Healing Through Music

I never would have joined band if not for my dad dying. This isn’t to say I had no interest in it before, quite the contrary. When those slips of paper were handed out to all fifth-grade students at La Senita Elementary School, I very much wanted to join. However, due to circumstances at the time, I wasn’t allowed. The deadline came, the deadline passed, and I was out of luck.

My parents finally arrived in Kingman on Labor Day weekend of 1996. Since school started in August, I’d been sent to live with a relative for a short time to allow my parents some time together without me and allow me to start the academic year in my new school. In the weeks after my parents arrived, weeks filled growing used to this tiny new town, we celebrated my mom’s 58th birthday, not knowing it would be the last time the whole family would be together.

October 1st started out like every other Tuesday. Mom woke me up and got me started on my morning routine. As we were leaving for school, I poked my head into my parent’s bedroom to wish my dad good morning, but I didn’t see him. My mom swore he was just in the bathroom, yet the door wasn’t closed as it usually was. Once school was out, Mom picked me up as usual. However, I was greeted with the news that Dad was in the hospital with heart problems again. Mom promised we could call him before bedtime. It wasn’t terribly unusual for him to be in the hospital, so it didn’t faze me too much. After our usual nightly routine, I went to bed. Then lying there, I remembered: we forgot to call Dad! I ran out to the living room, pacing anxiously to talk to Dad while Mom called the hospital. The nurse on the phone told her that we should really get down there as “things weren’t looking good.” I had never heard this before. I quickly dressed, Mom called a family member who spread the word, and we rushed the few miles to the hospital.

It was about nine o’clock when we arrived at the third floor Intensive Care Unit at Kingman Regional Medical Center. It shocked me when I wasn’t allowed back to see my dad. On being told I would be allowed back “shortly,” I waited.  I spent hours waiting, watching old I Love Lucy and I Dream of Jeannie re-runs with a cousin and his new baby brother. Just before midnight, finally I was taken back to see him.  My cousin wanted to come, but his mom didn’t want him to see his grandfather “like that.” I didn’t understand what she meant—not until I walked through that door.

Growing up, my dad had been in and out of hospitals quite frequently. Heart attacks, heart surgeries, hernias, those I was familiar with. During these times I was entrusted with changing his bandages and making sure he took his medications on time, so I thought I had seen everything. I was prepared for the usual wires and bottles but not for the rest. Walking through that door into a room packed not only with family but nurses as well was unlike any other memory. I was told he couldn’t communicate and likely wouldn’t even know I was there.  I walked around to his right side and tentatively took his hand. He squeezed mine, so I looked up. He was looking at me, and maybe it was just a figment of my imagination, but I swear there were tears in his eyes, too. Then a shrill tone pierced the room, a tone you never want to hear from one of those machines, a drawn out beep followed by urgent commands from the nurses and rushing doctors.  After having spent mere seconds with him, I was abruptly made to leave, rushed out of the room.

My dad died that night, and a large part of me died with him. It was later explained that he had a blockage in his heart that caused pressure to build up so rapidly that his heart literally exploded and with no chance to save him. Earlier in the day his doctors had talked of Life-Flighting him to Las Vegas, but they couldn’t stabilize him enough to transport.

For years I had been lulled to sleep by the hum of my dad’s oxygen machine, but with that silence now sleep became elusive. My first morning back to school, I broke out crying during the Pledge of Allegiance. My teacher thought it a good idea to have me stand in front of the whole class and explain my recent absences and tendency to cry. I doubt that group of nine- and ten-year olds could understand what I was saying through my sobs, let alone fathom what death meant. I was angry. I was surrounded by kids who could still go home to their daddy, but mine was gone. Having been taught that expressing anger was bad, I withdrew into myself. No one could understand my anguish anyway.

Soon after, my mom found an old flyer among my school papers encouraging students to join band. I told her I had wanted to join, but the deadline to sign up had passed. She talked to the school and the band director and was able to sway them into letting me. I found myself walking down a hallway one day and through a set of steel grey double doors. On the other side was a woman who at the time reminded me strongly of the family member I stayed with. Mrs. Porter-Hickok gave me a case and a book and told me to sit. The girl next to me helped me assemble the case’s contents. She started off with a scale, and I, having no idea what I was doing yet eager to learn, stuck that reed into my lips and tried to mimic my classmate. It must have sounded horrid, but she never acknowledged it.

This woman, director of bands, wielder of batons, frightened me. She yelled, and she was always threatening to throw her shoe if one didn’t tap her toe. Being as I didn’t want to smell her stinky shoe, I tapped my toe as if my life depended on it, even if it was horribly off beat. I should say never once did she do any of the things she threatened, and eventually I grew to realize it was her passion for music that made her so loud. She taught me how to make sense out of all these dots, lines, and squiggly thingies and how they could come together to express emotions. I loved it! The threat of being kicked out of band if my grades got too low made me work harder in class. My mediocre grades before band became A’s and B’s. Math, especially fractions, didn’t seem so difficult anymore. I found a confidence I didn’t realize I had lost, and I found joy again.

I can’t say that music made me forget my grief, but it gave me something positive to do and has continued to bring me joy and peace in life. When times get tough, I can always dig out my clarinet or saxophone and some sheet music and lose myself for a while in melodies that soothe my heart. A few years ago I found my original band teacher, Mrs. Gragg, as she’s now known, who still teaches and is the conductor of the Kingman Concert Band, which I have since joined.

My dad’s death changed many things. Having spent so much time with him growing up and having the responsibility of taking care of him made us very close. Losing him was like losing a part of myself. The happy, bubbly, out-going girl was replaced by one who was silent and withdrawn. I grew very close to my mom after this and gained a whole new appreciation for her. Losing her was probably more devastating than losing my dad. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if my dad hadn’t died. Since I wouldn’t have had a reason to get into band that year, by the next year I probably would have lost interest. And while I wouldn’t have grown up without a dad, my relationship with my mom wouldn’t have been the same, and I would have missed out on so much. My dad’s death shook my foundation so badly that my life would never be the same, but it provided the cornerstone on which I could build a new one.