There is no way to write what needs to be written today, what should be written today. I have no words adequate to convey the tempest of love, grief, happiness, sorrow, gratefulness, and numbness that are all raging within me.
We meet people every day. Most of these meetings are short-lived and have little impact on our lives: a quick wave to a neighbor, a “pardon me,” to a stranger at the store. Many are routine parts of everyday life, whatever that means at a particular moment in time. We don’t remember the majority of the people we’ve met in our lives, even ones that seemed (or actually were) incredibly important to our past selves.
Some, though, leave an indelible mark on us, shape us into the people we have become. These are our families, our lifelong friends, and for many of us, our teachers. I don’t think I know anyone who can’t name a teacher who made a major contribution to their lives.
For me, that was Lynn Campbell, my high school English teacher. I was one of “her kids.” There are hundreds of us. I don’t know most of them, but I know what they’re experiencing today. I’m sure she made every one of them feel like they were her favorite. More incredibly, I imagine that most of us actually were.
I’ve used this quote from the Lemony Snicket books before, but it remains one of the finest expressions of the sentiment I’ve ever found:
If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels; and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.
I composed the following piece on February 28, the last day of Song-A-Day. I had been thinking about Ms. Campbell (and no matter my age, she will always be “Ms. Campbell”) for a few days. We had talked over the holidays and, in many ways said goodbye without actually saying it. But I started having those passing “I should check on her” thoughts that so often lose the competition for time and attention to other parts of life that are ultimately far less important. They somehow always manage to keep us too busy to make a phone call or send a text. There was also a bit of dread that kept me from calling. Ignore the situation and it won’t happen. But, of course, it always does.
- Lynn Ray Toler 2:28
- Lynn (With Voice) Ray Toler 2:28
The piece was more or less finished compositionally when I realized what I was actually writing about. I worked out the rest, then saved it and put it aside. It didn’t feel right to be writing it, though the creative process cares nothing for right or wrong. Surprisingly, I heard more than the grief I would inevitably feel in the moment.
In the days immediately following, I wrestled with whether or not to send the raw piece to Ms. Campbell. Ultimately, I decided not to, as I’m not sure I would want to hear someone’s sad song about me while I was preparing for the inevitable end. More importantly, I didn’t need her to hear this music for her to know how important she was to me. She’d known that for a long time.
Learning of her death wasn’t a surprise, though you can never adequately prepare for the moment itself. I knew I’d be finalizing the piece some time this year, but was a little unprepared emotionally when it became necessary just 11 days later. The initial version included a voicemail that captured so much of who she was: caring, thoughtful, kind, supportive, and always concerned with others. I omitted the recording in the final mix, as I think it’s a stronger musical work without it, but I’ve included a version in the playlist with the recording restored for anyone interested in listening.
This music is not worthy of Ms. Campbell. I’m not sure I could write anything that would be. For that matter, no music I’ve written for other, similar moments has been worthy of the person it was written about. But these are the markers that have been set; the imperfect snapshots; the hastily scribbled notes that unlock all of those things in the mind that we can never adequately express.
It helped me to write it, and it helps me to listen to it. If she affected your life, if you are hurting, I hope it will help you as well.