Susan Martinez writes:
So this is the way it's going to be?
This is the way it's going to be. We don't know the how or the when -- sometimes we get some advance notice -- as did my friend, fiddle player, producer and inspiration Oliver Schroer -- but we know the deal's going down.
Along the way, on a good day we treat each other well, love and feel loved, and treat strangers with kindness also. It’s the living that matters, and the quality of each breath.
These words came from Oli, upon learning his leukemia was end-stage and he’d been removed from the BMT list:
I have wanted to write more to all of you about my situation. I sentout a letter last weekend, but it was a pretty plain letter, and did not include a lot of stuff I feel is important to talk about at this point, for me and for everybody.
The gist of that first letter was that the doctors have run out of ways to treat my disease, which is particularly aggressive and ornery. They have thrown every combo of chemotherapy and nasty drugs at my cancer, and in incredibly high doses. The doctors admitted that they were surprised already that the chemotherapy had not actually killed me. It turns out that I am very tough. (My friend Teresa says I’m tougher than a boiled owl.) So if there are no treatment options left for me, what they can and intend to do is make me as comfortable as I can be in the time left to me, so that I am not in pain and not suffering in any way.
What I did not talk about in that first letter was how I feel about all of this & I guess I feel that life is not only about quantity. It is about quality as well. We all have to die some time. None of us will live on this planet forever. I think some people live very intensely and burn very brightly during their time here. I think
I am one of those people. A shining star while I am here. So I look at my life as I have lived it, and I feel very satisfied with all I have achieved and gone through. As a musician and artist I have found my voice on my instrument of choice. That is what any artist wants to do. Whether you are a musician or a painter or a dancer or a writer, the bottom line as a creative person is to find that unique voice and express it in your art.
I got to record many albums of my music, and to get that music out there, instead of just thinking about it. I had many great adventures with fellow musicians and travelers along the path. I have had a beautiful bunch of teaching relationships with a lot of students, not only individuals but entire communities of learning musicians -- the Valley Youth Fiddlers and the Twisted String in Smithers. I never got to have biological kids. But I did get to pass on my music in important ways to a whole generation of young people.
So between finding my voice on my instrument, and being able to share my music directly with so many, I feel like a very lucky guy. There is also the fact that in life, I like to concentrate on the positive aspects of reality. Look at what you do have, and thank the Creator for that, and enjoy it all to the max. This is a stance you take in life. With just a little bit of practice, that becomes an attitude you can easily stick to. Let’s put it this way: if I can think like this in my present position, I would hope that you all can do the same. I would even ask you to do this for me. Take that stance in life for me and from me, and concentrate always on the positive.
I have burned brightly in life, and lived life very fully. I feel I have achieved a great deal in life. And as I look back on the life I have lived, I am concentrating on all of the positive aspects, on all of the beauty I have experienced and generated, and getting a lot of satisfaction and pleasure from that. And the fact that my life is shorter than it might have been ceases to trouble me very much.
One very amazing thing about my position right now is how I get a clear insight into my own situation at this exact time. In the time left to me, I get to contemplate my life, and to ponder about what I would like to do in the time left to me. I can make a wish list of things I want to do in my last days here. Who do I want to spend time with? Are there things I want to finish up? Things I want to see? My end is near, but I have the feeling that it is also not going to happen super quickly. I still have time to focus and be myself and live as myself for the time left to me.
The very best, from the very edge,
A couple of weeks later, a new letter from Oliver: he wanted to perform one more concert. He booked Trinity St. Paul's in Toronto, hired the techs and equipment, and tickets sold out in a flash.
It was billed as Oliver Schroer's Last Show on His Tour of This Planet.
I would have given anything to be there, but I'd already made plans to take my mom to the Big Island, her first trip, for her 70th birthday. The night of his show, mom and I were hunkered down in Kona in the wildest storm I've seen, a combination of a Midwest tornado-comin' thunderstorm with the crackling of an east coast August electrical storm. Beautiful and violent, it stayed on top of us for hours, stuck against the top of Mauna Kea, lightning and thunder never becoming more distant, never moving on. I remember looking at my watch and calculating the time in Toronto, realizing that Oliver was onstage. Somehow, that calmed me. Finally, at what would have been his encore, the storm simply stopped. No drifting off in the distance, it just stopped as if clouds and rain and electricity dissolved into Madam Pele.
When I got home from Hawaii, friends had written about Oliver's show. It was a sauna. It was spellbinding. It was magical. One person wrote "...pushes and pulls and lulls and held breaths. It seemed a lot more tonal than usual though. Less tension-and-release and more smooth, flowing washes of sound. Pure joy all around. I find that Oliver has ghost notes...either they are purely scientific overtones or the result of imagination, notes created in my "mind's ear". Ghost rhythms, too. Rhythms that are there, but almost aren't. It really makes it sound like his music is all around you. But the second to last piece really did it for me - suddenly fiddlers popped up all over the audience (real, not ghosts), each playing the little melody that Oliver had started. It was a huge sound. And then little bursts of singing began, and soon the whole audience started singing too, just intuitively. Wow."
Another person wrote "The tunes seemed to last forever, but were over all too soon. At the end of the evening, Oliver closed his final encore with his love march -- first played on the fiddle, then joined with whistling, humming, clapping, harmonizing, singing, all quietly, then more quietly still, the audience making the music last long after Oliver had left the stage. What a wonderful way to give each and every member of the audience their own Oliver song to take home with them. Unforgettable is such an
A few days after the show, Oliver sent this:
Well, today is a special day, in a strange kind of way. Today is the day I was admitted into the hospital last year. I remember my feelings of trepidation, my nurse coming in with the first round of chemo, dressed in a full body protection suit with goggles and all, because the stuff was so toxic they couldn't even afford to get a drop on their skin. And this was the stuff they were injecting right into me.
I have been so looking forward to the show, it is hard to believe it is over, and I am looking back on it. Well, what a concert it was. I was so happy with the way it went. Once I got to the venue, I remember thinking to myself: 'What did I get myself into here!' I sat on the couch in the green room and stared at the wall for 45 minutes before the show.
And then, suddenly it was showtime. It felt wonderful to be on that stage. I could feel a wave of love and beautiful friendship coming my way from the audience. We all felt quite emotional, and then I just dove in and started navigating through the music. I felt very much on my game, musically and performance wise. I will admit that about 2/3rds of the way through the second half, I was ready to tear my clothes off and jump in the pool to cool down. I understand that the upstairs was like a Bikram Yoga studio.
I feel like the concert left people in a good place -- there were lots of tears, but there was lots of joy as well, and it was not a bleak affair. There was one thing I forgot to say in the show. It should have gone in the intro to the friendship song. One of the things over the past year that has given me great joy is to see my various circles of friends connecting; I can only hope that that will all go on. That is human connective stuff of the first order.
Fiddlingly yours, (and resting up or a few days)
On Sunday, June 29, 2008, Oliver left the hospital long enough to attend a performance by three of his young fiddle students, his pride and joy. He sat in the front row beaming, giving the thumbs up as they played.
That Wednesday night, he wrote his last tune, entitled "Poise."
That Thursday morning at 11:30, he was carrying on with the nurse in his usual fashion and said “Well, I guess no excursions today!” and left the planet. Peaceful, very fast, no suffering. And giving us one more joyous laugh.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Oli these days, journeying through my own cancer diagnosis this spring. Oli’s friendship and positive attitude have stayed with me these years and his music and spirit have been part of my fuel as I go through my own chemo treatments.
When I read the news of his diagnosis some time back, I pulled for him. My heart broke when he wrote he'd been taken off the transplant list and that his end approached; but that night I had the most beautiful dream. I dreamt Oliver had written his wishes on a piece of yellow notebook paper. The handwriting was flowing, relaxed, spirited, elegant, strong. It was like his bowing and was beautiful to look at. And the words were beautiful too, and at the end of his list he requested that his friends get three little tomato seeds. He wanted his cremated ashes to feed the tomato seeds, and when the plants bore fruit he wanted us to have a late-summer bbq and cook and chop the tomatoes a thousand ways to feed our spirit and to celebrate rebirth.
That dream still makes me happy. Those little tomato seeds are the dozens of young fiddle students he nurtured across Canada. I'm grateful for the memories and stories I had with Oliver, and for the thousands of tunes he wrote, but most of all I'm grateful for the joy these young fiddlers will find, and spread, in musicking.
I told him at the time, how odd that such devastating news gave me a dream that made me happy. But Oliver was transformative that way, and this is a journey about living, not a journey about not-dying. He and I, and everyone who reads this now, are kin in that.
“SILENCE AT THE HEART OF THINGS,” a documentary about the late Canadian fiddler Oliver Schroer, is available on DVD from Borealis Records, www.borealisrecords.com
Labels: "Silence At The Heart of Things", Oliver Schroer