My soul has always been deeply affected and moved passionately by the rhythm and lyrics of poets, songwriters, and performers. As a young child, I vividly recall sitting next to my father while he sipped on mysterious cocktails that sustained my curiosity as much as his stories. And in the background? Billy Joel, Elton John, Harry Chapin, Don McLean, and others of sort. Pangs of “Piano Man” resonated in my being as I memorized the words that my father hummed as we spoke about baseball, school, and everything in between. Little did I know that this very song, with its harmonic and melodious tempo, would find its way of inserting itself back into my life in the most ambiguous ways.
Jumping forward some years, when only sixteen, I found my dad’s presence as noticeable as it had ever been during our late night discussions at the bar in our two-story, suburban home. Only this time, we weren’t discussing baseball, school, or anything of the sort. This time, we were having a mid-day meeting, and this time, I was no longer granted the invincibility that children so often cling to–that day, we met over sobering news. On that day, he held me close as oncologists at Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children informed our family that I had somehow developed cancer and would require immediate surgery to remove a fast-growing tumor. In the moment, “Piano Man” and its mystical presence seemed all but forgotten.
Fast forward a few days, a few surgeries, and few buckets of tears. Now, daunted by a challenge unforeseen and equally unwelcome, I turned to music. I consumed inspiration and hope through my Sony handheld compact disc player, and I hid emotions within the walls of the headphones that protected me from the reality of uncertain times. I grew stronger and more courageous by the words of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” and Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” gave me enough to contemplate that I could find distraction before depression found me. But nothing compared to “Piano Man.” Nothing reminded me of my innocence and the wealth of support that stood by me, ready to pounce on command like a pack of wolves. Nothing screamed loyalty, love, and hope like Billy Joel’s classic hit. For all intents and purposes, I learned that my dad was, and is, my piano man. He was and is in my life to cheer proudly of my victories, to question my decisions at times, to guide but not steer me, and to help hold down the door when the wolf comes hungry.
You see, the “Piano Man” is someone that we all know–they are that person that undeniably, even at times unreasonably, has impenetrable determination to protect you and help you grow in ways that you did not know were possible. For as much as I turned to celebrity songwriters, authors, sports figures, and friends for support, it was my dad and my family that held me during seizures, dialed 911, stood helpless outside ICU doors as I coded, brought pizza to my bedside only to watch me grimace at the smell of tomato due to the impact of chemotherapy, and held true to their own responsibilities without once letting me know. They gave me everything I would ever need to survive in those four months of treatment. They taught me more of character than any workshop every could, and they did it because they loved me then as they love me now.
As I recovered and grew into my young adult life, I heard the sweet sounds of “Piano Man” at the most interesting of times: on the radio after leaving the Christening of my godson, while driving to my final knee rehabilitation appointment, hours after turning 21 at a local bar, and on countless other occasions. I am not a conspiracy theorist–far from it. Instead, I am a meaning seeker. I try with extraordinary will to process everything a moment has to offer, and while some seem more inconsequential than others, one stands alone.
When I married my beautiful wife, I had the privilege of being in the same room as all of the people that had shared life with us, and few were as important to me that day as my father. Like I said, he’s my piano man. And as the evening unfolded, and as we now shared that mysterious drink that I once saw him consume in the comfort of my childhood home, “Piano Man” came over the room. I was quickly filled with raw emotion as many of our friends lifted me over their shoulders, turning me quickly to face the opposing side of the room. Across from me and on the shoulders of more friends stood my wife, and around us a circle formed. It was nothing short of symbolic. Hours later, as festivities dwindled, I recounted the event with my childhood best friend, and we laughed in amazement at the seemingly choreographed moment that transcended any differences present that night.
It is only now, nearly six years later, that I feel the power of that moment in indescribable ways. It is only now, years removed from childhood, that I stand on the verge of parenthood. In weeks, maybe even days, I will become a father. I only hope that I might one day be that child’s piano man.
I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.