A Letter to Yo-Yo Ma

by Larkin Vonalt

Six years ago today, my father died. In the years since, I have written this letter in my head many times, as I have wanted to tell you what a profound and lovely part your recording Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone had in the last days of his life, and how it continues to connect us to him even now.

My father, Larry Vonalt, was chairman of the English Department at the University of Missouri at Rolla. I wouldn’t have mentioned that except that teaching was such an intrinsic part of everything he was. He was very interested in film, and loved music, though he himself was not particularly musical.  When my son Julian turned five, Dad suggested that we sign him up for cello lessons, and offered to pay for them. Julian’s father is Chinese American and Dad noted that Julian could look to you as an excellent role model. Surprisingly, we were able to find a cello teacher in Livingston, Montana. We bought our son a half-size cello and he began to learn. He did not turn out to be a virtuoso, or even very disciplined, but he stuck with it for several years.

In the meantime, my father was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx. He took an optimistic view and we followed his lead. We should have seen that if the disease didn’t destroy him that the treatment surely would. In January of 2005, they took out the larynx, robbing him of his voice in an attempt to save his life. He went on teaching, using a little box that buzzed when he held it up to his throat to “speak.”

That summer Julian, then age 10,  and I went to spend a few weeks with my Dad and stepmother. Julian dragged along the cello– now three-quarter size. We have dozens of photographs Dad took during that visit of Julian set up in the livingroom, all knees and elbows, glasses sliding down his nose, lost in concentration as he played. He would play until he made a mistake and then he’d say “Wait, I messed up, let me start again.”

In September, Julian turned 11 and among his many presents was a copy of Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone, a gift from my mother. I don’t know when Julian started playing it, I don’t even remember hearing it until I finally heard it, if that makes any sense. We had learned just before that there was nothing more to do for Dad’s cancer. I don’t know if they told Dad to get his affairs in order, or if they suggested an amount of time that he might have left. All I know is that one day late in August he’d sent me an email asking if I wanted his poetry books, and when I read that I began to sob.

My husband and I went with Julian out to Seattle one weekend in November. Driving home on a gray Sunday afternoon, through the Bitterroot mountains of western Montana, Julian leaned forward and asked if we could play the CD that my mother had given him for his birthday. I said sure, and he handed it forward. For the next four hours, we listened. We listened to it through the dying light of evening, and we listened through the star-spangled darkness of a Montana winter night. If we spoke at all, it was only a word or two. My husband stopped to put gasoline in the Volvo; Julian and I remained in the car, listening.

When we arrived at our little farm, I got out of the car, unlocked the door, walked into the house and booted up the computer. I did not even take off my coat. When I found the CD on Amazon, I ordered a copy to be sent to my father by next day mail.

By some miracle, they actually got it to him on the next day, and the email I received read “Thanks for the Yo-Yo Ma CD. I like it very much. I’ve always liked the music Morricone did for spaghetti westerns, but I had no idea it could sound like that. The piece from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly reminds me of that t-shirt you sent me when you were in school in Boston. You know, the one that says ‘The Good, the Dad and His Money.’ Thanks again. Love you guys, Dad.”

We drove from Montana to Missouri see my father for the last time that December. When we walked in the door, he was listening to Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone.  He listened to it every single day we were there. Sometimes his wife would go to put on something else and he would shake his  head. No, he wanted to hear the Morricone.  He was failing quickly. He went into the hospital briefly to have a feeding tube placed, and he wanted to hear the music in the car as we drove him home. It was on all the time. It was as if that music gave him the courage to accept his own death, which was coming for him, whether he was ready or not.

You’d think we’d all have grown to hate it. You would think that none of us would ever want to hear it again. But we went on listening. On the 17th of December, we went back to Montana, promising to return in a few weeks. The doctors assured us he had at least that much time. Hospice made it possible for him to stay in his home, but on the morning of the day after Christmas, pain management became problematic. The ambulance came to take Dad to the hospital, and when they closed the door, Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone was still playing on the stereo.

His wife called early in the afternoon to say that he probably wouldn’t make it through the night. I did my damnedest to find a way to get there. They’d hold the only flight for me leaving Billings, Montana if I could get there in the next 40 minutes. But Billings was 120 miles away. My husband said “Just get in the car, I’ll drive you straight through to Missouri.”  Missouri,  1481 miles away. It might as well have been the moon. Julian put on the CD and we sat together for the rest of the day. When the call came at 8:30 that night to say that my father had slipped away, we were still listening. If we’d gotten in the car to drive there we would have only made it as far as Denver.

I did go back the first week in January. That evening, as we sat down with a glass of wine, my father’s widow put on the CD. Perhaps I looked stricken, because she paused and said “Oh, I’m sorry, wouldn’t you rather not hear this?”

My voice cracked when I answered her. “It’s fine. Please. I’d like to hear it.”

“I just couldn’t bear to lose the music too,” she whispered.

Julian stopped playing the cello. He said that after his Grampa’s death it just made him too sad. I only listened to Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone in the car, because hearing it was so intensely painful and so intensely beautiful and it forced me to embrace my grief. Sometimes I cried so hard I just had to pull over to the side of the road until I could regain my composure. It’s a funny thing because even though I was so sad, the music made me feel connected to my father, as if when I listened to it we were still together. Ecstasy of the Gold was particularly difficult because it always reminded me of that dopey t-shirt, and it was the track I listened to the most.

Not too long after we left Montana for good and moved to Ohio so that Julian could attend a performing arts high school. He was admitted to the 8th grade after auditioning for creative writing. One day, though, he stopped to talk to a boy carrying a cello case– and the boy invited him to try out for the orchestra. Julian was pretty rusty– it had been two years since he’d even picked up the bow. But he did try out and they did accept him, and he did make his way up through the ranks. He’s a senior now, and his major area of study is music.  He plays the cello every single day, sometimes I fall asleep hearing him play into the night. He has two private teachers, plus the cello instructor at the school, and daily orchestra practice. I imagine he will play the cello for the rest of his life. We have talked about the music from Ennio Morricone’s films, but of course, the printed score is not available to the public. When I hear him picking out passages by ear, I don’t know if my heart will break or burst, but I know my father would have been very proud of him.

With time, the grief has eased a bit, it’s less ferocious. I can listen to Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone now without falling apart, and I do choose to listen to it quite often still. Thank you so much for making this wonderful recording that allowed my father music for his last days with us, a score by which to leave this earth,  and years later, still a way of staying in touch. It has been a most remarkable gift, and we are forever grateful.