The Goldfish

Easter is a hard day for me in terms of grieving my mother. Because here is what is supposed to happen today. We’re supposed to wake up early so that Lindsay and I get our Easter presents, even when I’m not living in Houston and open my presents with her while she’s on the phone. Usually, it’s money and a metric tonne of chocolate, including a hollow bunny for the annual drinking of the Dr Pepper. Then, my mom and I both go off to our volunteer jobs. For a lot of my life it was playing my horn, and for the rest, singing in the choir. The first year after my mom died, I went to Easter services and cried all the way through it. This year, I am not even thinking about leaving the house. We’re having a to-do with “the family,” and that is enough.

This morning, Hayat and I sat around drinking coffee and eating Milanos, but first, I talked to my dad as he was on his way to play his trumpet at Second Baptist.

It’s kind of cool that between TV and Facebook Live events, I can actually hear him play, and sometimes see him in the background. It makes me happy because he is just as good as he was in high school/college. I, however, am not. Some of my fondest memories are of being on the brass line, so it’s nice to live vicariously through him.

Before there were church jobs for me, though, there were trails of plastic eggs filled with candy and/or malted milk eggs to our Easter baskets filled with that fake grass that gets damn everywhere. Black_Moor_Goldfish1In third grade, I asked for a goldfish, and I got it. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier with a present, because it was a black moor, and he was so incredibly cute. I managed to keep him alive for probably two years, a miracle since at that time, I didn’t know that goldfish desperately need an aquarium to breathe properly. He just had the classic bowl setup. I’d sit in front of the bowl and just stare at his googly eyes, wondering if he was lonely and deciding that no, he was okay. He had me. This fish is absolutely the reason I’ve kept goldfish most of my life, and will continue to in memoriam…. both for that fish and the one who gave it to me. I wish I could remember what I named it…. I’m usually pretty good about these things. For instance, I remember that Dana and I had a whole tank that we gave eastern names- we had Samir, Saeed, and Zain. Saeed came from Lindsay’s high school boyfriend, Zain was his cousin, and Samir just fit with the theme. But third grade is so long ago…. I’ve slept since then. I want to say it was Malcolm. Don’t quote me on that.

I wish I could remember other presents I got, but I only remember the candy. This was the big highlight, so the one that sticks in my memory the best. I thought it was hilarious that my mother was so big on giving us chocolate for Easter, but never really ate any herself. However, I think she enjoyed my goldfish as much as I did. I often wonder what made her pick the black one, or how she knew they were my favorite. But my mother was sneaky like that. She had the memory of an elephant, so I could say that I liked something and it would magically appear up to three years later…. and I never found any indication that she wrote stuff like that down.

I would make wish lists on Amazon for Christmas, and she never bought anything from any of them, preferring to listen to me and surprise me with things I’d forgotten about long ago. But Easter hasn’t been about presents since I was little. It’s been about hard, hard work. Hours upon hours of rehearsal and laryngitis and my embouchure being plain worn out after several services in a row. The trumpet descants were always better than the soprano ones, so when I gave up trumpet, I would sing those descants as a soprano instead….. unless the organist surprised me by playing his/her own modulations and the descants didn’t fit into the chord structure anymore. I think that only happened once, though, so I pretty much got away with it every year.

As you can imagine, even entering a church is difficult for me now, because I just see my mother everywhere, and it is not as comforting as one might think. It is just a reminder of despair, because there is no better synecdoche for my mother than a piano… or an organ…. or a choir robe…. or a really great alto part….

It’s hard to swallow because I miss choir, but I don’t miss feeling like crap every Sunday because I cannot rise above grief (at this time).

Perhaps the answer is in thinking that my mom’s resurrection is within me, carrying her music into the future.

I’m just not there yet. I mean, I haven’t even bought a goldfish.


Today, I did nothing. Not the kind of nothing that means wrapped in the covers. The kind of nothing where my dad had to take care of a few things and I was just the running buddy who held stuff. I have a big backpack, and I have a lot of practice. My main job as a PK was to ride along with my dad and hold stuff. Maybe I should figure out a way to work it into my resume. Great at following people around and when they say, “will you hold this?,” will always say “yes.” I was almost to body man level when I forgot the most important thing. We were transferring everything from my dad’s rental car to his actual car because it was finally finished at the shop. His checkbook had fallen into a crevice, and it was the only thing I didn’t see. I did get the empty Fritos bag, though, so I got that goin’ for me.

Right now he’s at rehearsal for Christmas Eve services, but before he left, he let me play his brand new horn. I was amazed- I was playing better than I had in years, because the horn was designed to be able to do more with less air. Apparently, I am less full of hot air than I used to be, so the notes floated off effortlessly, even though I can’t remember the last time I even thought about my embouchure. I wasn’t trying for crazy high notes or anything. Those days are gone. But I remembered how to get that fat, lazy tone I had in high school, the kind you can fit inside if you close your eyes. My dad asked me if I wanted to come with him and play. I ultimately declined, but I thought about it. Playing on the brass line at Second Baptist is a lot of fun, because even if I have extreme theological differences with other brass players, they won’t come up. We’re too busy busting each other’s balls. That’s so universal it’s a light bulb joke.

How many trumpet players does it take to change a light bulb?

Five. One to actually change the bulb and four more to stand around and tell him/her how much better they could have done it.

I swear to Christ, trumpet players don’t mentally age past fifteen when their horns are in their hands.

I just knew that even if a few notes came out perfectly, that didn’t mean I had enough endurance to last a whole rehearsal, much less a performance, and the balance would be different if I was there for one and not the other. I didn’t even take a horn to DC, not having anywhere to practice and wanting to focus solely on singing, anyway. Now, I’m not even doing that. I should, though. I was doing some really good work back in the day, amazed at how my voice teacher was able to unlock me into a solo artist when before, I’d always felt like a trumpet player who faked it….. even though I started singing when I was three, and didn’t pick up trumpet until I was 11. Well, technically I was 12 or 13. My first year in band, I played the baritone/euphonium, because the mouthpiece was a lot bigger and therefore, did not press on my braces. Once the braces were off, I switched instruments- mostly because the euphonium was almost bigger than me.

I was an incredible trumpet player alone in a practice room, but I got stage fright so badly that it’s a miracle anyone ever asked me to play for anything. I’d also get so nervous that I’d get lost, and once, during a solo, I came in a measure early. The entire band caught me so that no one would notice, and the band director said he wished he could take them all out for a beer afterward. With singing, though, I am ten times more confident, and it shows. I’m not sure I can count any better, though. 😛

It feels weird not to be singing anywhere for Christmas, but I am glad to be free of the insane rehearsal schedule this year, just sitting back and watching. Advent and Christmas are all about watching, anyway. This year, I’m just taking it literally.

Doing nothing, but not the kind that means wrapped in the covers.


The Trumpets Shall Sound

There is no place that I would rather be than here on my writing couch. That is because yesterday, I helped a friend move (I have a truck, so…), and now I am so sore that my muscles are in revolt. Right now, resting is good. I’m trying to make it where the only thing that moves is my fingers. When this article drifts into nothing, you’ll know that even they have seized.

I took up trumpet somewhere along my sixth grade year. This is because when I was in fifth grade, I had braces on my top front teeth, and my dad thought it would be too uncomfortable for me to play trumpet. I started on what, in some parts of the country, is called a baritone, in others is called a euphonium, and in both cases are made of metal and hatred.

Interestingly enough, I was pretty good. Living in a small East Texas town where the band took up the front row of three cafeteria tables, you wouldn’t think that there would be much chance for advancement. However, my band director was a trumpet player, and so was my dad. Even though I had to pick up the finer points on my own, I couldn’t have had a better foundation for brass.

Again, though, the euphonium wasn’t cool. The moment those braces were off, I dropped it.

My dad was right. Trumpet wasn’t as easy, but I was going to learn how to play it if it killed me. That is because the idea of playing trumpet and the camaraderie on the bus is different than the reality. I never got my embouchure right enough so that my lips didn’t hurt after about 45 minutes. I could often be the best trumpet player in my school for fifteen minutes at a clip. I could figure out the notes and the rhythms and learn how to wail on the high notes, but it never lasted very long because I was in so much pain.

For the trumpet players reading this, I know you could have fixed me. It’s ok. You all think you can, and you should, because not to think so is not to have the audacity of a trumpet player. It’s in your nature. Go back to your cages and mama will be around with bananas if you’re good.

I also had gut-wrenching stage fright. I have no idea where this came from, no idea where it started. But you could listen to me practice and listen to me perform and wonder if it was the same girl. I was so much better when no one was watching me, especially my teachers, because I was kind of afraid of them (in a healthy way, I think).

I would like to joke that I suffered through trumpet lessons, but I didn’t. My teachers were fabulous and I didn’t listen to them and that’s why it felt like suffering. See, the problem was the way I rested the trumpet on my lips while I was playing. In order to fix the problem, I would have to completely overhaul it. My teachers and I came to this conclusion when I tried every mouthpiece known to God and man and I still couldn’t play for more than an hour. I also tried Carmex, no Carmex, Vitamin E, lidocaine, everything. 45 minutes.

I still play, actually, but because I still haven’t fixed the original problem, you will get six minutes of loveliness.

Because the audition only lasted fifteen minutes, I got into High School for Performing and Visual Arts. It was here that I met my hero.

Wynton Marsalis came to HSPVA for a master class, and I WAS IN IT! He played it all, from classical to blues, and when it was over, I went up to him and stuck out my hand. “Wynton,” I said. “I have waited my whole life to meet you.” Keep in mind that I am probably 15 years old. I have been waiting a long, long, long, time.

He handed me his horn so that I could look at it up close, and said, “Awwwwwwwwwww…. thank you, baby.”

It is no coincidence that my favorite jazz track is “From the Plantation to the Penitentiary.”