitation I put together one of my instruments, an A clarinet that my Mom had bought for me at the beginning of my professional career, and began to play from memory. I played the piece I and every clarinetist know the best, the Mozart clarinet concerto.
I played. It was quiet. I could hear the sound of my instrument bouncing and echoing down the hallway and into open doors. I listened as the floor quieted. Then: at first ever-so-slightly, then more and more obviously the beeps which had been keeping time so steadily all afternoon began to quicken. Several machines ramped up their activity – her heartrate began to rise, her brain activity picked up slightly but obviously, and she began to breathe just so slightly faster. I played as though suspended in time, the notes coming to my fingers without effort. This continued through the time I continued to play – it seemed like a half-hour, but I know the music is only about five or six minutes worth. Slowly again everything began to return to as it had been before I started playing, and then it was the same. During it all my mother never opened her eyes or made any other physical indication that she had heard me, but I believe she had. I think she had. It was the last time I saw her alive, and the last time I communicated with her in any way. I have some comfort at least that she knew I had been there.
Now, coming on four years later, I am a father of a one year old son named Saul. A few months before Saul was born, I got a new instrument to replace the one I had played for my mother. I still have the old one, but unfortunately clarinets have a shelf-life and this one had just run its course and then some – it was hard to let it go. Nonetheless, it’s always exciting to get a new horn and this was even more exciting, a new instrument made by hand just for me. I hurried home after getting the instrument. Right away I sat Rachel down, in theory for her to listen and give her opinion, but really just to tell me how great it sounded and soothe my buyer’s nerves. As I played, Rachel jumped in her chair. It was Saul in her belly, moving and kicking inside of her. As I played he continued to bounce and turn, his gestures reflecting the loudness or softness of what I was playing, until I finished.
I put my horn down. It was quiet. I stood there quietly too. It was distinct: in that moment I felt and, I think, understood the connection that had just been made. There was, for just a moment, a bridge between two people who would never meet each other: my unconscious mother and my not-yet-conscious boy. It was almost too much to feel – the end of one life and the beginning of another, connected through me in a way I immediately recognized. It is a thing I feel lucky to have experienced and a thing I will carry with me until I die myself. Maybe Saul will be there to play for me.