When I answered the phone, it was the church secretary, asking to speak to my mom. I handed her the phone, and my dad and I watched as her facial expression changed from attention to concern to sadness and tears. Our family friend Brenda had been killed in a car accident.
Brenda was a wife, mother of two, teacher, and a fantastic French horn player. She had a sweet, kind spirit, and her loss was tragic and cruel. I remember the beautiful dark blue casket, trimmed with silver and white. A beautiful box for an awful, ugly occasion.
A week after her death, I found myself in her home. My parents and I had gone to visit. We probably brought food. Everyone does, right? Brenda’s husband Don was in his bedroom, practicing his trumpet. A musician like Brenda, Don was the choir director at church. I actually knew Don better than Brenda. He encouraged my trombone playing, and every week Don and I would accompany the piano and organ during the services. I was a dork with a trombone in my hands; Don was a trained musician with real talent. He was kind to encourage me.
I sat in his bedroom as he practiced, trying to make kind conversation. I was 19 years old and out of my element. He was a middle-aged man. What was I going to say that was profound and comforting? I can’t recall anything I said, but I do recall something Don said. At one point, he put his trumpet down, looked at me, and said, “Brenda wasn’t just my wife or lover. She was my best friend.” At the time, I was caught off guard by his description of his wife as his lover, but, 20 years later, I simply recall a man trying to explain that he had just lost everything.
Weeks and months went by. Many people in the church reached out; my dad was especially helpful in stabilizing Don in his new situation. I went back to college but continued to play music with Don when I came into town. Still, things were never the same. The joy he had in his life was never regained. There was the loveless remarriage. The big house. The sports car. And, then, the drinking. And more drinking. The DUIs. The attempts to get better. And more drinking.
In 2004, less than a decade after Brenda’s death, Don was found dead, sitting in a chair. He had drank himself to death.
I think about Don often. His amazing musical talent, his quirky sense of humor, and his wonderful kindness to me. I have absolutely no ability to sing, but, one night, there I was, singing a Disney song to a group of elderly churchgoers with Don accompanying me. It’s comical to think about now. I’m sure Don knew I could not sing a lick, but he was completley supportive in that way. He just wanted to make music.
When bad things happen, people like to talk about closure, healing, moving on. I’m sure we talk about those things to be optimistic, but, maybe we talk about those things because we don’t want to admit the reality that, from some hurts, some losses, there is no closure. No healing. No moving on. Some cuts are simply too deep. You cannot love completely, you cannot make someone your world, and, then, when they are gone, find closure.
The last time I saw Don was at a wedding reception. I had not seen him for several years, and he looked much older. Grey hair, heavier around the middle, weighted cheeks, darkened eyes. He greeted me warmly, but something was a little off. It wasn’t quite the person I remembered. I had heard of his drinking, and I figured he had been drinking at the reception. After a big hug and small talk, he said, “Let’s get together and play some music next time you’re in town.” When he said that, I could see a spark flash briefly in his eyes. I’d like to think it was the Don I knew all those years ago. The Don that was so patient and kind to me. The Don that selected Christmas songs for the church services because he knew how much I loved to play them. The Don that just wanted to make music.
I said I would love to play, left town, and never saw him again. A year later, he was gone.
I’ve wondered what would of happened had I made more of an effort to get back to town to play with Don. You like to think you could have made a difference, given him a reason to go on, given him a chance to make music again, but I’m sure that’s just egotistic dreaming. I think the music in Don’s heart had faded many years before.
The truth is, that day in the kitchen, when the church secretary called to let us know that Brenda had been killed, Don was gone too.