How Bach Helped Me Connect With My Dying Father
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4 days after I learned my father had a few months to live, I visited him in his room at a nursing home on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. I will never forget it. He was in bed, I was in a chair next to his bed, and we were watching the second game in the 2009 World Series, the New York Yankees versus the Philadelphia Phillies. As usual, we had nothing of any substance to say to each other.
After a few words about his health, the rain outside, and some unpaid bills I’d found at his West Seattle house, we fell silent. One would think that emotions and words would pour out of our souls at a moment like this. Time was running out. He would soon be dead. It was now or never.
Instead of talking, we just watched the game in silence.
Occasionally, the lights of a rattling Link train would pass the window by his bed. The light-rail line had just begun operating. The room we were in had an unsurprisingly ugly carpet and oppressive ceiling-light panels. When I got bored of the sports images on television, I would stare into my phone. I would text a friend about meeting for drinks later that night.
At one point, I pleaded with my father: Wouldn’t our time together be better spent if we watched a news channel or some talk show, something we could discuss together? He was born and raised in southern Africa. What did he know about this all-American pastime? If he was paying any attention to it (I honestly had no idea where his head was at any moment), the slowness, the thick tangle of rules, and the lack of action in the game must be as dumb to him as a rock on a plate. I offered to change the channel.
“No, there are only 2 innings left. I want to see it to the end.”
I was caught completely by surprise.
“You know baseball?” I said.
“Yes, very much.”
“But how do you know about baseball? From just watching it on TV?”
All I could do was stare at this stranger in the bed, stare at his long forehead and wonder what other odd things were stored in his brain.
“No, I was taught the game when I was a student at Old Mutare Mission school,” he said, referring to his early education in the 1950s. “There was an American teacher who didn’t like cricket, so he decided to teach us baseball. He would take us to the field, set the bases, and we would play ball. His name was Clendon.”
“So you know all the rules?”
“Yes, I do… By the way, this game is very close, but I think the Yankees are going to win. They have better batters.”
All I could do was stare at this stranger in the bed, stare at his long forehead and wonder what other odd things were stored in his brain. More astounding yet, he proved to have a deeper understanding of the game than I. He was right. The Yankees were the better team. They won 3–1 that night.
As for the story about a bored white American teaching black African kids baseball in the sticks of Manicaland, it could be sold to Hollywood for some serious bank. I imagined Matt Damon in the leading role of this flick, and to add a little tension to its plot, we had to include a British teacher who wants the impressionable African boys to stick to the colonial sports, like cricket (this character could be played by Kenneth Branagh).
After my Hollywood musings made my father laugh a little, our old silence resumed. He was in his world, and I in mine.
Later, as I walked down to the Mount Baker Station, I decided that the next time I visited the nursing home, my father and I would do something together instead of just sitting around waiting for him to die. And because the only thing he and I enjoyed doing together was listening to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, I would bring a CD player to his room. Our favorites included The Well-Tempered Clavier; Goldberg Variations, a collection of his greatest hits; the Cello Suites; and the galloping Brandenburg Concertos.
The discovery of our shared love for the music of the 18th-century German composer happened when I was 19. It was the Christmas season, which in southern Africa happens in the summer, and I was visiting Harare, Zimbabwe, from Gaborone, Botswana. I was in the living room waiting for TV to start (Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, then the only station in the nation, operated between 5 p.m. and midnight) and listening to the Brandenburg Concertos on the Philips stereo.
There was no rush. For once, I was happy to be with my father, and he with his son.
My father returned from work, poured himself a drink in the bar (whiskey he had purchased while visiting India), and entered the living room with a look of surprise.
“Bach!” he said, and not exactly to me but to the home stereo.
“Yes,” I said.
“This one is one of my favorites.” It happened to be the allegro in the third concerto.
“You like Bach?” I asked.
“Yes, yes. It’s so rhythmical. Almost has an African beat,” my father said.
And we sat there, me on the sofa and him on the easy chair, listening to the concertos together, silently, but this was not our usual sort of silence. Unlike my discovery of my father’s love of baseball many years later in Seattle, my discovery of his love of Bach made a deeper impression on me. I cared far less for that sport than he did, but our admiration of Bach was on an equal footing. It was soul to soul. We weren’t in separate worlds, waiting for the moment to end, waiting for either him or me to stand and leave the room. We were actually sharing a world, the music of Bach. And as long as the performances of Bach’s music played, we were fully engaged, fully there. There was no rush. For once, I was happy to be with my father, and he with his son.
Over the years, we found ourselves connecting with Bach again and again, sitting in some room and just listening to a work. There would often be a little conversation at the end of a session: “Isn’t Prelude 1 the most perfect piece of music ever composed? So clear, simple, lyrical. The music almost plays itself. It’s as natural as a stream.” Or, “He even knew what flying above the clouds would feel and look like. ‘Air’ is jet travel before the invention of the plane.” Or, “It is interesting that three brilliant black American pianists — John Lewis, Bud Powell, Nina Simone — were profoundly influenced by Bach. I don’t think it is an accident. There is something there.” Or, “I’m beginning to think Bach was not European. He does not compose like one, but like an African. He really might have been black.”
“I’m beginning to think Bach was not European. He does not compose like one, but like an African. He really might have been black.”
More than once, I looked at an album or CD cover that had a drawing or painting of Bach and tried to see if his face had any African features. I never found one.
“You can actually do Shona clapping to that rhythm. It’s not pronounced. But you can hear it, and it’s a perfect match. The German is Shona clapping,” my father would say, and then he would clap African style to the beat of a concerto to prove his point. (Shona clapping, which was the foundation for much of our culture’s drumming and dancing styles, has 2 quick double claps that go 1-2/1-2, followed by three staggered claps that go 1-2-3.)
In the beginning, we used to listen to anything by Bach, but as the years progressed, we selected and stuck to a set of favorites. It became harder and harder to add new works to our sessions because we (or at least I) feared that one of us might not like it, and then would lose interest while listening, then disconnect, and then return to his own world, leaving the other alone with Bach. This would not have been such a bad thing in the early years of our connections, but as we got older and the importance of these sessions gained weight, the possibility of a disconnection became dangerous. We did not want to risk it. Change is a good thing for some situations, but not for this very vital one.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-w_zhtnUgs expand=1]
It became an unspoken agreement that if my father or I added something new, it had to be an interpretation of a work and not the work itself. For example, while visiting Linz, Austria, in 1999, I discovered and bought in a CD store András Schiff’s interpretation of The Well-Tempered Clavier, one of the greatest works of art in the history of humankind. The Hungarian-born British pianist — whom Queen Elizabeth II made a Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 2014 — put even more rhythm and sensuality into the work. I shared this recording with my father because Clavier was already an established part of our little world. He loved it as much as I did.
“Is this pianist African?” asked my father.
“No, Hungarian, but he lives in Britain.”
“But he sounds very African.”
There is a short story in Tatyana Tolstaya’s collection On the Golden Porch about two lovers who can’t be seen together for marital reasons, and so meet only by staring at the same star in the night sky while in different parts of Moscow. When he looks at this star at the appointed time, he knows that she is gazing at it, and she too knows that he is looking at the same thing. They are connected.
This is what my Bach sessions with my father were like when he was alive — from the isolated worlds in our heads, we would hear Bach’s brilliance at the same time, with the knowledge that the other was locked on the same thing. And in a sense, this still happens now that he is dead. I hear the music, and I am in my father’s head. He is alive again in much the same way he is alive in my dreams. This connection will end only when I die.
Mudede has written for the New York Times, Cinema Scope, Ars Electronica, C Theory, and academic journals. He also wrote the liner notes for Best of Del Tha Funkee Homosapien: Elektra Years. Mudede has lived in Seattle since 1989. Read more from the Stranger here: