My first and last private cello instructor was a stubby German man who preferred booze over Bach. He liked gin, the cheap kind, and although he did not act like an alcoholic, he smelled like one. He reeked of it. I met him when I was thirteen, after my orchestra teacher told my mom I would need private lessons if I wanted to keep advancing. We eventually found him on a Craigslist ad that was posted four months prior. To my dismay and my mother’s joy, he responded a day later. He lived only a few minutes from my middle school, in a small house that smelled like an old bookstore. He had no pets, an overwhelming amount of sheet music splayed throughout his house and a lot of empty alcohol bottles. He was not kind or inspirational. His face was in a permanent scowl and his thick accent gave his words a sharp edge. He only ever said one kind thing to me, and I don’t think it was even meant to be kind.
“Keep throwing up your fear, Mäuschen.” His parting words seemed almost regretful. He was referring to my stage fright, which had caused me to puke up the contents of my stomach before every single performance. I told him of my predicament during our first lesson and I remember him only shaking his head in response, then telling me to continue playing. After my first recital he asked if I had “thrown up my fear” beforehand and I pointed to the tree I had crouched next to just forty-five minutes before. He only nodded and walked away.
I had a total of six recitals that year. Three for school and three for my local church. I invited him to them all, and he would tell me he probably couldn’t make it but came to every single one. And every single time, I would step out of my mom’s car, find the nearest tree, and throw up anything I had eaten that morning along with my fear. I performed well at those recitals. He never told me so, and even critiqued my playing after every one, but I could sense he was proud of me. The permanent crease in his brow would soften as he told me my vibrato was too much, or my tempo was off. He was telling me I did well, in his own backwards way.
We met once a week for two hours for a total of nine months. By month six I could tell he was struggling with health issues. His skin developed a yellowish tint, and he spent the entire two hours itching some part of his body. I spent one night researching his symptoms and after factoring in his alcoholism, concluded he had a liver disease. The last three months, his health declined rapidly as his body became frail and he barely seemed awake throughout our lessons. He once told me to play whatever I wanted and sat in silence as I did so, eventually falling asleep. I left early that day. That was the second to last time I saw him. Our very last lesson, he informed me we would not be seeing each other anymore. I was unable to stop the tears from pouring down my face as he explained he was diagnosed with liver cancer due to his alcoholism. Those two hours I never once picked up my cello to play. I sat in silence and listened attentively as he talked about his life as if it were a lifetime ago. It was the most he had ever said to me. Looking back, I think he did it more for himself than for me.
After that day, I started flipping to the obituary section of the newspaper every morning and every time I did not see his face, I would play. I played Bach, and Dvorak, and Boccherini, and Beethoven, but never Haydn. He hated Haydn. I played every day for seven weeks straight. I played until that day came. I flipped to the obituary section and skimmed until I saw his face, his name, his dates. It was the shortest obituary I had ever seen. “Father. Son. Husband. Musician.” My heart fell to my stomach and subsequently down and out of my body completely. I did not play that day. I only cried. The aching, body-heaving kind of cry. No one in my life at that point had died, or even suffered from a life-threatening illness. I had no idea how to handle this grief, and it physically pained me to look at my cello, so I stopped playing altogether. I have not touched it in five years. It sits in my downstairs closet along with my abundance of musical scores, tucked behind our Christmas decorations.
After a few days of crying, I became angry at whoever had written his obituary. It was too short, too barren for a life so well lived. I thought back to our last meeting, gathered up all the details I could, and sat down determined to write the best obituary ever written. I wrote until my hand cramped and my pencil dulled out along with my anger. I folded up the piece of paper and decided to put it in my cello case, hoping one day I would decide to play again and remember him.