About 40 years and two weeks ago, on one of our daily drives, I parked in front of a record store on the East Side of Buffalo and asked my mother to pick some music that she knew, but which I had never heard. I told her I would buy whatever record she picked.
Mom smiled at the challenge. She was still recovering from a massive heart attack suffered in May. She was frail, and couldn’t walk far, but she could get to my battered, 1969 Chevy convertible, parked in front of the decaying Victorian pile in Buffalo where we lived. We would drive somewhere every day, talk and laugh, and she could breathe a little easier during the sweet summer afternoons.
She tottered into the record store and entered the classical music section. But the record she pulled out and handed to me wasn’t something from the 18th century, as I had expected. It wasn’t Bach or Beethoven. It was a composition by Aaron Copland called Appalachian Spring.
I had never heard it before. When we put the record on that night I thought it had just about the slowest beginning of any music I had ever heard in my life. After almost two and a half minutes, I was just about to say something to Mom when she put her hand up, ever so slightly, her wordless message clear: Wait. Just – wait.
Then I heard it: That startling burst of violins uniting and cascading as one in a sudden, swirling dance of notes that, together, send one message: Joy.
I was transfixed. I listened to it over and over again.
And when my mother died two weeks later – 40 years ago today – I knew that while Appalachia couldn’t be more different than the streets of Buffalo, Copland’s beautiful orchestral suite would always remind me of her. It was my mother’s last gift.
Of all that I feared the day I lost her – and there isn’t much more frightening to a 20-year-old than losing her mother – there was so much I didn’t know. How I would have two wonderful children and a husband who, after 35 years, I feel closer to every day. How I would one day watch my little son play on the same green hills in Ireland that my mother’s beloved grandfather tumbled down as a boy. How I would live to dance at my daughter’s wedding, something Mom never was able to experience. How my first view in the morning is of zinnias, dahlias and sunflowers that surround my home, and how in the afternoon the kitchen smells of the sauce simmering on the stove from Pete’s tomatoes. How I would have more, much more, for which to be grateful than to mourn.
My greatest fear then was the prospect of living all these decades, two-thirds of my life, without my mother. But, as I listen to the swirling notes of Appalachian Spring, and hear its triumphant crescendo of “Simple Gifts” in five-part harmony, I know for certain that throughout all these years, my mother has never been further away from me than the beating of my own heart.