Monday, January 27, 2020

The Name Vivian Means Alive

When you were, you were full of life, clapping your hands when we got together, holding my little arms and dancing ragtime across the floor. You passed food around the room with authority, with the experienced motion of a well oiled machine. You arranged us into places; you gathered us, crammed us into your living room that was more than a living room. When I was a child, you felt like a womb, and when I sat there on your lap and had you read about Strawberry Shortcake and Huckleberry Pie, your breath was warm in my ear. You were all velveteen and lotion. When you put my own children on your ninety year old lap and bounced them up and down the way the lady rides, I remembered that. They all fell asleep in your arms while you hummed, rocked them gently as if your whole body were music.

The resistance you displayed when we cajoled you to sit down on the organ bench was a necessary act of humility. You sniffed before you played, reached your feet down to the foot pedals as though putting on your most comfortable shoes, and leaned back. Your fingers flipped the stops effortlessly and at last settled on the keys. You looked over at us and smiled. And then you played.

In the end, it was organ failure. A cruel joke, I thought. The infection spread through your mortal circuits and flipped off the switches of your melody, one by one. The rushing of air out of you was like a pipe organ being powered down. When I touched your hand as you lay dying in the hospital, it was not your hand. It was not your instrument anymore.

When we buried you, it was right next to the Organ family in the cemetery. I didn't even know that Organ was a surname and I almost wondered if they were put there as props. We poked each other through our winter coats and pointed to the snowcapped tombstones when we saw them there, and smiled our wan little smiles. Then I stepped forward, stood by your body, bowed my head, and dedicated a rectangular piece of ground to you, promising you that it would not stay closed forever, that you would rise in the morning of the first resurrection.

I was hardly your most musical grandchild by far, but I was the one who got your organ. I chuckled to call you my "organ donor." After we carried it into my home I sat down on the bench and cried when I realized the cover over your keyboard was locked, and I had lost the key in the move. For several weeks it sat there like a vacuum, like an aggravating weight, heavy in the silence. In desperation, I succeeded in picking the lock. I lifted the lid and started to play it surreptitiously, feeling like a bandit, looking behind me occasionally because I could never play it the way you did, and I thought you might be watching. Besides, it was still yours somehow without the key.

When we were pregnant again, you had been gone two years. It was a hard pregnancy for my wife. The valley of death for a mother can be in the mind, too. Depression is a thief. But with every little flutter of our child inside her, I knew there was hope still. There was a spirit fighting for life in there, and it would only grow stronger and more viable in time. At last, my wife became the mother of all living once again. It was a role, Nana, you had mastered by the end.

We named her Vivian, after you, and just before she was born, we found the key. Your old organ key. It was buried in a potted plant, of all places. My five year old scoundrel must have wedged it in there without thinking, the way little boys do mindless mischief when they wander bored through a room. I held it up and thought to myself, grasping for a metaphor, "This organ key was buried the same way you are." It was certainly rusted a bit, but it still fit the lock, and when I turned it this time, I knew it was with your permission. 

You are playing your music somewhere up there, and I have to believe you are still alive to share it with me.