Bourland & MacDuff: Fly on the Wall

August 15, 2006


Three days before September 11, 2001, I had my own private 9/11. My partner, Daniel Shiplacoff, came down with the deadly and contagious bacterial meningitis. He had just been laid off from a successful business, and he had just laid off his entire staff. He was also serving as a supernumerary (an “extra”) for the LA Opera. He came home from a performance on Friday night complaining of a stiff neck, a splitting headache, a high fever, and he was nauseous. We sat in the den watching TV. We figured he had come down with a nasty flu. I said I would go to bed and told him to come to bed when he was ready. He was moaning softly from the throbbing headache.

At three in the morning I was awoken by a strange wooden scraping sound. I rushed into the TV room and Daniel was delirious and seemed to be having a very intense seizure. I called 911. They came immediately. While it took two men to get him onto the gurney one of the helpers asked me what I do, obviously to distract me. We realized we both knew Robert Winter and that she is a fan of contemporary chamber music and that she had heard of me and I’m watching my lover hauled out the door and Oh my God he is going to die!

Daniel was in a coma for three days. The doctors warned us that patients with these symptoms rarely come out of this state. He was like a slab of meat on a high tech bed in a room with beepers and graphs and machines and that life giving sound of the ventilator. I saw the oxygen forced into his lungs because he couldn’t. The spinal fluid that surrounds the spine and the brain is normally clear like gin, but in Daniel had become more like cream. He had a horrible attack of meningitis. I kept our friends up to date on every move and thought via email. (That was actually my first blogging experience. I’d rather have THIS kind of blogging experience.)

After three days, about 6 hours after 9/11 had occurred he woke up. We were all amazed. His mother, Josie, had a worldwide group of “prayer warriors” working on her son. His parents were excellent patient advocates. The doctors at Cedars were great, even though they gave us the distinct impression that Daniel was going to die. They also said that if he were to survive, there could be severe brain damage. Well, he’s fine today. Better than fine.

At any rate, I had to keep working during that time, and while the world was collapsing around us, I had to compose the final movement for the “Crocodile’s Christmas Ball” set, which would be called “Fly on the Wall.” I love the tune in this piece. Mac did a brilliant job of bringing in Christian imagery and lore without it being specifically Christian in doctrine. While I was harmonizing the second verse, tears were literally streaming down my face. The premiere of this piece had me conducting the UCLA Wind Ensemble and the UCLA Choruses. Here is Juliana Gondek singing with Neal Stulberg playing piano. I just finished revising this piece for chorus last night for a performance this December, so all this has been on my mind.


A Fly on the Wall

Within a stable many years ago,
A common fly took refuge from the snow.
And there, among the animals, it saw
A man and woman huddled in the straw.
“The woman’s time is close at hand, I fear,
By dawn we’ll have another guest in here,”
Said the fly on the wall of a stable in Bethlehem.

And then, as if by plan,
The stunning change began.
By light of one, amazing star,
The Birth of Man.

A multitude of creatures came by day
To greet the new arrival in the hay.
The common fly was drawn to him somehow
And helped to clean the baby’s tiny brow.
“This seems an awful fuss for just one child,”
The fly complained until the baby smiled
At the fly on the wall of a stable in Bethlehem.

A rich, well-meaning king
For fear the fly might sting
Was quick to flick the fly away.
The fly took wing.

The fly continued on its lonely way,
But there were those who swore they heard it say:
“In all my thirty days upon the earth,
I’ve seen no greater miracle than birth!
Before you condescend to one like me,
Imagine first how blessed I was to be
Just a fly on the wall of a stable in Bethlehem.
Just a fly on the wall…

© 2002 William MacDuff and Roger Bourland

Parents: educate yourselves about meningitis and vaccinate your children so they don’t ever have to worry about this awful disease. Realize that it can happen to infants, and what you think is a flu could be deadly within 24 hours. If I had not discovered Daniel until the morning, he would have been dead. I hope that this is a vivid enough image to bolt you into educating yourself about this disease if you haven’t yet. It can happen in dormitories, on basketball teams, anywhere young people (usually) gather in groups. We all had to take Cipro because we had been exposed to Daniel. Everyone in the LA Opera also had to take it as well.

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