This has been the most difficult post to write. Which is probably why it has taken me so long to attempt it. I guess maybe I thought if I didn’t acknowledge it, it wouldn’t be true.
My brother died.
This post is for him.
These are things that my brother loved:
- my sister-in-law
- basset hounds
- his car
- correct grammar
- really good music
- Neal Peart
- going to his weekend property
- the album Asia by Asia
“The Heat of the Moment” has a distinct drum rhythm, and when John was learning (rather, teaching himself) how to play drums, he would start that LP over and over at the very beginning, put on his headphones, and drum out the beat on the one practice snare drum that he had gotten for Christmas two years before, when my parents were still married, and probably hoped that all those years of paying for a rental trombone wouldn’t be washed away by a shiny new drum. It replaced the beat-up square of leftover carpet that he’d been using up until then. Actually I think the drum was a gift from my Grandpa. Which makes sense because it was just the type of gift my grandpa would give – something to impress everyone else. Something that was a little expensive, and something that was close to the kid’s heart but his parents were on the fence about, so you bought it for him and instantly became the hero.
I’m assuming the trombone was either rented, or a loaner from the school; we wouldn’t have been able to afford a new one. I imagine he was probably allowed to buy a used horn a after a few years of sticking with it, and starting the drums would have to be a side project. He would go on to play trombone in the school band all the way to graduation (and later in college, majoring in trombone), filling in on the drums here and there for practicing in the bandroom, and starting a garage band on the weekend with his buddies. (What’s up, Northern Lites?) As a senior, he actually got to march with the drums.
Anyway, the snare drum had to have a towel stuffed in it to mute the sound of the drumming, because if there’s any noise that gets annoying after a while, it’s a sixteen year old boy teaching himself to play the drums by playing the first two minutes of an 80’s schlock-rock band over and over and over and over.
BOOM – boomboom – TAH! BOOM – boomboom – TAH!
Drummers, you know what I’m talking about.
Asia was was right after my parents got divorced, and me, my brother and my mom had all moved into the apartment above my soon-to-be stepdad’s photography studio. I guess I was the only one who just thought it was incredibly convenient and not involving any other sort of coincidence that there just happened to be an attic apartment for rent in the 3-story Victorian home on Main Street that housed a studio, office darkroom, and private residence of the man who would marry my mother less than a year later. But things tend to go over my head.
I don’t think anything EVER went over John’s head, which meant he had put 2+2 together, and realized why we lived in the same house with this man, and just what was going on when work ran into the evening hours. Which explains why he was so pissed off all the time, and pounding on that drum as if it had just committed some sort of offense.
Which is why music saved my brother.
I honestly have no idea what kind of person John would have become had it not been for the saving grace of Music.
It was his confidant, his confessor, his therapist, his “safe place.”
He hadn’t had the easiest life. When we were very young, he had some tough experiences, which for the sake of good manners will remain private for now. But nevertheless, at the time these things were happening to John, publicly he had to put on a good face, be the happy kid; the good son. And when he had time to himself, the only thing that kept him from acting out his rage destructively, was music.
Before Asia – before the divorce and during everything that led up to it – Our parents’ records – The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins soundtracks (our mom used to sing us to sleep with “Stay Awake,” and evey chore was accompanied by “A Spoonful of Sugar”), John Denver An Evening With John Denver and Neil Diamond Hot August Night; there was the Big Band Era – Glen Miller, Buddy Rich and Benny Goodman; 70’s rock – The Who, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix; 80’s everything – Journey, Michael Jackson, Rush (of course), and Billy Joel. We borrowed the Billy Joel LP, Glass Houses from the library so many times we had to buy it.
In addition to playing First Chair Trombone, John added a cymbal and base drum to his set and moved it to the basement, and wasn’t allowed to play too late into the night. But during the day, if you were within a quarter mile of our house, you would say, there goes that Giovannoni kid again on those drums.
I remember one time, being in the attic bedroom, singing along to Pat Benatar, and hearing John practicing down in the basement, there was some type of military fly-over, and I heard my first actual Sonic Boom. I thought John had just hit the drums really hard.
So as the family split apart, more pieces got added to the drum set as he saved his money: a cymbal high-hat, a tom-tom drum, some type of smaller drum that I don’t even remember the name of, and so on. Then we moved away. From our familiar small town to a bigger, busier, medium-sized city. The high school population was triple that of our home town, and in an area not far from the projects. He lasted one day at that school, then decided living in my dad’s 2 bedroom, one bath rental apartment in the country and going to high school with his friends was a much better idea. So he moved back with our dad, and I stayed with my mom and stepdad. I considered the whole moving thing kind of an adventure, and besides, if I was going to be a Movie Star, I had to get out of that small town.
The next summer, the three of us, my mom, stepdad and me, moved to Arizona. I would go home to the Midwest at Christmas and on summer vacation to see my dad and John, and my “wicked stepmother”—which is what we jokingly call my awesome, amazing stepmother, who pretty much everyone agrees was a gift from God. At Christmas, we would go to all of my Italian family’s houses for dinner. There would be lots of eating, lots of loud talking and laughing and drinking and smoking and laughing. And kids running around being noisy, and music playing. And probably some yelling in there, too.
I would show off my latest stupid 80s haircut, and—as my cousin Brad never fails to remind me—wore a pair of white Van’s on which I had painted the proclamation FEED THE WORLD. I also sported some wicked eye makeup. More than any 15 year old has a right to wear. But hey, I was breaking out. I was finding myself.
John wore his signature Levi’s, white Oxford button down, leather loafers, a sport coat, and an Alex P. Keaton-inspired necktie. He was gorgeous, but didn’t think so. He’d be at the ancient upright piano in my grandmother’s basement, and since it was the only musical instrument around, he sat there, on the bench, tinkering with the keys, playing around, finding the notes he was looking for—and that’s how he started to teach himself to play the piano. Sometimes my cousin Nathan would sit with him, and talk while my brother played, since they were of the same away-from-the-noisy-crowd disposition. His defense was to either separate himself, or be the most obnoxious one in the room. Having a guitar meant he could be part of the action, but still have something to hide behind.
But I really didn’t see much of John on my visits home. We had different friends, and the older sibling seldom welcomes the younger sibling into their group of friends. Especially guy/girl variances. When your best buddies want to date your sister, you tend to want to keep your sister as far away from them as possible. So we didn’t do a lot of stuff together. Besides, I was too busy hanging out with my own friends in between family outings. My friend Tracy and I were pretty much joined at the hip. I’m still looking for the scar that shows we were somehow surgically separated.
And the places John would be? Practicing songs with his band, Northern Lites; or hanging out in the choir room at school. Our choir teacher, Mrs. Keene, band director, Mr. Cerveny, and John’s piano teacher, Mrs, Schiller, were the human counterparts to his music therapy. They each took equal parts in saving my brother from himself. The choir room, that ancient basement sanctuary, where John would be joking around with his friends or flirting with his girlfriend as she sat at the piano. The girl that he broke up with a year later when she went to Minnesota for school, and kept in touch with over all the years and after they each had a string of relationships, and each a failed marriage. The girl, who after all of that, 25 years later, would become his wife, Chris. Yeah, that girl. The one who always knew him, who understood him, and who had his heart.
And in that 25 year span, he went to college, dropped out of college, tried a move to Arizona—which was cool, because we got to hang out together—but ultimately decided AZ was not the place for him, packed up his drums in the ’69 Caddy and drove all the way back home to Illinois. And I went to college, dropped out of college, moved to Chicago, failed miserably, moved back to AZ, went back to college, met my husband, dropped out of college again, and got married and started raising a family of smelly boys who idolized their smelly uncle.
In that time, John and his then-girlfriend, Carol, began an adventure that neither of them would believe would become what is is today, 18 years later: the award-winning landmark of downtown Palatine, The Music Room.
He had gone back to school, attending nights first at Harper College, then went on to Elmhurst College. During that time, he traveled to Europe with the jazz band. Switzerland, Ireland, Malta, Italy and probably a few more spots. He received his degree in Music Education at age 35 (and is hugely responsible for inspiring me to go back to school to pursue my own degree now – in Art Education – at age 43.)
Though their romantic relationship ended, John and Carol’s friendship and business partnership only continued to grow. They built The Music Room into not only a space for retail and rental instruments, but a gathering place for musicians to both teach and learn. They have also given back to the community with their Gear Shift donation program for used instruments.
But The Music Room was so much more than John’s business or job; it was his life. (Second only to his love for my sister-in-law Chris, and the time they spent together at their weekend place, going to local spots for dinner, or just having quiet time at home or with family.) And it shows in the hundreds of comments we have received from former students, their parents, and patrons of John’s, as well as members and friends of the band he formed, The Big Cluster Big Band, and former band mates of Simply Vintage.
Who could guess that one day you’d get a call, something about a brain tumor, and fourteen months later you are saying goodbye.*
And here I am suddenly an only child, in a spinning haze of life going on regardless of the fact that my brother is gone. Going to class, filling up with gas, shopping for groceries, watching TV, taking a shower, having dinner, feeding my horses, checking one kid’s homework, and the other kid’s college plans, making lunch for my husband, all the day-in day-out stuff that I always did.
Only now it’s this weird reality. I have more sympathy cards on my kitchen cabinets than I had Christmas cards this year. People I haven’t heard from in years, reaching out to me with folded-paper hugs. It’s so bizarre. So wonderful and sad at once.
And maybe it’s taken me so long to write this because in all the business of everyday life, even with the cards and phone calls, even with the times that the realization has knocked me sideways, it really hasn’t hit me until now.
We didn’t have the perfect relationship (who does?). We didn’t talk everyday, or even every month. But the thing about me and my brother was that we didn’t need to. We just got each other. In a way that not even my parents, my husband, my kids, even my best friends – John understood me, and I him. That’s the biggest thing I will miss. The one person who knew me better than anyone else, is not here anymore.
Not here, perhaps, but not gone. He was sitting on my shoulder the whole first week of classes, cheering me on. He’s with my sister-in-law, watching over her and trying to help her feel like she’s not alone. He and my grandpa are puffing away on cigars, keeping an eye on our parents. He’s with his buddies, calling them all a bunch of no-good shitheads. He’s with his nieces and nephews hopefully making sure they don’t get into too much trouble, but probably snickering when they do. And he’s definitely at the store, his baby for the past umpteen years.
It’s just…selfish, I know, but I just wish he was still here.
Things I’ve learned over the past year:
Laughter is the best medicine.
True love won’t let time or space get in its way.
Never underestimate the power of being nice to people.
Forgiveness is hard.
Oncology doctors and ICU nurses are in a class by themselves.
Frampton Comes Alive is an album that should be listened to all the way through, over good food, with people you love.
A year goes by way too fast.
This was played for John at his Celebration of Life. I couldn’t think of a better song:
*also: I just want to say Kudos to Valerie Harper and thank her for being so open, brave and honest about her recent diagnosis. Hopefully by bringing more attention to brain cancer, scientists and doctors will be able to come up with more effective treatments for this brutal disease.
Thanks, as always, for reading. xoxo heidi.
For information or to donate to the John Giovannoni Memorial Scholarship Fund, click here.
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