Last Night at Mom’s House

Improvisations by Curtis Rumrill and Tristan Dahn

The last time I saw my mom was November, 2019.  I don’t know if COVID was even on our radars yet, but she was sick either way.  My aunt secretly paid for tickets for my wife, our toddler, and myself to fly to Upstate New York for Thanksgiving. When we left Mom’s house to fly home it was with the knowledge that we would all see each other again in less than a month.  My mother and my brother had booked tickets to come to the Bay the week before Christmas.  Then our son got hand foot and mouth.  Mom’s doctor told her she was too immunocompromised to come, but no problem, the flights could be rescheduled for sometime in the early spring.

I had one other real chance to see her.  In late January, 2020 I was at the University of Pittsburgh for the Beyond 2020: Microtonal Music Festival, where I was having a new piece premiered.  I could have invited her to drive down from Syracuse, but I was stressed about the premiere, and the piece was, in part, grappling with her illness.  I didn’t want to burden her with it. 

I flew back to the Bay without mentioning the visit to her. By the end of the following week the Bay was sheltering-in-place. Suddenly the prospect of when we would see each other again was pushed back to some ambiguous “after” time that we didn’t know how to compute against the timeline of Mom’s illness. COVID became a waiting game.  We toyed with the idea of moving the family east to shelter with her, but didn’t make any concrete plans. 

In March she–Barbara was her name, my mom’s name–she wrote on Facebook:

I haven’t broadly told people, but I was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in September [2019]. I have responded very well to the immunotherapy plus the chemo therapy treatment I have gone through. I could see a future filled with family, friends and continued adventure, albeit at a slower pace. And then….well, the universe shifted and I feel as though we have gone down the rabbit hole again. I am one of those who are the most vulnerable. If I am in contact and contract Coronavirus Covid 19, I am in great jeopardy. This is scary. So I just want to say thank you to everyone who has complied with stay in place.  Who have taken social distancing seriously. Who have helped their neighbors from a distance. Who think that my life has enough value to following [sic.] all the guidelines so that I might see my children again, hold my grandchild, see my newest grandchild to be born this summer. THANK YOU from my heart for keeping me safe and allowing hope for those of us most vulnerable and that this zombie apocalypse isn’t the end of our story.  I say this with love for all of you…THANK YOU

The last time my brother saw Mom she told him, during a chemo session, that one of her favorite things about when he and I came home was us playing music together in the house.

In May she died.  A friend found her.  We don’t know what happened.  An autopsy felt unnecessarily violent.   We buried her in a natural cemetery in Ithaca, NY, in a plot at the edge of the woods which, as it turns out, is a dozen or so yards from the plot where Genesis P-Orridge and Lady Jaye are buried.

Nearly exactly a year after the last time I saw her, my brother, Tristan, and I met at my mom’s house.  It was November, 2020.  We had a week to finish cleaning out the house and put it up on the market to sell. 

We brought recording equipment in order to document the last time we would play music in the house. The instruments we played were two guitars that I had left there years ago.  One was a student model classical guitar, covered in the residue of various stickers and other things that horrified my guitar teacher. The other was an old steel-string acoustic that I had played for years in the punk band Tristan and I had in high school. This guitar was in particularly bad shape, with a large split down the middle of the top, though somehow it still sounds exactly as I remember it.

Tristan and I taught each other to play music in this house.  The first band either of us played in was the band we formed together as adolescents.  The first regular venue we played was the basement of this house, where we and our weirdo friends would throw parties and showcase all of the strange sounds we’d invented.  Mom loved the noise, and she love the weirdos. Both Tristan and I went on to pursue music seriously in our own separate ways.  Still, there is something particular to the way that we play together that is different from how we play with others: something that comes out of playing with someone since they were in middle school.

The recordings we made at Mom’s house aren’t an act of mourning, though her death was present in everything we did that week.  They are maybe, instead, an act of communing.  They’re an attempt to conjure, one last time, together, what we were losing. What was lost wasn’t sad, it was joyful.  Our time playing music together in that house was joyful. Our mother was a joyful person.  For me these recordings are the feeling of togetherness that has been so lacking in all of this separation and isolation.

In this same year, in addition to losing my mother, I lost three friends.  It’s not certain, but I don’t think any of their deaths were directly a result of COVID infections.  Deaths of despair have risen significantly during COVID, and I expect that we will see that deaths from other health conditions exacerbated by loneliness and hopelessness have risen as well.  There is, I think, a body count to this pandemic that goes far beyond the official death toll.  Each time that we are unable to commune and mourn together when we lose someone we lose again.  We lose the collective psychological healing that normally happens when our communities carry us through our grief. This is the practical reality of death during the pandemic.  

For me, the act of these recordings has become a stand-in for that coming together.  Tristan and I were able to meet one last time to hold, as gently as possible, our family, our childhood, our dreams and our friendships, if just through vibrations in the air. 

We hope that some of this might translate to the listener.