Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Swan Song

Patrick is dying.

Of course, he's been dying of emphysema since the day we met, now a year and a half ago, but now he's really dying.  Not actively dying, which is still to come, but he's entered a strange interlude that many dying people find themselves in--bed-bound, waiting for the end, but not there yet.  He's lost interest in the television and he was never much of a reader, so mostly he just sleeps.

About a month ago, after a visit, I sat in my car, wondering why it always feels like I've done nothing, even after visiting him when it occurred to me that this was because I really was doing nothing.  Of course, sitting with him and talking is good, but I wanted to do something more, something that would mean something to him, to Patrick.

Honestly, I don't know a lot about Patrick.  I know he's an old hippie, about my age, maybe a little older.  I know he lived in Austin most of his adult life, but he grew up in North Carolina, the son of a shoe salesman (seriously, a real life Willie Loman).  I know Patrick went to Woodstock, not just because he told me so, but he showed me pictures.  He was there, and at many other less well known festivals and outdoor concerts on the East coast and here in Texas.

Mostly what I know about Patrick is that he is guitar crazy.  One of the first things he asked me--after discovering that I was unable to solve his computer problems--was if I played guitar.  I said no, I have no musical ability, and he immediately offered to teach me.  Anyone can play, he said.  Perhaps he's right, but I never actually tried, and sitting in the car at the senior care facility, I found myself wishing I could play for him now.  Then I thought, even if I can't play guitar, maybe I can find someone who does.  it shouldn't be hard, I thought, here in the 'Music Capital of the World' to find a guitar player for Patrick, right?

I immediately conjured an image of Joe Ely, striding into the room wearing black boots and carrying an electric guitar and a little amp.  He'd plug in the guitar and put his foot up on the amp and say something like, "Anybody here want to hear a couple of guit-tar songs?"  Most visions are just that, but this one seemed like something I could actually make happen.  I mean, why not just write Joe Ely and ask him?

This reminds me of the time Lynda suggested I write that 'Bill Gates guy' and ask him for a job.  I bet he reads his email, right?  Right mom.

I don't know if Joe Ely reads his fan mail, but I wrote to him, and Ray Benson, and Willie Nelson, and every other famous guitar player I could think of.  It turns out that this list is not so long--not because there is a shortage of guitar players, but my musical knowledge is so limited that I didn't get very far.  I guess I wrote about eight or ten emails. I got one response.  This was from Ray Benson's agent, who told me very politely that Mr. Benson could not respond to individual requests, but often donated his time and talent to Swan Songs, which is a non-profit agency that arranges for musicians to go play for terminally ill people in their homes and institutions.

I filled out the online request form at Swan Songs website, and soon was in contact with the very kind folks who organize and coordinate these visits.  She said they had a musician who was willing to donate his time--fellow named Bob Livingston.  The name honestly did not mean anything to me, but Kate told me that he was pretty well known, and had played with a number of famous bands, including Jerry Jeff Walker's Lost Gonzo Band.  He also played with Michael Murphy, Gary P. Nunn and practically every other musician of note in the Texas and L.A.  All this I found out later.  At the time of Kate's call, I was more interested in making this happen for Patrick.  I felt sure Bob was going to be a good musician, but frankly I didn't care if he was famous or not.  The fact that he could play and was willing to give his time to Patrick was more than enough for me.

I met Bob and the representative from Swan Songs in the lobby of the care facility where Patrick now lives and told him a few things about Patrick, including the fact that he was at Woodstock.  I also told him that Patrick was an old hippie, like me, and it so happens, Bob, so that immediately resonated with him.  We all went to the room, and after a few introductions, Bob took out his guitar, a set of harmonicas and sat down to play.

It was magical.

It turns out, of course, that Bob could really play.  I don't quite know how to explain this, except perhaps by way of a weak analogy.  We taste things all the time, just the way we hear things all the time, but when you taste something especially good, whether it's food or drink, you know it's somehow materially different that the 'usual' stuff.  This is how I felt about Bob's music.  It was simply exceptional, yet so natural that it was no different than listening to someone talk. The music emerged from his hands and instruments (he also brought a set of harmonicas) in such a way that it was like water, flowing in and around and through us.

There were four of us in the room that day, but no one enjoyed it more than Patrick.  He can't talk much and doesn't have a lot of energy, but I could see his eyes sparkling and his head moving almost imperceptibly to the beat of the music.  He knew who Bob was, by the way, but I don't think that mattered so much as the fact that Bob was there to play guitar.

Afterwards, as he was drifting off to sleep, I told Patrick with some pride--'Hey, I never learned how to play the guitar, but I found someone who does.' It's the least I can do.

Bob is a very accomplished musician, so he made it look effortless, the way I might drink a glass of water, without thought.  It happens that there is precious little grace in my downing a glass of water, but in Bob's playing the grace and elegance of the act elevated our little corner of a nursing home--Patrick's last stand--to another place.  The word sublime comes to mind, but it seems too high-minded to describe the scene.  Here were a few humans, engaging in a ritual as old as humanity itself, comforting and soothing each other with our presence and the life-affirming power of music.

This was such a success, I felt like I needed to build on this, or at the very least, do it again.  Surely, I thought, there is a nearly limitless supply of musicians in this, the 'Music Capitol of the World'.  It turns out that it's not as easy as I thought, but I did manage to arrange for one more concert for Patrick. The next week, I arranged for a friend to come and play for him.  Ian, kind as he is to do this, is not a professional musician, but he was willing to do for Patrick what I simply cannot, which is to play the guitar.  I told Patrick that since I can't play, all I can do is to find someone who does.  I an did this, and with such grace and aplomb that it felt every bit as magical as the moments with Bob.

I wish I could say that I have since brought any number of guitarists to play at Patrick's bedside, but as I said, the process is harder than i thought.  I've sent notes to guitar and music stores, and I have posted in online forums, looking for someone with the same spirit that brought guitars into Patrick's life, oh so many years ago.  Even if we just managed to do it twice, however, I feel that those performances made a small difference in Patrick's final days.

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