Like many a middle-aged man with a taste for poetry and a preoccupation with lost possibilities, I caught myself thinking the other day of the first stanza of Dante’s Divine Comedy. It can be translated in countless ways, but comes most fully to the point in the most literal of renderings: In the middle of the journey of our life/I found myself in a dark wood,/for the straight way was lost. One of my fellow bloggers has lately been reflecting on the meaning of the expression “midlife crisis,” but she and her readers are so preoccupied with the more florid symptoms of that often-absurd phenomenon that they seem to have lost sight of the thing itself, the terrible moment in the middle of the journey when you wander into a dark wood and suddenly notice that you can no longer see the signposts that led you there.
That moment came for me when death first touched my life. I’d somehow managed to make it to the age of thirty-nine without losing anyone to whom I was close. Then one day the bolts of lightning started falling all around me. First my best friend, then my father, and in the twinkling of an eye I was picking up the paper each morning and turning to the obituary page. I’d joined the club, the society of those who no longer need reminding that we all die sooner or later–and that some of us die too soon. Such knowledge changes a man permanently, and often the first outward sign of the change is the predictably embarrassing behavior popularly associated with midlife crises.
Aside from these transient embarrassments, the trouble with middle age is that people keep dying on you, and the longer you live, the more often you lose the ones who mattered most when you were young. A few months ago I checked my e-mail and discovered that Richard Powell, my first music teacher, had died. On Friday I called my mother and learned with like abruptness of the death of Gordon Beaver, who taught me how to play piano and led the choirs in which I sang as a boy.
A few quick clicks on my iBook brought me to his obituary:
Born May 8, 1933, in St. Joseph, son of the late Leroy C. and Julia Waite Beaver, he had been a member of the Army National Guard and received a degree in music arts at Central Methodist University in Fayette in 1955 and a master’s degree in music education from the University of Missouri in Columbia. He was a member of the First United Methodist Church in Sikeston where he directed the church choir for over 25 years. He directed and helped form the Sikeston High School Concert Choir, taught music at the Sikeston Junior and Senior High Schools for 30 years, and took high school choir students from Southeast Missouri to Europe during the summers for three years. He also gave piano lessons and directed the Sikeston Community Choir for 20 years and played for the Sikeston Little Theatre musical productions for many years.
That’s all the Web has to say about him, and it isn’t enough. My own memories could easily fill a chapter of a book. We met 35 years ago, the summer before I entered high school. I’d decided that I needed to learn how to play piano in order to be a fully rounded musician; Beaver was generally thought to be the best piano teacher in town, and though it wasn’t his custom to work with late starters, Richard Powell urged him to take me on. He proved to be a genial, slightly cynical fellow and no kind of disciplinarian whatsoever, and we soon found ourselves spending almost as much time talking as we did playing, though he did manage to nudge me through a handful of Bach inventions and Beethoven sonatinas, as well as a stack of the semi-popular piano solos that once were the stock in trade of small-town piano teachers throughout America. (Remember John W. Schaum?) I can still play one of them, “Salt Water Boogie,” from memory.
I have a sneaking suspicion that he didn’t much care for classical music–we didn’t sing it very often in the high-school choruses he led–but he was passionate about the making of music, and threw himself into it with unflagging abandon. His enthusiasm was what I took away from the hours I spent with him, along with a feeling that, like me, he didn’t quite fit into the world into which he’d been born. I’m sure that’s why he went out of his way to be so kind to me: he must have sensed that I, too, was something of a fish out of water, and that it might be a long time before I found the right pond in which to swim. So instead of insisting that I spend hour upon hour polishing my scales in contrary motion, he let me tell him of my hopes and dreams and puzzlements, gently encouraging me to chase after whatever distant stars seemed to me most interesting.
I never became much of a piano player, and it wasn’t until I got to college that I started working with teachers who bulldozed me into learning intermezzi by Brahms and preludes by Debussy. But by then I knew I wasn’t destined to be much of a piano player, and that it didn’t matter in the slightest. For me, playing the piano would always be a small part of something infinitely larger, and I think in retrospect I may have been fortunate to have fallen into the hands of a teacher who understood that.
The day after my mother told me of Gordon Beaver’s death, I got an e-mail from an old and beloved friend:
I’m sure your mother called you for this one. I read in the paper that Mr. B. died this week. I believe the service is today, actually. I don’t mean to sound so cut and dried about it, it’s just that all these childhood icons are dying and I DON’T LIKE IT.
Nor do I, Lee, not one little bit. In the middle of the journey of my life I found myself in a dark wood, and though I finally seem to have reached its far edge and started to make my way back into the light, one thing hasn’t changed: the people that I love keep dying on me. I noticed to my surprise a few years ago that most of my closest friends were now a good deal younger than I am. This is one of the gifts middle age gives us to compensate for that which it takes away, and I’m as grateful for it as I can be. Still, no gift, however generous, can possibly make up for the empty feeling with which we say farewell to the kindly men and women who once upon a time helped to show us what we were.