Felix Mendelssohn wrote Songs without Words. This is a Song without Music
20191118 00175 8 minutes
Memories, Aida, 72nd Birthday, Brother, Prostate Cancer
It is the triumphal march from Aida that has finally got to me.
When he heard I was coming over for his birthday, he was mad as hell. He wrote a letter, but was persuaded not to send it. He asked why I was coming. I told him I wanted a hug. That seemed to pacify him. When he heard my daughter, Sheryl, was coming too, Eileen said he was looking forward to seeing us, if a bit nervous.
The whole week, I was fine. Richard was outside when I first saw him. The first time was a shock, but I quickly adjusted and asked him the usual stupid question:
“How are you feeling?”
His reply: “Please don’t ask me that again.” I felt terrible, but obviously not as bad as he.
The week started in the country where Richard and Eileen take care of their son’s gorgeous country place. Richard had a couple of really good days, then I was off to London, and a whirl of visiting cousins: a 60th birthday party, a lunch visit to another cousin who lives in a big Elizabethan farm house, then to yet another cousin for dinner and the night. Sheryl joined us on Thursday, to help celebrate Richard’s 72nd birthday.
The party was great. Two of his children were there, with their families, and, of course, all the cousins. Quite a gathering. My sister-in-law was, as always, fantastic. Everything went off exactly as planned. Presents, cards, champagne, a wonderful lunch with the family in support mode. Even the weather co-operated. Richard looked great. He was well groomed, white beard trimmed, white hair neat and brushed, and sharp creases in the immaculate green-toned pants, with coordinated shirt, altogether very impressive.
Dinner was wonderful. The table was gorgeous, the company great, and the food fantastic: Lobster Bisque, Beef Wellington and vegetables, meringue with whipped cream and strawberries, then the penguin birthday cake, with candles and sparklers. That, of course, was a bird of another color! The penguin was magnificent, but the sparklers didn’t want to light. When they all finally decided to behave, they set off the ear-splitting smoke alarm, which would have brought out the fire brigade had someone not phoned them to say everything was okay. But no one knew how to turn off the alarm. We had to open all the windows, the front door and everything else available, but the alarm continued to clang until they finally punched in enough permutations and combinations to kill it.
We returned to finish lunch and retired to the drawing room for coffee and liqueurs. Richard managed to stay downstairs on the couch through the obligatory photo session and until most of the family had left. Sheryl had to leave with the cousins, as she had to return to the U.S. the next day. I was really pleased to be able to stay the night.
Sunday dawned bright and clear. It did cloud up a little, but not enough to spoil anything. Richard went for a walk down to the bridge. Amazing. Stephen, my nephew, persuaded me to go up with him in his small plane. When we got to the hanger I discovered that what he really had in mind was a flight in his Microlite – what I describe as a little motorbike in the sky. Equally amazing. It was fun. We played with the clouds. We went round them, over them, under them, and through them. I love clouds but had never really touched or played with one before. Stephen was semi-respectful of his aged aunt, but not enough to stop us from having great fun. Richard had a fairly quiet day, and went upstairs early. He does a lot of sleeping, the morphine helps and at least he is not in pain while he’s asleep.
In the evening I returned to London with Stephen and his family, after appropriate adieus to Richard and Eileen. I couldn’t escape without the inevitable stern lecture from Big Brother, on how not to take on too much, to slow down, to simplify my life, etc., etc. He has been pater familias since he was 21, when our father died, and finds it very difficult to surrender the reins. I’ve always been a problem for him, not doing what I was told or behaving the way he wanted. He has been around all my life, being three years older than me, to comfort, help and bully me. We both know that won’t happen much longer. The doctors have suggested two or three more months.
Now I am on my way back to the States. I was asked on several occasions “When will we see you again?” My answer: “Not soon, I hope.” They knew what I meant.
The cab driver heard me and thought it was a funny thing to say, till I explained it to him.
Aida started me off. I was fine until now. But that piece is so sublime. So triumphant. And that is how I feel. Our lives have been beset with all the usual ups and downs; for him very high ups and remarkably low downs, but through it all there has been a triumphant thread which he never let go. His kids are fine, the grandchildren are fine, and each of us has had a darned good inning. I’m lucky. I still have my health. He hasn’t, and I don’t want him to suffer. But then, suddenly, when he was on the couch, I saw the old, gentle, happy Richard, as if the pain had lifted for a moment. It was like the sun breaking through the clouds – the laughing eyes of a naughty little boy caught in mid-wickedness, conspiratorial and pleading not to tell.
If that Richard stays around, then indeed I would like to be able to go back next year for his 73rd birthday. Not otherwise. He has lost lots of weight, and can’t do much, but he is still able to get up and down stairs, slowly, to dress himself and take care of himself most of the time. While he can do that, fine. And while Eileen can manage, great. I have come to terms with the intellectual aspect, now I have to handle the emotional. Luckily, I have three seats at the back of the plane to myself. Hopefully, by the time we land I will be back in control and able to cope. But it has been wonderful to be able to go to him and get my hug.
Postscript. Years later I was talking with Eileen and told her about the triumphal march from Aida. She looked at me a little crookedly. Then she said, “You know, we went to Aida when we were on our honeymoon in Rome. The triumphal march was our secret tune.”