Dad’s Violin

Since Dad’s funeral, several people have asked me about the violin. It’s a little hard to explain, but it goes back to a strange conversation – well, it was kind of a conversation; you remember how he was. I had gone up to his room to change the sheets on his bed. He had wet the bed again, and once again the diapers were entirely dry. I could have sworn he got up and took them off himself sometimes, just so he could pee on the bed. But however he did it, the bed was wet, and I had gotten him up on the far side of the bed, so that he was sitting in the soft chair in the corner, not the one in front of the TV. As he sat in that chair and I changed the bedding, he often talked, mumbled out mixed and incoherent pieces of information, a bland observation, a distant memory, a half-finished sentence, and I barely listened as he babbled on. Sometimes I wondered if he was just embarrassed, if he felt foolish because he wet the bed like a child, or maybe he felt the simple shame of being old. Maybe he chattered on without direction just to fill the silence. But you know how he was: his mind was slippery, just didn’t focus any more, and most of the time I guessed his talk was only the simple mental wandering of an old man.

That day, in the middle of his wandering he talked about music. “Did you hear that music?” he asked me.

“What music, Dad?” I asked, though I didn’t expect it to be a real conversation. And indeed, he didn’t really respond, and I just gathered the smelly sheets and began to wipe at the plastic bed liner, expecting his next sentence to be about some old friend I’d never met, or to ask what day it was. But as I glanced across the bed, I saw him there in the corner waving his withered right hand back and forth, as if trying to count a sporadic rhythm. “Tum-tum-de,” he seemed to be trying to sing. His face wore a look of curiosity and perplexity, an almost hungry, exasperated look, as if he were trying to remember something. More barely audible “tum-tee-tums” appeared and disappeared. “How does it go?” he finally asked. I guessed he was talking to me.

I smiled. “Yes, Dad,” I said. “Tum-tee-tum-de-da. Something like that?” I didn’t mean to be condescending; I was kind of listening. But, let’s face it: Dad didn’t make much sense those last days.

“No, no,” he waved me away. “It’s that music, you know. How does it go?”

I smiled again, maybe more with curiosity this time. He really did seem to be talking about something, and for a second I wondered if he was really remembering some old song. I tried to recall what he used to listen to. “Dad, I can bring in some nice music if you want. Shall I go get some nice music?” There was always a lot of time to pass. I could get some nice music…

“No,” he said again, “it’s none of those, not those, not those things.” Again his hand waved a broken beat and his face wrinkled with a kind of frustration. “It’s that music, that music.”

“OK, Dad,” I responded, and it was probably dismissive. But you know how he was. I expected the topic to shift; I expected it to mean nothing. But as I spread out the new bottom sheet, I saw him still at it, now with the left arm raised in front of him, both arms moving in no recognizable rhythm, yet seeming to struggle to express some perplexed, frustrated desire. Somewhere in the confusion of an aged mind he wanted something he couldn’t explain, not even, I suspect, to himself. Somewhere in the age-weary brain was a note he couldn’t sing and I couldn’t hear. So, on and on those frail arms sawed at the air, jerked and paused, trying to find some music in the silence, or trying to create it.

And then I wondered if in fact his hands were not merely counting the rhythm of his illusory melody. I wondered finally if they were almost making the music. His gaunt arms were barely bones draped in leather, so withered, so weak. Yet they wrestled in front of him, trying not merely to count but to do, to make. He was trying, I suddenly thought, to be almost caressing music out of an instrument. He seemed in fact to be struggling with a ghostly violin, bowing it almost violently in hopes of making real some melody he imagined or some song he had once known. Yet his face showed a frustration, like he was fighting to remember, as if it was music he already knew, music he had heard.

I paused in the middle of smoothing the second sheet, and for a moment I almost understood. But I had gotten used to his senility; I had become accustomed to not taking him seriously. Or maybe I just couldn’t face the possibility of the music; maybe I was too scared to think that the almost frantic hopefulness in my Dad’s actions was indeed like an artist’s driven madness to make something real. Maybe that’s why I missed my chance.

Whatever the reason, instead of listening to him play, I just took it for senility and asked maybe a little unkindly, “What do you want, Dad? Shall I bring you a violin?” He didn’t respond. He often didn’t, of course, so that wasn’t so unusual. But now, as I look back, I realize that, not only did he not respond to me then, but in fact he never responded to me again in those last weeks before he died, not even to my simpler, less mocking questions. Oh, he still talked those last weeks, but he never really heard anything I said. It seems that way to me, anyway.

And that day, as I finished tucking in the new sheets and the crushing pile of blankets he needed to stay warm, he continued to wave his arms, those weak and fragile arms straining to find some strength and subtlety, some power or love that would make music. He knew it was there, but how did it go?

That was, what, maybe 2 months before he died. And I couldn’t help feeling like I got it all wrong. So I bought that violin. It wasn’t a good one; it was second hand. And I laid it there beside the casket like I thought I was giving it to him. I know, he had no idea how to play violin, but, well, I wonder if maybe we could have learned it. Maybe he’s learning it now. Maybe someday he’ll play it for me, and maybe this time I’ll listen. How does that tune go? Tum-tee-tum…


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