The last two weeks, I’ve gone four times to the Jewish Home. Last Friday, my friend Scott came to play his always fabulous jazz trumpet with me and on Saturday, I took folks from my jazz workshop. Then yesterday went with my 4th grade class (in eight years of playing there and bringing all sorts of people, my friend Fran called that the absolute highlight.).
Today I arrived early for the reception following the Memorial Service of one of the Home’s most beloved residents—Ben Lubitz. He was a Holocaust survivor who arrived with his wife in 2002. She died one year later and he remained, his only consolation the chance to play the grand piano there each and every day. By the time I arrived in 2008, he was the in-house piano player and I was cautious about playing for my Mom on “his” piano. But he very generously invited me to do so and we struck up a mutual admiration society. Every summer when I brought my jazz class to perform, I made sure that Ben played a few numbers. (I particularly remember the year I turned 59 and he turned 95— we got a kick out of our reverse ages).
Somewhere around two years ago, it was increasingly difficult for Ben to play. After all, he was 98! I encouraged him and helped him sometimes get in position, but finally he had to give it up. He gave me one of his books of Big-Band Music and signed it, officially handing over a mantle of sorts to me. Of course, every time I came to play, I made sure to greet him and he often came to listen. But last Friday when I came with Scott, I heard he was close to death. When I came back the next day, he was gone. At 100 years old—plus seven months.
On the way home, I felt the tears come and while listening to a beautiful Adagio by Bizet, had a strong image of him flying free of this century-old body, free of the pained remembrance of the Holocaust, free to re-unite with his wife on the other side. It was a comforting image and I hope it’s true.
So today, I opened my session playing various classical pieces in his honor, some of which he had played and some of which were just right to set the tone of loving remembrance. After Bach’s Arioso, I played the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria and somewhere about halfway through, heard this angelic voice singing the melody, gaining in strength and climbing with resolve to the high notes. At first I thought I was imagining it, but once it was clear that it was real, I peeked over the piano and there was a new resident, 89-year old Florence (as I later found out) singing with such clarity and beauty. Did you ever see that scene in the movie The Shawshank Redemption where a Mozart aria is played over the loudspeaker of a prison and all these hardened criminals stop in their tracks and listen as if their lives depended on it? That was the feeling in that room today, as all the people present were feeling the angels descending and gracing us all with such unexpected beauty.
And if Ben needed an extra breath of wind to send him winging to his loved ones, I believe he got it.