“Music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” - Amadeus Mozart
The phone call came on the road.
Michael Daily was doing his best to forget about the stock market. The New York City sun splashed down in soft golden ringlets against the glass buildings and Bob Dylan was singing about the times that were a-changing.
“This is Michael.”
Michael paused. He hadn’t heard from his big sister in almost a year. There was no dramatic fallout, no bad blood. He was in New York and she was in California. Between her four children, his demanding job and the distance; visits on Christmas were the best they could do.
“Sounds like you’re driving.”
“I’m headed home from work.”
“Pull over. You shouldn’t be driving when I tell you this and it can’t wait. If I don’t tell you now, I don’t think I’ll be able to do it.”
Michael took the next exit and pulled into a gas station. He turned the engine off and braced himself for what was coming.
“Mom died last night.”
He waited for the tears. They didn’t come. The sun was lower now and the city that never slept continued to buzz. His mother was dead, but here on the other side of the country, no one noticed. Life went on.
“Can you come home?” Marci’s voice broke. “I need you to come home right now. I can’t bury her alone.”
The plane touched down at LAX. Marci met him on the curb. She looked rail-thin, her face porcelain white. They hugged and didn’t say much. Marci’s husband drove. They lived in the suburbs of Pasadena. When they got inside, Marci took Michael by the hand and dragged him into the study. She locked the door and hugged her brother with violence. Her hands crumpled up fistfuls of his shirt and her shoulders trembled as she sobbed. Michael looked over her shoulder, and noticed the old grand piano collecting dust in the corner. Such a beautiful instrument, tucked away in here and forgotten. He hadn’t played since high-school. He doubted he would ever play again. He felt ashamed, ashamed that the old bones of the piano were opening up the curtains of grief and not his mother’s passing.
“I don’t understand,” Marci sobbed.
Michael said nothing, letting the deluge of tears run freely down his sister's face.
Their father passed away when they were young. He worked construction, smoked, drank, and gambled like there was no tomorrow. He suffered a stroke and dropped dead while driving home. They found his car in a ditch, his drunk dead body limp over the steering wheel. Their mother hid the circumstances from her Michael.
One night, Michael came home drunk. His mother was waiting for him in the living room. She laid it on thick and revealed the truth behind his father’s death. “You don’t want to turn out like your father,” she said. Michael never drank again.
Marci was five years older. She’d known the truth about their father from the start. His death had broken her in two.
Now their mother was gone.
“It doesn’t make any sense.”
Marci explained their mother’s death.
She was in good health. That very morning when the caretaker arrived, he checked her vitals and chirped “Clarice, you look like sunshine. I think you might live to be a hundred.” He’d helped Clarice out of bed and together they walked. They returned and with a handful of freshly plucked flowers. Clarice’s thin and frail body sunk into the living room couch as her four grandchildren bounced about her laughing. Everyone seemed happy and bright and unstoppable. The light was burning so brightly in this house that any darkness that came knocking melted away at the front door.
Then, Clarice collapsed. Her breathing was paper-thin. She laid in bed as the doctor assessed the situation. She’d had a stroke. Her organs were failing.
“The doctor told me it would be her last day,” Marci said. “She was perfectly healthy. Death came for her so fast. They pumped her full of morphine and I watched her go. I wanted to call you. I wanted to give you the chance to say goodbye.”
“It’s all right,” Michael said. “There wasn’t much time and I’m here now.”
“But I tried to call you. Mom stopped me. I brought the phone in and she shoved it away. I’m not sure if she was all there. There was a moment, right before they filled her with drugs. She snatched my wrist and I couldn’t believe how much strength was in her grip. She pulled me close and whispered in my ear, ‘Tell my boy I’m sorry. That it isn’t too late to set things right. Tell Michael our chance to make it right is in the piano.’”
The light poured in through the window, but the piano was tucked away in the dark of the corner. The piano’s once glossy finish had aged into a rough matte and there was a layer of dust resting across the once pearly white keys.
“Michael,” Marci said. “Do you have any idea what she was talking about?”
“I have no idea,” Michael said. “Have you opened the piano up?”
Marci took a sleeve and wiped her tears. “No, I couldn’t. Her mind...I’m not sure that was her talking. Her body was shutting down, I don’t think she knew what she was saying and I just...I couldn’t bring myself to look. I know it sounds silly, but if I opened that piano and there was nothing in there it would have broken my heart. I want so badly for there to be something in there to make this better. I couldn’t look without you.”
Michael walked over to the piano and pressed one of the keys. A dull thud came from within the body. “Something is sitting on the strings,” Michael said.
He opened the lid. A manilla envelope rested on the golden strings. Michael and Marci took a seat on the bench and opened it. There was a letter and a sheet of music tucked inside.
The letter was hand-written. The cursive was shaky, written by an arthritic hand.
Michael cleared his throat and read:
My Dear Boy,
If you are reading this then I am dead. I’m sorry about the handwriting. My wrist isn’t what it once was and writing causes a dull ache in my palm.
I wanted to say I’m sorry. I’m sorry for pushing you into that awful profession. Banking is such a dreadful business.
All those numbers and shady deals...I listened to your grandfather. He grew powerful and the cancer got the best of him in the end. Before he passed, my mother brought me to see him. I was twelve. I sat on the side of his bed and he told me he wanted me to have a son to take the reins of his company. I was his only child and in his eyes, he had no suitable heir.
That’s why we pushed you so hard to study. Your schooling was bought and paid for before you were born, your life predetermined. Your grandfather took care of it all before he passed.
Even as a girl of twelve, I understood what he was telling me. He needed a legacy and I was being given the burden of a dying man’s wish. My mother was stern. When you were born she whispered, “remember your grandfather.” And we did remember him. We raised you to take his place.
It broke my heart because I not only wasted my life, I wasted yours. I’m sorry my boy. I know you were never meant to live out your life twirling numbers inside steel buildings alone on the other side of the country. I know your first love was the piano and I took that away from you.
They say that music transcends time, that its beauty knows no bounds. I know this to be true because when I close my eyes I go back to our old house. I hear the notes as if they were happening now and the music is still here with me. It reminds me of all the things I didn’t do when I was young, but most of all it fills me with the regret of the life I could have given you.
I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you this in life. I know you are numb up in that skyscraper and that is a burden I’ll take with me to the grave. But listen to me now, my boy. The music transcends time. If you play, maybe you can change the past, the present and the future. Maybe those notes will find me in the afterlife. Maybe the memories I so desperately wanted to have but failed to pursue will have a second chance. I always wanted to see my boy bowing on stage.
But it will only happen if you play.
Marci leaned her head on Michael’s shoulder. The page slipped between his fingers and drifted down to the old wooden floor.
“Is that why you stopped playing?” Marci asked. “Did mom make you quit to follow in Grandpa’s footsteps?”
“You were away at college when it happened. I was about to graduate and NYU was in my future. Mom and grandma sat me down. They said the family business was waiting for me. That I had to go and learn about money and law and when I was ready, I’d take my rightful place as CEO, right where my grandfather used to sit. Then everything changed. This old thing had been in the house for generations and no one ever played it. The most use it got was acting as a roof for the forts we built as kids. That final year of high school, I fell in love with the piano. I wasn’t very good at first. I had no teacher. I bought a music book and every day I would practice. The keys would ring out through the afternoon and I got better and better. I finally mustered up enough courage to tell mom that I didn’t want to go learn about money or take grandfather’s place. I wanted to play. The music was becoming part of me and I begged her to let me go to a school where I could master the piano. You know the rest of the story. I packed my bags. The part of me that loved music died when I moved out and now I sit exactly where I’m supposed to - in grandfather’s seat.”
Marci hugged her brother. “You never told me that.”
“It was a long time ago.”
Michael looked at the second page - the loose-leaf page of notes. The edges were frayed and the paper yellowed. The ink wasn’t printed, but handwritten by an old inkwell pen. The notes had faded, but Michael could read them. There was no title.
“I’ve never seen this music before,” Michael said. He wasn’t much more than a slightly below average pianist, but he could read music and the notes rang true in his mind as he scanned the page. “It seems old.”
“Can you play it?”
“It’s a pretty simple song, but I haven’t played in years.”
“Will you try?”
Michael turned and placed the sheet of music before him. He leaned over the keys and blew the dust off. He brought his hands down and pressed the first key. Then he pressed the next one. Growing in confidence he began to press them faster and faster; the piano filling the forgotten study. The melody started out slow, full of low dark tones. By the second bar, things sped up and the music grew and expanded and almost began to take a physical shape, wrapping its arms around brother and sister.
Michael stopped playing. He’d made it halfway through the music. The tears he was waiting for were now here and they came down in torrents. The music was beautiful, but painful. It filled his mind with memories of his mother — her thin fingers tucking him in at night, the kisses goodbye as he rushed out the door to school, the lectures about college and the future and how he needed to forget the piano.
But he couldn’t forget the piano. He left it behind long ago, it was buried away now, a memory from another life. No matter how hard he pushed the music down it always bubbled up to the surface. Every time he walked by a cafe where someone was playing music, the vibrations reverberated through his soul and the only way he could exist was to pretend he’d never known the magic of being an artist. For to remember the beauty of the piano was to remember who he could have been and that was simply too painful.
“That was beautiful.”
“I can’t finish the song.” He was crying harder now. Shoulder bouncing and tears rolling.
“You can. I’ll help you. Take your time.
Marci rubbed her brother’s shoulder.
He caught his breath and wiped his eyes. His fingers spindled up and down the keyboard, dancing in a rhythmic tap dance. His hands began to play on automatic. He was no longer in control of his body. The music flowed through him and he gave into it, closing his eyes and letting fingers do what they were meant to.
He was casting a spell.
The music stopped. The darkness behind his eyelids thickened and he felt immobile.
Michael opened his eyes. He was laying in a bed. A machine beeped next to him. The blankets were pulled up to his chin. He tried to wiggle his toes, ball his fists, but nothing worked. He felt thin, spread too far and his chest became heavy. The piano, Marci and the study were gone.
“Help!” he cried out. His voice was hoarse and calling out had torn at his throat.
A nurse bustled through the door and over to his side. “Christopher, try to be still. You need your rest.”
“My name isn’t Christopher.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Michael tried to sit up but it felt like there was an anvil resting on his chest. He twisted a hand free from the blankets tying him down and was shocked to see the varicose skin drooping over aching knuckles.
“Mirror. Get me a mirror.”
The nurse hesitated, then grabbed a mirror from the dresser. She held it so he could see his face.
An old man blinked back at Michael. Wrinkles, decay, dark circles under eyes and loose jowls. Michael would recognize that face anywhere. It was the face of Christopher Daily — his grandfather.
The music started. Michael creaked the old body’s head to the corner. The nurse had turned on the radio and the piano poured through the speakers. It was the song he was playing for Marci, the song his mother left him.
The door opened and his grandmother entered. She was dragging a little girl behind her.
“Your father wants to talk to you.”
The little girl shuffled over and sat on the bed next him.
She beamed up at him. “How are you feeling Daddy?”
This couldn’t be happening. Michael’s twelve-year old mother was perched before him and he was someone else. He rubbed his fingertips together and gripped the sides of the bed. This was real. This was the moment his mother detailed in the letter. The moment when an old man gave a young girl the burden of fulfilling his dying to wish to produce an heir to his empire. The moment that shaped Michael’s life before he was born.
The music seemed to get louder and he remembered his mother’s letter.
But listen to me now, my boy. The music transcends time.
In some far off dimension he could feel his younger hands playing the notes.
“Not so well, little one.”
“Mommy says you are going to die soon.”
Michael pulled her close. “But death isn’t the end. No one is ever really gone.”
She cocked her head sideways in confusion.
He listened to the notes curving through the air. He let it do the talking for him.
“Life goes on. We leave things behind when we die. Everything we touch in life carries forward after we go. When I go, your mother will still be here and so will you. You will go on. You will grow to be strong and live a beautiful life, but you’ll carry a piece of me with you. You’ll remember this moment forever. You’ll remember the piano playing, the strain in my voice, my paper skin and I hope you remember a dying man’s wish. I’m going tell you something about your future. Is that alright with you Clarice?”
The little girl nodded. There were no tears. Her eyes were strong. The old man’s lips spread thin as Michael smiled.
“My wish is for you to have a son. Love this boy with everything you have. For when your time comes, you will leave a piece of yourself in him. Be careful what you place there, for it will shape him. He will listen and do anything you say. There will come a day, when he will ask you permission to lead his own life. Let him. If you do, you will live forever and you both will be happy beyond measure. Do you understand little one?”
Clarice blinked up at him and nodded. “I won’t forget you Daddy. Not ever.” She buried her face into his frail chest and began to cry. Michael cried with her and wrapped the boney arms of his grandfather around her.
He felt his heart slow. Darkness came and enveloped him. He drifted through black velvet with no shape, the pain of the old body now a forgotten memory. He heard music. The trickle of piano piercing the infinite void he was lost in. It tugged at his consciousness. The notes grew faster and faster and faster and he felt as if something magnificent was about to start. That a new beginning lay ahead and as he moved closer, the past became murky.
Who had he been before? Who would he be when he reached that song?
Applause filled his ears. Michael’s hands were young, strong. They hovered over the white keys of a grand piano. This piano wasn’t a faded matte black, it was crystal white. He turned and a crowd was on its feat. The auditorium rang with their praise and Michael could almost feel the dreams of all those people floating up to him. Maybe if those dreams could touch the music, they would come true?
Sitting in the first row, tears filling her eyes was Marci. And standing next to her, was his mother. Clarice applauded and Michael bowed for her.