Transcript for the Piece Audio version of Ruach: Playing flute for Susanne's memorial
by Michael Jackman
To me a flute produces a soulful, otherworldly tone that connects spirit, body and world into one haunting, whistling line.
I always loved that tone, which is why when I signed up for junior high school band I specifically asked to learn the flute. But the band conductor said I didn't have the lips for the job. So I ended up in an ambivalent relationship with a clarinet through high school.
I never gave up my flute ambition, though. About 20 years later I finally bought a used model. I took it home and brought it to my lips, about as excited as a guy ending a really good first date. I puckered up. Unfortunately, my untutored kisses couldn't awaken my sleeping platinum-blonde beauty. They may have driven her deeper into a coma. I put the Gemeinhardt in a closet, to gather dust.
In grad school a few years later my friend Susanne and I both had papers to read at a conference. Her husband Malcolm drove us to Lehigh, Pennsylvania. After reading, we headed to Baltimore, so he could visit his folks. And I ended up confessing my flute frustrations to his dad, an oboist with the Baltimore Symphony. He examined my embouchure (mouth position) and told me that in fact nothing was standing between my teeth and the flute's dulcet tones except a lie told by my band teacher, who probably just needed more clarinet players.
So I took up the flute again. When I practice, my cat growls and slinks away, but I'm really not that bad.
After grad school, Susanne and Malcolm drifted to the periphery of my life. I knew that she got a job teaching, that they had two girls, and that she went a few rounds of surgery and chemo for breast cancer. I didn't hear anything more until I joined a flute choir at the Unitarian Church downtown.
I saw Malcolm at my first performance. Turned out that was their church. I asked after Susanne, but his answer was vague. I thought, "uh, oh, divorce." A few days later he sent me an e-mail inviting me to visit her. She was under hospice care and dying from metastasized cancer.
She lay on a hospital bed surrounded by family, friends and flowers. Soft classical music played. We held hands and talked a little. Her fingers were warm and still seemed full of life. In a slurry voice, due to the brain tumors, she told me she missed teaching and soon fell asleep. She died a few days later.
The flute choir played at her memorial. So there I was, blowing notes that had been brought to life thanks in part to my colleague who had just slipped out of it.
As I played I had to wonder at the mysterious counterpoint that led me to this moment. Susanne was a Unitarian Universalist Pagan. But I don't think she'd mind if her flute-playing Jewish colleague sees our strangely intertwined melodies as an example of Ruach, a Hebrew word that can be translated as the divine breath that blows through the Universe.Back