Dy­ing man ‘spend­ing his time liv­ing’

Jonathan Densem has an in­op­er­a­ble brain tu­mour. It pushed him to com­plete a life­long dream. Vicki An­der­son re­ports.

The Press - - Front Page -

With his two young sons Otto and Cas­par em­brac­ing him, Jonathan Densem pauses his gui­tar play­ing and smiles across at his wife, Emma Smetham. The fam­ily is sit­ting out­side on a glo­ri­ous Can­ter­bury sum­mer’s day. Through an open win­dow at their his­toric Cust home one of his songs plays on the stereo as Cookie the puppy races around the lawn.

It’s an idyl­lic fam­ily scene but there’s sad­ness here too.

In early 2016, the singer, song­writer, ac­tor, and mu­sic teacher was di­ag­nosed with grade four glioblas­toma mul­ti­forme – the ‘‘big kahuna’’ of can­cers.

Densem, 48, taps the top of his head with one fin­ger.

‘‘There’s a ki­wifruit sized-thing with ten­ta­cles on my brain,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s in­op­er­a­ble. But I’m not spend­ing my time dy­ing, I’m liv­ing.’’

The prog­no­sis was bleak but Densem re­mains op­ti­mistic. At one point he was given 12 months to live. That was more than 18 months ago.

For 25 years, Densem had writ­ten songs but never done any­thing with them.

The ‘‘night­mare’’ di­ag­no­sis ig­nited his de­sire to ful­fil a long held dream and tick off a wish from his bucket list. This month he re­leases his al­bum, I’m Say­ing It Now.

Twenty-five years in the mak­ing and one year in record­ing, it was recorded thanks to the gen­eros­ity of those who gave to a Givealit­tle cam­paign started by Smetham that raised more than $50,000 last Christ­mas.

This year, Densem found him­self in Auck­land with a newly as­sem­bled ‘‘band of great mu­si­cians’’ in Neil Finn’s pres­ti­gious Round­head Stu­dios.

‘‘I even met the man him­self,’’ says Densem. ‘‘Neil was very en­cour­ag­ing . . . I went from be­ing

‘‘I did this for my boys . . . my fam­ily. Our sons will al­ways have some­thing to re­mem­ber me by.’’ Jonathan Densem

a guy play­ing his mu­sic on his own in a Can­ter­bury gar­den shed to stand­ing in the best stu­dio in the south­ern hemi­sphere with a band to call my own. I felt like a rock star.’’

Each song tells a story – ‘‘di­rectly or obliquely’’ – from his life. ‘‘My fa­ther was a jazz pi­anist, he died when he was just 47 and never got to record his mu­sic. Cape Reinga re­counts my visit there af­ter he died.’’

His in­flu­ences range from Billy Joel to Aretha Franklin, James Tay­lor, Missy Hig­gins and, ‘‘of course,’’ Finn.

Clas­si­cally trained Smetham, who has played vi­o­lin with the Christchurch Sym­phony Orches­tra, joined him in the stu­dio, play­ing vi­o­lin on Come Sit with Me.

‘‘Emma and I met through the CSO,’’ he says of his wife of 21 years. ‘‘I al­ways say that she had one eye on me and the other on the con­duc­tor.’’

The first sin­gle he will re­lease is called Beau­ti­ful Girl. It is one of the first songs he ever wrote.

Densem says record­ing the al­bum made life­long mem­o­ries the whole fam­ily will cher­ish. Out of her earshot, he cred­its Smetham with ‘‘keep­ing ev­ery­one go­ing’’.

Bend­ing to pat Cookie, Smetham says the fam­ily has faced many chal­lenges to­gether.

Life has of­ten been tough but in re­sponse they are gen­tle with one an­other. Mo­ments to­gether, like this where the fam­ily link arms and do ‘‘the min­istry of silly walks’’ across the lawn. This is liv­ing.

In 2009, while Smetham was preg­nant with their youngest son, Cas­par, the fam­ily were caught in the mid­dle of the Black Satur­day bush fires in Aus­tralia. Cas­par was born in the mid­dle of the dis­as­ter.

‘‘One of Jonny’s pi­ano stu­dents died in the fire.’’

Af­ter the fam­ily re­turned to Christchurch, Densem’s teach­ing stu­dio was de­stroyed by the Can­ter­bury earth­quakes.

A full-time singing and pi­ano teacher be­fore the di­ag­no­sis, Densem now teaches singing and pi­ano at St Mar­garet’s Col­lege for 15 hours each week.

The al­bum re­lease party, a tick­eted event, is be­ing held at St Mar­garet’s Col­lege on Mon­day.

‘‘Af­ter chemo treat­ment, the tu­mour has shrunk a lit­tle and it hasn’t grown any larger,’’ he says, sip­ping a turmeric latte. ‘‘I’m think­ing pos­i­tively and I’m hop­ing to in­crease my work hours next year.’’

For many years, he says, peo­ple would hear him play and ask if he had an al­bum they could buy.

‘‘I al­ways had to say no, but now I can say ‘yes, yes I do have my own al­bum’,’’ Densem says.

Cas­par, 8, smiles up at his dad and drapes one arm around his neck. ‘‘My favourite song of dad’s is I’m Say­ing It Now,’’ he de­clares. His par­ents turn to­wards him, star­tled.

‘‘I didn’t know that was your favourite,’’ replies Densem. ‘‘My dad, your grand­fa­ther . . . so much of him is on that song.’’

Densem places his gui­tar down and picks up his cell­phone.

The proud dad plays a video fea­tur­ing the ‘‘gui­tar-play­ing ge­nius’’ of el­dest son, Otto, dur­ing a re­cent pub­lic per­for­mance by the fam­ily.

It looks as if it was filmed in a lo­cal com­mu­nity hall, the type of place which is so beautifully sim­ple small-town New Zealand – gen­er­ous wooden floors, bil­low­ing white cur­tains fram­ing a win­dow with a view of pad­docks and graz­ing cows.

‘‘Cas­par is still mas­ter­ing the drums,’’ says Smetham, point­ing to the screen.

Ear­lier, on his own in the stu­dio, Densem had placed his hands on his pi­ano keys be­fore turn­ing back to an­swer a ques­tion about mor­tal­ity.

‘‘We tend to seek the big mo­ments in life, the grand ges­tures, but I’ve come to ap­pre­ci­ate that it’s all in the de­tail, those small mo­ments.’’

The last song on Densem’s al­bum is ti­tled Love Lives On.

‘‘I did this for my boys . . . my fam­ily. Our sons will al­ways have some­thing to re­mem­ber me by.’’

PHOTO: STACY SQUIRES/STUFF

Jonathan Densem with his wife, Emma Smetham, and sons Otto and Casper, 8, and dog, Cookie.

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