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Music is my father's last link to the world

The arpeggios of Chopin's Waltz in E minor go up and down. Reacting to each crest and valley, my father turns his head and raises his eyebrows. He enthusiastically conducts the invisible score, taps the table with his fingers as if playing the piano, gently sways with the sound. This is a moment of deep spiritual connection between the two of us.

My father, the professor of business administration. My father, the same person who a long time ago felt betrayed when I decided to make music my career instead of following in his footsteps. And now, as he sits in a wheelchair several months after being run over by a car and suffering grave injury to his brain, music is the one bridge left intact for him to connect emotionally and intellectually with the outside world.

On July 18, 2009, my 68-year-old father was crossing the street only two blocks away from his apartment in Buenos Aires. It was a rainy Saturday evening, and in the twilight nobody saw the accident happen. Not even the police experts could figure it out.

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He had just enjoyed himself the entire day, first walking several kilometres in the park near his home as part of his exercise routine, then spending the afternoon with two of his grandchildren, my nephews. He was walking home to get ready for a dinner out with his partner of 10 years when fate struck. Months later, he is still in the hospital with what seems to be permanent damage to his right frontal lobe.

Even when he was still in intensive care, connected to a ventilator and not entirely awake, my father reacted to music. He would accurately move his fingers to the beat, or rapidly move his eyes underneath his eyelids. It was the kind of thing one had to see to believe. A few months later, even though he is still greatly incapacitated, the power of music is almost magical for him, instantly taking him out of his lethargy and connecting him to the reality we share.

I can't help but ponder, "What is music? What is the musical brain?"

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My PhD in music does not help me here. I cannot understand how my father, in his present state, can still tap the rhythm of Duke Ellington's Take the "A" Train, follow Lucia di Lammermoor's descent into madness, or lip-synch - in his barely audible voice - the words of Naranjo en Flor , sung by Roberto Goyeneche.

It is mesmerizing, and I get to watch it from the first row. Two decades of teaching music appreciation, and I encounter in him the star pupil who enjoys music more purely than anybody I have ever met, regardless of his lack of technical training.

As a music lover, my father had never been embarrassed to express his total commitment to the listening experience, whether alone or in front of other people. This gained him a reputation for being eccentric, and there was a grain of truth in that. Images of his passionate gestures to the symphonic music of Beethoven and Brahms, or rapturous nods to the music of Rossini, go as far back as my memory can go.

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This aspect of my father's personality clearly survived the accident unchanged. Is it because music has always been so important to him? Only now, and because of the obliteration of his other qualities, has it become obvious that my own love for music is inherited from him.

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Today, listening to music together is bittersweet. We could never share music like this before. Even after he accepted that my chosen path was the right one for me, and applauded it, we never sat down just to listen to music with no other agenda.

It was mostly my fault. I could not get past my own silly embarrassment to be moved with him, even if I, whether composing or teaching, seek to be touched by music on a daily basis. But not in front of my father, and much less when we were together in front of others.

Perhaps I did not want to admit how similar we are. Perhaps I was still hurt about his early rejection. Perhaps I did not want to risk being called eccentric, too.

And the man lying there in a hospital bed, the business professor, the author of textbooks and academic articles, the abstract thinker on organizational structures - what happened to everything that made up who he was, and why is music all that remains? Beyond my sadness for what he's lost, for what I've lost, for what my children have lost, I am grateful to have this bridge left for us.

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Together with music, and thanks to music, the other obstacle we crossed in this new stage of our father-and-adult-son relationship is that of physical contact. We tap rhythms together; I sing; I grab his arm and help him conduct the virtual orchestra so he regains motion.

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Without music, he can barely move on his own. He cannot even tell who I am, and if I tell him, he rapidly forgets. So the onus is on me to reach out to him, to put my hand on his shoulder while I push his wheelchair through the corridors of the hospital. When I nest his hands to warm them, with Chopin playing in the background, I am suddenly rewarded with a rare spoken comment: "Ooh, that's so nice," he says softly.

No room for embarrassment any more. Surely no time to waste any more. Quietly, I look into his eyes and I nod.

Martin Kutnowski lives in Fredericton.

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