For Father's Day: On Eagle's Wings

E.C. (Mac) McMillan (1979) When my father was dying, I grieved in the car.  As I traveled between piano students’ homes, I cried and wailed, then wiped my eyes before leaving the car. During the lessons, I never could chastise my students for their poor practicing.  At night I woke my husband up, grinding my teeth in my sleep.

My father was diagnosed in 1990. It took two years for the cancer to move from his prostrate to his bones.  During that time I made one of the biggest decisions of my life, one I knew would not earn his approval.

I was 38 and had worked for IBM for twelve years.  He had retired from IBM several years earlier, after a 40-year career. In my favorite photo, he is at work, white shirt sleeves rolled up, papers covering the surface of the desk, smiling, relaxed, in his element. He had helped me find my job there, yet I was always looking for a career that would satisfy a restless need for more meaningful work.  In 1991 the company initiated its first wave of downsizing through a voluntary retirement program.  I was one of the first to enroll.

I waited two months before saying anything.  At 8:30 on a Monday morning, an untouched bagel sitting on my desk, I made the call.  My father picked up, then my mother on the extension.

“I’ve got something to tell you.”

I could picture him sitting up in bed with the breakfast tray beside him on the quilt, her standing in the kitchen, wrapping the phone cord around her fingers.

“I’m leaving IBM.”

Silence.

“I want to teach music – piano.  They’re offering a retirement package.”

“Are you sure?”

“I am.”

More silence.

We said goodbye.  When I hung up, I thought I would feel relieved, but my gut was hollow with disappointment.

The next time I saw him, he said, “Did your piano teacher put you up to this?”

“No,” I said.  Did he really not know me?

Later, my mother said, “Your father’s worried about you, about your future.”  Yes, I thought, the security, the retirement, the insurance, the paid vacation and sick days.  And the part of me that would never be fulfilled in the corporate world.

“I will be successful at this,” I told her.  Her response was a worried look.

What neither of my parents understood was this was not a willful decision.  In fact, I was following the advice on the poster in my office, which showed a cliff, with a quote from Goethe underneath: “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”   I took the leap off that cliff because my soul required it.

In elementary school I took piano lessons with a retired music professor down the street.   By age eleven I was playing popular movie themes from “Exodus”, “Camelot”, and “Man of La Mancha”, music that made me feel powerful and known.  Here I wasn’t criticized for being too emotional, a phrase I heard growing up not just from my parents, but also from my three siblings.

When we moved from New York to Connecticut, the piano didn’t come with us.  Perhaps it was too ugly for our new suburban home.  A few years later I told my mother I wanted to play again.

The morning of my sixteenth birthday, I was downstairs when I heard a commotion above me.  When I came upstairs, sitting against the wall was a new spinet piano, walnut brown, with a curved music desk and scrolled legs.

“Happy birthday,” my parents said.  I walked over and brushed my hands across the keys.

“Thank you,” I whispered.

I started lessons, climbing a long set of concrete steps to my teacher’s house, where I tackled challenging classical pieces and lush movie themes. I played Haydn and Beethoven.  My favorite was the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata, the most recorded piece of piano music.  It became the music I always returned to when I sat down at the piano as an adult.  My teacher encouraged me to consider music school, but never mentioned it to my parents. Neither did I.

After a year I stopped lessons.

“I’ll still play,” I told my mother.  “The piano will be my therapy.”  I wonder why I thought I needed therapy.

In my mid-thirties, I moved that piano to my new house in North Carolina. In the evenings after work, I played all the music I knew.  It was still in my fingers. I entered a world I had abandoned, a world where the notes on the page answered the need to express emotions I couldn’t find words for, and where the beauty of the sound became a physical space I could inhabit, separate from the world of work. When I relocated to Connecticut a few years later, I found an accomplished teacher and took on beginner students in the evenings.  Then came the offer.

I knew my father was perplexed by my life decisions, and his disapproval was implicit in the lack of comprehension. I dated boys he didn’t approve of, became a vegetarian in college, left school in the middle of my sophomore year, married a hippie musician when I was twenty, and walked out on him a year and a half later for an older man. I jumped from job to job, working as a waitress, a secretary, a vet’s assistant.  As I floundered through my twenties, I wrote my father a letter attempting to explain myself to him.  The letter received neither response nor mention.  I never asked why.

After dropping out of college, I came home to live for nine months. Whenever I needed to think, I followed the steep path behind our house down to the Rippowam River. One Saturday morning my father asked if he could come with me. We sat on a boulder, just south of the arched stone bridge where cars whizzed by on the Merritt Parkway, and watched the skate bugs move across the surface of the water.

When I felt his hand rubbing my back, I tensed.  He rarely touched any of us.  I remember seeing him hug my mother only once.  Now he was trying to reach out to me, his youngest.  I wish I had been able to respond.

When I was twelve, he said to me, "No matter how well you do, there will always be someone better than you.”  Although I'm sure he meant well, at age twelve I took that advice to mean I would never be good enough, especially in his eyes.

One of my favorite childhood memories is of him reading “Winnie the Pooh” to me as we sat together in the wide red armchair, my fingers rubbing the nubby fabric.  He helped me with my homework, and taught me how to drive in his new 69 Volkswagen bug. Whenever he and my mother came to visit me when I lived in North Carolina, where I was finally settled in their eyes, working for IBM and owning a home, before they left he would hand me an envelope containing a generous check.

During his illness, I was living an hour away, and I stayed overnight at least once a week.  Every time I visited I played the piano, for my own pleasure as much as to show them the rightness of my decision.  The last Easter he was alive, a month before he died, most of the children and grandchildren had gathered together.  I flipped through a songbook of music from the thirties and forties, and played some selections I thought he would enjoy.  He sat at the dining room table, watching us, and asked me to play “Thanks for the Memories”.  Everyone stopped talking. Afterward the room was filled with the sense that it would be soon.

I wasn’t present when my father died.  Starting on a Monday, the entire family held vigil, taking turns sitting at his bedside since Monday, as he lay unresponsive.  On Thursday morning the hospice nurse said he had at least thirty-six hours left, so my husband and I headed home.  I stepped out of the shower when the phone call came.  The regret of not being there at an irreplaceable moment dogged me.                  

I didn’t touch the piano for three days. Mid-morning, four days after he died, thinking I was alone in our house on the lake, I sat down and played the Moonlight Sonata. 

When I finished, my husband was standing in the doorway, looking at me with a raw expression I’d never seen on his face. 

“Nice Moonlight,” he said, before turning to leave the room.

He’d listened to me play it a hundred times before and had never commented, but that day he heard everything I was trying to say, everything I was feeling, without a word being spoken.  That sums up what music can do: communicate the inexplicable, the inexpressible, and provide comfort and understanding where words fail.  It was then I realized that death and grief saturated this piece, which ends with three minor chords I've come to think of as the death knell. My father’s death was the first I had experienced of someone close to me.  This music helped me to accept it, and to place it in a larger perspective.

At his memorial service a tenor with a rich voice sang the hymn “On Eagle’s Wings”, at my father’s request.  It seemed fitting, for my tall, clear-eyed father reminded me of the nobility of an eagle.

            And He will lift you up on eagle’s wings,

            Bear you on the breath of dawn,

            Make you shine like the sun,

           And hold you in the palm of his hand.

Two years later, I received what the Native Americans call a visitation.  I dreamt I was on a snowy mountainside, shoveling a path.   As I lifted the blade, one of my gloves flew off.  I spotted an eagle above me, and thought he would catch the glove. Instead he flew toward me through the trees and landed on my shoulder.  I could see the vivid contrast between his white and black feathers.  In my dream, I thought, “Oh my God, oh my God”.  As I calmed down, I tuned into how he was seeing the world.  My perception shifted into a deep tranquility. Everything looked the same, but there was a layer of stillness between us and the world.

When I woke, I knew this was more than a dream.  It was an offering from the spirit world, and it was a gift.