About two weeks after I’d been in the new apartment I asked Nancy if she would retrieve my real trombone from our old house. We hadn’t yet sold it, the house I mean. To my surprise I was able to lift it, the trombone I mean, without difficulty. I thought it would be much heavier. In fact at 2.6 pounds it was less than a pound more than the pBone. Now I meant business. I practiced every day. My sound came around although my range still suffered. My friend, Everett Longstreth, gave me tips on how to play. It was amazing. My sound is even better than before the accident. I think this is because not playing for a year made me forget my bad habits. Everett got to me before they could kick in again.
Mike Strauss, the friend who loaned me his plastic trombone, came by regularly with a book of duets. That did a tremendous amount of good in bringing me back. It’s always a good thing to play with somebody better you. Mike is certainly that. We met when he was a student at MIT. He played in the top student jazz ensemble. That was 30 or more years ago, just about the time I started playing the horn again. Back then I turned to the trombone for solace. My first marriage was breaking up.
As I said in a radio commentary for NPR, “Some men drink. Some men womanize. I play the trombone.” Mike played duets with me back then to help me restart. Here he was helping me again. The duets extended my range. They exercised my reading ability. They built my confidence.
Friends from the Dixieland band I used to play in, the New Liberty Jazz Band, dropped in. Before the accident I played with them on a 1941 Ford fire truck. We did parades in surrounding towns, once four in one day. It was on the Fourth of July. Now some members of the band came to my apartment every two or three weeks, two banjos, a bass saxophone and a cornet player who doubles on clarinet, triples on trombone and quadruples on piano. Soon a few neighbors were dropping in to listen and once the concierge. It was the hospital all over again. Those rehearsals led to gigs. We have already done two at a nursing home in a nearby town. And we have a television show coming up in New Hampshire. This is another instance when my independence trammels Nancy’s. I can only do the gigs if she will drive me there. This could be a problem. I don’t think I want to learn to drive and Nancy certainly doesn’t want me to. Maybe one of the musicians can drive the van. There always seems to be a solution.
On November 14, 2015 the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra was giving a concert at MIT. I asked Mark Harvey, the conductor, if I could join them. My heart was in my throat when I did. One year, six months and 19 days earlier instead of playing with them at MIT, I found myself in an ICU unit at MGH, my world completely turned upside down, like that upended turtle. Now if I could pull this off, I would have come full circle. This would be where I was meant to be, only a year and a half later. In some measure the concert will have embraced what happened in between and made me whole again.
Of course it didn't. I don't believe in magic. The concert went off as planned. The room was full. Mark gave me the first solo. It was from a blues he had written called 110 Blues. For the evening he renamed it the 1619 Blues in honor of the one year, six months and 19 days of my struggle to get back here. It wasn’t lost on me that if you took 16 and stood it on its head you got 19. Nancy said my solo was terrific. But she was biased and I can never tell. It didn't matter. It didn't even matter that I left the concert in a wheelchair just the way I had come in. But something important had changed.
The director of Physical Medicine and Neurological Rehabilitation at MGH, Ron Hirschberg, was the doctor who wanted to know how I wanted to die that morning I was rushed into the emergency room at MGH. He is also a piano player. We had become friends while I was in MGH. Here, too, the friendship grew out of our musical connection. Ron came by the apartment one day with members of his band. Two members of the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra joined the session.
The point is that my musician friends gathered around me the way members of an elephant herd gather around a newborn. They were welcoming me back into the world. Since I have been home, thanks to Ron, I’m one of the musicians playing the background music on a documentary about Acadia National Park, Second Century Stewardship, on the occasion of its 100th anniversary. More than 2 million people visit the park each year. Let’s say half of them take the time to watch the documentary. A million-person gig is not too shabby for someone coming back from tetraplegia-land.