Many years ago, my friend Karlyn gave Donald a saxophone that had been her father’s during the Big Band era. Her father had played with Spike Jones when they were in college. That beautiful instrument has a historical lineage, which I am sure Donald felt.
Donald had it restored at a small shop in a funky strip mall outside Sebastopol, CA. They replaced several of the bell keys and gave it a general cleaning. Donald did not attempt to learn to play it for at least another decade.
Then, in 2018, a few years after his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease, I gave him a Christmas gift of lessons at Napa School of Music. Donald was trepidatious but was fortunate to get two kind teachers who assured him of his progress and encouraged him to keep going. They were gifted in working around his memory issues. Each time on the drive there, he would agonize that he was disappointing his teacher with his progress. I assured him that doing things that were hard helped his brain. This motivated him to keep going. When I picked him up, he was energized and happy, holding a pile of papers with notes for his daily practices.
Mostly he practiced when no one else was in the house. I would be outside weeding the lavender, and suddenly the most abrupt blast— or was it a squawk? emanated from the house. Then, our dog Brambleberry would emit a low, long howl, rushing to the door where Donald was. I tried to keep him out of the part of the house where Donald practiced, but this didn’t work. He insisted on howling outside the door where Donald was playing. I had no idea that our relatively small labradoodle could sound like that. Was he trying to get Donald to stop– or was he trying to join him?
When we traveled, Donald took the saxophone with us. When we went to a friend’s cabin in Groveland, he had the saxophone waiting in its case by the door. It is the only thing he packed. When we went for a weekend to Sea Ranch, again, the saxophone case was by the door. I made room for it in the car even though I knew he would not play it on the trip. He had entered a time when imagining playing and playing were one and the same thing. He was also always sensitive to disturbing others.
The pandemic shut down the lessons, but not Donald’s playing. His favorite piece was Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” It took an act of the imagination to identify it, but I came to recognize the complicated rising and falling of the notes over time. It is a piece we both had loved. Karlyn told me that it is a part of Bach’s Cantata #147, written for the Feast of the Visitation of Mary, which celebrated Mary and Elizabeth rejoicing together in being pregnant.
In December 2021, Donald’s health took a severe turn when he had a brain bleed. He passed from this world on December 11. We were able to have him at home until the end. As we stood around his bed and he took his last breaths, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” came over the airways. It was as if the somber joy of his transition filled the room through the clear, soft notes of a piano.
I was comforted then, as I was the day his youngest daughter Genevieve helped me pack his clothing to take to Good Will. As I sat in his chair afterward, again, over the airwaves came “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Again, I was soothed. He is okay. He doesn’t need this clothing anymore.
The day we sorted some of his files and paperwork, and the task felt heavy and going on too long, I came upon the score to “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” along with his teacher’s notes, lying on top of a pile of papers. Okay. This is okay.
The mystery of death continues to live with me. Is music a kind of internet of the soul? I know the fact of this piece’s recurrence—his last song–comforts me and reminds me of the joy of life and the immensity of new beginnings, even those brought in the transition of death.