June 26, 2013It was a big deal for my daughter and me, a couple Saturday’s ago. We’d been skittish for most of that day. She battled nerves over participating in her first official piano recital. I battled my apprehensions because that recital was to take place at the local nursing home.
One small story first:
I was in kindergarten when my teacher decided it would be a grand idea for the class to make Valentine’s Day cards for the elderly. We plunged into the task with all the gusto five-year-olds can summon, after which we were herded onto a school bus and trucked down to what my teacher called “The Rest Home.” The name conjured all manner of fantastical images in my mind, all of which were proven false once I walked through those old wooden doors. The nurses had gathered everyone in a gathering room that was much less stately and much more moldering, where I was greeted immediately by an old man with hooks for hands (and no, I’m not kidding). The sight froze me such that the other people in class quickly distributed their cards to the nearest person and made a quick exit, leaving me all alone. I heard a murmur to my left and turned there, seeing a hand stretched out. I shoved my card into a set of bony fingers and looked up just long enough to see the woman to which I’d just wished a happy Valentine’s Day didn’t have a right eye, only a patch of red, seeping skin. For months, I prayed at night for God to never let me end up like that woman. The memory haunts me to this day. It’s proof that much of the weight we carry in our hearts has been there in some form for a very long while.
That’s what was in my mind during most of that Saturday. Sitting there on the sofa, listening to my daughter practice.
It’s also why I kept near the doors when we arrived that afternoon. Go ahead and judge me, I don’t care.
The gathering room stood empty but for the twenty or so chairs that had been laid out in neat rows. The concertgoers trickled in after—men and women dressed in khakis and dresses, combed and perfumed and bejeweled.
And you know what? It wasn’t bad, not really. They were smiling and talking and happy. They were, as far as I could tell, nothing more than a collection of friendly grandparents.
That all changed when a nurse pushed in the woman in the wheel chair.
Her hair was thin and the color of snow, arranged in a what reminded me of an abandoned bird’s nest. Beneath her white slacks and blue shirt laid the remains of what I imagined to be a vibrant and healthy body once upon a time, but was now little more than a thin layer of dried, leathery skin over frail bones. And right there by the doors, I prayed that I would never end up like that woman.
The nurse wheeled her into the first row as the recital began. One student after another, fingers dancing and sometimes tripping over the keys. The room became filled with applause. Only the woman in the wheelchair did not move. Her head lolled from side to side. I supposed that was the closest she could come now to clapping, and I prayed I would never end up like her again.
My daughter did well. Magnificent, in fact, though I am perhaps a bit biased. But I don’t want to talk about the songs she played or how straight she sat or how she really nailed the ending to the Flintstones theme song. To be honest, I barely noticed any of that. I was too busy watching the woman in the wheelchair.
It was in the middle of my daughter’s second song when I looked at the woman again, and only then because of the thin stream of drool leaking from her mouth. But before I could turn away, I noticed her fingers moving along her chest, playing the keys in her mind. She kept perfect time with my daughter’s song, even caught the parts my daughter missed.
And I realized then that she may have been confined to both a wheelchair and a fading life, but she was still hearing music. She was still playing her song, even in the wan of her life. And can any of us truly strive for more in this life? Could our prayers truly ask for nothing else?
Me, I don’t think so. I think that lovely old lady is better off than a lot of us. Which was why that night and every night since, I’ve asked God to let me end up like her.
In the Heart of the Dark Wood
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