He Was My Brother

My brother died today, the first of our generation to go.

We weren’t close, he and I—brothers by birth, but distant in life.  He was a complex man, troubled by emotional problems and addiction issues, and hard to help.

Since learning of his passing, I’ve been reflecting on his life and how it intertwined with mine.  As is often the way with me, it helps to write it down and share it.

The best parts of our relationship were during our childhood, so long ago now that I have to think hard to remember them.  We didn’t see each other much over the past five decades, nor did we speak very often by phone—telephone phobia being one of the fears he struggled with.  The last time I met with him, he looked older than I who am his elder by three years—hair gone white, walking only with assistance, racked by a persistent, phlegmy cough.

When we did meet over the years, it was almost always when he needed help.  I checked him into rehab clinics on three different occasions, lent him money, gave him a temporary bed, and after our parents’ deaths, managed his financial affairs—always feeling, I’m sorry to say, somewhat put-upon.  I could never understand why he seemed unable to respond to the many, well-intentioned interventions mounted by his sisters and me.

I have pictures of him as a young boy, nestled in the cocoon of parents and siblings, but almost no pictures of his adult years.  He always had a dreamy expression on his face in those pictures, as if he couldn’t quite grasp the notion that the onrushing realities of life would have to be faced.

He was highly intelligent, but seriously unable to apply his intellect to everyday problems and situations.  He wanted to be liked, but his social skills were lacking, to the point that he would frequently offend people without intending to.  And when he became frightened or frustrated, as he often did, he had a temper.

But he could display a quirky, astute sense of humour, too, and would smile quietly as the rest of us laughed at some of the things he said.  When at his best, he was unfailingly polite, almost Victorian in manner, and spoke deliberately in the most precise English.  Even when I, impatient with the pace of the conversation, would finish his sentences for him, he would continue on to finish in his own way, as if I hadn’t interrupted.  He could be a charmer.

He was a keen devotee of chess, a game at which he beat me regularly in our childhood, much to my chagrin.  He loved classical music, a trait we both learned from our father.  I remember listening to each other’s LP records and arguing about which was best—Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture or Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol; Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos or Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition; Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nacht-Musik or Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, ‘Emperor’.  I find now that I love them all, and am glad we listened together.

clef

Reading was another of his passions, as it was for me, although our tastes were not the same.  Nevertheless, it was my brother who introduced me to Edgar Allen Poe and William Butler Yeats, two favourites to this day, and it was he who gave me my first copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, Lord of the Rings, perhaps my all-time favourite story.

It would have been nice if all that had continued into adulthood.  But it didn’t, and no amount of wishing will make it so.

Given his afflictions and general health near the end, I feel little sorrow at his passing—rather, I am grateful that his problems are over and he is at peace.  I picture him now, embarking upon the next phase of his eternal journey through the universe, unencumbered by his mortal restraints, free and open wide to whatever may come.

If I choose to remember him only through the good things from our time together on this earth, so be it.  If I choose to believe we loved each other despite the many obstacles, then it is so.  He was more than his illnesses and sufferings, after all.

He was my brother.

Only Words?

Away back in 1967, the year I was married, an Australian boy band, the Bee Gees, wrote and recorded a song entitled Words.  The chorus of that song became an anthem of sorts for a generation of young people—

words

As an author and blogger, words are my stock and trade.  And the writing of those words can be, of necessity, a lonely endeavour, deliberately shut away from the everyday toil and turmoil that too often consumes us.

Which is why I beg to differ with the sentiment of the Bee Gees’ statement.  Words, in fact, are not all we have.  When music is added to words, the result can provide a tremendous emotional impact for an audience fortunate enough to be part of it.  And when that music is made in the company of others, the loneliness and solitude of the writing process is greatly mitigated.

The men’s chorus to which I belong, Harbourtown Sound, provides teamwork, mutual support, and a sense of purpose to everyone who is a part of it.  And our audiences tell us they experience those same things when they listen to our performances.

See and hear for yourself by listening to a recent rehearsal tape, recorded in the setting in the picture below, punctuated in a couple of places by exhortations from the directors.

HTS Rehearsal

If you aren’t convinced by the blend of words and music here presented, well…..I guess all I can say is that I’m at a loss for words.

 

Poetry and Song

Every child is an artist (Pablo Picasso).

In an era when the Arts are under attack in our schools, depriving young people of the opportunity to develop and nurture their creative wellspring—the very thing that will sustain them throughout their lives—it is a joy to be able to spread good words in poetry, pictures, and song.

ice on the water,

white sheets atop the blue deeps—

reflecting the sun

ice on lake

imagination—

like hot air balloons, slipping

bonds that tie me down

balloons

asleep together,

intertwined, we bind our souls

with each breath we take

asleep

impossible dream?

many might have thought so, but

you made it come true

in the rain

more yesterdays now

than tomorrows, but it’s the

tomorrows that count

dawn3

shoulder to shoulder,

a capella voices raised—

united in song

Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves

at the same time (Thomas Merton).

 

Music Has Charms

front

As a famous Paul Anka lyric has it, …Regrets, I’ve had a few/But then again, too few to mention…

I do frequently mention one regret, however, an abiding sorrow that I didn’t study music when I was in high school.  Having been raised in a family where music was an ever-present part of our daily lives—to the point where I and my siblings to this day get a sing-song going whenever we’re together—it’s almost incomprehensible to me that I eschewed the opportunity to acquire formal training.

All the more so when I remember that the lead music teacher at our high school would go on to become one of the country’s leading choral directors—Elmer Iseler, conductor of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, founder of the Festival Singers of Canada and the Elmer Iseler Singers.  What a doofus I was!

iseler

With a stunningly callow arrogance, I suppose I dismissed the music students, some of whom were good friends, as too effete for the teenage machismo I was probably trying to cultivate.

I regret that.

As a youngster, I often found myself surreptitiously curled up, late at night, on the landing of the stairs in our home, listening to the singing of my parents and their friends from the parlor where the piano sat.  One of our neighbours was a gifted pianist, and he knew all the oldies—Frivola Sal, After You’ve Gone, What’ll I Do, Rose of Tralee, Sweet Georgia Brown, Rockabye Your Baby, Danny Boy, Sonny Boy, For Me and My Gal—and so many more.  Even fifty-plus years on, I know all the lyrics to dozens of their repertoire (sometimes now with a little prompting), and my favourite singer is still Al Jolson.

My mother loved the torch songs, and she’d vamp a little when she sang, a woman born to be a headliner.  My father favoured the oldies, and was very good with the harmonies (although he occasionally had to be reminded of the decibel level).  He absolutely loved barbershop quartets.

So many times there were that he would find me fast asleep on the landing after the last chorus had been sung.  For a long time, I never knew how I drifted off on the stairs and awakened in my bed.  I only knew that I loved the singing of the songs, and the singers who sang them.

The only singing I have done since those childhood days (other than alone in the shower) is at family gatherings, or occasionally at karaoke parties (with beer).  But the music gene was definitely passed along to my two daughters, both of whom have been singing, together and on their own, since their pre-school days.  They’ve even written songs together, ballads mostly, which I hum along to.

Recently, my wife and I attended a concert mounted by a local men’s chorus, a 108-man, traditional barbershop harmony group, but one that branches out into a cappella jazz, swing, soft rock, pop, traditional, and inspirational music.  The concert was superb, and we were fortunate to be invited to an after-party by one of the members (not-so-coincidentally, a golfing friend).

choir

And guess what!  Some of the choristers at that party gathered ‘round each other to sing some of the oldies, an impromptu concert.  And guess what else!  I sidled over, inched close to their circle, and joined my voice to theirs.  Tentatively at first, not wanting to spoil the beauty of their chorus, but then more confidently when two of them parted to make room for me.  I knew all the words, of course, and we belted out a few classics—When You Wore a Tulip, Daddy’s Little Girl (a personal favourite), Oh! You Beautiful Doll, and That Old Gang of Mine.  I could almost hear my father joining in beside me.

My wife told me later that I fit right in.  In fact, she said, some of the others at the party told her they assumed I was part of the chorus.  I stared at her, sure she was having me on, but she was apparently telling the truth.  And that was music to my ears (if you’ll pardon the pun).

Even better, however, was an invitation from several of the chorus members to try out for the group.  Attendance at three rehearsals, where I would be assessed to find my voice part placement, would be followed by an audition performance with three of the established singers as part of a quartet.  And then I’d either be in, or out.

I’ve never been part of a quartet in the shower, where my best solos have been rendered, so this public audition would be somewhat intimidating.  Plus, I have never been much of a joiner in groups of any sort, so making a commitment to this would be quite a change.

Still, I do regret passing up my first chance those many years ago.  All those yesterdays when I could have been singing joyously with like-minded choristers are gone forever.  But I do have a few tomorrows ahead of me.  And I do like to belt them out.  So, we shall see.

More than three hundred years ago, in his comedy of manners, The Mourning Bride, William Congreve wrote this—Musick has charms to soothe the savage breast…

Well, I am no savage, but it may well be that music could soothe the sadness I have carried with me since high school.

I’ll have to warn them, though, that I cannot hit the high C!