Thursdays With George

Mitch Albom had Tuesdays with Morrie, I had Thursdays with George.  Every visit was the same, we began our time upstairs, he on a kitchen chair, me on the couch.  We talked politics, religion, literature, he asked about things going on in my life, he shared stories about life in Syria, and then he introduced the day’s program.  Each Thursday had a program—a focus on one composer perhaps, the music of one country, a particular genre, a theme, an era.  There was no rhyme or reason, but always a program.  George was up for any suggestion I had, although I usually preferred the outcome when he made the suggestions and not me.  After the program was introduced we went down stairs, Anahid provided us garnished refreshments and Turkish coffee with her gifted sense of hospitality, and we enjoyed music together.

I cannot tell you how much this man liked music.  You would have had to experience it.  It was not a normal ‘liking,’ as we think of ‘liking.’   George did like things like we like things—he liked perfect sunny days, which he was quick to tell you Syria had more of than New York.  He liked tasty, fresh vegetables, which he was also quick to tell you Syria had more of than New York.  But George liked music—George was passionate about music.  He was so passionate about music that I wanted what he had.  So I listened, hour after hour, to the music that he would play for me.

I began taking notes—I stored them on my cell phone—of things he would say about music.  I knew George’s health was bad, and I never told anyone, but I was taking those notes in preparation for this day.  And I am angry; because as bad luck would have it, on the day I began writing this I dropped my cell phone in my full coffee cup, and lost all that I had written.  I couldn’t help but think if that was a Turkish sized coffee cup my cell phone would have never fit!

I do remember some things.  George always told me to never write a ninth symphony.  “If you only write eight you will live forever.”  Apparently, there is a whole litany of composers that died immediately after their ninth symphony—Ludwig van Beethoven is the most famous example, but also Dvorsak, Schubert, Bruckner, Mahler, et al.  The curse of the ninth was a joke for George, who was quick to point out a few notable counterexamples—Mozart for instance, who wrote a laudable 41, and Haydn who wrote an astonishing 104.

These were all things that George knew.  No, he did not look them up.  He knew them, like I can recite the books of the Bible.  But there are 66 books of the Bible.  George knew so many facts about music it boggled the mind.  He knew the biography of everyone we listened to, he knew their place and date of birth, the major events in their life, the compositions, the date and cause of death.  He knew so many things off the top of his head I started to not believe him.  So each time I was with him I took down the giant encyclopedia of composers he had sitting on a shelf and fact-checked the man.  I am telling you, he was always, always, right.

I learned that opera was the greatest of all art forms, for it combined music (both instrumental and vocal), with dance, with acting, and with costumes and staging.  George loved opera, and he would often play for me the beautiful arias that made him close his eyes and bob his head and conduct with his hand.  His daughter Norma is named after Bellini’s greatest opera—a master example of bel canto (beautiful singing).  In listening to opera I was hopelessly attached to the libretto for understanding, George was not.  He knew all the plots, all the scenes, all the arias, all the duets, all the choruses, all the recitatives.  But he also knew the language.  Let me tell you, George knew languages: English, Italian, French, Arabic, Turkish, and Armenian.  In addition he knew countries, geography, political leaders.  He knew religion: protestant, catholic, western, eastern.  He knew literature: how many times we talked about Al Sayyid and honor?!—Al Sayyid is the Arabic name for Le Cid, a French tragedy written by Pierre Cornielle.  But the greatest of literary works that occupied our time was the Bible.  And George knew about the Bible, he knew about its stories, he knew about the classic doctrines of the faith, and he knew about Jesus.  And George loved Jesus, and George had faith in God.  His faith prompted him to live a philanthropic life, and provide things for others, such as higher education to those who otherwise would not receive it.  And for those to whom he did not pay, he gave private lessons.  I could not have found a greater teacher of music appreciation in the entire world.  He was a master.  He provided me an education I will take with me for life.  And in my office I have over fifty CD’s of the great music we listened to, that George gave me for free.

There is so much to say, and so little time.  I could tell you of the little boy, who saved a bit each day from his school lunch money, to buy a phonograph and vinyl records those many years ago.  I could tell you of the employees at Tower Records who would call George when a customer came in humming a few bars of a tune and wondering what music it was from.  They would hand the customer the phone, and they would hum the tune to George, and George would tell them the piece, the composer, the date, the history.  I could tell you of the time George received a copy of a symphony played live that he wished to give me, I do not recall which one, but upon listening to it together, somewhere in the second movement, he heard an audible cough and so he refused to give it to me, because it wasn’t good enough, and honor demanded that he give me a recording of better quality.  I could tell you of his brilliant career as a pharmacist in Syria and as a chemist at Entemann’s bakery.  I could tell you of his willingness to debate art, politics, religion, but to always treat his debate partner with dignity as a fellow human.

And of course, I could tell you more of his love for music.  But did you know that for the last long while, after George’s stroke, he no longer listened to music.  Vicken, his good son, attempted to play the music that George had always loved, but George motioned for it to be turned off.  For those that knew George for so long, it was hard to understand.  George had always, always listened to music—for hours each day.  And now he no longer wanted it.  With such a great love gone, what love was left?

And yet we all knew—it was the love for family, the love for us.  When so much expression and movement was taken from him, he still greeted each visitor with his trademark smile of hospitality.  George went from knowing all those languages, to having no ability to speak, yet the one word the stroke could not take away, and that he still managed upon seeing you was “thank you.”  George went from listening to music for hours a day, to not listening to music at all, yet there was one song the stroke did not erase from his mind and that George would welcome, it was the Ave Maria, but not just any performance of the Ave Maria, it was the one sung by his granddaughter Karina.

And this is what it means to be human: to love the art that God gives us, and love even more the family that surrounds us, and to be finite, and weak—to have a beginning and an end, and to have faith that in the end there is God, and God is merciful, and God is love, and love is best known in the bel canto, the beautiful signing—from one we love.

Would you pray with me?

Lord God, you are the alpha and the omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end, you are the words and the music, you are the song that we sing, you are the bel canto.  You are all that animates us, and that gives us reason to seek what is beautiful.  You are the honor in a classic work of literature.  You are the passion in a boy that takes a little each day from his lunch money to buy a phonograph so he can hear the songs he loves.  You are the words of our many languages.  You are the spirit that binds families together.  And you are the one that holds our loved ones in your arms, when we are no longer able.  So take care of George, we know you will.  That there is the endless music of praise in heaven, warms all our hearts.  For it means that George is home, and that he hears beauty forever and ever.  Praise be your mercy.  Praise be your forgiveness.  And praise be your love.  Amen.

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