The Waking Father
A Quodlibet, for the First Day of Spring
My favorite tree, the sycamore shows the process of exfoliation more openly than any other tree. The cause of the dappled appearance of its trunk is found in the rigid texture of the bark tissue, which lacks the elasticity common to the bark of other trees, so it is incapable of stretching to accommodate the growth of the wood underneath and the tree sloughs it off....
4 May 2009
My beloved 15-month-old Angel Boy-
Early this morning as you slept in your crib, dreaming of Triceratops and Froebel blocks, your Papa finished the final orchestral score of his seventh opera, Amelia, which he began sketching nearly four years before you were born. Long before you were conceived, your Mama and I knew that this opera would be our gift to you. Your name graces the score, of course. You'll be shown it when you're older, and you'll be told stories about whom your parents were when it was being written. We wonder whether you will learn to read music someday; I wonder whether the score's musical secrets will ever become plain to you. Your mother gave birth to you just in time to be cradled in her arms as the opera received its workshop; you'll be old enough to sit between us both in your own seat, snappy in your first tuxedo on opening night.
To me, the essence of music is singing. That's why the final ten minutes of the opera are a big instrumental sweep to an extended a cappella vocal nonette at the instant Amelia's baby is held aloft by her midwife, and then placed on her Mama's chest for the first time. The orchestra suddenly drops out, and the entire cast (doctors, nurses, family both quick and dead) raises their voices in a harmonically static contrapuntal celebration of the word "love."
Increasingly restrained in my expression markings as I age (because music says what it says, and who am I to know what it is saying, even though I wrote it?), I nevertheless allowed myself the only descriptive tempo marking in the two hour score when I wrote above these measures "unreeling like a montage of kisses."
The ensemble ends with Amelia singing "anything is possible" to her baby, ghosted by a woman (who may be Amelia Earhart, and into whom I poured my feelings for Mother) wearing a flight jacket and jodhpurs and gazing contentedly out into the opera house, singing Mother's dying words, "I was never bored."
New mother and father weep with joy, just as when you were born your Mama and I wept. On the other side of the stage stands an old man-who may also be Daedalus, and into whom I poured my feelings for Father-whose son-who may also be Icarus, and into whom I poured my feelings for Britt-has just died, following a fall from a great height. Slowly, he departs the hospital, clutching a small cellophane bag containing his son's possessions.
Your timing is perfect, for as I typed the date at the bottom of the final bar of the last page of the orchestra score, you awoke, and the music of your cries erupted from the baby monitor a few feet away. Life is music to me, and the music you and your mother make is the most beautiful of all.
...Atticus and I perched daily in the bay window of our sprawling Hamilton Heights Pre-war apartment's music room and looked down through the branches of the sycamores at the people and traffic moving on Broadway, five floors below. "Taxi cab," he exulted, pointing. "School bus! City bus! Limousine! Ah!" His joy was complete: "BIG truck!"
Two old men played dominoes in the sliver of park tucked between the north and southbound lanes. A drug dealer patrolled from 143rd Street to 145th and back again, slapping hands with clients. Spanish-by far the dominant language in the neighborhood-drifted up to us, along with a few bars of (part, unbidden, of the collective memory of most New Yorkers, in E-flat major) the Mister Softee jingle. Mothers pushed strollers west toward the 28-acre Riverbank State Park, a block away, with its spectacular promenade views of the Hudson River, the Palisades, and the George Washington Bridge....
On my cheek I felt the summer breeze on which were carried the comforting smells of grilling brats, newly cut grass, lake water, and Leinenkugel beer. Picnic Point, jutting out into Lake Mendota, in Madison, Wisconsin. I stood where, beneath the same sycamores, Father had bent on his knee to propose to Mother. I searched the twilight sky for my favorite star and found it, mouthed a little prayer, counted to three, balled the keys to my Madison apartment in my fist, threw them as far out into the lake as I could, whispered, "Goodbye."
The early morning sun on Lake Como behind Gilda made her glow like a Tintoretto as she blew on her tea. The light through the sycamore leaves was the visual equivalent of two dozen violins playing micropolyphonic parts very, very high, the upper partials tingling like an atmosphèric sound mass, shimmering, tintinabulous and gossamer.
Holding her hand, I glanced up into the branches forming a canopy above us as we lunched at the Hotel Excelsior Splendide. I was forcefully transported in my mind to the instant of my first memory: I was two years old, holding Mother's hand, looking up from within my stroller into the canopy of Elm tree boughs that intertwined over 28th Street in South Milwaukee like the fan vaulting above the nave in Bath Abbey.
...Standing nude in Denoon Lake, looking back to the beach and admiring Mother as she worked the Saturday Review acrostic....
...Most days, after playing together for an hour or so, changing, and having breakfast, Atticus and I walked together hand in hand to the park. The sycamores there filtered the light just so. We sprawled in what Whitman called "the interminable grass." We looked up into the sheltering branches and I whispered to him, "You know, honey-if there are trees in heaven, then they must be sycamores." His golden ringlets shook as he silently nodded his darling head up and down in solemn, happy agreement....
"Daddy, did you come to tuck me in?" I murmured contentedly. The sunshine, exercise, and fresh air of an entire midsummer day spent with Mother at Lake Denoon had rendered Kevin, Britt, and me as somnolent as nursing kittens. The hot day had warmed the unsealed cedar interiors of the house so that, even now, hours past sundown, it still smelled fresh and wholesome. Father had returned from Chicago for the weekend. It was past my bedtime.
The envelope, addressed to Master Daron Aric Hagen, Esquire, had arrived at the Big Cedar House that afternoon-the first piece of mail I had ever received. It sat, much caressed and deeply treasured, propped against the lamp on the bedside table. Inside was a typed letter that said simply, "I love you, son." I felt his scratchy chin. I smelled his aftershave when he leaned like a weeping willow over me. He tenderly kissed my forehead, and then gently closed the door behind him as he left.
I heard my own heart, the susurration of the rain in the trees, Britt's steady, healthy, reassuring breathing across the room in his bed as he slept, and then, from downstairs in the Big Cedar House, the sweet, quiet mousseux of my parents' affectionate laughter.
...My own music stopped in my head for a moment and I heard instead Benjamin Britten's music for Captain Vere. Was it Pears' voice from the distant past emerging from speakers, or Bill Burden's ringing tenor heard live from the stage? It didn't matter. "I was lost," Vere was singing, "on the infinite sea, but I've sighted a sail in the storm, the far-shining sail, and I'm content. I've seen where she's bound for. There's a land where she'll anchor forever...."
...Having spent a perfect summer day collecting interesting stones from the lake bottom and piling them on the dock for Mother to admire.
Kevin and Lukas had organized a festival of Bernstein's music, performed by the Milwaukee Symphony. Just before I excused myself and headed back to Kevin's house, Bernstein took the copy of his book Findings that I had brought with me to his suite at the Pfister Hotel and read the inscription Mother had written on the flap:
"To Daron- On his recital debut at Curtis, when the whole world was opening for him. My fondest hopes are that your 'findings' result in your being a humane and mostly happy man. Love, Mom"
"What could I add to that?" he asked, rolling a pen between his fingers like a cigarette. We'd been talking for hours. "Humane. And mostly happy," he mused. Beat. "She said it all. Or enough, anyway." Another long beat, as he thought. "You know, you'll have kids someday. Then you'll understand. How much she must have loved you." He scribbled "For my DH, Love LB" and the date and looked up at me, smiling crookedly. "You'll see."
Summer 2010...Atticus unearthed stones in the sandbox. Gravely, he presented each to me for admiration and approval-stone after stone, before carefully piling them beside me on the rail. I examined each closely; praised every one of my little Far-shining Sail's discoveries exactly as once Mother praised mine.
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