Today was my day off, and I got a call that woke me up from some much needed sleep, as I was planning to sleep as long as possible then lounge around all day in my softest, least-restricting clothes, drinking tea, maybe reading, and just enjoying a calendar day with nothing written in it. When the phone rang, I heard an unfamiliar voice emanating from the answering machine in the other room. That alarmed me enough to haul my lazy butt out of bed to make sure it wasn’t someone telling me yet another person I cared about had died too young, too early, too tragically, or that someone was desperately sick or depressed and would I help?
It was none of those things. It was a call from a dear man who said “my piano is feeling lonely, and would you come and play it?” WOULD I? I said, of course I will come. Pianos shouldn’t be lonely and neither should people, and sometimes it’s easier for a person to couch their need in a way that protects them from exposing their vulnerability. The reason I was being called wasn’t as important as the idea that someone loves their piano so much, that they will call someone to sit near it, touch it, and love it in a way that perhaps they are no longer able to. I asked if 1:00 would be suitable, and he said he would be waiting for me by the piano.
So I pulled my sleepy, sore, exhausted self together, made my usual breakfast of tea and toast, and took the time to enjoy it, as I’ve been sacrificing this simple morning ritual, because I’m in a hurry in the morning, and it’s obvious that the rest of myself never catches up with me when I dash out the door without pausing even long enough to breathe and make sure I have everything I need for the day. I do everything fast, this being one of the “complaints” I hear most often at work, more of an observation than a complaint, because as one woman tells me “you get 4 hours work done in 2 hours time”. So that’s good, right? Well, only if time isn’t the most valuable thing we have right now, the only commodity that hasn’t been taxed or regulated or taken away from us for no reason. We still have time unless we give it away too easily, without caring what we might be doing with it, or how we might be using it in a better way. I’m young yet, at 61, just a kid compared to the people I work with, but there are many days I already feel as if six decades is enough, and the thought of having thirty more years of anything is an idea I can barely tolerate.
When I finished my breakfast, I went to get dressed in my not work clothes (which honestly are barely indistinguishable from my professional garb), packed my bag full of music that hasn’t been practiced (no time, again), but that is accessible enough to play without rousing an angry Beethoven from his grave, and packed a peanut butter and lettuce sandwich along with a large diet Coke, as last time I was invited to play the Baldwin, I was on the bench for three hours, having missed lunch and dinner, and only leaving like a little hostage let out to use the restroom. So, impressed with my careful preparations, I surveyed the room before I opened the door, checking to see if I’d left the most important item, and locked the door behind me, heading down the stairs to a place where I do work, but going on my day off gave me a whimsical feeling, which is conducive to playing pianos in unexpected places.
On the way there, the classical station obliged by playing music to get me in the mood, and I drove the actual posted speed limit, didn’t tail the car ahead of me, hoping he wouldn’t be too cautious on the railroad tracks, because I often get stuck right on them, and that might be the day the trains are actually running on time in Cleveland. In the back of my mind I always have a plan to abandon my car if necessary, though it would break my heart, because until I started falling in love with pianos, cars were the object of my wayward affections.
When I arrived at the facility where people reside, who need a little extra help in life, and have enough money to choose where they get it, it was raining, and I was juggling multiple bags and an umbrella, because since the remote lock device on my car no longer works, I don’t lock it anymore. Seems silly to spend $400 to repair it when the whole car is only worth about $600 on a good day when no one is looking at it too closely. I headed across the parking lot and into the front door, only to find people seated on couches and chairs, in wheelchairs, leaning on walkers, or wandering here and there, and was hoping they weren’t waiting for me, because I’m still not used to being the center of attention. I heard someone shout “there she is!, and looked to my left to see the man with the piano waiting anxiously by his Baldwin, and I went over to say hello and shake his hand. Someone else was playing his piano, and I told her not to stop, as there were a few other people I recognized from past “performances”, and I wanted to greet them and see if I could remember their names. So many lovely and kind men and women live there, and their generosity in letting me come in and play for them melts a layer of my introversion a bit, and I’m enjoying making conversation with these souls who are new to my life, and a more welcome addition that they could possibly imagine. There was the man whose son taught my late brother to play trumpet in high school, though he only has a vague remembrance of who his son is, and no idea at all of how this particular connection with my brother is helping to heal my grief. And there is another man who used to work with me in a library, who seems proud to know me, who I heard exclaim “I didn’t even know she PLAYED the piano!” from the back of the room the first time I tried. And of course there is the tiny lady for whom I do work on my scheduled days, and I made certain to thank her once again for asking her neighbor if I could play his piano, after having attempted to establish my credentials by playing Happy Birthday and a bit of Bach on the little electric keyboard in her apartment. She’s another musician who has lost the ability to play due to age and physical infirmity, and it’s making me realize how lucky I am to have the use of both of my arms, and that I’d better use them for good while I can, because fate deals wicked and random blows, and I could be next on the list.
I dropped all my luggage unceremoniously, and sat down on the needlepoint bench and asked “what would you like to hear?”. He said “how about Rachmaninoff?”, and I scrunched my nose, feeling not quite up to his requests, which are always well above my experience and tells me that not long ago, he was a pianist of repute and exquisite taste in music, and I wish I could play all of his favorite pieces on sight, but I said I would like to start with something familiar, and of course he nodded. So I played through few of the standards in my loose-leaf binder, the one I carry just in case I should encounter a piano somewhere that needs to be played, and I haven’t a single entire piece memorized, nor can I improvise more than a few measures before giving up in frustration. After I started to feel at home, I did venture into some Brahms and Chopin that I had never played before, catching his discerning eye when I hit a “clam”, and playing on through at a steady pace, because most people don’t notice, though I suspect there are other musicians in that group of people who gather around when I play. I’ve heard a lady humming the melody sometimes, and I’ll have to find out a little more about that when I have more time.
After about two hours, the man with the Baldwin said he’d love to hear more, but his laundry was probably dry, and he had to go take it out. I asked if he would like me to do that for him, and he said yes, so I got up, making my apologies to the other listeners, and gently pushed him in his walker with the seat in the direction of the room holding two washing machines, two dryers, and some orphaned socks hanging from a peg on the wall. While I was folding his clothes, I had the opportunity to ask a few questions–do you have someone who helps you with this sort of thing, does your family come to see you, just the usual queries that give me an idea of what a person’s situation is. I wasn’t happy with his answers, and when we got to his room, I asked if I could come in and help him put away his clothes. I’ve only had this job a little over two years, and what I’ve learned is that people hang on to their pride with a firm grip, as it’s sometimes the last thing they have to hold on to, and it’s threatened daily as they lose the ability to do the small chores that came so easily to them all of their lives. We talked for a while, and I told him what I thought, direct as always, having little patience for rules and formality when it comes to people in need, and let him know that if his family gave permission, I would be happy to give him a little assistance from time to time for whatever he could afford to pay me, and “could we just keep this a secret between us?”, as I work for an agency that charges a hefty fee for services, and it pains me when I meet people who need them, but can’t afford them. Doing ones laundry is a necessity not a luxury, but it’s a burden if you only have one working arm and need to scoot with one foot slowly along a lengthy corridor balancing a plastic basket on your knee.
We need to be more mindful of each other, our needs, our feelings, and our ability or inability to ask or pay for help, and I refuse to believe that there aren’t enough of us to go around, so that everyone’s needs can be met, and no one will be left alone to deal with the impossible, but will keep that gap in their life hidden for any number of reasons, most of which are absolutely none of my business. For the man with the Baldwin, money isn’t a requirement, but I’ve learned that this sturdy lot of people who weathered wars, the Great Depression, and all kinds of other heart-wrenching events isn’t a generation that is comfortable with accepting anything for free, and I respect that. So the choice is theirs, and I will accommodate them. I’m just a small being, wandering around in a big universe, trying to make my way without stepping on other’s sensibilities, and if I can do anything at all to make someone’s life just a little bit easier, it makes mine more bearable.
On a day when we’ve lost yet more innocent lives due to our senseless love of deadly weapons, I had to come to this page to soothe my jagged soul. And if you followed me here, I thank you for your patience. Mine is being tried daily, and there’s not much I can do about the many big things that trouble me, but show me a little problem I can solve, and I’ll attack it with perspicacity, because I’m quick and efficient, and not one who puts up with nonsense graciously. Everyone–and I mean everyone–has a story to tell if only we will take the time to lean in and listen. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.