I was born at Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara, California in 1979. Three weeks ago, in that very same building, I learned that my father was dying. The night the surgeon gave us the news that dad’s stomach cancer had metastasized and spread so aggressively that there was no hope of treatment, I didn’t sleep. Instead, I wrote to my father.
Early the next morning I grabbed a few books from my shelf to bring to the hospital, including Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Letters to a Young Poet’. The book consists of ten letters written to a younger, less experienced writer, and in them Rilke shares his advice on how to write well—and by extension, how to live well.
“Go into yourself,” Rilke writes. “Then draw near to Nature. Then try, like some first human being, to say what you see and experience and love and lose.”
Dad was still partially anaesthetized when he started asking my mother what the surgeon had found. As he took in what she was saying, he gazed up at us with wide-open eyes. “I want to go home,” he said. “I want to play my cello.” That Friday he came home. On Monday, he played chamber music with his trio. Every day he is thinner, weaker, and more tired, but when he sits down to play it’s as if he’s tapping into a deeper well of energy. Yet he can feel himself slowing down. The fast passages are getting harder. A few days ago after listening to him play for two hours, I told him I could see that he felt some frustration and fear at the changes in his playing, but that when I listened, I still heard the beauty of his tone—I heard him making music.
“Yes,” he said, “That’s good. It’s not about whether I’m playing differently. It’s about whether I’m still making music—whether I can still sing. And one day I just won’t be able to any more.”
“One day you’ll have to put down the bow,” I said to him. “But you can still sing. I don’t see any reason you should ever have to stop singing.”
“Yes,” he said. “When I can’t sing with the bow, I’ll sing with my heart.”
I believe in singing with the heart. I believe in saying what I see and experience and love and lose. I believe in loving, and losing, in going straight through the searing middle of grief and coming out the other side. I believe in this journey, and in sharing the journey with others, so that we can help one another become more fully ourselves. I believe in living as my father is living now: receptive, grateful, loving, and singing.
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