composer • educator

Lucky to Know You #1B: Lee Hyla

Added on by Carolyn O'Brien.

A few more days after Lee’s death, I had a little more courage to talk about him. But this was the last thing I could say. My shock made way for a depressive episode and a very sad year. Below I post a longer story, several in the mix, in fact. Don’t worry about me, though. Today I am strong and can talk about grief with a more objective heart. Today, I am proud to think of him and to laugh about our relationship. It was such a good one.



June 10, 2014

Friends, this will be the last one I have the energy to tell. I thought things might be a little easier for me today, but there seems to be a bit of a spiraling waveform to this loss that I didn't anticipate. So, I turn to one of my favorite moments with Lee, when he zinged me, and HOW!

By late November-early December 2008, Lee and I had already given each other multiple recommendations for good restaurants for places we were traveling that year, Lee to San Francisco and I to NYC, which he knew incredibly well. During one lesson, Lee started talking about his annual New Year's Day party and said I'd have to come. Actually, what he said was, I WOULD be coming to the party. “Oh yeah? Why’s that, Lee?” Well, he had a Polish soup recipe passed down for generations that I must try. It had cabbage, sour cream, some secret acidic ingredient that made it very tart, but the surprise kicker was the kilbasa broth. Yes, Polish sausage broth.


"Jesus, Lee. That sounds amazing."

"You have no idea."

"I think I'm ready to have some idea. I'll be there."

"Oh, you'll be there. But, you're probably not ready."


Lee kept bragging about this damned soup in every lesson until the end of the quarter. I started accusing him or overselling this shit. He said he'd prove me wrong and we had a faux-heated argument about that soup in front of the student who came to his lesson right after me. In fact, Lee provoked that argument for at least three weeks to frighten and entertain that poor undergrad.

So, New Year's Day 2009 had finally arrived, and it's bloody freezing outside. Well below freezing, actually. I get to the party with my hubby, Bob, and he makes a beeline for that goddamned soup. He is really into that soup, imploring that I try it immediately. Lee drags me over to the pot on the stove to have a whiff, and I can’t help but start in with the ribbing. It's just the two of us for a few seconds, so I let him have it.

"Well, I am finally here. Let's have a bowl of your goddamned great granny's soup already. This had better be good, or I'm outta here. I mean, it’s cold outside, it’s like below zero, man! And I have a hangover! (He pours maybe half a ladleful in my bowl.) What? That’s a small bowl man. I mentioned the hangover, right? I mean for Chrissakes man, don't be stingy!"

He was stone cold silent. The whole time! I thought, man, I'd really fucked this one up. Gone too far mocking his family recipe. Then this poor bystander who was not yet privy to any of our usual back-and-forth crap walks up for some soup. I put a spoonful of the stuff in my mouth. Lee turns to the man and this is what happens:


Lee: "Hi Kurt (points to me), have you met the Insolent Bitch?"

Me: *soup spit take right into Lee's kitchen sink*

Kurt: "Whoa, wha-? What the hell?!?"

Lee: patting me repeatedly on the back, "Alright, don't choke on it asshole. That soup took a lot of work!" Then he gives me a little smooch-snort on the cheek and runs off.


I'm left gagging on soup and laughing uncontrollably in front of one very confused man named Kurt.


From that day forward, he whipped out Insolent Bitch to put me in my place, which I usually deserved. Ok, I always deserved it. Sometimes he'd just sneak up behind me in the music department mailroom and say things like, "what's Ms. Insolence up to today?" "Hey, wait, Carolyn O'Brien? They spelled your name wrong on your mailbox, it should read I-N-S-O-L-E-N-T . . . " etc. Or he’d whisper, "settle down, I.B." if I was being unruly in the bar/concert/colloquium/class. I suspect I'm going to miss those stealth attacks most of all.

Cut to several years later, I dunno, let’s say 2012. Lee had another nickname for me. Unlike the other one, it’s one I haven't yet earned. I’ve had multiple health issues over the past few years that have slowed my progress with my degree. Exasperated, I’d occasionally mumble, “I’ll never get this fucking degree, man.” Lee would retort, “Oh, you’ll get your fucking degree,” mock scolding as if it was impossible for me to quit. The first time I did that, he called me Dr. O’Brien on the way out of his office. That . . . felt nice. Whenever Lee and I talked about matters of my progress, committee stuff, all the business stuff, he’d always call me Dr. O’Brien as we were parting. I bumped into him on May 4th of this year. His office door was open and he was buried in a mound of emails and paperwork. He waved me in and we had a brief chat about a committee member change, other shit, funny shit, food shit, business shit. And health shit. His health shit. I had to go, so did he. We scheduled a meeting for Thursday at his “usual perch,” the words I used to describe a precise bar stool where he imbibed after work for precisely fifty minutes before he commuted home. It was strategically positioned near his train station and a TV to watch ‘the game,’ whatever season it may be. The last thing he said was, “Go get it, Dr. O’Brien.” I giggled. We waved each other off.


We scheduled other perch meetings.

He postponed our perch meeting with apologies.

Then he postponed again.

Then, he cancelled.

Lee Hyla August 31, 1952 - June 6, 2014