Monday, August 16, 2010

Phyllis' Opus

This morning, in my hometown of Conway, Ark., people are gathering to honor my friend Phyllis, of whom I have written much — and thought even more — in the last 10 days.

I have no doubt that there have been many private conversations about Phyllis and the influence she had on everyone she knew.

But this morning the first public notes of Phyllis' opus will be played for the world, almost certainly through some tears because this is a loss for all who knew her, but it will become increasingly joyful, as befits Phyllis herself.

All the things I have written here and elsewhere, all the e–mail exchanges and telephone conversations I have had with friends, all the unexpressed thoughts and memories I have had in these last 10 days will remain with me the rest of my life.

There really is no doubt about it, as far as I am concerned. When I think of Phyllis in the days, weeks, months, even years ahead (if what is left of my life can be measured in years), I will frequently remember many things that occurred after her death. Things of which she never knew — at least in her earthly existence (but that takes us into a discussion of faith and belief, or lack thereof, in an afterlife, and, although Phyllis devoutly believed in God, I don't really want to go there today).

It was that way for me when my mother died. The circumstances were different, but I still find myself thinking as much of the time right after her death as I do of the many wonderful memories I have of her when she was alive.

It wasn't that way for me with my grandmother, though. She had dementia — Mom called it "hardening of the arteries," which I have come to believe was a polite way of saying Alzheimer's disease in those days — and she was never really the grandmother I had known in the last eight or nine years of her life. When she died, I remember wondering if I would ever be able to think of her without picturing her the way she was at the end.

As it turned out, I worried needlessly about that. It wasn't long after her funeral that I realized that my memories of her when she was sick were rapidly receding. Today, I really have to concentrate to remember her in the grip of Alzheimer's. It is virtually effortless, though, for me to remember her when I was a child or — shudder — in my somewhat rebellious teenage years.

Circumstances may have a lot to do with that. I watched my grandmother decline for years. My mother and Phyllis, on the other hand, seemed to be snatched away without warning.

Long before this time of mourning and reflection, I associated Phyllis with music. She was always musical. We didn't know each other for the first 11 or 12 years of our lives, but I'd be willing to bet she was always musical as a child. It really wouldn't surprise me if she was born with a song on her lips.

Well, we knew each other from sixth grade on, and, while I couldn't tell you how or where we met, I'm sure music was there, not far away, in one form or another. Maybe a radio was on. Maybe one of those newfangled 8–track or cassette tapes was playing.

Maybe we were in the generic music appreciation class that we all had to take when we were in middle school in those days.

For some reason, my mind associates my first meeting with Phyllis with "My Sweet Lord." Perhaps that was the big hit at the time?

Anyway, as I have written here before, she had many interests, many talents. I will think of those gifts often in the time that is left to me. But the gift that will always stand out in my memory is her gift for music and her eagerness to share it with others.

Fifteen years ago, when the film "Mr. Holland's Opus" came out, I thought about Phyllis when I saw it. It seemed natural to do so. It was so familiar — the marching band, the joy of making music, the public school setting.

Besides, even when I was an adolescent, I pictured Phyllis teaching music — and, although she did other things in her life, she actually did teach music for several years. I didn't know that when the movie came out, though, but it didn't require much of a mental leap for me to see Phyllis in Mr. Holland.

I'm sure she dabbled in composition, too, even if it was mostly part of her music studies. I don't know what she was doing when the movie came out. But I found myself wondering, as I watched the final scene (which you can see in the attached clip), if Phyllis, like Mr. Holland, had ever felt that her life had been "misspent."

Perhaps, as was said of Mr. Holland, Phyllis worked secretly on a composition that could have made her rich and famous. But Phyllis, like Mr. Holland, was not wealthy (by traditional standards), and she wasn't famous outside our town (which was small when we were growing up but has mushroomed in recent years) or our county.

So she may not have been working on that symphonic composition that could have brought her fame, but she was rich, though. Not in a monetary sense, but in all the lives she touched, and those lives will always be different because of her. Whatever is accomplished here on earth by those she left behind can truly be said to have been the result, at least in part, of her influence.

In the days since her death, I have seen entries in an online guestbook at the funeral home and on her Facebook page in which Phyllis has been described as bubbly, optimistic, always smiling. And that is true. In my mind, Phyllis will always be the same friend I remember from my teenage years, a force of nature, always positive, always insisting on the best from those around her because she always demanded the best from herself.

Did she ever consider herself a failure, as Mr. Holland's former student said of him? I don't know. Perhaps she did. Perhaps she felt like a failure if she allowed herself to think of how things may not have turned out as she had hoped.

I don't know how many conscious hours she spent in the hospital in her final weeks. And if I did know how many conscious hours she had, it still probably wouldn't be possible to know how many she passed believing she would recover — or if there was a point when she realized that she would not.

If she did realize, at some point, that she was not going to live much longer, she may have reflected on the things she would not have, like the opportunity to grow old (and to do so with her husband, whom she did not marry until a decade before her death), or the path she did not take.

That seems unlikely to me. Phyllis never was the sort who would dwell on what might have been. But who can say what goes through the mind of a dying person who may have already experienced the other four stages of death (anger, denial, bargaining and depression) and is left with only the final stage — to accept the inevitable?

The only thing I can conclude is, if she ever did think of herself as a failure, she was wrong, as Mr. Holland would have been.

Today, I suspect that the church where her memorial service is being held will resemble the auditorium in the final scene from "Mr. Holland's Opus." It may not be as large, and it won't be anywhere near as joyous — and that really is too bad because Phyllis deserved that kind of recognition, from a huge auditorium filled with cheering admirers, during her lifetime — but, like that auditorium, the church will be filled with some — but far from all — of the lives that were graced by Phyllis' touch.

Those lives in the church today will be merely part of Phyllis' opus, the music of her life, and through those lives and many more her spirit will live on. They will play a music that others may not hear but which was inspired by Phyllis. And for years to come, the world will continue to be touched by her, in ways that are seen and unseen, heard and unheard.

Thank God for that.

OK, I know I said earlier that I didn't want to talk about faith — and I still don't — but Phyllis always believed in God. Regardless of whatever doubts I may have, it still seems appropriate on this day to be thankful that Phyllis' spirit will live on in this world, that she won't soon be forgotten.

And if that is God's doing, then I say a heart felt "Thank you."

At the same time, I suppose, there is an equal and opposite reaction, personified in a small voice that protests that we should have had more time with Phyllis, a sense that what we should have had and what we got were two different things.

I confess, I do feel that way at times. It's the same feeling I had when my mother died.

But that's me, wrestling with my sense of loss. And I want to get past that because, as I said, Phyllis wouldn't have dwelled on what might have been.

In the future, I want to remember Phyllis with gratitude for all the things we shared.

I guess there really isn't much left to say now — except for this.

I remember once, when I was a child, I was with my mother in a store in New York City, where we were spending the summer. And I saw a sign promoting a certain brand of beer that proclaimed, in its commercials of that day, that it had "gusto."

I was only about 7 or 8 at the time, I guess, and I asked my mother if we could get some. I didn't know what beer was. I guess I thought it was some special kind of root beer (I liked root beer when I was a child, and I still associate its flavor with pleasant memories of childhood) — and I must have figured that gusto was some kind of special ingredient, like the barley and hops I had heard mentioned in other beer commercials.

Mom was a non–drinker in those days — later in her life, she did enjoy an occasional glass of wine with dinner, but, as I say, that was later in her life — and she must have been appalled when she heard her child asking her if we could buy a six–pack.

It was an honest mistake, though. I didn't know what beer was — and I sure didn't know what gusto was.

But I do now — because of Phyllis. You could see it in the way she approached everything — her music, her studies, her relationships. She truly had a gusto for life that she passed on — or tried to pass on — to all those around her, strangers as well as friends and family, although she seemed to be particularly intent upon sharing it with those who were closest to her.

And I will try to live the rest of my life in a way that would make her proud.

You know, it can seem terribly daunting to try to go forward after someone significant in your life has died. But we must carry on the best we can. Is there any other option?

Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Lemon may have said it best. He endured what may be the greatest loss a person can endure — the loss of his son.

"I've never looked back and regretted anything," he said. "I've had everything in baseball a man could ask for. I've been so fortunate. Outside of my boy getting killed. That really puts it in perspective. So you don't win the pennant. You don't win the World Series. Who gives a damn? Twenty years from now, who'll give a damn?

"You do the best you can. That's it."

And that is what I will do. My best. It is all I can do.

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