This page is for my son, John, who died February 25, 2002 of colon cancer. John was a musician, a gardener, a computer analyst, and the father of two adopted girls. He was an extraordinarily gentle and sensitive soul who played classical guitar, flute and piano, and maintained a large vegetable and flower garden. He survived Hodgkin’s disease for 21 years, but another cancer finally took him. He was 46 years old. I was with him when he died.
Below are some selections from a thin volume I published in John’s memory (prose & poetry).
* * * * * *
Variations on a Theme
I. After the Funeral
Resting behind “The Healing Properties of Music,”
on a bookshelf in John’s study,
several pairs of glasses—
clear tinted lenses, each in a colored case—
indigo, russet, cinnamon, black;
months feeling the loss,
not so much the glasses, but his eyes
magnified behind them.
II. John’s Reading Glasses
Here are the reading glasses
John used in the hospital—
magnified lens for small print,
delicate gold frames,
ring-splotched, as if
tears slid from his eyes
onto the ponds of glass.
Once, in the hospital, John frantically
searched for his eyeglasses,
then found them
between the folds of his sheets.
Today on the desk near the computer,
though placed inside
a coffee-colored plastic case and
sorrow slips through.
At the funeral home,
behind his cherry casket,
a large funeral spray
bursts from an easel–
rolled Mozart piano sheets
tucked among roses, carnations, and daises–
(red, white, and yellow tears)
from Mom and Dad
to honor his music and
bond with nature.
At the burial,
coat tails snap like beaten rugs,
dust escaping into bitter
mourners hug themselves,
steam the air with breath.
After prayer, his musical friend–
one of the last mourners–
bends over his grave,
lifts from the spray,
the sheets of Mozart, and
carries them home.
The van turned the corner.
She stood in the driveway
Listening . . .
In the sweet gum,
where a robin carrying a worm
flew into a nest,
sun ribbons faded into the leaves,
the air still
with the scent of roses, and
“What name have you given your child?”
“John Stuart Harrison.”
“What do you ask of God’s church for your child?”
THE WAY IT WAS
In his teens, he taught himself to play the guitar. After a juvenile delinquent at school took him into the men’s room, ripped the watch from his wrist, stole his money, and beat the crap out of him, he took the Yamaha he got for Christmas out of the closet, began fretting the strings and picking notes. Long after the lights had been turned off for the night, he sat on the side of the bed, bent over the instrument, making sounds that reminded his mother of a coyote she’d heard when she was a girl sharing ghost stories at night with her country friend.
He’d always known violence. His father wasn’t a mild-mannered man.He and his brothers had tiptoed through much of their lives. Trying to understand, the boy checked out books on violence from the library. He did drugs and alcohol, and, finally ran away from home. He lived in a cold, dark, rat-infested room on Wethersfield Avenue and washed cars for change.
Later, he went to live with his brothers in Old Wethersfield, became a baker for Dunkin’ Donuts, met a girl, married, got a job as a computer analyst, and adopted two girls.
When he got Hodgkin’s, he brought out the guitar and began strumming again. He went back to school and got a degree in music. He played the guitar, the flute, and finally, the piano. During two years of chemo and radiation, music was his best medicine. He survived the Hodgkin’s.
Twenty years of playing classics like Mozart’s Allegro con spirito, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 98 in C Minor, Mahler’s 5th symphony. The keys were extensions of his hands. He became the music. John-music. It was his destiny.
Then he got colon cancer and died.
When the woman arrives to take her son to the hospital for chemo he has on the same sagging chords and stained jacket he’d worn last time.
“I composed a new piece,” he says. “Like to hear it?”
The woman is worried about traffic, and being late, but it warms her heart to see the son’s eyes eager, if not bright.
“Sure,” she says, “I’d love to hear it.”
The son pulls out a wooden folding chair and sits at the upright piano he bought for $50.00. The woman notices his hands, which are swollen from Prednisone. They hover above the keys. Pause. Then gently touch. He closes his eyes, faces the ceiling.
But for the tick of the clock, the room is still. The woman observes the son’s hair. Once thick and curly, it is now dull and thin. There is a bald place just above the nape of his neck. He seems unaware that his hair, fresh from the shower, is dripping water onto his shoulders. His fingers stroke the keys. He begins a piece that reminds the woman of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. The first notes are like whispers, and then gradually the music becomes more audible until it swells and enters every cell of the room. The son seems to the woman to be in a place of peace, somewhere far from the chaos his body is experiencing. “How can he be calm when his future is so uncertain?” the woman wonders. It takes all her strength to keep from caving in.
The woman’s stomach draws into a familiar knot. “He is good,” she thinks. “So good! How he makes the piano speak!” Shcancere wishes he could stay in the music, let it destroy the poison in his lymph glands. Let it heal him. She knows that later, he’ll be sick and weak from his treatment. He’ll throw up all night. Even so, in the morning he’ll rise as usual and stand in the snow waiting for the bus that will take him to school. With stone-jawed determination, he’ll attend his classes that will lead to a degree. Fighting back nausea and debilitation, he’ll try to keep balanced.
The woman watches as the son effortlessly moves his hands across the keys, the way he lifts his face toward the ceiling as if the music had wings and would take him there. She wants to remember this scene. Her twenty-one year old son not giving up on life, making the best of his situation. After all that’s happened his spirit endures. She straightens with pride, walks over to the son’s chair, and places her hand on his shoulder.
“Beautiful!” she says. “Just Beautiful!”