Lessons Learned

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I attended a memorial service the other day for a fellow musician, someone I played with for a number of years. He was one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure to play with. And he was one of the most genuinely kind, good human beings I’ve ever known. His passing away relates to diabetes only on a broad level — on the level of learning to live gracefully with suffering, as Buddhists would say.

(Side note here: Suffering is actually a rather poor translation — the original word is dukkha, and it’s not meant to be sad exactly, as much as to denote the entanglements and impediments, the challenges and obstacles that can so easily derail us, rather than abject sadness or horror, though these are part of dukkha, as well.) Diabetes is only one form of that suffering, and not one he faced. But he faced his own suffering in ways that can teach ALL of us a thing or two about how to face our own troubles.

Jesse used the time he had to give to others, express his voice to whoever was fortunate enough to hear it, and to create joy. I wasn’t with him during his final days, but someone mentioned him joking and caring for others to his last minutes on this Earth. It’s so easy for all of us to be jaded, to be greedy, to be irritated, to be closed off. We do it in big ways and in small ways.

I’ve been obsessing for weeks about a new keyboard that I really want. Sure, it would be a little better than the one I have, but yesterday I remembered something he said to me once: “It’s the player, not the instrument.” In other words, focus on elevating yourself as a musician, and be grateful to have ANY instrument to play — and certainly be grateful to have the one sitting in the living room that sounds stellar next to anything OTHER than the latest and greatest on the market.

Jesse would rightfully put me in my place on this one, and probably tell me to stop whining and go practice so that if by chance I WERE lucky enough to upgrade my keyboard, I would get the most from it. And he’d be absolutely right.

Jesse educated. He had an ear that wouldn’t quit, and if he heard you play a note that didn’t fit, or play a chord that wasn’t right for the song, he’d stop you. And then he’d work through it with you. He never just stopped you and said, “no, play this.” He’d stop you and say, “I think it should be THIS, right? You see it? Here’s why.”

I learned a lot from him about how to play keyboards, and he was a saxophonist. But he knew every instrument, and he knew what the overall sound of the band should be. If one of the instruments wasn’t hitting the right note or the right sound, he’d notice it. He was always giving back to everyone around him. He offered these informal lessons at jam sessions to absolute beginners, during rehearsals to fellow musicians, and to anyone who asked him a question.

Jesse wasn’t selfish. In his day-to-day life, I’m sure he had his moments of selfishness, just like the rest of us. But he didn’t have many. And he NEVER had them on the bandstand. Jesse wasn’t just listening for what he needed to hear, or just listening to the notes he was playing and then tuning out for everyone else’s solos. He was listening for the SONG. And he was happy if the band sounded good, not just if HE sounded good.

So what does his life teach us about our own suffering? His own life ended earlier than it should have. He was 56, and passed away after battling a brain tumor that turned to cancer. He certainly had a right to be pissed off and shut down. But he never took that option. After staying in the hospital for three weeks and having surgery, he was back out playing as soon as he was able. He was smiling, he was grateful. It was short-lived, and soon after he was back in the hospital and then hospice, where he passed away.

If I had to put into words what he taught me, it would be that instinct to listen to the whole band, not just his own part. Jesse recognized that his own life was finite — whether it was going to end at 56, 86, or 26. He recognized that his own happiness or sadness was fleeting. He recognized that time is something easily lost, and frustration is something easily let go of with the right perspective.

Life on this planet is one big band, and Jesse played his part. And that’s the lesson for the rest of us. Our part includes diabetes, and a lot of other bits and pieces. Our lives are our instruments, and we can’t exchange them. We can only play our part, and do it in a way that elevates not only ourselves, but all of our fellow human beings. Diabetes is part of the suffering we share, but none of us should let it stop us from playing. Jesse wouldn’t hear of it.

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