Monday, April 16, 2012

Coins on the Floor

When I was a kid, my Dad and I had a little game. Sometimes when he picked up his pants draped over the chair, the coins in his pocket would fall onto the floor. When I heard that jangle of metal hitting wood, I would run from my bedroom to try and pick them up. Any coins I could swoop up before he did would be mine to keep.

Like most men, I also keep loose change in my pockets and don’t always remember to take it out each night to toss in the coin bowl. So occasionally it falls to the floor and my first reflex is to say out loud “Dad!” Never fails. He left us five years ago this summer, but it’s one of those threads that keep us connected. It happened this morning and gave me the sweet opportunity to remember him yet again.

Like most fathers and sons, especially growing up in the 50’s, ours was a difficult relationship. His job to provide conditional love meant much judgement and disappointment, as well as the 50’s working father absence. As a young adult, it was my turn to be disappointed in him, especially when he stopped painting, composing little pieces on the piano and eventually stopped playing the piano altogether, giving himself over to way too many hours of mediocre TV. Then came the slow climb back to acceptance and forgiveness and ultimately, deep appreciation and enjoyment of the few places where we did meet. From both sides.

My sister, a modern dancer, and I once gave a concert in which I played one of his compositions and improvised it on while she danced her choreography to it. Both he and my Mom attended and that was a proud moment for us all. Likewise, he was proud of my modest success in my chosen field and when he and Mom finally moved from New Jersey to Novato in 1992, he enjoyed his Grand-dad role, came to the kids’ piano recitals and school plays that I directed, to my own concerts and dutifully read all my books. It was a ritual to always call before taking off on a worldwide “Orff tour” and we always ended our conversations the same. “Thanks for calling,” he’d say, and I’d always reply “Thanks for being there” until one day, he wasn’t. Like the coins falling to the floor, the moment before leaving for the airport is another time of ritual remembrance, a marker of the simple fact that I miss him.

I overheard someone talking the other day about a children’s book about Heaven. The book suggested that Heaven was just like here, but the housing is more affordable. You get to stay in your house for as long as someone on Earth remembers you. This would explain most culture’s ritual remembrances—Day of the Dead, All Soul’s Day, Memorial Day, Chinese New Year, Bon and all the festivals that honor the ancestors and keep their presence vibrant. Without those collective memorials, we are left with our own personal recollections that don’t appear by calendar, but by those small markers of phone calls before flights or coins falling to the floor. One can imagine our departed loved one starting to fade until their name comes up in a dinnertime story or their image appears in the sounds of quarters on hardwood floors and then they take on a more solid shape and form.

People like Buddha and Bach, Dickens and DaVinci must be long-term residents, renewed each time someone chants, plays Prelude No. 1, reads Oliver Twist or sees the Mona Lisa. (In this scenario, sad to say, I supposed Ghengis Khan and Hitler also share the condo apartments.) But for most folks, their immortality is tied to the mortality of their friends and descendants, good for just a generation or two. Perhaps that’s when they’re ready for another roll of the karmic wheel and come back to be re-incarnated.

Well, it’s all speculation and a luxury to think about. But no time now, I’m too busy rushing to get all the coins on the floor so I can keep them. 

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