The Commander

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This morning, I received an email from my friend Tom.  Tom is a former fellow band member from back home.  T and I have stayed in touch (somewhat) with Tom and his wife.  He was emailing to tell me that our former bass player, Bob, had recently died.  While that was sad, it wasn’t surprising news.  Bob was well into his eighties, and I had known that his health had been failing.  What surprised me most was that Tom asked me to call him as soon as I had a chance to talk.  I replied that I would give him a call when I headed out for lunch.

I have been going home each day to make lunch for Emily.  She is still very sick, but finally able to eat small amounts.  I have been trying my best to make sure that she eats, so I’ve been driving home to force the issue.  I called Tom while I was driving.  He had more bad news, but he hadn’t wanted to email me about this one.  My dear friend, Tony, is in the hospital in intensive care.  He has pneumonia, and so much fluid had collected around his lungs that they had both nearly collapsed.  He had to have major surgery to save his life.

I felt a flood of emotion when Tom told me this news.  Tom’s voice made me homesick.  There was no harsh Chicagoland accent.  His speech was gentle and country-smooth.  I could see the rolling fields that lay beyond Tom’s kitchen window.  Tom knew that I would react strongly to this news of our friend Tony’s illness.  Tony was our Commander.  He was our band leader.

Tony was so much more to me than the guy who led our band.  Besides family, Tony has been the most influential person in my life.  Tony was my mentor.  For many years, he was my best friend.  Since hearing this news, I’ve though a lot about my relationship with Tony.  Without a doubt, our relationship was unusual.

I can’t even remember how long I have known Tony, maybe my entire life.  I went to school with his kids.  Tony’s twin sons were in my grade.  I hung out in the same group with his older son.  I spent time skating on his pond.  I hung out at his house.  Tony was just someone else’s dad.  I didn’t give him any thought.  I certainly didn’t think of him as a friend.  For years, I probably didn’t have much, if any, contact with him.

Then about ten years ago, our paths crossed again.  Tony and I were part of the same volunteer organization.  He was a board member.  T and I were volunteers.  There were several pivotal moments that led to our deep friendship.

One Labor Day weekend at a festival in our little town, T and I ran into Tony as we crossed the park.  Lola was a baby, and I was pushing her in a stroller.  Tony and I stood and talked about a preservation project in our town, the Central Park bandshell.  We were writing a nomination to get the structure listed on the National Register of Historic Places and trying to raise money for renovations.  I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, but I remember the connection and the excitement of recognizing a kindred spirit.

The next moment was several months later.  I was in my kitchen, and Tony’s car pulled into my driveway.  It was a morning, and the three oldest kids were at school.  It was unusual for anyone to just drop by the house.  It was even more unusual that it would be Tony.  He had never been to my home, and he hadn’t been invited.  I invited him in, and we sat at the kitchen table.  I remember that it was spring, and sun poured into the room.  Tony had come to offer me a job.  He wanted me to be executive director for the non-profit organization where I was a volunteer.  I was shocked, and I told him that I wasn’t qualified.  He wouldn’t hear of it.  He told me that I had enthusiasm and passion.  I could get the experience on the job. He told me that what I had to offer more than outweighed what I thought I lacked.

I was so incredibly taken aback.  I wasn’t working.  I had a baby at home.  I wasn’t even looking for a job!  Tony had it all figured out.  My parents were retired now.  They could watch Lola.  My office would be five minutes away from my house.  The hours were flexible.  The job would be perfect for me.  He had me convinced…and so began a career that I didn’t even know I wanted, but I have loved ever since.

And so Tony went from being the father of my former classmates to the president of my board of directors.  We worked well together.  We hosted events and functions together.  We traveled to conferences and meetings and spoke to city council.  We met the Governor.  Every step along the way, Tony encouraged me and believed in me.  One night, he thrust a microphone in my hand and made me go on stage to announce at an event in front of thousands of people even when I proclaimed that I couldn’t possible manage such a thing.  He just said, “It’s your job!  Go do it!”  And I did it.  Tony and I spent hours and hours talking on the phone.  It was a rare day that Tony wasn’t a part of my life.  As you can imagine, T wasn’t too thrilled that my best friend was a man almost thirty years my senior.

Those weren’t easy years for T and I.  Our lives were busy with four kids, and suddenly I had a career that I loved and made a  priority in my life.  To top it off, Tony was in a band and asked me to join in occasionally when they needed a clarinet player.  This opened another completely new chapter in my life.  I fell in love with jazz.

While I had always had a love of music, my training in piano and clarinet had been classical.  I often accompanied the local school kids as they competed in the solo and ensemble contests.  I had never branched out from this “regimented” style of music, but Tony introduced me to something new.  His group of musicians, many former professionals, took me under their wings and taught me how to feel the music.  They taught me how to play jazz.  Before long, I was hooked.

One night Tony showed up at our house after a band practice.  This is another of those pivotal memories.  He came in carrying a big black case and sat it on our kitchen table.  T and I looked in amazement as Tony opened the case to show me a beautiful saxophone.  “Here’s what I need you to play.  I need a new sax player, and Al wants you to learn on his sax.”  Al was one of the old musician guys in Tony’s band.  Al was in poor health, and he couldn’t play lead sax any longer.  For some reason Tony thought I, who had never even blown through a sax before, could pick up where Al left off.  It didn’t happen over night, but once again, Tony was right.  This may have been when I started referring to Tony as “The Commander.”  Before long, the entire band called him Commander.

That night I placed the mouthpiece on Al’s sax, took a deep breath, and gave it a try.  The sound resonated and vibrated through the horn and out through the bell.  It was a warm, full sound that I had never been able to produce while playing a clarinet.  This wasn’t a safe, classical instrument!  The sax contained heat and emotion.  I felt it from that first note.  Tony and the other old musicians taught me how to express my own emotions through that sax.

For years, I played in Tony’s band.  Even after I left that first job, and Tony and I no longer worked together, we remained friends.  He became a member of our family.  He celebrated my kids’ birthdays and graduations with us.  T stopped by Tony’s farm with Lola and fished in his pond.  If I needed advice or simply someone to talk to, I always knew that Tony would listen or offer an honest opinion.  Tony is one of the good ones.  He is one of the people in my life that I have always been able to count on and to trust.  Tony and I have cried together and held hands at the funerals of our friends.  So many of the old band guys are gone now.  Tony was there within the hour the night my dad died.  Through good times and bad, Tony had been there with me and for me.

When I was considering this move, far away from home, family, and friends, Tony was one of the first people I consulted.  As always, he believed in me.  He was proud of me and encouraging.  He told me it was time for me to spread my wings and leave my old home behind.  My parents were gone.  Two of the kids had moved away, and I would be closer to them.  He told me to go for it.

He was there on the day when I pulled out of the driveway, leaving my family behind, heading down the road alone.  I hugged him with tears in my eyes and told him that none of this would be happening now if he hadn’t been there for me, believing in me all the way.

Today, I reflected on this extraordinary friendship.  I remembered last fall when Tony had visited me in my new home.  Well, not my new home, but my new job.  We were having our largest event of the season, when I received a call from Tony.  He was here!  I was so proud to show him my new life and introduce him to some of my new board members.  I took him out for dinner, and he was all smiles.  “I’m so proud of you.” he said that night.  Oh, my dear Tony.  I told him that night.  “Everything I am today is because of you.”


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