Time in the World
I considered the logistics of perhaps missing the first three or four hours of the job and only playing the last eight. In past years there have been guys who couldn't make the whole gig, and having fresh musicians show up who weren't tired definitely proved to be a relief. But I couldn't allow a 79-year-old man with a heart condition to ride three trains out of state by himself, and wouldn't forgive myself if anything happened to him. My friend was with his father up to the end, driving him to the doctor for chemotherapy, and setting a proper example of a son's responsibilities. In the end, I didn't have to choose, as God stepped in and resolved the conflict. Fear of the brutal wind and rain predicted for Saturday prompted the society to bump it back to Sunday. I didn't relish the idea of going in to my day job on Monday after such exertion, but I was glad that I would get to be everywhere I needed to be over the weekend.
I rode in on Friday night with another friend and his wife, navigating flawlessly. Traffic doubled our expected travel time, but we miraculously found parking in one of the most congested areas of Queens. There was no sign of the funeral home, and it took some wandering and a few phone calls to realize that, in typical MCF fashion, I'd done the improbable. Printing out two sets of directions, one for the church on Saturday and another for the funeral home on Friday, I'd read the wrong ones. We were ten blocks from where we needed to be, too far to walk. A former Army pathfinder, my friend's instincts took over and the first street we drove down led us practically to the front door.
We arrived in time for songs and prayers. It was a bittersweet reunion as six friends who never see one another, separated by geographic distance or family obligations, were in a room together all at the same time for the first time in six years. My friend told us of his father's last moments, how he slipped away peacefully after staring at a blank space on the wall and calling to his mother in his native tongue. He remembered the time he got to spend with his dad these last few months taking him to see the doctor, long talks they had and things he learned about his family. His father shared an amazing gift with him a few weeks before he passed away. “About your career...” he began, and my friend dreaded what his dad was about to say. He's an amazing painter, and has been teaching at our old university the last few years. Art is a difficult field that not everyone understands, and I remember the time my own father snapped, “Go draw your pictures!” when we were arguing over fixing a car. But in his final days, my friend was surprised by what his dad said. “About your career....you should try some modern art. Mix things up a bit.” When time is short, honesty surfaces. The father was proud of his son, and supportive of his chosen field right up to the end. I remember all the fights I've had with my parents over the years, but when I was being wheeled in to surgery and didn't know if I was going to make it, the last thing I told them was that they were the best parents in the world. It's sad that sometimes we only know what people really think or how they feel when the end is near, but it's more sad when we never know, something that's probably common.
The couple I rode in with had to take off to get their daughter, but some of my other friends were heading out to a diner. I joined them, and after getting his wife and daughter home my friend met us. Much to our waiter's chagrin, our meal turned into a three-hour conversation that ranged from politics to movies to life itself. Rey and my other married friend tried convince myself and another single friend to take a vacation, maybe go on a cruise to meet women. The concept of taking a week or more off from any job remains foreign to me. Only jury duty or being hospitalized have kept me out of an office for extended periods of time. I get caught up in my schedule, not just my deadlines at work but the various weekends I need to be available for various bands. My friends were shocked to learn I was a member of four bands, and when I thought about it later on I realized I actually belonged to six. There's one main Italian festival band I play with the bulk of the time between April and October, and a second band that branched off from that one when the leaders had a falling out. That guy only gets about four or five gigs a year, and actually called us this weekend with a new job at the end of the month. There's another Italian band from New Jersey I play with at least four times a year, and a local band I play with twice a year, run by the son of its founder, my former music teacher. If I ever needed to drop a group, it certainly wouldn't be that one, which honors the memory of a great man. Finally, there are two different fire department bands I belong to, though conflicting dates with the festival bands only allow time to play 3 or 4 parades apiece with those groups. Gone are the days of “doubles”, in which we'd play a parade, change our hats and shirts, and get a ride back to the beginning to play for a different group.
Part of the reason I threw myself into so much work over the years was to get over my ex-girlfriend. I also went through some hard times in college when my dad discovered he had blocked arteries, and there was more than one ambulance ride in which we thought we were going to lose him. “Ask your dad if he'd rather you play in the band or rather he get to meet his grandkids.” suggested one of my friends. I’m not sure how he’d answer that. I've heard the story of how my dad went to band rehearsal the night after I was born, while my mom was still in the hospital, because women don't let you forget stuff like that. Ironically, he gave up music after high school and it was only after seeing some old yearbook photos that my mom bought him an instrument as a present on their first anniversary. In any case, I'm pretty sure the music is important to him and he regrets giving it up for so many years.
The music isn't really the deterrent to a social life that I make it out to be, only an excuse for my laziness. People do it all the time. The drummer in one of my bands, who looks like a cross between Mike Piazza and Jack Black, has been married once before, engaged a few times, had a child with a girlfriend in his youth, and is currently engaged to another girl he impregnated. If he can find time, so can I, although he's a bad example since he only holds jobs long enough to qualify for unemployment, so he probably does have more free time than I do. But there are definitely more musicians with families and active social lives than without.
Death reminds us that time is short. When our dinner conversation carried on into the wee hours of the morning, I opted to stay over with one of my friends rather than trek home and head back out a short time later. We saw more old friends at the church the next morning, and it was a genuine gift to be reunited with my extended family in the midst of such dark circumstances. I was reminded of why I consider these people my brothers and sisters. There are common interests, but there's also advice I don't want to hear because it's probably true. And laughter flourishes, though sometimes at inopportune moments. Walking back from receiving Communion, I tried not to make eye contact with a few guys I knew were snickering. I was glad they'd wisely chosen the back row of the church, and when we all went out for lunch afterwards they explained that the way I was walking cracked them up. I later told my mom the story, and she did a weird little snicker herself. “What...?” I asked. “You do kind of walk funny in church, like your head bobs, sort of like a cartoon character...” Thanks, Ma.
Balancing the time we have in this world is a challenge. I'm the type of person that hates to miss anything, but the reality is I don't have the power to be in two places at once. Life is a series of choices, and only we can choose. We'll always regret the stuff we missed, and hopefully we had good reasons and can be thankful for the things we were doing instead.