Thank you to Mike Portnoy

Dear Mike,

I’ve been wanting to write this for about a long while now. I wasn’t sure where to send it – I briefly looked and couldn’t find and address although honestly I didn’t look too hard. So on Saturday May 28th as I was driving to California from Phoenix to see the Neal Morse Testimony 2 show with you playing drums, it occurred to me I could write an open letter.

Although it’s been a few years, I wanted to say I’m sorry for the loss of your dad. I know the hurt and pain of losing your father.

I wanted to write a thank you for the song “The Best of Times”. I know that the song was written for your dad before he died and it had a huge impact on me and I wanted to share that with you. I hope you don’t find this “letter” disrespectful in any way – it is meant with full sincerity and thanks.

I wanted to let you know a bit about my story with my dad first. In December of 2008, I got a call that my father had found a lump along his jawline while shaving one day. He mentioned it to my step-mother and they made an appointment to see the doctor. It turned out to be cancerous but the doctor was fairly confident that once removed and with radiation treatment the cancer would be gone. We knew it would be an uphill battle, but we were all optimistic. It was removed and Dad was going to start radiation treatment.

I made it home to Florida for Christmas that year, not knowing if it would be my last with my Dad. God bless my wife for being so supportive and encouraging me to go. Her daughters – my step-daughters – were going to be at their Dad’s for Christmas so it left her alone on Christmas which I know wasn’t easy for her. She knew, though, how important it was for me to be with my Dad that Christmas. We still hoped for recovery and that we’d have more Christmases together but we didn’t know for sure, and I just needed to see my Dad.

In January before starting his radiation treatment, my dad found another lump on his side. The doctors were very worried and did a PET scan and discovered tumors throughout his body. We were told 4-6 months was all he had. The doctors were right. On June 1, 2009, my father passed away peacefully in hospice.

There are two reasons I wanted to say thank you for the amazing song that you wrote. First, it gave me comfort to know that I wasn’t the only person to have gone through something like this. From what I know, based solely on the lyrics of “The Best of Times”, it sounds as if there were some similarities in what happened. The lyrics said “the two score and the year we had”; I assume you were 41 when you lost your dad, I was 40 when I lost my dad. I know all too well what the lyrics “…but then came the call, our lives changed forevermore, you can pray for a change, but prepare for the end” mean. I’ve known other people in the same situation but there’s something about hearing it in a song, even though I’ve never met you, that just really resonated in me. I felt empathy for you and what you must have gone through when you got that call. I know for me there was a lot of tears and an emptiness I felt deep in my stomach even though Dad was still here.  I guess that’s part of the power of music – it allows us fans to connect with the artist in some way.

The second reason I want to say thank you is the song helped me grieve. “Black Clouds and Silver Linings” was released on June 23, 2009, and I was almost scared to buy it. I have always loved Dream Theater’s music but I was afraid that I would always associate it with my father’s passing since they were so close together on the calendar. But once I heard “The Best of Times” and learned what it was about, it became a part of my grieving process. I know the song is about your father, but as I listened and I heard you list all the great memories of your dad, it got me to think about all the wonderful memories and great times I had with my dad. It truly helped me focus on the best of times and work through my loss. “My heart is bleeding bad, but I’ll be OK” was comforting to me every time I listened to the song those days in the summer of 2009. There were many days I’d drive to work with “The Best of Times” playing and I’m sure people wondered “Why is that man crying?”

In the spirit of “Black Clouds & Silver Linings”, if there was a silver lining to my father’s illness and passing it was that he was in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s. I remember a conversation where we were talking about a doctor’s appointment he’d had earlier that day. Either my sister or I mentioned “cancer” in the conversation and his response was “Cancer? I don’t have cancer.” In some ways, what a blessing, not knowing the end is near because you can enjoy each day. In other ways, what a horror having to discover again (when it can’t be avoided in conversation or situations) that you have cancer. I know it also spared him (and us, and I hope that doesn’t sound too selfish) going through the terrible, terrible end stages of Alzheimer’s.

If I remember correctly, I heard in an interview (or read, don’t remember which) that you got to play the song for your dad before he passed. What an awesome gift to be able to give him. He had to be so proud of you for all you’ve accomplished but more importantly for the gift of a song written just for him celebrating your days together.

I don’t know you and I don’t know your dad but I think I have a sense of who he was – at least in the ways that really count. “All the unconditional love, that carried me for miles, it carried me for miles.” If there’s anything a father should be, it’s someone who loves his children unconditionally. Like you, I had a father who loved me unconditionally. Your dad’s unconditional love has carried you for miles, just as my dad’s has carried me. And since we learn to be parents by watching our parents, I’m sure your dad’s legacy lives on in your relationship with your children. I am trying my best to show the same unconditional love to my step-daughters as my Dad showed me. I often tell my wife “All the good things about me as a husband and a father I learned from my dad. All the bad stuff is purely me.”

I just wanted to say thank you for an amazing song that helped me deal with the death of my own father. I hope you aren’t offended; I know the song was about your dad and your experiences with him and I’m not in any  way trying to make it my own or about me and my dad. It connected in that unique way that only music can, helped me reflect on my relationship with my dad,  brought me comfort and was a part of my healing process.

Thank you,

Jeff Ballard

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