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Lera Auerbach, The Trouble Clef

Tracing Dreams [by Lera Auerbach]


Last night, we said goodbye to my father. It felt unnatural to see him in the coffin, he who was always so full of vitality, humor, and brilliance. To honor my mother's wishes, the casket was opened so she could see him for the last time. To protect her fragile state, only the closest members of the family were present. The silence hung in the dimly lit room. Groomed and dressed in all white, my father looked like a stranger, someone I never knew—a wax figure instead of a real man. The strangeness permeated the room, turning everyone attending into shadows. I was an observer, and some part of me was still observing that observer and on and on through a mirror labyrinth of reflections, removing me even further from reality until I doubted whether any of it was real. I caught myself wishing to call my father on his phone and tell him what a strange joke he played on us by dying, only to realize that my call would remain unanswered.

During the last year, my father went from 210 pounds to a mere 110 pounds. He lost all his fat and muscles, becoming a living skeleton. He had many friends but avoided seeing them towards the end of his life—he did not want them to remember him like this. Lev was a proud and stubborn man. He was strong, courageous, and independent, and that's how he wished to remain in the memories of those who knew him.

Last week, I went for a solitary walk in Glasgow. It was drizzling, and the city looked gloomy and ghostly, with its streets covered in mist. I took a photo of the winding, empty road devoid of colors. It resonated with how I felt: a lonely path stretching into the unknown, full of reflections and shadows – abandonedly sad but also, somehow, hauntingly beautiful. I was thinking about my future senza Papa.

A few nights before he died, I had a nightmare. I was angry at my father in my dream because I knew he had let go of his attachments and was ready to depart. "You might be ready for this, but I am not," I screamed in despair, and my screaming woke me up. I fought the urge to call him right away. I was in Germany; he was in New York. I did not want to wake him up. I called him later that day. To my relief, he sounded cheerful. He had just returned home from the hospital. He asked me in detail about my upcoming concerts. He did not sound like a person who was ready to let go of life. I felt comforted and reassured, forgetting that even in my dream, it was I who was not ready for what was inevitably coming, while he had already accepted it and was awaiting this new adventure.

How he loved adventures! His favorite time was traveling. He felt best driving to some unknown, exciting destination. And now his greatest adventure was very near, and he no longer wished to resist its pull. I already knew he was terminally ill, but I was still harboring some stubborn hopes for a miracle. I knew it was selfish of me, but I couldn't help it. Just last month, he jokingly promised me to make it to his birthday. I was upset when he said it—since his birthday was only a few weeks away. We were making plans for the summer. I wanted him to think long-term, to believe he had a future, and to look forward to something. I still believed in the power of "we."

And now I was alone, walking on the empty road in Glasgow while my father was dead in New York. I could do nothing to change it. I knew—beyond any doubt—that he was in a good place, no longer suffering, that it was only his emaciated body, nothing more than a shell, what was left in New York, and that he was everywhere and in everything, partaking in the eternal dance of life everlasting. I felt joy for him and from him. Yet I also realized that he had been a constant in my life, a resounding tone of love and reassurance. As long as I had a father, I was still a little girl, a child discovering the world's wonders, knowing there was always someone to catch me if I fell.

My father taught me to be courageous. He said courage is not the absence of fear but the resolve not to let fear stop you from doing the right thing. He taught me to swim in cold rivers, ski down mountains, and jump from ski ramps. When I was four, he enrolled me in ice skating school. An hour later, I complained that they had only taught us how to fall. He told me, "To learn how to fall is an art in itself. Who knows, maybe it was your most important lesson. If you learn how to fall, nothing can harm you. If you learn how to fall, you can be fearless."

My father, a child of the war, born in the horrific year of 1937 when his own father (my grandfather Isaac) was sent to the Gulag, was a kind man who deeply believed in the goodness of people. He always chose to see the best in them, even when they failed him. Papa instilled in his children the importance of generosity, not through words but by being generous in his actions. Lev never complained, even in the harshest times. He was a natural leader, leading not by force but with kindness and by example. He was stubborn and, at times, impossible.

My father was the first reader of all my writings in Russian, both poetry and prose. His knowledge of the language was impeccable. He loved literature and was talented at drawing, blending analytical and artistic perspectives. We spent two and a half years living together in Florida during the pandemic. For the first time since I left Russia at 17, I spent much time with my parents, rediscovering them as people. I wrote a book about that strange time when I experienced their aging closely while reliving memories of my childhood with them. This book is "200 Glances Towards Sunset." I knew the sunset was just around the corner and treasured every moment of its fragile beauty. I did not want to publish it while my father was alive, but perhaps the time for that is nearing.

My father was a quiet anchor in my life, with his never-ending confidence in me. He taught me to play chess and helped me solve math problems. He believed in me even when I did not believe in myself. He encouraged me to fly high and take risks.

How much of my strength was just his projection? Was I strong because he believed me to be strong? Was I strong because I wanted him to see me strong? Was I ever strong? I don't know.

My father was not a saint, but I think he was at peace with his choices and did not have too many regrets. He was proud of his professional accomplishments, his children, and his grandchildren. He loved dogs and nature and traveled a lot. He had a remarkably interesting life.

I left Russia at the age of 17, and it took me ten years to bring my parents to New York. They missed much of my life from ages 17 to 27. That's why it was incredibly meaningful to have them in the audience whenever I performed. Four weeks before his death, my father attended the last performance he would ever see—despite significant health challenges, he traveled to Boston to see me conduct the world premiere of my String Symphony No.2 “Tenebrae lucis.” Was the title of the symphony, translated as The Darkness of Light (referring to the approaching night), a mere coincidence? Before the performance, I dedicated this concert to my parents. The audience gave them a long applause, and my father was deeply moved. I knew it would be the last concert he would attend, but I did not expect his final days to arrive so soon.

"Old age is such a strange thing to happen to a little boy." The little boy was still in him until the end. He would joke about his illness as if it were happening to someone else. His body was failing him, but not his sense of humor or his love. Those who love us never leave us, at least not entirely. At least, it is what I choose to believe. After all, where does the love go when the body is gone? It is energy, and energy can't just disappear.

The road is turning, and I do not know what awaits me. Whatever it is, I accept it. After all, fighting the change only makes it more difficult. You can't fight an ocean's wave, but you can ride it, trusting it will lead you where you need to go and trusting your strength to get there intact.

In many ways, my father remains a mystery. I will keep tracing his contours through my memories. At some point, I made a long list of uneasy questions I wished to ask my parents. But even as I was preparing this list, I realized that I could never ask many of these questions because I would hurt my parents by doing so. Questions are more important than answers; not all questions need to be answered. To understand someone’s life would take another whole life. True understanding requires compassion, and compassion means some things should never be asked. I will never fully know my father. But I will keep finding and rediscovering him, and by doing so, I will keep rediscovering myself.


The Map of His Dreams

My father never asks for directions.
Even when he’s lost – he looks quite confident.
He spends long hours drawing maps.
(If it’s not on the map – its existence is doubtful.)

My mother asks everyone for directions,
even when she knows where she is going,
even when she is near her home.
She is like a child waiting to be found.

My father likes the smell of his old car,
its obedient noises, familiar caprices.
He feels that only in the driver’s seat
he’s still in control, while all else is slipping.

My mother goes to sleep early,
she’ll sleep soundly until the morning.
He comes in quietly, fixes her blanket,
sits in the armchair, a book on his lap,
thinking of driving to an unknown sight
he is dozing off, his mouth open,
his nose sharpened as if growing into a shadow.

(In his sleep, he’s drawing the map of his dreams.)

October 14, 2023

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December 24, 2021

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August 27, 2021

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That Ship Has Sailed
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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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