Screwing up the videotape of my sons piano recital doesnt sound like a big deal, but its hurt both of us deeply, and revived old pains as well.
David is an unhappy teenager, on the social fringe, usually morose and uncommunicative. Though eighteen, he cant drive for medical reasons, further fueling his frustrations. I can imagine him being angry at me for describing him thus - or else I imagine him being angry because I imagine him being angry.
Music is his salvation, into which he pours his soul. What he hears and feels flows straight through his fingers into the keyboard. Even this feeds his frustration. Though the jazz band is the only saving grace in his unhappy high school life, a few jocks in the band make his life miserable. And, as talented and creative as he is, David is overshadowed by a popular girl as the bands star pianist. David says he doesnt mind, but thats hard for me to believe. I know I would mind.
Davids reality is his music. When he plays by himself he comes alive. Last month he gave a private recital for friends and family on a marvelous grand piano at the local cultural center. It was a magnificent program hed prepared for many months, featuring an incredibly difficult Chopin Ballade, two delightful Satie duets with his piano teacher, other classical pieces, and a jazz program as well. David was high, on a roll, and capped it all off with a twenty-minute improvisational flight.
My job was to capture it all, sight and sound, on videotape. I botched it.
The borrowed video camera was a new toy for me. For practice I taped David in his room, taking a guided tour of the posters and other treasures adorning his walls and hanging from his ceiling. To make this a memory tape, a parting gift from me on his departure for college, I added a tour of the house hed lived in his whole life, inside and out, front and back. We also did a sound check at the piano, discovering that the built-in mike had remarkable fidelity.
For the recital, I planned to use the quick-release tripod mount for mobility, relieving the static camera with some professional panning and shifting viewpoints. I planned graceful fadeouts and fade-ins between pieces, avoiding the clutter and fumbling in between. I planned a special showcase for Davids special performance.
It didnt work that way. I couldnt get the quick-release back on the tripod in the dark, so I hand-carried the camera much more than I planned. My panning motions turned out jerky, especially when I walked to change viewpoints. The real disasters, though, marred the music. The wonderfully sensitive microphone also captured an occasional god-awful roar- the sound of my cheek or clothes rubbing against the camera when I walked. And, while fumbling for the fade-in button, I chopped off the opening bars of several pieces. To top it all off, I amputated his improvised finale. The house memories are rueful now, because they made the tape run out five minutes into his closing piece. I should have started a new tape for the recital. I should have popped in a new tape when the old ran out, but I kept thinking the recital was just about over. Nobody knew, not even David, that it would go on for another fifteen minutes. I should have left the camera on the tripod. I should have forgotten about the fancy fadeouts.
(I should have kept my ego out. Forgive me, David. Though I write from love, I also hear a guilty inner voice speaking to my own audience as well as to you. Thats partly what I did with the videotape, and the family photographs, and what Im doing at this very moment. While I extend myself to you, these things are also extensions of myself. I can only hope that they do some good nonetheless.)
It might have been more merciful if the tape had been completely botched, a total loss to be mourned and forgotten. In fact, the actual damage comprised just a little bit of the playing time, the rest being a tantalizingly fine recording of most of the music. David struggled many hours copying, editing, and filtering the sound track, like a grieving parent trying to heal an injured child. He salvaged much, but the injured child remains a cripple. The captured memories are bittersweet, the triumph marred by blemishes.
Poor David. He was so wrapped up in performing, he didnt really savor the experience of the performance, and wanted to get that from the videotape, to relive it whenever he needed it. Especially the closing piece, which he was improvising on the fly, and so had no sense of its wholeness as he played. That too was supposed to come from watching and listening to the videotape. The whole experience was a pinnacle to be cherished, to be relived, to be shared with others in the future. Thats what the tape was for, that I screwed up. The recital was the brightest spot in his sad teenage years, the crowning glory, the event that made up for everything else. Thats why hes so disappointed, why the scar in his heart wont heal for a long time. (Am I right, David?)
Then theres my scar. I dont know how long the pain will linger in Davids heart, but he probably doesnt even realize how he once hurt me.
Why do I want David to know this? Ive been fighting off the urge to remind him, not wanting to pile guilt on top of the pain already there. But the urge is strong. Maybe its primal vengeance, trying to match his pain with mine. Maybe I can rationalize a nobler motive, hoping he will learn some important life lesson. I dont know.
It happened six years ago, on my fiftieth birthday, a pinnacle you achieve only once in a lifetime. You dont get another chance to do it better next time. Camped out in the back country of Death Valley, we had the whole expanse of starlit desert to ourselves from horizon to horizon. A balmy breeze blew, the air was fragrant, little desert sounds rustled in the background. I sat fifty yards from our camper, a small lighted haven for my family among the desert dunes.
I love David, and Davids music. When he plays something like the Pachelbel Canon or the Bach Toccatta and Fugue my heart fills and soars with indescribable joy and pride. It transports me to heights I rarely experience otherwise. He doesnt really know that.
We had a keyboard there with us in the camper. What a glorious gift we could have made! The starlit desert, the grand solitude, my sons music booming out and filling the balmy night air with heart-lifting joy...
When I asked David to play for me he said he didnt feel like it. I dont know why. Maybe, because he wants his music to be his own spontaneous thing, he doesnt like people - especially parents - telling him when and what to play. It wouldnt have been right to urge or cajole him. The moment was delicate. Spontaneity and a sense of the natural rightness of it all were essential. If he played because I made him, it would have missed the whole point, ruined everything. Trying to explain didnt feel right, so I let it go.
But I didnt forget. Though I forget many things, I didnt forget that pain, that disappointment. Compounded with it all is the classic hurt of a parent who gives so much and gets so little back. How could he not do this simple, loving, creative, adventurous, poetic, uplifting thing for me?
David, do you even remember?
This is the scar I carry in my heart. I think in many ways it matches yours. Is there justice here?
I wish I could know now how you will feel after reading this. It seems more right to write this than tell you. Maybe it will give you a chance to absorb this without having to look me in the eye right away. Maybe it will give you a chance to compose your thoughts, to think about how you want to relate to me.
Maybe you will forgive me, and I will forgive you, and we can call it even. Is that why I write this?
As I ponder that, and how I affect your happiness, I realize that those scars are superficial compared with another I carry in my heart.
I regret that I couldnt give you a happy childhood. I regret passing on to you my asocial behavior, my inability to mix comfortably with people, my insecurities, my struggle for self-esteem. I regret not providing you with a role model of male bonding, of hanging around with buddies, having them over to drink beer and watch football games and play cards, or going out with them to play ball or fish. I regret not giving you the traditional father-son memories of picnics, fishing, camping, basketball, baseball, Boy Scout stuff, singing, learning to tie knots, telling stories. Though the family did a little camping, fishing, skiing, and touring together, it doesnt seem like enough.
Now that youre eighteen and about to go off to college, theres no more time to fix things up. Its over, and thats the way it is. Whats done is done. Maybe this is why I wanted the videotape to be so special, trying to fabricate a positive memory of your childhood years. And I screwed it up.
Sometimes people like you and me make the best of being loners by channeling our pain into creativity. I hope that works for you. But what I really wish is that you could break the mold, finding a way to simply get along comfortably with people and feel good about yourself. That would heal the biggest scar in my heart.
(July 1992. David is on the European tour with the jazz band. Barbara and I are spending a week in and around Flagstaff, after my week canoeing the Colorado with the gang from San Diego.)
(I didnt show this to David until September of 1998. We agreed that there was no pain left around these things, and that this was a good thing to write down.)