Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A date with my father

In November of 1988, the year before my father died, before any of us knew that the cause of his troubling fatigue was inoperable liver cancer, I invited him to a piano concert. The great Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel was playing Beethoven at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto. My father and I shared a love for classical music. Yet we rarely went to concerts together. In fact, I could count on one hand the times we'd been alone without my mother. And so, with me in my late '30s and he in his mid-'60s, I considered this concert a special date.

My father made the hour-long drive from Guelph to Toronto, and met me at a downtown bistro for supper. We sat at a small round table covered with a yellow cloth that matched the ochre-painted walls. I had dressed up for the occasion. I wore a chic black wool suit, set off by a brilliant white silk blouse with a ruffled neck and cuffs, sheer black stockings and classic pumps. My father wore an old pair of brown suit pants, a faded white shirt and brown striped tie. He had replaced the brown suit jacket with a tan acrylic cardigan. His left hand was wrapped in a gauze bandage; I think he had cut his hand. A former farmer, he had recently retired as the chief gardener for the mental hospital in Guelph. Even though he no longer officially worked, he was always tinkering with some equipment, and his large hands were constantly beat up.

He appeared out of place, tilting the bentwood chair backwards, a country hick in the trendy city bistro. I felt embarrassed by his shabby clothes. His looks redeemed him to me. My father was still handsome as ever, blessed with classic proportions of eyes, nose and chin. His thick dark brown hair had turned salt and pepper, with more space on top. His dark brown eyes were steady. He was thinner, however, and his frame seemed to have shrunk. He no longer towered over me; in fact, we were now almost the same height.

I ordered a glass of red wine, my father took a ginger ale. The waiter placed our dinners of salmon and steak on the table. My father ate clumsily with his one good hand. We made polite conversation, not knowing quite what to say to each other, sensing the absence of the social oil my mother would have provided. But somehow we made it through the meal, determined to enjoy this rare evening together.

The time for the concert arrived. We walked east on King Street to the hall, the wind tearing at our faces in the damp November evening. Our seats were in the first balcony, not too close and not too far away from the stage. People threaded past our knees.The long black Steinway stood regally in the centre of the stage, surrounded by musicians warming up. Short passages of discordant sounds jockeyed with the murmuring buzz of people talking and whispering to one another.

Finally the house lights dimmed. The first violinist walked on stage and the orchestra tuned up. Everyone fell silent. In that hush, Alfred Brendel emerged from the wings. His famous bulging eyes looked out at the audience from behind his trademark thick black-rimmed glasses. Brendel shook the hand of the concertmaster, bowed to the audience, and calmly sat down on the piano bench, flipping his formal black tails over the back edge. He paused for a long moment, then placed his stubby fingers on the piano keys. The opening chords of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 reached our ears. The sound was full, but somewhat faint.

My father and I glanced at each other. Simultaneously, we slid our hands into our pockets and pulled out our hearing aids. My father swivelled his into his left ear, I put mine in my right. We looked at one another again, grinning, and settled back, ears primed, hearts connecting through the music.

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