The Music Can Catch You When You Fall
by Andrea Kielpinski Sadler, Aug 3, 2016
He is about 55 years old and looks like he’s had no easy life, even before jumping from ICU into the myeloma unit. Awake, sitting in his chair, he gives me a small smile and surprise in the eyes and a “yes,” when I ask if he’d like me to play for him. He stands up and walks toward me, his hands drawn to the harp. Leaning over, he’s touching, touching, till admonished by the nurse that he might get light-headed and fall. So he sits, but first he drags the chair (he drags the chair, I remember later) till he’s close enough to keep touching, lovingly touching my graceful instrument. His eyes touch it too.
So I make my opening bid in this game of connection: “The Tennessee Waltz.” Trying to get somewhere into the ballpark of what he’s familiar with, to start our nonverbal conversation. It’s surprisingly beautiful on the harp, and he says so when it ends. I play another old familiar song; I’m still not sure exactly where we’re going here. He hears the beauty again. Do you play any instruments? I ask as he loves my harp with his eyes. No, but I like to listen, and I work with my hands, with wood.
He gazes at the harp hungrily, thoughtfully, appraisingly. He’s almost as close to it on his side as I am on mine. He starts measuring it, deliberately, by the span of his hand. Time has slowed; it’s measured now by each hand placement. I offer to turn the harp around so he can see how it’s constructed in the back. I remember that most soundboards are birch, I emphasize the birch because I know that’s an important thing—lots of different woods are used for the body of a harp, but the soundboard needs flexibility. He bets he could build one. Well, I say, you can actually build one from a kit, or I’ll bet you could find some plans on the internet. I don’t know much about that kind of thing, he says, but I could build it. I work with my hands.
I play some more. Musically, I’m still guessing—a bluesy standard, then a country one—but maybe that part doesn’t matter so much. He’s looking for a pencil on the cluttered rolling table patients have, and some paper, and starts writing down hand spans. His concentration is profound. The head doctor, the world-famous specialist, comes in to talk to him as the music stops, but he doesn’t look up. Maybe the doctor thinks he’s in denial of the conversation to come. Maybe the number of hand spans is just that important.
The doctor is masterful. I’m amazed at how he conveys the seriousness that’s at hand with a directness, a simplicity springing from what can only be deep compassion. The world-famous doctor sits on the bed and says what is: that here, at this hospital, he can be helped, but he will need to have some family to support him. Can’t I, can’t I be helped 1000 miles from here—nearer to another famous hospital—where I have some family? Well, you have a rare disease and we are the only ones who know how to help you, but it will take a couple of months and then we can tell the other hospital what to do afterward. But you’ll need some support. Do you have a wife? No, some children and grandchildren— 21-year-old daughter and her boyfriend have a little one and another on the way. Sisters? Brothers? A sister who works, she couldn’t come here for two months. How about buddies, could one of them come? Sir, I live pretty much on my own.
The doctor doesn’t despair, doesn’t let him despair, says he has a lot of life left and to let him think about what can be done. He withdraws like a stone slipping into a still pond, without a ripple.
There’s nowhere to look except the harp, no one to look at but me. His lip, his voice tremble. His hand trembles as, not knowing what else to do, it begins the task again of placing itself, placing itself, along the wooden path of the harp’s body. Drawing strength from the feel of wood in a place filled with steel and stem cells and being on your own. Everything else is whirling, whirling.
How about you just sit back in the chair and I’ll play a little, I say very softly. No more engaging him with old favorites. Only music that speaks of despair and what lies within despair, the hope and even joy that lie inside of it like a priceless pearl in a steel-jawed oyster, are allowed now. This is the truth sent from above, sings the music, darkly and joyfully. Sometimes I, too, feel like a motherless child—a message sent by a comrade from another time, another time of standing upright inside hopelessness. Finally, because I’m guessing he was raised a certain way, and because it is a universal song of love if ever there was one, I put voice and words to the music: There is a balm in Gilead, there is a balm in Gilead. And then I stop.
Thank you for that, he says. I squeeze his hand pretty hard, and then I leave.
© 2008 Andrea Kielpinski Sadler