Be a Star (To Matthew)

Be a Star (To Matthew)

….From where you are
To where I am now
Is its own galaxy
Be a star
And fall down somewhere next to me….

Pretty Things by Rufus Wainwright

Photo by Cora Lynn Deibler

You were afraid of us when we met you. I was newly off to college when my father was your professor. You were a student who played the piano with more power and technique and expression than any student of his I’d ever heard. That he’d ever heard. You yourself were nearly silent, and you held yourself in so closely, so controlled, so contained, away from the piano you barely moved. My father was always attuned to his students; to the whole student, not just the pianist in the student. He thought you needed a friend, and support, and he began to talk to you, and to invite you home with him for dinners. He was afraid you weren’t eating. He was afraid you were so desperately unhappy you might harm yourself. He began to talk to you, and my mother did too, even though you didn’t yet talk with them. Your trauma was deep, like a dog that’s been beaten over and over, and so comes to expect nothing more than more beatings. They spoke quietly to you and moved quietly around you. They offered you good hot food served in a comfortably untidy kitchen, lit by candles for evening supper. They listened to music and laughed with each other while they ate, and spoke to you, even though you did not yet feel brave enough to answer them. But over the weeks, as you realized there was no judgement of you coming from them, as you relaxed your shoulders and your back and you allowed your heart to open up just a little, they reached out their hands and drew you in and you began to laugh with them too. And your story began to come out. And you became, over time, part of our family. Because everyone needs family to love them.

In time, my father asked students who were having problems three questions: Are there problems at home? Are you afraid you drink too much or have a problem with drugs? And the third question, which was often the root to affirmative answers to the first two — Do you think you might be gay? What right does a teacher have to ask these questions of a student? This isn’t what their parents are paying him to do. Stick to piano lessons. But to the student who can’t form the words, even to themselves, it is a relief to have someone they respect and trust form the words for them and do so in a friendly way, with an offer of help with navigation of the new landscape. A relief to the student whose parents have sent them off to college and told them they can stay in school, that they’ll continue to pay for their education so they can have a livelihood, because they’re not cruel for Christ’s sake, but please don’t think you can come home ever again with that in your heart. You have a little brother or sister – who knows what you’d do to them, and what about your grandparents, what will they think? And the neighbors, and people at church, and where have we gone wrong and why why why are you doing this to us, never mind that you’ll spend eternity in hell. How can a child then show up for Christmas, begging to be let in?

Your parents were unequipped for life outside the narrow rural confines of their harsh and nasty Christianity. Your parents, from the tangled depths of their ignorance and confusion, their angry grief at the death of their lifelong assumptions,  made it known you weren’t welcome in their house. Their God told them you were evil and needed to change. And not just change, but repent, and repent with fervor. But they were wrong. They were the evil that damaged you from the get go. Your life afterward was a constant conflict of running away fast and hard, while also trying to find a way, any way, to fit back in. My father, not your own, taught you to tie the necktie you borrowed from him before a recital. My mother, not your own, fed you and hugged you. My parents, not your own, made sure you had money for groceries and someone with whom to talk over the decisions that have to be made in a newly blooming life. You considered changing your last name to ours. And we would have welcomed it, we loved you so deeply.

And how you bloomed, with your courage and determination, and my family as your touchstone. You traveled and met people, and lived in cities all over the country. You repaid my parents a hundred times over with your love and a soaring ride in a glider over Long Island for their birthdays.You took them to the Metropolitan Opera’s New Year’s Eve Gala with you; my father, in his tuxedo, and my mother, nervous she wouldn’t look right, in a black suit and black suede pumps. She wore diamonds in her ears and the pearl necklace she wore for her wedding. They saw Die Fledermaus sung on the most famous opera stage in the country, and at the elaborate dinner afterward, rubbed elbows with Tony Randall and Kitty Carlisle Hart. You brought us to your home in Santa Fe, and sent us off on a trip to the Grand Canyon, booking hotel rooms and steam locomotive tickets for the ride to the rim of the canyon because that’s what my children would enjoy. And we did too. But you couldn’t come with us because by then you were very sick, and had found out you were HIV positive.

And we were so afraid for you. It was that time before really effective treatment, but new diagnoses were coming thick and fast, and the stigma of a positive status was still damaging. Not quite the death sentence of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, but one had to be so aggressively proactive to obtain good treatment. Under the New Mexico stars, we sat out in the soft night by the fire, talking, me holding your warm hand. Loving you. Telling you. Not wanting to leave you. We were your family, and we were glad to be with you. Together is what we do best. Your sisters, by then, had pushed the rantings of your parents to the background, and rallied to your side. I was so happy for you. When we had to leave, they were arriving to help you. To join hands and solder that circle of strength for the murky future. You and your three sisters.

Your second oldest sister is a veterinarian and made of tough rural stock, and once performed minor surgery on herself. She gets things done and has managed to build a loving family of her own despite her parents’ parenting. Not satisfied with the treatment you were getting in Santa Fe, your kidneys failing, she got you an appointment at Johns Hopkins. You and your three beloved dogs flew to Baltimore on your friend’s private plane. And it was there that your aggressive lymphoma was diagnosed and where we gradually came to terms with your almost certain death. We visited you. So did your father and his new meekly poisonous wife. He told you you were going to hell, and why, so you’d know and it wouldn’t be a surprise when you got there. While he talked to his son this way, his wife nodded and smiled her support of his cruelty. After they felt they’d scared you enough to reawaken the self-hatred you’d spent years trying to sweep from your life, they produced a handful of religious pamphlets for you to read that would save you. Ignoring his wife completely, you found the strength to tell your father to leave and not to come back. That was good for you. You went to live with your sister and her husband in her big sunny house with your dogs snuggled in around you, and we could visit you while you grappled with chemotherapy and radiation and the brutal effects of antiretrovirals begun too late. It was a gift for me and for my parents to have you close. To be together.

There were a few weeks over Christmas that year, your favorite holiday, where the doctors told you you were free of cancer. You gained weight and felt good and played with your dogs and we began to hope that this was permanent. You missed your piano and Santa Fe. You missed the house you were building there, and the fireplace carved into the adobe, painted pale green and dusted with chips of mica that reflected the light of the flames so the whole thing sparkled like an enchanted corner. You and the dogs flew home. But by early January, you were weak and confused. Your sisters all went to be with you as the cancer roared back, peppering your brain and your spine, your hip, and your lungs. It was over long before you finally gave up, with the three of them holding you close in your big bed, along with the dogs who refused to leave your side. Looking out at the snow topped mountains in the distance, they read aloud our many messages of love and caring to you as you slipped into days of twilight sleep and finally died. You were only 31 years old and it was far far too soon.

I cried every day for months. Missing you. Not daring to admit or wanting to know I would never see you or hug you again. I hoped with a bone deep fury I rarely feel that your mother and father would forever be tormented with grief and guilt for how they had treated you, and for making the brief life you had so largely miserable. My parents were gutted by your death, you fully their son, but bore it stoically. They spoke often of you and laughed at the many good memories they had. You were the godfather to my sweet middle boy, and my children’s vision of you was the fun uncle who brought them books about a family of slugs afraid of salt, and books about pooping, and who loved Edward Gorey. When your sister had a baby boy, she named him Matthew, after you.

A year and a half later, we all flew to San Francisco for your memorial service with your sisters and their families. Your parents “couldn’t make it,” and I was glad they weren’t there. They didn’t deserve this last chance to be with you and to see you off. I went with my parents, my sister and her husband, my three children, and my husband. We stayed in Stinson Beach, a cozy town tucked in on the coast north of the city. It was my first view of the PDSCF0025acific Ocean, and my eyes filled with tears when I saw it. I knew you loved this place, and I wondered if you also stood here the first time, looking with tears in your eyes as you saw something so huge and so far away from where you grew up. From how you grew up. Did you ever believe then that you, a sensitive young gay pianist born in a rural wasteland that treasured nothing of what you were, would be in this place looking at this ocean with a family that loved you for exactly who you were? I wept to know that I would never stand there looking at it with you, holding your hand, we two country born Pennsylvania children, growing up so differently, but coming together into one life, in this place together.

We have no official permits. There are no funeral directors involved. You told your sisters to scatter your ashes on the westernmost point of land in Point Reyes National Seashore. All we have for this task is our love for you, some poems, some songs you liked, and you in your small wooden box, carved by your brother-in-law John, sanded and smoothed with love. We drove north from our houses on the foggy roads at sunrise to arrive at Chimney Rock before 7 am. What we are doing is illegal, and I know you’d have liked that. On the way there, we had to stop, as a herd of black and white dairy cattle crossed the rutted road. One stopped in front of our car and gazed at us with a deep black liquid look as her herd walked past her across the muddy road and disappeared into the fog lingering on the pasture. She looked at us for a long time. Still. Watching. Then she moved on. It was important and we were quiet in the car. You always liked cows, and liked the Point Reyes cattle as they wandered where they wanted, and people had to make way for them. We park our cars and walk a mile or so through the wind-beaten beach grass on a trail that leads out to the rocky point far above the ocean. The gray sky weighs on us, and I’m afraid, and dreading the deep wound of grief this morning is going to scrape open again. The wind blows off the ocean, cool and damp, but the fresh salt smell is exciting to me, so used to being landlocked. I think this is probably how you felt too when the smell of ocean filled your nose and blew your hair straight back, and it was clean and damp and scoured your heart of the stains left there from your struggles. I needed some scouring myself. I dared to hope that maybe I could find something in that wind from you to soothe that weeping wound in my core that doggedly refused to heal.

DSCF0084_1024We sat all together on the grass. A sea bird circled up above us, gray and white against the soft rolling gray of the sky and the fog, occasionally calling, soaring, diving down, way down, to touch the water, then winging back up, high over us again. Staying there with us. Your brother-in-law Jim, who always loved you, speaks to us, and we remember some of the good times. Times when you made us laugh. When we did things together; picnics, swimming, camping, city visits, your love of nature, the wilder the better. We remember Matthew who was strong and healthy, and free of pain and confusion. Matthew, who loved to tease and could always make us laugh. Matthew, who played the piano with passion and tenderness, pulling magnificent volume and gorgeous soaring music from the instrument with just his two hands and his big heart. And then we listened to music, the Indigo Girls, and that was when I started crying, and felt your absence most keenly. I knew for certain then, that this was our goodbye, our release of you. We truly never would see you again and now we’d have to keep you inside us, each on our own, to remember you. Such a fragile tenuous tie to you. Memories can be lost so easily, and are weak comfort when loneliness for you weighs me down. And while I desperately want freedom from this sadness that seems to have set up permanent housekeeping in my heart, I also never want to forget you.

The wooden box holding your ashes sat on the ground in front of us. Your sister brought a rock from home for your resting place. Your name was etched onto it, and the dates of your birth and of your death. We were each invited to gather up a handful of you, and take it to a place on that great jutting point of land high above the Pacific. A place we each felt was beautiful enough to hold you forever. I hesitated to touch you. I never had seen human ashes before, and wasn’t sure what they felt like. Dry and grainy, the coarse gray white dust with some larger ivory colored shards lay leveled in the box. I will never forget how you felt in my hand when I gathered you up. As I held you, and walked to the rocky edge to choose the right place for you, I thought to touch my finger to my tongue, to put a few grains of you into my mouth so you would be with me and in me forever, but I didn’t. Now I wish I had. I walked the edge of the cliff alone, my husband helping my children handle the emotions of this day. My parents standing together as they always have in everything. I was traveling my own path. I looked down at the heavy surf and saw a single sea lion rolling and diving in the blue gray water that glittered and shifted dully like a piece of polished labradorite. She stayed there by the rocks, looking up at us, maybe curious. Maybe knowing. I knew this was the place for me to put you. We each did this, choosing a place for our own reasons, on our own impulse, and parts of you were sprinkled everywhere in that big beautiful wild place. 

We stayed there with the quiet whooshing of the wind and the tide for a while, and then I knew it was time for me to leave and start down the path to the new life without you in it. I walked into the wind, salty, and eucalyptus scented, and it shushed past my ears with a quiet soothing sound. My footsteps were muffled by the cushioning grass. My tears dried and I took a shuddering breath. And then I heard my name. I turned, thinking my husband had caught up to me, but there was no one there. My heart began beating in my ears and all my senses were pinpointed on that sound, on my name in the wind. I looked around me. No one. I held my breath, knowing it happened, willing it to happen again. Above me, that gray gull was still circling, watching us leave this now sacred place, spread out, filing back to the car. All of us alone in our grief. I felt some comfort in my pain.

That day was now almost 15 years ago. And despite my fear, my memory of that moment hasn’t faded. I still miss you. I will miss you for the rest of my life. Every year, on August 13th, I send you a birthday thought, and every year, on January 29th, I remember the devastating pain the news of your death brought. I don’t think of you constantly anymore. Not even weekly. But there are times when something happens, something funny or ridiculous, or if I’m hiking, and the cedar-scented air is filling my nose, I think, “Matthew would have liked this.” When I’m with my family and we’re laughing, as we always are, we remember you and say to each other, “Matt would like this.” My middle son, your godson, is getting married in a couple of weeks, and I will surely think of you on that day, and wish you were there to celebrate with us. And sometimes when I’m running, my muscles loose and warm on a chilly misty day, when my mind is emptied out and relaxed and my music is turned down low, my breathing easy and rhythmic, I’ll feel you with me. And I’ll suddenly miss you with a sweeping wave of palpable awareness of you. And that moment is just for me, from you. You calling my name as the wind blows on my ears and a bird languidly circles in the sky over my head.

Matt 2.jpg



The Accompaniment

Many times I’ve wished my life had a soundtrack – a swelling orchestral accompaniment to celebrate my victories and finesse my failures.  My moments of sadness and longing would be so much more poignant with a cello playing a brooding melody in a minor key. And that last half mile on my run would be so much more spectacular with a brass ensemble playing a baroque processional piece in my ears as I pulled up to a stop at my front porch. Truthfully, that last thing already happened, thanks to my iPod, and it was gloriously triumphant and just whetted my appetite for the real deal—a full-service soundtrack, 24 hours a day.  But then, pondering this, as I’m wont to do while avoiding tasks I’d rather not face, I began to realize that perhaps my life already has a soundtrack, and in fact, has had one for all of my 50 and three-quarter years.

My father is a pianist, Professor Emeritus of Piano at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, where I grew up.  His 80th birthday last May 31st brought to a close his self-proclaimed “Year of Galen,” and heralded the advent of the also self-proclaimed “My 9th Decade.”  The piano has been a part of that life for about the last 70 years.  The only child of Robert, a carpenter, and Helen, a homemaker, who also sold Avon to help make ends meet, Daddy was born during the Great Depression, and raised with love and humor by Grandma and Grandpa.  They made sure he did the homework assigned by his teacher, his Aunt Mamie, Grandma’s older sister, in the one-room schoolhouse up the street.  They got him a piano, and he started piano lessons with Pearl Seiler, a graduate of the New England Conservatory, and a distant cousin, who taught from her stately home in Shamokin on her beautiful Mason & Hamlin piano.  They made him practice, and when he finished, he was allowed out to play with his friends who waited for him on the front porch.  They raised holy hell in the village of Snydertown, playing pranks that made people laugh and shake their heads, sometimes their fists, pranks that might get them arrested and into juvenile court today.

In the coming years he graduated valedictorian of his Sunbury High School class, left little Snydertown, graduated first from New England Conservatory, then Yale University with two bachelors degrees and a master’s degree in Piano Performance.  He became a lay minister at the Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary, and did a tour of duty in Korea with the Army, where, as the Chaplain’s Assistant, he was in charge of ordering the communion wine, to the delight of his friends.  He joined the piano faculty at Susquehanna after playing for the university president’s wife.  She liked his playing so much, she told her husband he’d be crazy not to hire my father, and so he did.  He married my mother, Deanna, nine years younger, in July of 1960, a romance nurtured in church youth groups and junior choir.  Her family was against them dating and didn’t approve of him.  He was a playboy.  He never held a real job.  All he did was play the piano.  That cracked us up as teenagers.  I was born 11 months later into a house full of laughter, good food, loving extended family, and music.

“Shhh…Daddy’s practicing.” That was the refrain of my childhood.  It wasn’t repressive.  We could hear how much work it was.  A phrase at a time, over and over and over.  Slowly at first, note by note, transition by transition, trying out a fingering and then changing it.  Then a little faster and again and again, then beginning again and practicing through that phrase until it worked and then on to the next sticky spot.  The metronome ticked along.  I liked to sit under the piano when he practiced and watch his feet working the pedals, my little body vibrating with the enveloping sound of the Steinway grand, and allowed to stay so long as I didn’t make any noise.  Scarlatti sonatinas, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Chopin mazurkas, and Liszt nocturnes were all names I knew before I even went to Kindergarten.  When I couldn’t sleep at night, and asking for crackers didn’t work as a delaying tactic, usually asking to hear some music was okay.  Daddy would ask “What do you want to hear?”  I remember, at 3 years old, asking for “a sonata.”  And an LP would go on the turntable and I would be lulled, finally, to sleep.

Starting at a very young age, whenever he performed we’d be dressed in our best clothes, allowed to stay up unspeakably late, and we would go to his recitals.  Afterward would be little cookies covered with powdered sugar, and fruit punch served by the incredibly beautiful and sophisticated ΣΑΙ sorority sisters who always made a fuss over me and my younger sister.  Mommy always looked so nice, and seeing Daddy dressing in his white tie and tails was indescribably exciting.  There was the last-minute search for black socks without any holes (family legend has it that one time a pair without a hole couldn’t be located, so a black Magic Marker was pressed into duty, and a black spot colored on the ankle under the offending hole solved the problem.  This technique was used years later by one of my own sons in a concert situation.)  Studs and cuff links were the next things to be found, and finally we would be ready to go.  Sitting in Seibert Hall at Susquehanna with the creaky wooden floor and the wooden and cast iron chairs, muffled noises from the women’s dormitory upstairs, the lights would dim, the piano (the good “Seibert piano”) would shine in the spotlight and my father would walk from the wings to applause.  It was thrilling and I was always so proud that this was my Daddy.  And then a hush, he would flip the tails of his tuxedo out behind him and sit down on the bench, put his hands on the keyboard, and out of all that palpable expectation, my heart pounding, the music would begin.  It was all familiar, but now it was fluid and uninterrupted and sometimes so expressive and beautiful, young as I was, it brought tears to my eyes.

My father’s playing was the backdrop for my life at home.  It wove its way through my sleep, through my play, through my snacks and my TV watching, through my homework, through Scrabble and Parcheesi nights, and through my own practicing when I began clarinet lessons.  When he wasn’t practicing, he was often listening and I developed a love for chamber music, orchestral music, choral music, and ballet: Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Brahms, Copeland, Ravel and Fauré.  When I played well enough, we played chamber music together.  He found a cellist on campus and we played a Beethoven piano trio, performing at Susquehanna and then at our church.  Together we played the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, both Brahms clarinet concertos and other pieces written for clarinet and piano by Hindemith, Poulenc and Weber.  It was wonderful time together and did a lot for my understanding of when music was good and when it was just ok.  Music was just fun too.  When the Deibler children turned 21 we were each led to the living room with great ceremony for a rite of passage.  My dad would play us a recording of x-rated Elizabethan madrigals, which, now that we were “adults”, we were old enough to hear, and all four of us remember laughing till we cried at Florence Foster Jenkins murdering operatic arias with her indomitable accompanist, Cosmo McMoon. When I was looking at colleges, I only visited one—Oberlin College.  With a world-class conservatory staging up to 3 recitals in one day, a creative writing department, and an Artist Series that featured the Cleveland Orchestra, Itzakh Perlman, The Chicago Symphony, Emanuel Ax, and YoYo Ma, among others, I was sold.  And even though I wasn’t living at home anymore, the music was integral to my life.  Even now, listening to James Taylor, Simon & Garfunkel, Brahms’ 3rd Symphony, Earth, Wind and Fire, The 5th Dimension, and especially Judy Collins takes me right back to Oberlin.  I developed my own tastes, but couldn’t wait to go back home, to talk to Daddy about what and who I had heard.

We four children were all indoctrinated early on that technical perfection, while perhaps impressive, is a dull performance indeed without feeling and expression.  You have to make the music sing to make it exciting.  Some of my favorite recordings are of Artur Rubinstein playing Chopin.  There are wrong notes, but I like that.  There is without any doubt a human being playing that piano in spectacular heart stopping fashion.  Thanks to my years of listening to music of all kinds, and the guidance of my father, I know in my gut when I’m hearing good playing, be it a piano, a chamber group, an orchestra, or a choir.  My heart pounds, I’m on the edge of my seat, I’m lifted along on a wave that escapes the walls of the concert hall.

In the past five years my dad hasn’t performed as frequently, and busy schedules have sometimes prevented me from hearing every recital.  Two weeks ago, however, I went to hear my 80-year old father play a recital of piano four hand music with his former student, now friend and colleague, Robert Snyder.  My dad and Bob have been playing together for 40 years, and it shows.  It was his first performance following mitral valve repair and triple bypass heart surgery in August.  Although unspoken, this brush with mortality has reminded us that there probably are not unlimited chances to hear him play anymore—something that I think we had all fancifully believed true up until August 17th.  Now every recital is a jewel.  One more opportunity to hear the music inextricably entwined with our lives and our hearts.

We are all there on that Sunday afternoon—me, my sisters, my brother, and of course my mother.  Like a page from the past, my father walks out to applause and a wave of family love.  He sits down at the piano and my heart begins to pound.  He puts his fingers on the keyboard and plays, and we hear that it’s all still there.  The notes, of course, but more importantly, the expression, the musicality, the feeling, and the intellectual understanding of what the composer intended. This playing is exciting, and after 70 years of dedication to the piano, to his students, to his family, to his art, my father is still the consummate musician.  I feel myself lifted along on this beloved familiar wave.  For 50 years, this has been the accompaniment for my life.  It will be there as long as I live.  And it is beautiful.