My grandfather died more than twenty-five years ago. I was fifteen. He was kind, strong, fair, and very funny. When I was a young musician, he was my biggest fan. My grandpa used to applaud when I tuned, and I would roll my eyes and shrug off his enthusiasm as too biased. I played my violin for him when he visited, and he loved everything, but each time he had one request. “Could you play ‘Amazing Grace’?” he asked, full of hope and with a twinkle in his eye, because he knew my answer was always, “I don’t know that one!” We went through this routine at every major holiday, and I always figured I’d have time to learn it for him later.
About the time I entered high school and had switched to viola and started guitar, Grandpa got cancer. The last time I saw him alive was Thanksgiving weekend in 1985. My mom warned us when we turned onto the familiar street that Grandpa didn’t look the same anymore and that we should prepare ourselves. For a moment I didn’t recognize him. He looked so small among all the white sheets, and I had never thought of my grandpa as small in any sense. We had all gathered in Ohio for the holiday, and I’m sure we all knew we were there to say good-bye. I can see now that Grandpa held on long enough to see us each one more time. I remember how we ate in the dining room and laughed and talked while Grandpa rested in his hospital bed set up in the den. I wonder if it was sad for him to be alone with our voices and laughter. Knowing Grandpa, he was probably content.
The next morning I found my moment alone with him. I pulled out my guitar, tuned to his appreciative gaze, and finally played for him “Amazing Grace.” I had worked on it for weeks, knowing it never mattered if I actually played it well and choosing not to believe as I played that it was my last concert for my biggest fan. The cancer had stolen his smile, but I saw joy in his eyes. He held my hand afterward, and I knew I had done something important.
I argued with people all through college about my music major. I was told by strangers that music wouldn’t make me any money and it wasn’t useful like being a doctor. But I know firsthand that with music I was able to give my grandpa something at a point when no one else could. Food didn’t taste good, doctors couldn’t help, and his body had betrayed him and left him helpless. But for a few minutes listening to me with my guitar, he seemed to find beauty and love and escape. At its best music is the highest expression of humanity’s better nature, and I’m privileged to contribute to such a profound tradition.
So, this I believe: Love matters. Music matters. And in our best moments they are one and the same.