One More Piano Lesson with Rick
My dad, who we called Rick, passed away on February 15th, 2019, from complications related to Parkinson’s Disease.
Over the years, I spent many hours with Rick sharing thoughts on piano music, American history, and the nature of life. These were topics Rick always loved to discuss.
Rick, a voracious reader, purchased every book he could find about life after death. It was a life-long obsession for him. He truly feared dying and sought solid, irrefutable proof that life went on beyond the grave. Consequently, Rick was somewhat religious and regularly took communion at Saint Mary’s Episcopal Church in Rockport, MA. Rick was also notoriously cheap, yet he donated $500 to the church every year like clockwork — which I always thought he viewed as an insurance premium payment covering an afterlife.
Rick had a beautiful mind and loved exploring deep concepts, including major scientific theories, like the Big Bang and Quantum theory. And he kept a watchful eye out for stories about communications from ‘the other side.’ Nothing excited him more than a good ghost story, especially if it appeared to be non-fiction.
A forty-year American history high-school teacher by trade who specialized in President Lincoln and the Civil War, Rick clearly was more Mary Lincoln than Honest Abe.
My dad was also an accomplished jazz pianist. He’d played piano since elementary school. As a member of the Massachusetts musician’s union, he had played venues, dances, and bars all over the North Shore from the early 1960s until well after 2000. Having grown up in the thirties and forties, Rick was a devotee of the Great American songbook — a lover of Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and all the great jazz composers of the 20th century. Request any song from that era, and Rick knew the tune and probably had a story to go along with it.
As a little kid, my parents would wind me down for bed by putting headphones over my ears and pumping Broadway Musicals from the reel-to-reel into my brain. I’d lie on the floor, picturing the storylines in my mind, listening to Camelot, Carousel, Guys & Dolls, and other productions.
Later, after my initial piano lessons had taken hold, Rick let me take half of his lessons with Leo Grimes, one of the finest jazz pianists in New England. Eventually, I came to love Rick’s swing-era music. As an adult, when I visited, Rick would often introduce me to a tune he was working on, showing me his latest innovative chord approaches on the piano.
Those informal sessions were full-on piano lessons for me. I always learned something new. I still recall Rick’s piano ideas and apply them in my playing. My dad would often introduce me to a song I had never heard before. “Oh, this is a beautiful tune,” he’d assure me, and he’d start playing it for me. I was utterly unfamiliar with these tunes, like The Folks Who Live on the Hill or Star Eyes.
Rick lived a great life in Rockport. Unfortunately, his last seven years were progressively more miserable. Parkinson’s slowly brought down his mobility, and dementia set in.
One night, in January of 2019, I got a phone call from Rick. My Mom had dialed it and handed the phone to my dad because he could not make a call on his own. Earlier that day, Rick had had a conversation with a caretaker who had come to the house. As it turned out, the nurse’s husband had played union jazz gigs around Mass, and they got chatting about the music. But every time Rick tried to play her a tune on the piano, he could no longer coordinate his hands and his brain enough to make any sense of the music. His ability to play the piano was gone — destroyed by Parkinson’s disease.
That day on the phone, Rick was shattered and empty — a broken man. All I could do was express my deep sorrow for his loss. Losing the ability to play the piano was the last straw for Rick. We cried together on the saddest phone call of my life.
Toward the end of February, I was by Rick’s side at the Kaplan House hospice in Danvers as he left this world. After a seven-year battle with that brutal affliction, he was finally free from his Parkinson’s prison.
Later that night, I returned home to Maine. After a bit, still reeling from the day, I sat down at the piano to practice. As I noodled around, a melody popped into my mind. I could hear it. Then the lyrics for the song came on, too, “Spring will be a little late this year.”
It was not a tune I had played or studied. Nor was it a song I had ever run across through Broadway musicals. Yet I somehow had the thing in my mind. I looked up the song in one of my sheet music fake books, and there it was. Frank Loesser wrote the tune. Such a beautiful song connected to my father’s love of the American songbook. The lyrics read:
Spring will be a little late this year
A little late arriving in my lonely world over here
For you have left me. Where is our April of old?
You have left me. Winter continues cold
As if to say, spring will be a little slow to start
A little slow reviving that music it made in my heart
Yes, time heals all things so I needn’t cling to this fear
It’s merely that spring will be a little late this year
I immediately learned the tune. I knew it was somehow in my head because of my Dad. But it wasn’t until three years later that I understood the occurrence for what it was — a message from Rick.
Working in the quiet of my garden the day before Easter 2022, I got thinking. I realized that Rick, finding himself on ‘the other side,’ would have reached out if he could, only through music. And what better place to deliver the message than into my mind through lyrics and melody. Reaching out like this was totally and completely a Rick thing to do.
Rick’s message to me, expressed through that song, said:
I’m here, and I’m alive. I’ve got my music back, and it’s even more beautiful than before. Life goes on like spring, with beauty, love, music, and hope. Sure, life can be difficult and sad, but there’s no need to cling to this fear.
It’s merely that spring will be a little late this year.