This is one of those personal blog posts I never planned to write.
But I have a lot on my mind and not a heck of a lot to do here in my grandparents' stately apartment on West End Ave., where we're awaiting the delivery of a lot of hospital equipment so that my grandfather, David Labovitz, can come home tomorrow and leave this world in familiar surroundings with the things & people he loves.
My grandfather is a conductor, and my grandmother plans to play recordings of his concerts with the Choral Symphony Society and New York Cantata Singers: the Bach Mass in B Minor, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, Handel's Susanna and Semele, Brahms Requiem, the annual performance of the entire Bach Christmas Oratorio -- there were so many concerts, three or four a year for decades. Even after he became legally blind from macular degeneration, he kept conducting.
There isn't a recording of my grandfather playing the Goldberg Variations, a piece he studied and practiced and restudied and played again and again for at least the last decade of his life, if not longer. I will always associate that piece with him. Not much of a sleeper, he would be at his piano at 5 or 6 in the morning, playing the couple variations that interested him most at the time or re-examining the fingering of a particular passage. Sometimes he played them all the way through; then he almost always played some Chopin. I always wished I could be a better musician for his sake.
Music lit him up. "Let me tell you about this piece we're performing," he'd say, and proceed to talk about the story, the libretto, the structure of whatever piece was consuming his thoughts. He became completely immersed in his work, which is pretty much the best thing anyone can hope for from life.
He's 92, and his heart, which is as big as the world, has been a medical miracle up til this point (he and his cardiologist were featured in a story in New York magazine in 2006). But it has finally become irreparable.
The magazine article ends with this quote from my grandfather:
"There’s an old German tune. It says, 'Himmel und Erde mussen vergehen, aber die Musik bleibt immer stehen.' In other words, Heaven and Earth may have to go, but the music remains forever."FINALE:
I spent my last day in New York at my grandfather's bedside in Lennox Hill Hospital's cardiac care unit, listening. He was the most polite patient: if the nurse replaced the oxygen mask he'd pushed off his face in his sleep, he'd emerge into consciousness long enough to say "thank you," before drifting off again.
He said "thank you" a lot in those last days, but he said some other things too.
When he asked for Esther, my grandmother, I'd remind him that she was at home, making preparations to bring him home the next morning.
"You're all set up to be in the living room, facing into the music room," I told him. "Esther says she'll play music for you. What do you think you want to listen to first? Bach?"
"Maybe," he said, considering.
"Handel?" I asked.
"Eh." He shrugged, as if he could take Handel or leave him.
"Brahms?" I asked.
He nodded and drifted off to sleep again. About half an hour later, he roused, asking "Where's Brahms?"
"Where's Brahms?" I repeated, at a loss. "I don't know. In the music library? In heaven?"
There was five or ten minutes of silence until he raised his head slightly to say, "Wherever Brahms is, that's where I want to go."
Those were his last words to me, save for this: after an hour or so of silence, he said distinctly, "One, two, three, one, two, three."
"What?" I asked, rising to lift the oxygen mask so I could hear him more clearly.
"That's the rhythm," he said. "One, two, three, one, two, three."
"Oh," I said. "Is it a waltz, then?"
The corners of his mouth quirked up in a half-smile, and he drifted off again.
Early the next morning, I flew home to Cleveland.
A couple hours later, shortly before the ambulance was to bring him home, my grandfather left on his own -- headed, I'm guessing, to discuss the rhythm with Brahms.