At first glance, there wouldn’t seem to be a lot in common between my father, a lowkey lawyer from Connecticut, and Cole Porter, the high strung composer-writer from Indiana, many of whose songs can still be hummed, when not sung, by people from different walks of life, from all over the globe and of different ages…though especially those over a certain one. The fact that I am familiar with so many is not only a tad disconcerting buit it also makes me at least a reference for a cutoff year – so we’ll say 48. But I was able to find two – to my astonishment. One was that he was went to Yale University and majored in English, just like Dad, and the other was that he went on to study law at Harvard Law School, which was the identical trajectory that my procreator took.
But that may be just about where the similarities end. Both seemed to have come from stern fathers, Cole’s grandfather was especially rigid, but they soon took very different paths. My father settled in New York and kicked off his professional career at the law firm of Whitman, Ransom & Coulson. I knew nothing of this period of my father’s life, as it would be another fifteen years before I even drew in my first breath of Manhattan air. It was supposedly a reputable house, with a former governer, a former judge and a former army colonel as founding fathers. I get the feeling they didn’t put up with much crap from anyone. Porter, albeit 30 years before, forsook his legal training and dashed off to Paris where he could continue to play music and, in additon, live a lavish life of soirees for entertaining the likes of which only a few could afford. This is part was a result of his marrying a wealthy divorced American woman who suited her needs to have a formal partner as well as his to appear heterosexual, while he indulged in his true pursuation in private.
We gathered again at the hospital. Dad’s heartbeat was stable…stably weak, that is, but stable all the same. I was relieved to know that we would be able spend a little more time with him, though the doctor’s came him to check him out one more time. The fiddled around with his body and made him twitch from time to time. Some of my brothers and sisters thought that might be a good sign, but in reality it was a kind of cruel joke. “It’s nothing,” they said. “Just reflexes.”
I knew what they were talking about because I had become a science teacher that very year for the first time. It wasn’t easy because I had spent much of my life on the other end of the intellectual spectrum. But I did learn the basics about the body, and when my 5th grade class got to the part about the central nervous system, we learned that the spinal cord handled a lot of the automatic responses with the need of the brain to get involved. When I was kid I used to see that when the pediatrician would tap below my knee to see it bounce forward a little. It was kind of cool, but it didn’t transcend any further. But that was the kind of thing I had to explain to my kids. That’s what the book said. That’s what it said.
I guess I had a chance to try it first hand with my limp father molded into the bed’s mattress. His brain was thinking its own thoughts with no one or nothing to recieve them. The spinal cord made things here and there move. “So that’s what it does,” I said to myself. Like some many things, life needs failures to show how it works.
For an hour before we decided to put Dad down, let nature take its course, we played music for him, pretty sure he couldn’t hear any of it but kind of wishing he could. Then again, I realized that if he could hear that, he could hear just about everything else we had in store for him, and that would have sucked.
We played lots of Cole Porter because that’s the kind of music he liked, just like so many other people from his generation did. I think it was his favorite, and if it wasn’t, it was tough luck, we were going to play it for him anyway. Then we got into a few classics from musicals, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” from Mary Poppins was a close to being the top of the list as you can get, for reasons that I have never quite understood. We also knew that he was keen on the musical version of A Christmas Carol, called aptly Scrooge, with Albert Finney looking bizzarely beyond his real years in life. There’s a lively tune in the slection called “Thank You very Much”, which my brother Pat quickly found on YouTube and played for all to hear and enjoy. Seconds after the sequence had started, it dawned on me that there was an inconvenient truth surrounding the song: it’s performed during the visit of the third spirit, when all the townspeople are rejoicing the fact Scrooge has died and therefore freed them of their obligations to pay off their debts. That is certainly a 19th Century approach to getting out of a loan. I doubt expiring would suffice today.
Regardless, that being said, despite the cheeriness of the tune, it must go down as one of the most inappropriate songs ever to be chirped at the bedside of a moribund father. I think at one point all of us in chorus were crroning, “Thank you very much! Thank you very much! That’s the nicest thing that anyone has ever done for us.” I’d like to think that’s why Dad loved his children so much.
Then we wrapped up the session with the “Bull Dog” fight cheer, created – I wouldn’t quite go as far as to say composed, by Cole Porter, and capped it off with the Whiffenpoof song, or “To the Tables Down at Mory’s”, which is variation of a Rudyard Kipling poem, but just who came up with it, no one seems to know for sure. For sure, though, they are no longer with us.
And the corner sign
Says it’s closing time
So I’ll bid farewell and be down the road