I had come down from the East Coast, where I was living at the time. I hadn't played my trumpet in years. But when I went to open up the case, that same familiar smell wafted through the air -- that intoxicating mix of valve oil, musty faux fur, and glistening aged brass that only a true band nerd could love.
I reached in with both hands. A little embarrassed. As if it would somehow know that I'd been neglecting it all these years. As if it would somehow hold a grudge.
But it felt exactly the same in my hands as it did when I was 15. The heft of it was like an old friend. Cold at first, unsure of my intentions. But it soon warmed beneath the heat of my skin and then readily gave in to my touch. The valves still pumped smoothly. The mouthpiece reciprocated my long-lost kiss. And the sound, although muted at first from my own timidity, was as full and soul-shaking as it always had been for me.
I practiced in the bathroom. I practiced outside. I'd forgotten how loud it was. How the trumpet fills the air, blasts the clouds, rattles the windows. But I wanted to be sure. I needed to get it right. I simply couldn't, could not, make a single mistake this time.
On the day of the funeral, I was sitting in the truck waiting for my cue. I was heartbroken at the loss of my uncle, emotional at being around my family, back in my hometown that I'd fled so long ago, and visibly trembling at the thought of, once again, having to perform a solo.
A few minutes before it was time, a young boy arrived with a trumpet case in hand. He'd been sent over from the high school. To play for the funeral. Just as I had been so many times before him.
And although this was MY uncle, and I had been asked by MY aunt, I didn't want to discourage him, a young hopeful musician. I didn't want to deprive him of the profound and meaningful experience of playing the last song anyone would ever hear before their loved one was buried and gone forever. It was an honor to play for the mourners. An honor to play for the dead.
So, I dragged him back to the truck in his blue & gold gym clothes, and we practiced as a duet. And he was trying to keep up. He was. He was trying to harmonize, but he just couldn't pull it off. Because although I've never ever been a natural musical talent, I knew the one thing I always had over my competition was heart, as trite as that may sound. And although he did his best and did play with me that day, I honestly don't even remember his name. I don't remember what he was wearing or what he looked like. In fact, I don't remember even hearing him at all.
I could hear nothing but the melody I was playing. Everything else, the wind, the train, the traffic, was drowned out by the notes that were swimming solemnly over the flag-draped coffin, soaring triumphantly up past the trees, and back into the heavens. Where they belonged.
CLICK TO PLAY "TAPS"
'Cause the thing is, I was the one that loved to play.
I did. I loved it. Through and through.
And you saw that in me. And you let me have that.
Being First Chair. Playing solos in concerts and on the field. Bringing home medals from competition. Those were awesome, unforgettable memories for me.
But being able to play something as simple and as pure as Taps at my uncle's funeral, is something I never could have done, would have done, or would have been asked to do, if it weren't for you.
So, besides the fact that I got my first real kiss in the 6th grade band hall (oh, trust me, I was NOT the only one), you will always and forever hold a very special place in my heart.
Thank you for everything you did, for everything you taught us, and, most especially, for all of the things you never even knew you gave us.
Congratulations on your retirement, Mr. L. I'll imagine you always on a white sandy beach in Havana with the trumpets playing softly over the warm breeze under a blanket of starry skies.