Opening the Gates
I have lost several people that I loved in my life as so many of us have, and I know that all it takes is a word, a song, a smell, an object, to open the gates, and memories come flooding back. The smallest thing can set them off, taking me- and my emotions- completely by surprise. I am never quite prepared for the impact they have on me, but I am learning to take them in stride, to be grateful for them, seeing them as beautiful, ephemeral gifts, each one precious as the waves of grief continue to ebb, and maybe with time, the hinges on those gates growing rustier.
It began yesterday morning. I opened up my email at school to find an email from Vince Aguero, entitled, ‘Que Pasa?’, with the simple message, “I haven’t heard from you in a while. How are you?” Mr. Aguero was my junior high band director, a man who was a father figure to me and seminal to my success as a musician. He was an incredibly tough, passionate, and talented young teacher, and because of his abilities and work ethic, we had one of the finest junior high bands in the country. I was so fortunate to have gone through his rigorous program, and he is the reason I chose to be a band director at the beginning of my career. He had a gift, instilling great respect in us for hard work and dedication, caring about each of us as individuals, and always going the extra mile to give us the training and experiences we needed. I was so happy that we reconnected several years ago, and can only hope that I’ve inspired and encouraged my own students even a fraction as much as Mr. Aguero did for me.
I realized that he didn’t know about Mom’s passing, and he thought the world of her. I wrote and briefly told him what had happened during the summer. He responded with a note that touched me deeply, giving me wise words to think about. Again and again. I am reminded how fortunate I am to have always had so many caring and wonderful people in my life, there when I needed them most to encourage and guide me.
“Denise, I know what it is like to lose a loved one and the feelings that can overcome you at any time. Your mom was very special. I remember her coming to the band room with you like it was yesterday. You were very fortunate to have her for such a long time and I know how proud she was of you.
You know the older we become the more we reflect on our time here. Be sure you don’t sweat the little stuff and live every day to the fullest. Enjoy the journey because none of us really know what our final destination will be like. Keep in touch, V”
Memories flooded back…I saw the beautiful antique necklace that Mom traded to a neighbor for my first clarinet…and I remember how much she loved the necklace. I can still see the boxy Selmer-Bundy clarinet case with it’s deep red velvet lining, can smell the aroma of the old instrument, the dust, the cork grease. I can see the band room clearly, and remember how scared I was that night that Mom and I attended the first band meeting. I remember the extra time that Mr. Aguero gave to me, coming in very early in the morning to give me private lessons, even though he was a trumpet player, because he saw potential in me. Concerts flashed through my memory, my mother’s beaming face always in the audience. So many sacrifices made so that I could have the opportunity to do what I love.
These memories were not sad at all. As they washed over me, I felt only gratitude for my mother’s love, for the wonderful teacher I had in Mr. Aguero, for the career that I love so much, for the music and friends made in that old band room so long ago. The beginning dominoes that set the course of my life. It is so interesting to look back over the years and see how all of the pieces fit together along the way to make up a life. Even the so-called mistakes are important, there to teach us, make us grow, and perhaps get us back on the path that we were meant to follow. I used to agonize about those mistakes, but now I realize they were all a part of getting me to where I am now, and I am grateful for the sometimes painful lessons they taught me. I love the Buddhist idea that life isn’t good or bad, it just is…though I do my best to see it all as good.
I will welcome each of these waves of memories as the gates swing wide open, knowing that there is beauty in death and loss and that these memories, as well as the emotions they stir up, are gifts. As the pain recedes, I see in myself greater compassion, empathy, and gratitude…I feel more human after what I have experienced, and I hope that I am a better human being and a better teacher and musician. I am learning that Mom is never really gone; she is just with me in a different way, living on in my memories and in my heart, always there to remind me of all there is to be grateful for in my life…and there is so much.