Parting Gift: The Story Behind A Song

2023 was the year I learned to grieve. Within the span of a few short months, I experienced both the sudden and devastating loss of Charles “Charley” Johnston, one of my dearest friends and most influential mentors, and the joyous and long-awaited celebration of marriage to my partner, the love of my life, with family and friends in Istanbul, Turkey. The juxtaposition of these two important life events created a certain cognitive dissonance, at least at first. The wedding was not only an epic party but a beautiful affirmation of the loving community of family and friends that support my partner and I as we begin our new life together. Although more difficult to see at first, eventually I came to appreciate how even the pain and shock of losing Charley contained many rich lessons, lessons which slowly revealed themselves over the subsequent months as I began the process of grieving (a process I was woefully unprepared for).

Looking back, 3 key moments stand out that transformed my experience of loss that summer. First, Charley came to me in a dream. In the dream, we were sitting together on the side of a mountain (both of us avid hikers), and I was gazing up at him. As he returned my gaze in silence, I intuitively sensed there was something he wanted to tell me. After a long pause he looked directly into my eyes and said, “You have a strong voice. You don’t need to yell so much. Learn to dance.” Even in the dream, the truth and timeliness of his words registered immediately on a gut level. They became a kind of mantra for me that summer and continue to be a wellspring of inspiration and support.

But anyone who has experienced a major loss knows that the way grief tends to unfold is anything but linear. It moves in stages, at its own pace, and according to its own mysterious imperatives. I experienced the second phase one month after the dream, when once again I found myself struggling with intense emotions that threatened to overwhelm and pull me under. In a state of near total despair, I finally turned to the piano, feeling as if nothing I did or could think of doing would bring any comfort or relief. And then, quite spontaneously, a haunting melody began to stir. I worked late into the warm summer night, coaxing the song to life. It was as if the melody possessed me and would not let go, my constant companion, a sort of life raft tossed to a drowning sailor at the last possible moment.

The melody now has a title, “Eulogy For Charles”. What I find most interesting is the lack of resemblance it bears to other tunes I’ve written. It’s slow and sombre, yet not a dirge. To me it sounds more like a hymn.

The third turning point in my long walk with grief (the journey is never really over), came at the small memorial service for Charley on October 8, 2023. The morning of the memorial was shrouded in clouds, but as the day wore on the sun broke through and illuminated the bright falling leaves at Wisteria Hall in the UW Arboretum, where the service was held. I had been invited to play “Eulogy for Charles” for the group of friends, colleagues, and relatives who gathered to celebrate this man’s remarkable life. The emotion in the room was palpable and intense, and as I began to play, I could feel hot tears well up inside. I don’t know if it was my best performance, but I can say that without a doubt it was one of the most emotionally honest musical experiences of my life. I felt completely vulnerable and exposed: there was no barrier between me and the emotions I was feeling, which I could finally release by giving them expression through music. This experience gave me a new and deeper appreciation for these oft-quoted words by Victor Hugo: “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”

Charley continues to be my teacher. Indeed, some of his most profound lessons were imparted after his sudden transition out of this world. He taught me that grief is the art of living with the inevitability of loss, the guarantee that one day all that is nearest and dearest to us will pass away. Indeed, grief makes this truth bearable.

If you’re still reading (and thank you if you are), I realize this piece may strike you as a strange and morose way to usher in a new year. But my hope is that you will see, as Charley showed me, that death can ultimately be our teacher and friend. By forming a relationship with death, which includes loss and grief in all its many forms, large and small, we are able to understand life more fully, and therefore able to live more deeply and courageously. This was Charley’s parting gift to me: may we all learn to dance with the endless mystery that is this precious, fleeting human life.

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