In the classic children’s book Love You Forever, Robert Munsch and illustrator Sheila McGraw manage—with a few powerful stanzas and heart-wrenching drawings—to get to the obvious, essential core of parenthood. Circle of life, cradle to grave—all that. I used to read this story to my kids at bed time. Not once did I finish the last page without bursting into tears.
It’s September 20th, 2014. I have two big events today, neither of which I anticipate with glee. This morning, I’m driving our twenty-year-old son, who has been educated in Germany, to the Düsseldorf airport. He’s headed to California for a senior-year university exchange semester at UC Riverside. Later, after I drop him off and drive back home, I must shift gears, spackle my face, and drive two hours to play a concert in a chapel at a funeral home. Not a memorial service, but an actual concert. Who plays a concert at a funeral home?
My husband, John the Bassist, is out of town on a tour, so, as often happens, I’m flying solo on the airport drop-off.
It’s an hour to Düsseldorf airport, my least favorite of the sleek German transportation hubs, mainly because the shiny granite floor—so gleaming it seems to undulate under my feet—makes me dizzy and slightly nauseated. I’m at this airport often. This past summer, I made sixteen trips to drop off and fetch family members.
With the German university system—free, quality education, no hoopla—we’ve missed out on the American “move your kid into a college dorm” rite of passage. I feel a little bad that I’m not going with our boy to help him settle into his first “student residence,” but it’s too expensive for me to fly with him, plus he has travelled alone to other education programs in Europe, South Africa, and Israel, so it’s not like he needs me to go along and organize his sock drawer. Even though he’ll be gone for four months, he’s traveling with one suitcase and a carry-on. My son, the world’s tallest minimalist.
I feel the blues coming on. Every time he leaves, I know he is one step closer to gone for good. We park the car, get his bag checked in, and grab a chalky imitation-coffee beverage at Starbucks.
I’m not good at goodbyes, but I hover stoically at a distance and hold it together as he ambles to the security gate. I wonder if this ever gets easier. Right before he passes through the glass door, he turns around and yells in his booming baritone man-boy voice, “Love you forever, Mom!”
Whenever our son leaves home for an extended period of time, I think back to the day he was born, in December 1992. After a very long pregnancy—forty-two weeks, plus—I finally went into labor. I had stopped playing gigs at thirty-nine weeks, mainly because I had fallen on a slippery street (on my way to a piano job) and broken my arm at the elbow. I was a mess. My shoes didn’t fit, my one dress looked pretty shabby, and my husband had to give me baths to avoid getting my cast wet. So much for dignity; I had morphed into a barefoot, pregnant, one-armed Piano Girl.
On the day of the Big Event, my water broke at nine in the morning. Shortly thereafter, labor pains started. My hospital bag had been packed for weeks.
“Are you sure?” said John. “This could be another pishap.” A few weeks prior, I had sneezed while waiting in line at a liquor store (not a good look for a pregnant gal), wet my pants, and assumed the baby was on the way. Wrong.
“Real deal,” I said. “Let’s go.”
“Wait,” said John. “I need my snacks.” We had taken pre-natal classes and the teacher told us to make sure we packed snacks for the coach.
“Really?” I said. “I’m in labor and you’re making peanut butter sandwiches?”
“Could be a long day. Gotta keep up my strength.”
The labor pains were kind of weak, so I sat on the couch and checked my watch while the coach packed his damn snack bag. Off to the doctor. By the time we arrived at her office, the pains had stopped.
“This baby is never coming,” I told her.
“Oh yes, he is,” she said. “One way or another. I’ll meet you at the hospital later today.”
We checked into NYU Medical Center and a technician hooked up an IV to administer a labor-inducing drug. Opposite world at its finest; most of the time we take drugs to avoid pain—this time we were hoping to bring it on. The orders were clear: No food, no water, no walking, no fun. The labor pains were twenty minutes apart.
“Now, look,” said the nurse to John. “We need to measure your wife’s urine output. This is your job. You get the bedpan under her whenever she needs it and place it on the table when she is finished. Then we can measure the fluid.”
“Excuse me?” I said. “I never, ever do toilet things in front of my husband. We have a closed-door policy in the bathroom.”
“Well, get over it,” the nurse said. “He’s gonna see a lot worse than urine by the time this day is over.”
“It’s fine, Robin,” said John. He was using his calm voice, the one that indicated he wasn’t feeling very calm at all.
“Okay, okay.” I said. The nurses must have a long list of silly tasks to keep husbands occupied. Maybe this was one of them. Urine collector. Perhaps an appropriate way to start one’s fathering career.
An hour passed. No action on the labor front in spite of the drugs. I had to tinkle. “Sorry about this,” I said to John, “but get that bedpan.”
“Bedpan. Bedpan. Where’s the bedpan?” He searched. I squirmed on the edge of the bed.
“Hurry up,” I said.
“It must be here somewhere.”
“We’re gonna have another pishap.”
“Where is it?”
“You had one job.”
“Here it is!” he said, shoving a very small kidney shaped dish under my bottom. I’d seen intermezzo sorbet bowls that were bigger.
“Really?” I said. “That’s like a tea cup. I really have to go. A lot.”
“Not to worry. I found a whole stack of these things.”
Well. I filled up six of those little dishes, with John, like an expert plate spinner, transferring one after the other to the table.
Nobody had mentioned the balancing of pee-pee receptacles in prenatal class.
John counted his caddies of urine. “Look at that,” he said with pride. “Didn’t spill a drop.”
The nurse entered the room, stopped and stared at the urine buffet, and said, “What the hell is that?”
“I collected the urine,” said John, with a broad sweep of his arm. “Here are the bedpans.”
It takes a lot to make an overworked nurse in a labor and delivery-ward laugh, but laugh she did. “Those things aren’t bedpans. They are emesis basins. You know, in case someone has to spit.”
“But where are the bed pans?” asked John.
“Under the bed,” she said.
It’s a good thing the coach brought snacks because we spent a solid twenty-eight hours in that room, waiting for something, anything to happen. The doctor showed up and cranked the meds—enough to cause labor pains every five minutes, but evidently not enough coax the baby out of his perfectly nice hiding place.
Every so often a nurse/opera singer (only in New York) would come into our room and sing a few bars of a Madame Butterfly aria for me. Once, she brought in a swaddled baby and said: “Look, darlin.’ At the end of all this, you’re going to get one of these beautiful creatures.”
“Can I take that one?” I said. “And bail on the rest of this delivery thing?”
The anesthesiologist—my hero—looked like the neighborhood drug dealer, complete with tinted glasses, hipster hair, and a goatee. I asked for an epidural about twenty hours into the siege. A few hours later, the baby’s heart rate showed signs of stress and the doctor said an emergency C-section was necessary.
Because my pregnancy had been so easy—I had only gained twenty pounds, kept swimming and working, and, aside from the broken arm, didn’t have any health issues—I assumed I would breeze through the birth. I hadn’t researched C-sections—I skipped over that part in the What to Expectbook—and felt completely unprepared. And a little panicked.
Once I was on the operating table and prepped, the hospital staff allowed John into the room. He had eaten all of his snacks. A curtain hung below my neck so I could remain awake for the operation and not be traumatized by witnessing the procedure. NYU Medical Center is a teaching hospital, so dozens of uniformed people milled about the room. Team A—on the rhythm section side of the curtain—featured John in ill-fitting surgical scrubs, my friend the drug dealer, and me. Team B—on the business side—included doctors, students, nurses, and probably the entire woodwind section of the New York Philharmonic. I hadn’t had an audience this big in years.
The C-section started. Other than a little pressure, I didn’t feel much.
“Looks like a big baby,” the first voice said.
Tug, tug, tug.
“Looks like a really big baby,” the second voice said.
Yank, yank, yank.
“My god, that’s the biggest babyI’ve ever seen!” said the third voice.
They rushed him to the scale and cheered. Our son, at eleven pounds, two ounces, and sixty centimeters long, had set a seven-year record at the hospital.
I love a good round of applause, but the drugs were wearing off and feeling was returning to my lower body. Not to upstage my baby’s moment in the spotlight, but I needed help. The drug dealer, one step ahead of me, put morphine in my IV and, just as John handed me our son, I threw up.
Ah, that’s the purpose of the emesis basin.
A big baby requires medical tests to check for insulin problems, so off he went with the pediatric team. Honestly, our “infant” was so big he probably could have walked himself. John went to check on the baby unaware that the testing center was in the neo-natal area. So our son, screaming and squirming next to the delicate preemies in the ward, looked a little, uh, large.
“My god,” he said when he returned to the recovery room. “What have we done? He looks like King Kong.”
We could hear Kong yelping from the corridor. Finally, a nurse brought him to us—and that was that. He was larger than life and ornery as hell.
“Love you, forever,” I said to him.
I drive home from Düsseldorf airport and pack my gown and merchandise for this evening’s concert at the funeral home. I’m whiny and sad and the house feels way too quiet. Who plays a concert at a funeral home? This is ridiculous. I’m upset about my son’s departure, exhausted, and would rather spend the day in bed worrying about his flight, eating crackers, and feeling sorry for myself. But no. I have to play a stupid concert at a funeral home. What was I thinking when I took this gig?
I arrive at the venue—a handsome building in a far-away German Dorf, and, still reeling from the emotional morning at the airport, enter the place with a bad attitude. The interior sparkles with candlelight, crystal, and polished silver. Not a casket or urn in sight. The concert will take place in the chapel. A gorgeous Steinway B sits center stage on a large Persian rug.
“Thank you so much for being here,” says Priscilla, the promoter for tonight’s event.
“Who is coming this evening?” I ask.
“About 150 people. Our families.”
“Our clients. The families of people who have passed away in the last year. They’re still grieving, and this concert is a way to thank them for selecting our company to help them through this sad time in their lives.”
Oh brother. This will be the gloomiest event in music history. I mean, my music is already on the melancholy side. Maybe they should have booked a Dixieland band or something. Or a reggae group.
“Have a snack or some wine or tea,” she says as we enter the dressing room. “There are a few press people here to take photos of you during the sound check.”
Press people? For a funeral home concert? Seriously?
The concert starts promptly at seven. The place is packed. It’s also pin-drop quiet and emotionally charged. I start the program feeling sort of numb, but within sixteen bars a palpable energy emanates from the crowd. This sounds über new-agey, but I swear something spiritual is happening. I coast through a carefully curated set of compositions requested by the funeral home—“Flying, Falling;” “When Stars Dance;” “Peaceful Harbor.”
I don’t play particularly well—it’s far from a brilliant performance—but what I play is meaningful in a way I have never experienced. I send out my music. The audience absorbs the notes and sends them back to me—rounder, fuller, grounded—with their own truths attached. I don’t know how much suffering the people in this chapel have endured. I don’t know who is grieving for whom; I just know there are 150 strangers who crave comfort, and I’m one of them. All I can do is try to connect my music with their individual needs and hope for the best.
Following the concert, I stand in the lobby and sign CDs. Who sells CDs at a funeral home? It feels like shameless marketing, but Priscilla has insisted that I do this. I talk to many of the guests—mostly people my age who have buried a parent in the last year, a few elderly folks who have lost a lifelong partner. As the crowd begins to thin and my young assistant starts to pack up the merchandise, a middle-aged couple with two teenage daughters approaches. The woman extends her hand.
“Thanks so much for playing ‘A River Flows in You,’ ” she says. “That was Henry’s favorite song. I felt like he was right here with us.”
“Tell me about Henry,” I say.
The mother sighs.
“He was my brother,” says one of the girls, jumping to her mom’s rescue. “He was twenty-one and just finishing university. He played basketball and he wasn’t very good at it. But he liked music.”
Henry’s father, handsome and pale, stands to one side—the telltale scars of forced courage lining his once-youthful face. I’ve spent the day fighting back tears, but now I lose it. These brave parents, who surely have their own goofy childbirth story, their own tattered scrapbook of family photos, recollections of tearful goodbyes, and favorite songs, have lost their oldest son. They have chosen to remember him tonight by listening to piano music.
Henry’s mom asks me about my own children. I tell her about putting my son on a plane to the USA that very morning.
“Oh,” she says. “It’s hard to say goodbye.”
Who plays a concert in a funeral home? I do.
“We still miss Henry every day,” says the mother, always the mother, forever the mother, as she thumbs through a stack of CDs. She stops and looks up at me. “I’ll never forget the day he was born. I will love him forever.”
Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; Rhythm: A Novel. New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip.
Personal note from RMG: Here’s a gorgeous playlist featuring my favorite “gentle music” players, including Ludovico Einaudi, Robin Spielberg, Christine Brown, Yiruma, Liz Story, et moi. I’m really proud of this playlist and hope it will bring you peace and joy. Right now would be a good time to listen. Twenty-three hours of solo piano! Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.
Play the piano? Check out Robin’s solo piano sheet music here.