Part I: Stan
The Hollywood Bowl: iconic, awe-inspiring, almost laughably behemoth. Before August, I had experienced this dazzling monument to musical giants past and present only once.
Radiohead released In Rainbows in October of 2007 and a few months later began to tour the album, a side dish to a helping of optimism so seismic that America was positively high from the tectonic rumblings. 2008 was electric with expectancy.
We were a nation hungry for change, for light, for the release of an eight-year weight. Barack Obama would usher in an era of hope so intoxicating that even New Yorkers, the greatest cynics of them all, embraced spontaneously in the streets out of elation and relief. Sonorities bloomed, setting hearts aflutter and mind’s eyes aglow, Radiohead’s offering among the most dynamic. Graphics and interfaces assumed a sunnier, almost childlike aesthetic: a nod to a simpler time. Adorable twittering cartoon birds. A resurgence of Pop Art. Actual rainbows!
Radiohead’s Hollywood Bowl show on August 25, 2008 was one of the happiest nights of my life. The air was deliciously cool, deliriously happy. The band, ever-generous, played for hours with unwavering commitment. My friends and I danced our asses off, kissed, allowed the cascading lines of “Nude” to drench our spines in shivers. We squeezed each other and rejoiced and acknowledged all there was to be thankful and hopeful for as the sun sank behind the domed stage and the stars appeared, one by one, to celebrate with us.
Fast-forward 9 years.
Donald Trump took office and the planet seemingly declared war on itself: hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires. With each passing day, the atmosphere grows heavier with imminent doom. Climate disasters of increasing severity. Actual potential for nuclear annihilation. Racist, misogynistic policies right and left. The entitlement of gun-fetishists prioritized over the basic rights of children. Escalating intolerance and the glorification of a “me first” mentality. We have become addicted to real-time notifications of catastrophe and disgrace, and perversely, almost disappointed when they do not come.
Closer to home, my beloved grandfather’s health began a quick decline at the beginning of August. Having survived a massive brain tumor (and with it multiple near-death experiences) at the age of forty, he went on to live a long life, unceasing in his care for and commitment to those around him. Fifty years and a palliative course of radiation later, he sensed it was time to call it quits when Beanie, his beloved lady-friend, was no longer able to recognize him.
Grandpa was a part of my nuclear family for nearly fourteen years before moving to a nearby retirement community in 2001, and he raised me every bit as much as my parents did. He sat through my earliest, squeakiest practice sessions, endless Monopoly games, and hours of my annoying back-talk. I learned basic arithmetic through his Blackjack lessons and attribute my steadiness of hand to our games of Pick-Up Sticks. I am likely the accomplished napper that I am having witnessed the master fall asleep on our L-shaped couch every afternoon like clockwork.
Without question, Grandpa’s favorite time of day was cocktail hour. He granted himself one (very generous) drink every evening at five o’clock on the button and, a man of unflinching integrity, refused to bend the rules. Every afternoon he would appear in the kitchen, pace, jingle the coins in his pockets, and stare at the microwave clock, waiting for the numbers to read 5:00, but he never gave in to his impatience over the arbitrary schedule he’d set for himself decades prior. The change jingling, the eventual opening of the freezer door, the ice cubes at last clinking into his glass: these sounds wove themselves seamlessly and inextricably into the fabric of my after-school practice sessions in the adjacent dining room. Even now when I find myself practicing around that time of day, regardless of where I am in the world, I expect to hear coins and ice whispering through the vibrations of my violin.
Grandpa bequeathed to me his love of baseball, Italian tenors, and Scotch. He taught me respect, light-hearted cynicism, passionate agnosticism (“Juuust in case…”), and unconditional love.
Everyone in our family inherited, at the very least, that last item in spades, because within a day of the news about his rapid health decline they had flocked from opposite ends of the country to spend his final days with him at his bedside. All of the facility’s caregivers (whom we might’ve assumed numb to the pain of regular departure) were unable to hide their tears as they came by to spend a few last moments with Stan. “The consummate gentleman.” “Such a kind man.” “He was so proud of his family.” With each round of compliments and condolences we were not only doubled over in a fresh round of waterworks, but deeply reassured that we’d had a mighty good one in our midst.
Sections of my family might have grown apart in the last decade, due to geography and, well, life; but flanking Grandpa with my mother, two aunts, and youngest cousin for three days straight, I was reminded in no uncertain terms of the necessity of connecting, and reconnecting, with one’s own blood. When your blood happens to run through extraordinary women who love fiercely and without reservation, the necessity multiplies exponentially. In recent years I had begun to wonder whether I’d become someone for whom a chosen (in my case, musical) family had surpassed the importance or closeness of a given one; that week with my relatives swiftly discredited those musings.
Grandpa, though weakening noticeably with each passing moment, was ecstatic that I was due to play at the Bowl that Friday and Saturday. He had been there once, he told me, to see Sinatra with his beloved younger brother. One of the only things that yanked me out of his hospice room and propelled me to the Philadelphia airport on Thursday morning was the image of him and Barney peering up at the stage, their faces steeped in a warm, stage-lit glow, dreamily transported to another world by Frank’s seductive baritone. Yes, I convinced myself, I could occupy that same space.
I performed the first of my two nights at the Hollywood Bowl in a complete daze. The thousands of people in attendance bled into one massive dark sprawl, stretched out before me and up the hill in a velvety blur. I had no nerves, no depth perception, no recognition of what it was I was about to do. I took comfort in the presence of the conductor, an older gentleman who, though unaware of the goings-on in my mind or life, infused the occasion with humor, tenderness, and compassion. I hid inside the music, a tender ballad from the ballet Sleeping Beauty that ultimately ascends into the heavens of C Major. Grandpa adored Tchaikovsky, and although under regular circumstances I don’t, particularly, the piece could not have been a more fitting tribute to him. I felt equally as stunned at the end of the performance as I did the beginning, and though I could feel the tears rising as I began the long trek offstage, they would not greet the night breeze.
He used to tell me bedtime stories about a girl named Dorothy, borrowed loosely from the Wizard of Oz, usually centered around adventures in forests of chocolate milk rivers and lollipop flowers — some of my greatest childhood fantasies, he intuited, as the daughter of a health-food enthusiast. There was a photograph of Judy Garland above my bed at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, in the room mysteriously reassigned to me at check-in.
My mom called a few times in the dark depths of Saturday morning, but I didn’t hear the phone ring until 5:45 a.m. He had passed away a few hours before, gently, peacefully, his stubborn body at last acquiescent to his wishes. Devastation and relief spun a fine cocoon around me as I drifted back to sleep, Judy hovering overhead.
“Play for him. There’s no danger of him not being able to hear you anymore,” my mom advised later that day through muffled sobs. As if I could possibly consider playing for anyone else. His partial deafness (a source of major frustration for any music-lover but particularly for one of such little patience) no longer an issue, I felt the pressure mount to give a performance that would do proper justice to a life of unconditional love and caregiving. Seven minutes in exchange for ninety years: absurd. And yet I thought of only him that night, the 18,000 audience members again one nebulous organism, the air this time dull with loss. I was nervous, but I did indeed sense that he could hear me more clearly. Again, the tears refused to come, at least until I was settled at an LAX bar a few hours later, glass of Scotch in hand, to toast him.
Part II: Meditation
It is probably no surprise to anyone reading this that my dream project (Intermission Sessions & Retreat) with my dream partner (Melissa White) launched its inaugural Retreat this past August; I have referenced little else in the months since. It’s tricky to navigate the after-effects of a life-changing experience: one simultaneously wants to speak of nothing else, yet the prospect of diluting the experience or failing to do it linguistic justice is terrifying.
Melissa and I had set out with the intention of creating a space where our friends and colleagues could familiarize themselves with their bodies, recharge, flourish musically in whatever way suited their needs, and – hopefully – learn to throw in a stretch or two at the beginning of their practice sessions. What transpired instead was an emotional shift so massive, so gut-wrenching, and so inexplicably communal that we are still unable to make sense of it. What on earth did we do!?
At the beginning of our first yoga class of the week, we sat in a wide circle, linking ourselves to friends old and new. Tiffany and Giulia, our instructors – healers – asked that we each set an intention, to anonymously put into writing something that we wanted to work on, sort through, or set into motion over the course of the week. They would collect all of our scraps of paper and place them into a bowl which would live at the front of the room. A little bowl of big intentions. I wrote:
“Heal from the loss of my beloved grandfather. Allow yoga to open even more pathways for me emotionally, to feel closer to those around me and to my music.”
It took me a day or two to settle into my habitat there, to trust that our months of obsessing over every detail had paved the way for our dream-week to unfold without incident. I did need to heal, I did want yoga to work its magical transformative properties on my body and spirit, I did hope to sort through a few other family-related things while I was at it; but I was also fine with stepping back and overseeing what I hoped would be a worthwhile adventure for all of our participants.
And then, during our evening class on the second day, BAM! My hips opened and the floodgates followed. Giulia and Tiffany crept around the room during our closing savasana, offering soothing final adjustments to our bodies as our minds drifted into the ether. I couldn’t tell who was holding my head as I began to sob, silently but violently, my entire body quaking. “I’ve got you,” Giulia murmured. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“You have to keep letting it all out,” Tiffany whispered after class, once I’d regained some modicum of composure, as she wrapped me in her arms. “It will literally stay trapped inside your body otherwise.”
Over the course of the week, I wrung out my body and in turn, my heart. I cried unabashedly whenever I needed to: on my mat, to my new friends, on top of mountains, in front of fires. I filled the spaces that would have otherwise been occupied by trapped tears with love, my favorite memories, and palpable flashes of his presence.
Melissa and I had planned for our inaugural Retreat to focus predominately on physical expressions of yoga: learning how to weight-bear properly upon and strengthen our wrists, opening our tight shoulders and hips, bringing a grounding force to our foundations so that playing music could feel as uninhibited and joyous as humanly possible. When our teachers proposed a silent meditation as a way to begin each day, I’ll admit — we both balked. How boring, I thought. We’ll be so stiff first thing each day. Maybe we could at least wait until after the morning yoga class? But, feeling obligated to set a good example, we hauled our exhausted bodies out of bed that first morning and plopped down on our mats for 7 a.m. silent meditation.
I. Hated. It. My butt hurts. My spine needs to crack. My brain won’t stop racing. I have to pee. My legs are asymmetrical. Ugh, I HATE asymmetry. Is this fun for anyone else? How come everyone seems so calm? WHY CAN’T I DO THIS RIGHT?!?!?
We all chatted about our experiences that night during share time. The consensus was that mediation was A Good Thing, and that we should Do It Again. I was desperate to suggest a moving meditation for the next morning instead, or at least something with verbal cues. Nope — one more day of silence, the group voted. Ooookay… On Tuesday morning, I begrudgingly made my way to my mat but this time, propped myself up on a yoga block so that I could position my legs symmetrically. Tiffany showed us a quick breathing visualization. Already, the difference was tenfold. All right, maybe there’s something to this.
Day Three: the group voted for a slow qi gong-inspired moving mediation to begin the day. I would have rejoiced just 24 hours prior; after the qi gong, I felt significant disappointment at not having been able to just sit there quietly and explore my own headspace.
In the days following, we were guided through meditations of all sorts: loving confrontations of people in our lives; a tour of our chakras; freedom to explore on our own terms. Each felt more eye-opening and transformative than the last. The night the Retreat ended, I enthusiastically set my alarm for 6:55 a.m. so that I could wake up and meditate the next morning.
I don’t know a less trite way to say it: the inaugural Intermission Retreat changed my life. I healed. I connected with some of the most beautiful souls I have ever encountered. I renewed my love for music. I reinforced my love for yoga, for nature, for healthy food, for family and friends, for the act of offering love to others. In the weeks since, the Retreat has become a sort of barometer for my life. Are the human beings I surround myself with open to a similar level of self-exploration, curiosity, selflessness? Would they appreciate an environment of love, acceptance, and growth? Do my surroundings offer opportunities to love, accept, and grow? If the answer to any of these questions is no, I must ask whether those people or surroundings are right for me at this point in my life. I can no longer hold space for people or situations who compromise my ability to feel as I felt that week in Vermont: open, safe, and able to love and grow without reservation.
The last full day of the Retreat is now catalogued in my memory as one of my favorite days on this earth, on par with skydiving in Moab and visiting Muir Woods for the first time. A 6-hour, nearly vertical hike; an impromptu yoga flow and the taste of dried mangoes at the summit of Equinox Mountain; reading the piece that our resident composer wrote specifically for us; a fire-lit restorative yoga class in which our intentions from the beginning of the week were read aloud. Tears. Meditation. Embers. Gratitude.
How did we all know not to move until the last of the flames had extinguished themselves? How did we know to support each other in precisely the way we each yearned to be supported?
Meditation has afforded me the privilege of communing with Grandpa: the ability to look into his eyes, to feel his embrace, to sit next to him for as long as I need each day. It has provided a backdrop of calm upon which to scatter my questions and the necessary acoustics to listen as the answers bounce back. Meditation has become my haven, my therapy, my own private universe in which to fantasize, to probe the furthest reaches of my brain, to motivate, to soothe, to allow. To do absolutely nothing at all but sit there, silent and still. Meditation is perhaps the greatest gift I have ever received, and all I had to do was accept it.
Part III: Christina
At the beginning of May, I received a series of messages from my dad asking me to call him immediately. I assumed it was Grandpa-related, as that was around the time that things began to go south with him (not to mention everyone in my family is well-aware of my aversion to talking on the phone except in dire emergencies); he assured me that no one was in any immediate danger. After much suspicious back-and-forth, he revealed to me that I had a half-sister, the product of a fleeting teenage romance a lifetime before I made him a dad. As with much of his upbringing, the only way for him to move forward was to do so fully, and so he never told me or my mom; instead, a letter from the girl’s adoption agency was responsible for breaking the news.
After an emotional cycle I’m not entirely proud of — blind positivity, betrayal, petulant crabbiness, rage, fierce protectiveness, acceptance, curiosity, excitement — ran its course and I made amends with both the concept and the circumstances in which I’d been introduced to it, questions about my identity began to crop up like whack-a-moles. I’d spent my life being comfortable with, proud of, and frankly empowered by my only child-ness. Hell, I’d basically made a career out of it. I loved my independence, as well as the imagination and sense of security born in the absence of enforced companionship. Who needs a playmate when your own brain is a vibrant, self-contained playground?
In the months following that May phone call and the ensuing emotional rollercoaster, I put the idea of my new-old-half-sibling-person on the back burner. I had concerts, transatlantic travel, an LA Phil debut at the Hollywood Bowl, and the overseeing of two festivals to think about, capped off by August’s other unexpected family matters. I wasn’t planning to meet this woman in the foreseeable future; what good would dwelling upon the situation do? At the beginning of July, my parents drove up to meet her, as well as her parents, husband, and children. I received glowing reports of everyone’s warmth, ease, and relief. Photographs confirmed just how pretty she was, and that boy-oh-boy, Urioste genes sure are potent. I observed it all with detached appreciation.
Christina — that’s her name — and her husband Charlie made plans shortly thereafter to come to New York at the end of October, to celebrate her birthday and to see me play at Carnegie Hall. It was a weekend fraught with emotional extremes, the prospect of performing at Carnegie rattling me thoroughly despite having done it countless times before, a cocktail of difficult repertoire and insufficient rehearsal time leaving me nauseous with trepidation. I forgot to bring my phone charger to the hall. And so I had a meltdown, the sort usually reserved for young adolescents right before they leave for summer camp.
The concert came and went without incident. Then it was time to meet my new family.
How does one describe the feeling of going from strangers to family in the course of a few seconds? It’s about as futile as explaining the effects of a specialized yoga retreat or how it feels to play to 18,000 people while focusing on the one who’s just left this earth. My entire identity reconfigured itself in the blink of an eye. I felt calm, elated, like the floatiest red balloon.
“What do I say now when people ask me if I have brothers or sisters?” I asked my best friend, who has in recent years discovered half-siblings of her own. “You say, ‘I was raised as an only child, but I have a half-sister,’” she replied. Oh. Easy.
As Christina wrote so beautifully, perfectly, eloquently after leaving my apartment that Sunday morning: “A part of me was missing, and I didn’t even know it.”
How remarkable, the synchronicity of gaining a family member just as I was losing another. I don’t quite understand it all yet – and perhaps it needs no explanation – but there seems to be something magnificent at play, this gift of connecting with someone with whom I might have otherwise been raised, right after one who raised me moved on.
The coming winter holidays will be our first without Grandpa. In the closing scene of a recent morning meditation, I found myself kneeling on my parents’ music room floor, the glow of our Christmas tree radiating profound warmth and comfort throughout our home. To my left sat my grandpa Stan, and to my right, my sister Christina.