I had meant to post this later, but given my earlier note to you this morning I think it’s the right one for today after all. Food posting can wait.
A little while ago I posted a pair of poems memorializing our beloved friend Jim, one of them (Keyboard Position) honoring a fine teacher of his, whose graceful playing as accompanist to a vocal colleague, when I heard them, was so evocative of Jim’s that I was instantly flooded with remembrance–and a few fond tears–on recognizing the source of so much of his comportment at the piano: his posture on the bench, the curve of his hands, the distinctive action in his wrists and arms. The second poem (Nocturne) was more specifically about Jim’s playing and, especially, the powerful sense that his music lingers around us, as evidenced of course, in that earlier performance of his professor’s.
Some folk were understandably curious about the backstory of those poems. I’ll start with the “front-story”, if you will. It was a decidedly more recent performance of keyboard magic that brought all of these simmering memories bubbling so actively to the surface. I chronicled it in another poem, posted here slightly earlier. While my husband, as Interim Choirmaster of an Episcopal church, was preparing a pair of Lessons and Carols services in December with choir and strings and organ, the guest organist who had already been engaged for the occasion by my spouse’s predecessor arrived and began both rehearsing and endearing his charming, avuncular self to us. We had some foreknowledge of this guest, and were prepared to hear his spectacular playing, not least of all the amazing improvisational skills for which he gained much of his fame, so it wasn’t terribly shocking that hearing him play was so powerfully evocative of our late friend Jim, also a gifted organist and improvisational artist. What we weren’t prepared for was this dear guest organist Gerre Hancock’s death a few days ago. Needless to say, we are saddened by his loss but immensely grateful we had the chance to spend a little precious time with him and hear him play.
There are so many unfathomable mysteries in life and death. How is it that our paths in life cross with those of just these particular people at just these particular moments and have such unimaginable depth in just these particular ways?
I can’t begin to believe that it’s all coincidental or purposeless, most of all because I know how much I myself have gained from knowing all three of these magnificent keyboard artists. I am deeply glad that Jim’s beloved mentor and professor, subject of Keyboard Position, is still among us. He is a kind, gentle and wise spirit whose mere presence in the community still infuses us with the warmth of his long service as a fine educator and the depth of his skills at the keyboard. Gerre, though not so very old at his death, had a long and celebrated career and rich life.
Jim didn’t get so many years to accomplish any of this. He was murdered at 40 by a suicidal gunman. There can be no sense made of it at all. Like so many horrors in this world, it ought never to have happened. That it happened to a man my husband and I both considered an intimate friend as well as colleague, one who indeed played a part in bringing us together and then stood up as a member of our wedding party while also acting as organist and hymn-writer for it; who with his wife joined us on our honeymoon; who collaborated on projects with each of us at the university and elsewhere professionally and who celebrated together with my spouse when they both finished their doctorates–needless to say, his cruel death was earth-shaking.
But that is precisely how terrible things unfold in the real world, time and again. For some of us there are mercifully few such monstrous events, and for others they seem a constant deluge. One or a thousand, there is no pretty way to decorate such grief and darkness and make them logical and palatable, or even tolerable. So how to do we go on living?
Jim taught me the answer as much as anyone ever did. He had had his share of sorrows and trials in his own brief life, but he also managed to live one of the fullest and richest lives, in his 40 years, of any person I’ve ever known because his constant focus was on seeking, embodying, and passing around every form of goodness he could encompass. His almost limitless capacity for loving and sharing those gifts with others was clearly reflected in an enormous host of dearly loved friends, people whom he claimed as family and who took to heart his lessons of generosity, hospitality, inclusiveness, and determined hope. He created an army of sorts, and one more powerful in its quiet, almost stealthy, way than most, of people like me who, while we remember him every day with both love and loss, move forward through it more determined to embody some little part of the wisdom and patience he had at his best, the passion, persistence, and relentless efforts to better not only himself and his own considerable skills but the lives of the people around him.
So when I think of him, I don’t constantly revisit the hideous memory of his death and grief at the gaping wound left in this world by his loss–no good comes of lying deep in those fixed, implacable sorrows. I am moved to remember, to be immersed in, the deathless love of a friend and companion; his admiration for lighthouses, which for him symbolized the shedding of more important kinds of light than the mere incandescent; in the many graces he worked so hard to polish to excellence* and what they ought to do for the wider world; in his shouts of laughter at whatever deserved a good laugh; and most deeply, in those still fresh melodies that his magnificent musical gifts keep alive in the one simple medium that will outlive all of our astounding technologies for music-playing and listening: the heart.
Only in remembering to treasure the wealth of living that Jim wedged into his brief sojourn among us, and in living out the best of his legacy that I’m able to do, can I keep the joy that he was alive. By continuing to hear and be moved by–and move to–the music that Gerre and Jim both (and now, Anders) left eddying around us, whether from their instruments or from those lives lived with arms open wide and laughter ringing among the stars, I remember best how to keep living my own life.