I suppose every working man or woman has a certain anticipatory excitement on the way to a job… maybe not every day, but on special days. For us musicians, it never gets old; if it does, you've chosen the wrong profession. Usually I'm struggling on and off a combination of subway platforms and crosstown buses because my compensation has pretty much excluded the economic possibility of a taxi or car service. Except this one gig, where my 'boss' happens to be my neighbor and we ride downtown together frequently.
On the drive tonight looking east, a pumpkin moon was rising, orange-ghosty and huge over the Roosevelt Island skyline. It wasn't quite full-- I'd missed that, but still was glad for the panoramic view across the river and the sense of being on the way somewhere-- to stand up in front of some people (hopefully) and give them some kind of memory or joy. It had been a long complicated day without air conditioning in the first summer heatwave-- and a little over two years since my Dad passed. Night trips in his car were always upriver-- on the way home from Brooklyn or Long Island or wherever… me always glad whatever celebration or visit was over, that there was less to dread-- burdensome meals, hours in strange homes trying to be normal and sociable… feeling the judgmental glare of parents and waiting for the inevitable adult argument when they got home. I'd learned the pattern, and was just glad the faithful moon always remembered the way back to my bedroom window.
The death of my father, I've said many times, brought me a kind of relief. It was final… there was no more slim possibility of reconciliation or the tense notion of it. There had been a moment-- maybe seven years ago-- I'd printed out and shown my Dad a pile of articles I'd written-- blogs, essays… well-censored… and he'd given me a sort of near-embrace and said 'Let this be the start of a new regime between us.' It felt pivotal and grown-up, like some kind of breakthrough. But the next time I saw him, he'd reverted to that barely tolerant hostility he'd shown me since my college graduation where he seemed publicly pleased at my awards and achievements. And what have you done for me lately, I could almost hear him sigh under his labored breath?
I suspect my sister had something to do with maintaining my enemy status; it was imperative that I be deleted from the final recipe of his will. God only knows what false vendettas were added to the maybe legitimate ones to which he seemed to cling: I'd built a wall out of it. But one day past what would have been his 99th birthday, my cousin sent me a listing of his truly heroic wartime feats and medals. It came on like a surge today-- the pride, the humility, the legacy. Me… with my smalltime club gigs and shows-- how could I possibly fathom the aftermath of this kind of performance? The theatre of war, it is often referenced… here I am, the progeny of one of the great honorees… failing to understand the impossible wake of such a life-- caught up in the petty deeds of offspring who seemed more a requirement than an elective in his family reality. Here is a man who faced down death and massive terrifying wounding violence daily-- clearly marked but never whining about his trauma-- with an estranged daughter who was raised in safety and maybe suffered from occasional stage fright.
So I spent the afternoon and evening in some kind of penitent state-- with a bit of shame and remorse thrown in, a bit of delayed grief. Meanwhile a beloved musician had passed away this week; he often joined us onstage to sing one of his band's anthemic songs, and his sweet lack of narcissism was extraordinary. We were planning a small tribute-- unrehearsed, of course-- from the very stage where we'd all been together just six weeks ago. On the way downtown, watching that moonrise, I was a little excited to be trying a couple of his original compositions-- embracing the challenge and the music. As we started the first song, I saw a familiar profile in the audience-- was about to wave and beckon-- and then realized with a tremor that he'd gone-- what was I thinking? Was this a ghost? A mirage? Or just some generic tall rock and roller with a hat and dark glasses? And here was the first song, the dedication… I was totally thrown, and flubbed my way through like a blindfolded man in a cave.
So I failed them both-- my musical friend, who would have forgiven me-- and my Dad, who wouldn't have. Or maybe I got it wrong… maybe this was the lesson of the night: shame, a little unintended disrespect, to have messed up the great music…. but maybe I didn't fail my Dad. Even the chorus lyrics were questioning and ironic: 'She may call you up tonight/Then what could I say that would sound right?' Maybe it was just impossible to succeed, to follow an act of historic heroism that had no sequel. I felt a little faint onstage, but fought my way through the rest of the set.
Another friend gave me a ride uptown… He intends to live to be 140, and so has not even turned the corner into the second half of his story. As for me, I am looking ahead and behind tonight-- trying to forgive myself for my terrible performance (so many musicians and old soldiers use alcohol in place of forgiveness)-- not less for my failure to understand my father and accept his lack of forgiveness-- after all, maybe I failed him less than he failed himself. It seemed apt, on the childhood drive upriver, realizing with irony that I was on the Left Bank(e)-- our tribute-- and my moon had receded into normalcy in the hot night sky that promised a brutal morning in the urban world of no-air-conditioning. Me the post-midnight pumpkin now-- on the B-side, the roundtrip return-- still a daughter, in spite of it all.