Updated: Jul 2, 2020
| This is the 274th story of Our Life Logs |
Let’s return to this 75-year-old man’s boyhood…
I grew up in Tulse Hill, England in the 1940s, although my family and I were Americans. I had good, rowdy mates to play Cricket with and go to raucous Saturday morning kids’ movies with, and I went to a private British school, which spurred my bright yet rebellious nature to high achievement and creativity.
After opening our wrought-iron gate to the land before our vine-encased home, I was able to step into a world of endless echoes of operas, symphonies, and even jazz. At the time, my Pop, a man of God, was a renowned singer who toured the British Isles and all of Europe, bringing deeply inspirational Christian music to thousands. It’d be useless to try to describe the volume and richness of his great, booming baritone voice, so just know that it was beautiful.
• • •
I was the only boy in the family then. My joking, famous father and quick-witted, skilled teacher mother fascinated me and did well to make life sweet. And, when my baby sister Claire was born, our lives became even sweeter.
Even as an infant, Claire brought a joy into the family we’d never known before. I remember so many nights in our kitchen, participating in my family’s after-dinner routine. I remember sitting nearby next to Pop so I could listen to him sing to four-month-old Claire, propped in his knotty forearms. I remember how the sounds of my mother’s humming while she cleaned the enormous Aga hard-coal stove gave me such warmth and joy.
There in the kitchen, my father sang softly to Claire, fluctuating in gentle, almost whispery, falsetto tones. And amazingly, Claire chortled every note back at him, up, down, mid-scale, her tiny arms flailing merrily in the kitchen’s air. Her and Pop’s faces beamed pure delight, as note for note the two traveled, in their own distinct, gleefully shared musical adventures.
My God, I think now, what breed of infant brilliance not yet able to speak words could somehow mimic any range of music her father sang to her?
And so, the first several months of being Claire’s older brother were blissful. Our family lived a charming life with little to no snags.
“No! No! No!”
This shrill cry devoured my dreams on that cool night in March of 1953. I instantly looked out the window by my bed. It was dawn and I knew it must be, as always, baby Claire’s feeding time.
I got up, and from the top of the stairs, I saw my mother below, looking up in horror to where my father stood frozen. He shouted, “O Lord, what could we have possibly done that this should happen to us?!” I took several steps down, but Mom held up a hand to stop me and said, “Your little sister’s dead.” Impulsively I said, “I want to see her!” Mom looked into my panicked eyes and said, “No, you can’t, Nick. She’s not the Claire you know.”
There’d been no “warning signs” before Claire’s death, no appetite losses, no coughing, no fevers. As my mother told me later, when she had lifted Claire from her crib, she found her small body inert, cold, and songless.
It was called “crib death” back then, now known as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Whatever the minute details, the unwarned death of any infant is too terrible to name. Days later, Claire’s body was buried in a little white coffin, in a Tulse Hill cemetery, where it’s remained.
News came soon after Claire’s death…
As if losing Claire wasn’t enough, we discovered that many of our family’s uninsured belongings that were stored in a warehouse in America had been destroyed by a fire. What was left unburned needed to be gone through to see what could be salvaged. My mother also longed to see her mother back in the States for comfort in her grief, so, my parents decided to return temporarily to America.
But as things turned out, we never went back to England. Only four months after Claire left us, we endured a sickening voyage to the US: a land that I, now 11 years old and sure of myself in England, bitterly wanted no part of.
In America, my mother mourned visibly, while day after day Pop locked himself alone in the den, listening to his two-ton collection of 78s and newer 33-1/3 records. He lost his voice, his successful singing career vanished. Sensing the depth of his pain and loss, I felt I might somehow make them “worse” if I succeeded too much in the face of his career collapse and so, while I loved music, I didn’t do much with it. Mom tried to console herself by comforting my father, but to little avail. I can’t recall now either of my parents ever smiling fully again.
I missed Claire terribly, too. But I never blamed her for causing the family’s anguish. How could I? I was sure if it was up to her, she would have stayed with us. She wouldn’t want our family to fall apart. Yet, there we were, drowning in grief.
After several miscarriages, when I was 16, my mother gave birth to my brother George. On my vacations from boarding school, George and I shared a bedroom, and every night I tried to lie as still as possible, both my ears perked to the rising and falling rhythms of his infant breathing. You might say in that era before baby monitors, as his big brother, I was George’s baby monitor. And I was very serious about it; I wanted no more tragedy to befall my poor family.
But I remained restless at heart…
In between the cloudy days in America, I began to take an interest in the music around me, admiring the tones and scales that mingled together. My father’s and Claire’s lights continued to remind me of the astounding possibilities of my own, and reveal my own outsized gift in music—although their losses made me feel I had no “permission” to step onto that path. I wanted to pursue the sounds that were buried in my soul, but as it was, they remained untouched.
Then, a prep school teacher-mentor saw strains in my writing that he believed might make me a poet. And while I’d rejected appeals to pursue music, I did embrace this encouragement of his, perhaps because (I see now) poetry on paper would offer no “competition” to Claire’s or my father’s transcendent gifts in music, and it felt like a safe prospect. And fortunately, poetry gave me such notice that, though I lacked an undergraduate degree, Johns Hopkins University (a perennial top-ten place of higher study) awarded me a Teaching Fellowship in its graduate program in Writing Seminars.
I didn’t go on to use the MA I earned there to find a writing career in academe. Instead, I stumbled onto various writing opportunities to make a living. I wrote some 17 books, mostly in others’ names, and wrote fundraising appeals that raised some $1.5 billion in small donations in just a few years. I also led several highly effective political issue campaigns and though I was not an attorney, I framed two cases eventually decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
It wasn’t until after my father’s death in his late 80s that at last, I began to move toward my own music. I felt that I could no longer hurt him or presume to “replace” Claire in his heart by seeing what I might still achieve, and I began writing and singing my own songs. But eventually, as I spent time among the sweet sounds of my music, I realized that my father probably would have been pleased, not hurt, by my music. I had been suppressing this part of me when I should have been using it to carry on Claire’s memory. A poignant Hebrew saying goes, “The only truly dead are those who are forgotten.” “Small” as Claire’s life spread in time, it’s proved timeless in impact because she’s still powerfully unforgettable. And pursuing music is one eternal way of keeping her alive.
As an old man now, I know this: Death isn’t the end of Life.
The proof of this is that for me, Claire and my father are not truly gone, not from my heart. As it’s been said of Jesus Christ, they’re so full of life that in order even to “die” they must “borrow” measures of “death” from others. So, in a way, Claire did so from our family, yet she’s continued to pay life back, in memories of her music and the encouragement of her excellence. And though I still deeply mourn Claire’s loss (and that of both my parents, who never, I sense, recovered completely from it), I believe someday we will all meet again, laughing, clapping and singing together, in shadow-less light.
This is the story of Nick Marco
Nick Marco, raised internationally and multi-culturally, mentors poets and book authors on the Internet, and writes and makes music on the side. Nick sweetly looks back on his childhood in England spent with his family: his professional opera-singing father, inherently talented mother, and his infant sister Claire who was sure to be a musical prodigy. When Claire passed suddenly of SIDS, Nick’s family was turned upside down. In the years that followed, Nick strayed from music, not wanting to rehash old memories, even though it was his passion. Eventually, Nick returned to his calling with the reassurance found in Claire’s loving spirit. With his wife, award-winning poet Lana Hanson, and her teen-poet son, plus three cats and a dog (all of them are rescues of various sorts), Nick lives in their Crazy Quilt House in North Las Vegas, Nevada.
This story first touched our hearts on February 13, 2019.
| Writer: Lana Hanson | Editor: Colleen Walker |