It’s been three months since my dad died, and I’m sitting at the back of the auditorium at my school, our performing arts faculty arrayed at the light and sound boards, all of us transfixed by eight students performing old-fashioned musical numbers. Channeling Julie Andrews, they sing, “My day in the hills has come to an end,” sweet sopranos and altos mingling.

Even though The Sound of Music wasn’t my dad’s favorite, he adored Rodgers and HammersteinIn high school in early 1950s San Diego, he ushered at the Starlight Bowl, which famously froze the action when planes descended overhead to tiny Lindbergh Field. In my own adolescence I watched Carousel at the now-shuttered venue, shivering in the coastal damp, finally understanding the dark plot behind the music I’d known for years.

Like my dad, I can take or leave The Sound of Music. But during this music concert, tucked into my favorite back-row aisle seat, I’m carried away by these high schoolers’ earnest 1960s musical storytelling and wonder which show will come next. When a West Side Story medley tees off, I sit up with familiarity and anticipation. Because of my dad, I’ve never not known this music. 


In my childhood room with rainbow-appliqued curtains, West Side Story’s red-and-black fire escape cover topped a short stack of records, along with Mr. Rogers, Sesame StreetFree to Be You and Me, and some Tchaikovsky and Dvorak. Even now, when I hear Leonard Bernstein’s score, the dissonance sounds normal. In a pre-streaming age as an only child, before late elementary school peer pressure led me to buy a record single of Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go,” I had little idea of anything beyond Golden Age showtunes and folky camp songs (think Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” and Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young”). 

In sixth grade I started sight-reading my dad’s guitar sheet music on the piano, and even Hair seemed too modern. I played “Cock-Eyed Optimist” from South Pacific, “Button Up Your Overcoat” from a Reader’s Digest songbook“Can’t Stop Loving That Man” from Showboat, “Summertime” from Porgy & Bess. My dad liked it all. When he wasn’t taking a nap or a bath, which he did pretty much every afternoon and evening, he would sometimes stand next to our upright piano, bought very used when I was five, and sing along – or, more often, sing from the couch 10 feet away. He ­­knew all the lyrics anyway and it was too much trouble to get up. 

We both stayed in key, but he was a better singer, enough that he developed a curriculum based on music for his own high school U.S. history students. Our ranges were nearly identical: down to the G below middle C, up to a high C-sharp if we were really feeling it. When a song soared above that, we moved an octave lower in tandem, seesawing through the melody together.

All through my childhood and teenage years – and then as an adult, when I rented-to-own and then bought a piano – my dad nodded his head most appreciatively for the slow, sweet, sad melodies. Songs yearning for home during World War II, like Sammy Fain’s “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Songs nostalgic for the past, like “Goodnight, My Someone” from The Music Man, which neither of us realized for so long was just a slow version of “76 Trombones.” As I pulled out the piano bench and turned the pages of a compilation or soundtrack, he would often say “not today” to songs with the least bit of snark or braggadocio (think “New York, New York”) in favor of those loaded with schmaltz (think “My Way”). 

And what got him every time? The old, old standards: George and Ira Gershwin’s rock-solid “Our Love Is Here to Stay.” Irving Berlin’s rousing “God Bless America” and heartbreaking “How Deep Is the Ocean?” My dad rarely failed to remind me that all these Tin Pan Alley tunesters were Jewish, just like us, just like him whose parents had emigrated to Cleveland in the 1910s from Lithuania and Poland. What irony, he pointed out every time, that Berlin composed “White Christmas,” one of the most beautiful holiday songs ever.

When we landed on a song that hit his mood for that day – which was really his mood every day, wishing for an uncomplicated world in which everything wrapped up in 32 bars with a little twist after the bridge – my dad would sigh and say, “Oh, yes.” Yes, let’s do that one. Let’s do Jule Styne’s “Time After Time” and tell ourselves that “I’m so lucky to be loving you.” Let’s do “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler and wonder, “Is this the little girl I carried?” Let’s have a patriotic blowout with the later verses of “America the Beautiful,” belting out, “Thine alabaster cities gleam/Undimmed by human tears.”

After my husband and I had children, and after my mom’s death from cancer at 64, my dad would often take the train from San Diego along coastal cliffs to visit our family in Los Angeles. An hour together at the piano gave respite from running after my young boys. My dad brought music books I didn’t have and often didn’t need. This sheet music was dog-eared, the table of contents highlighted, the paper worn soft. We flipped and flipped.

Yet as my dad grew more tired, his voice raspier, his sofa naps more frequent, I played less and less during his visits. When I did, I didn’t sing myself, because his voice had always carried us. 

Two years ago, as his health declined quickly, I was touring assisted living facilities in L.A., under pressure to find a place because our original choice had fallen through and he needed a place to go after leaving the hospital. At one I saw a grand piano in the lobby and imagined playing at the bench, if not with him then for him. 

In his year and a half there in hospice, though, my dad watched Turner Classic Movies or the news in his room and kibitzed with friends at the breakfast table, rather than walking or wheeling out to the common area for music. I never played for him, and honestly I forgot about music for a while – focused instead on weekly conversations in his room where I brought him donuts or gefilte fish and watched a cancerous lump grow large on his head. Sitting by my dad’s bed, I reported on “the dailies” of our life, as my mom would say, while he wore a signature Hawaiian shirt, light yellow with flowers or dark blue with turtles, that billowed across his shrunken chest.

But in his last months, music returned to us unexpectedly. It came back to me first with a concert by Michael Feinstein, a classic crooner in Sinatra style. I had heard Feinstein play when I was in high school, surely at my dad’s suggestion. I don’t know that my dad ever took me to any concert. I don’t know that he ever sat and listened to music with me. But music emanated from him.

This time, I had gone to Feinstein’s “Coming Home: The Holiday Celebration” concert in downtown L.A. with a friend because, even though I don’t listen much to his songs anymore, I thought the evening would make me feel closer to my dad. And it did, down to the jokes about Jewish musicians writing the best Christmas songs.

During our visit that week, I reported on the repertoire and told my dad that, as a teenager, I had learned a lot of new Gershwin songs from Feinstein’s recordings, including “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “Liza” and “Isn’t It a Pity?” My dad loved the first two but didn’t know the last one, and so I cued up on my phone a version from the ’80s. Toward the end, the reasons the two narrators have stayed apart grew more and more absurd. After Feinstein sings, “Imagine all the lonely years I’ve wasted/ Fishing for salmon/ Losing at backgammon,” Rosemary Clooney responds, “What joys untasted!/ My nights were sour/ Spent with Schopenhauer,” the philosopher. My dad laughed and said that was one of the funniest things he had ever heard. In that assisted living room, the walls a dark mint green, my dad finishing the crumbs of a glazed old-fashioned, the thin November sun slanting through the shutters before the clocks fell back, I teared up and looked down. Me teaching my dad a new Gershwin song? What joys untasted.

As my dad became weaker during those last weeks, we still didn’t wheel out to the piano, but I streamed more music: Frank Sinatra’s “All the Way,” Ella Fitzgerald’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” Michael Feinstein’s “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” and “Somewhere” from West Side Story. Do you want to hear “You’ll Never Walk Alone?” from Carousel? I asked a couple of times. “No, not that,” he shook his head. It’s the only song he ever said no to because I think it just made him too sad, perhaps imagining his death.

The last time I saw my dad was on a Friday night, the day before he died, and he couldn’t talk, though he could indicate yes or no with millimeter shakes or nods of his head. His mouth hung open, and his breathing was heavy. I didn’t know how soon he would go, but I knew it would be in the next days or weeks. And so I picked three songs carefully: Sammy Cahn’s “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” which I imagine he associated with my mom; Irving Berlin’s “Always,” which he thought was one of the most poignant songs ever written; and of course “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler, the song we danced to at my wedding and one that he never failed to quote, cheesily, as I grew up. Even though his eyes weren’t open and he couldn’t sway his head, as he had done at so many of my piano recitals growing up, I could see his face slacken with relaxation, with memory, with yearning, and maybe with a little peace. I told my dad: “We’re going to be okay. My family is going to be okay. We love you so much.” And the next night I got the call that he had passed, on morphine for only a day or two. 


Three months later, sitting at the music concert at my school, I push deeper into my seat, ready for comfort, as the West Side Story medley starts. Here’s “Something’s Coming,” with that devilishly difficult rhythm. Here’s “Tonight,” with its rising first-love melodies. I know these songs so well they’ve traced grooves in my DNA. I thought I was impermeable to their sadness, having listened to Maria grieve Tony time upon time. 

But now here’s “Somewhere,” coming around the corner with its thick, hurting harmonies. And sitting in my own grief, tears roll at different speeds down my face, meeting at my chin. I let them drip. The arc of the love story crashes into the dissonance of the last chords, which resolve only too late. 

As I try not to snuffle or clear my throat too loudly in the dark, I can see my dad turning the worn pages of a Reader’s Digest songbook, looking for the next piece to land on. To nostalgize. To love. To sing with his daughter, who he raised on the conflicts of star-crossed lovers and the never-dimming promise of the Great American Songbook. “Oh yes,” he would sigh. “Let’s do that one.”