Through the Prism of Music

 

It all began with music.Language was next, and because I grew up in America English was what we spoke.  I always  have had a knack for languages, but music definitely came first.

Because of this I never considered a life outside of music.  I  started formal piano lessons at age 4 because I was playing all of my older brother’s piano pieces note for note by ear.  I majored in piano in college, and for several years was a staff accompanist at a respected university.  It was as natural as breathing or talking, and I think anyone who knows me will agree that talking has always come very easily to me.  It all  was just so darned simple …I practiced and played for hours every day, but it was always pure joy and release from tension.  I seemed to think in musical terms…I was constantly imagining musical phrases in my fingers.  Add to this the fact that I had near-perfect pitch, and my life was filled with music.  Fortunately I married a musician too, and our children  were also musical, so life was rich and filled with flowers, art, books, laughter, and–most of all–music.

Then came the accident.  Or as I prefer to say,  “a truck hit me.”  Everything stopped.  The music stopped.  My life came within moments of stopping.  And it has been excruciatingly s–l–o–w in starting up again.  Some days I am more successful than others at coming to grips with this new reality.

All my life has been some wonderful combination of teaching vocal music, leading worship, teaching piano, or simply participating in music.  At church, school or home,  I sang and was at the piano most of  the time.  After the accident all that came to a screeching halt.  The part of my brain that processes the information  coming in from my eyes and ears was badly damaged, so I could see and I could hear, but I couldn’t make much sense out of the signals I was receiving.

Besides this, I had major physical injuries to deal with as well as my damaged brain.  The things that directly affected my singing were:  my diaphragm was torn and had to be repaired surgically, several ribs were broken which still causes me pain when I try to draw deep breaths,    I had a tracheostomy in my neck for weeks.  There didn’t seem to be much hope that I would ever sing again.

At first, when we went to church, I couldn’t even match pitch, or sing more than two or three notes without having to take a breath. For several months, just getting there, and being there, was adventure enough for me.

I couldn’t make sense of the faces, the music, I was worried about things like where we would sit and having to get to the bathroom.  My main emotion was paralyzing fear, but I was determined to get better.  That’s pretty strong motivation for getting out and about again, and I knew I needed God, and church, more than ever before.  So I made myself keep going.

After several months of listening I started trying to figure out the time signatures of the songs.  I would try tapping along, and periodically ask a member of my family what I was thinking it was, and ask if that was correct.  Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t.  Gradually I improved.  Then I got somewhat more adventurous.  I decided I would try to match a pitch.

I knew this would  be quite an important endeavor for me. I remembered from my years of teaching that listening was vital to matching pitch, so I thought starting with humming would be best.  One morning they were singing a piece I particularly loved, I  so I finally got my courage up.  I tried to breathe as deeply as I could, I hummed along for a few notes, but couldn’t hear myself at all so I decided to vocalize along with just a few notes.

Total train wreck.  Not even close.  My only consolation was that absolutely no one noticed, because my voice was so weak that it was practically inaudible.  I was so shattered that I stood, blinking back tears, for the rest of the singing time.

That was another rough stretch.  It was difficult to collect  the broken pieces of my identity  one more time and create  another action plan.  Hadn’t I done enough starting over?

I did a lot of thinking and self-reflection about my life, and realized that this had always been a core piece of my identity, something that I never wanted to lose. The idea of “music” is so much deeper to my identity than any nonsense about having a beautiful singing voice, or playing piano well.  It is the lens through which I see the world  It very much brings everything into focus for me.  I knew that if I was going to find any joy in the remaining years of my life, it was absolutely essential for me to get music back.  I just had to find a way to not let memories of what HAD been destroy my joy in what WOULD be.  I resolutely pointed my face towards the future, and desperately tried not to glance back over my shoulder.

As a teacher I had always greatly enjoyed working with adolescent voices (there’s some speculation that may be because of my somewhat immature sense of humor) but that’s beside the point.  Anyway, now I had to bring all those lesson  home to myself.  I was among the worst singers I had ever worked with, but  I was also my favorite kind of student.  A pretty quick study, very motivated, and there’s a big difference between learning for the first time, and remembering skills and theory that you’ve taught others all your life.  All I had to do was think.  Note names and their places on the staff, note durations, music theory, vocal pedagogy….all of that was in there.  I just had to unlock it,

It all starts with breath, both in voice and in piano.  Deep, rhythmic, relaxed breathing.  How many times had I said that to my students?  Breathe in tempo BEFORE you begin the music and then join in.  It’s very much like children in a game of jump rope on the playground;  if another child wants to jump into the game  already in motion, you teach them to watch for a while, count along, then breathe in time and “join in with the rope.”  Don’t over think it, just relax, breathe in tempo, and jump in.

I decided it would be most time-effective to combine practicing singing with practicing piano.  So I formulated a plan for daily practice of both.

That Christmas my family bought me a stationary recumbent bike to strengthen my legs.  When I finished my piano practice, I would climb on my stationery bike and start pedaling and singing.  This, I reasoned, was not only strengthening my singing voice and breath support, but my memory.  During that  Christmas season I would sing every Christmas carol I knew, and all the verses. Especially Good King Wenceslaus.  My oldest daughter and I, when she was in high school, challenged each other by memorizing ALL the verses to that carol.   Every Christmas since we (somewhat teasingly) test each other on the words.  That was one thing I was simply desperate to get back.

I had taught general music for years, so I knew lots of folk songs.  Those all came in very handy during our child raising years as lullabies, and they came back into use now.  Again, all the verses.  I thought of it as “double” or “triple teaming” my therapies.

My singing voice now no one would describe as “beautiful.”  Not anyone who didn’t know about the accident.  But at least I can contribute to singing in church now, and I can pretty much make it through a complete phrase.  That was a necessity for my inner musician. Now that’s all I ask.  But I’m still working.  Still pedaling away madly on my bike doing vocal warmups.

Now for piano.  This was definitely the most painful blow.  I was never an operatic vocal soloist, but I was a very serious pianist.  The accident threatened to steal all that me.  I forgot everything.  Except that, once upon a time, I had been very good.  Now  I couldn’t see the notes…they didn’t stay still on the page.   I couldn’t remember what they meant.  My cerebellum was damaged, which greatly affects one’s coordination, so my fingers wouldn’t work right, and my hands wouldn’t work at all together.

My music therapist at OWL was wonderful.  My family had told her how vital music had always been to me, so they all thought music would be a great way to reach me.  So they started taking me in to sit in front of the piano, and putting my hands on the keyboard.  I was wearing a heavy neck brace, so I couldn’t keep my head upright for very long. Multiple times a day my husband went through this pain.  Then, one day, a miracle.  My hands played a major chord.  Then, a few seconds later, another one.  Then slowly, back to the first one.  Back and forth this went on, for quite a while.  Then my hands fell to my lap, and my head fell forward.  After the first chord, he had begun videoing, and when it was finished, he sent it to our children,  They happened to be all together, on a rare afternoon off-duty, off for a walk.  They watched in disbelief, and then hugged each other.  They told me afterward that even though I still hadn’t spoken, or recognized anyone, they knew in that moment it would be all right.  That I would be back.  That I was still in there.

Fast forward several months:  when I first came home, I was able to pick out single melodies again by ear, and could vaguely remember how to read music, but the notes still wouldn’t hold still at all, and I couldn’t tell the notes apart on the page.  Fortunately my whole family reads music, so someone was always available to help me out.  My cerebellum injury left me with very little sense of tempo, so I’m reliant upon a metronome.  I had to start over with the simplest exercises, one hand at a time, then work up to scales.  At first I tired extremely quickly, so I could only practice a few minutes a day.

When, eventually, it became clear to me that I would never hold a full-time job again, or possibly ever drive myself again, I sank into a deep, dark depression and thought “why practice?  I’m never going to use it again!”  Then, one day while (hopelessly) praying about it and the thought stole into my mind “you’re never going to be ready for ANYTHING if you don’t get your butt over onto the piano bench and start practicing!”  After all, it took me years of practicing the first time when it was all so easy.   Now it  seemed it was going to be much more complex.  Better not waste another minute.  It seems as if I can’t even succeed at giving up.  Believe me, I’ve given it quite a few tries.

As of writing this, I’m mid way through the Grade 4 Alfred books.  I’m tempted always to compare it to how I was before, but I  simply cannot do this.  It’s just much more difficult for me this time around.  I laugh that I’m not only like most “ordinary” piano students, I’m like the most challenged ones now.  The ones that I always watched in wonder.  The ones that I sometimes thought “How I wish I could just climb into their heads to see what it’s like!”  Well, how I got my wish.  Except it’s more than a visit.  Now I live here.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Definition of Laughter

I’ve always loved to laugh.  I realize everyone’s probably nodding along in agreement:  that’s certainly not a controversial statement.   But I seem to really need it–deep down need it–maybe more than most people.  My default facial expression has always been a smile.  My life’s ambition is to have one of those faces you sometimes see on elderly people which are very deeply creased with laugh lines.

I was listening to a podcast recently, and the speaker, a comedian,  was saying that one day he had been researching the definition of laughter.  It said “laughter is hope made tangible.”  I have no idea where that definition came from.  I’m using it without giving the proper credit, but I felt it was too wonderful not to share.  So I am.

Laughter has gotten me, and my entire family, through SO MANY extremely dark periods. Take my mother’s heart surgery a few years ago. During the time I was staying with her in the hospital, it didn’t look at all hopeful.  I got so desperate for anything cheerful or funny that that at night, when she was sleeping, I would stretch out in the ICU waiting room or the couch in her hospital room and stream the latest Jim Gaffigan comedy special on my laptop. Sometimes that was the only thing between me and a nervous breakdown.

Following my accident, while I was at On With Life, my regimen was very demanding  both physically and mentally.  In the evenings a member of my family would help me down the hall to my room where there were side-by-side leather recliners.  I became very attached to them–so much so so that I decided that they belonged to us, and we should take them home when I was discharged.  This may not entirely have been due to my broken brain….

My speech aphasia was still severe, so my family relied on “a series of yes” or “no” question.  My world was very tiny, which was probably a good thing.  The list of my possible needs was finite.  “Hungry?  Thirsty?  Bathroom?  Tired?  Cold?  Chapstick? “As you’ll probably guess from this post, I seem to be obsessed with chapstick.

They would ask me which of the chairs I wanted, and if I wanted the foot rest up.  We would call “Shpring it,” and then my current family-member-in-waiting would pull the lever to raise my feet.  The origins of that phrase, once again, must have been another example of dark humor.   I have forgotten now, but I may have mispronounced “spring.” Our oldest daughter has the gift of creating fun out of  the most mundane tasks.  After the accident, in those months, I certainly cherished that.

Then they would ask if I wanted “Burt’s Bees,” which was what I called all chapstick for several months, drape me with a blanket, and we would stream episodes of The Office on the TV. My daughters called this “my evening relax and smile therapy.”

My addiction to this show led to a little embarrassment.  That Christmas when I made my first overnight home visit, I was still very prone to speaking in memorized quotes and poems and song lyrics. I was not yet very skilled at composing original sentences, which is a really complex process for the brain.  This apparently  led to my making a “that’s what she said” joke in front of my  very conservative mother, who was up for the day from Missouri. It was 24 hours of various sorts of ribald comments,  all of which I found vastly amusing.  My filter, never very thick at the best of times,was totally MIA.  Thank goodness I was never one for cursing or automatic bad language, or I don’t know what would have happened!

During my time on the feeding tube, I lost a lot a weight.  I have gained some back since, but I’m pretty careful about monitoring my weight gain. For the time being vigorous exercise is very much out of the question.  I eat little with my low level of activity.  Besides,  I get pretty defensive about my sweet tooth–when you can’t digest rich food, hate the taste of any drink other than water, can only tolerate tiny portions at a time, especially when in public…I mean, cut me some slack!  I honestly feel as if eating sweets is my only real consolation.  I know, I know, that’s a pretty unhealthy relationship with food.  But it’s at least my own sickness, and I don’t feel I can control much these day.

Since the accident my family have relied a lot on very dark humor. So when people (a few of whom haven’t seen me since the accident,)  say “you look great!”, my response sometimes is “Thank you.I call it the coma diet.  But I can’t recommend it;  it almost killed me.”  Hopefully, after a startled second, this gets a huge laugh.  It never fails to crack me up.

One night I was talking on the phone to my lifelong friend. It was during the time our youngest son was busy applying to colleges, and struggling to get the very best financial aid package.  I told her that I had given him my permission to fully exploit the story of how how, during my entire hospitalization, he had continued to go to school as normal.  This had resulted in him finally buckling down and starting to really take school more seriously, as was evidenced in the sudden rise in his cumulative GPA. I think I was also explaining to her that I felt my family had gone through so much they should get something out of it.

Sally didn’t miss a beat.  She said, “there’s nothing a good mother won’t do for her son.  Nothing.”

It took my poor fractured brain several seconds to get it, and then I laughed until I almost wet my pants.  That’s one big reason for our lifelong friendship–we can share jokes.  What a rare gift.  When you find that someone, all I can tell you is, keep the attachment alive!

That definition of laughter; I love it so much.  “Hope made tangible.”  Hope heals. I’m a living example of that. Beauty and laughter have always been life values for me, but I used to be able to leave to go out to get them.  Not anymore.  So I have to be proactive to fill my house, and my life, with them all the more .   Bring on the laughter!

Dog to the Rescue!

 

Just about two weeks ago, we finally got a letter that I have been approved to receive a support mobility dog.  It has been a very, very long process of prayer, hope, dreams, depression, and longing.

First I had to get a glimmer of a dream of a possible future for me.  It seems impossible sometimes to avoid looking around at all I’ve lost, to see any kind of a future. When I let myself remember how very full my life was before, and how barren it seems now,  it’s like looking at a wall.  A dead end.  I try to make myself picture a window that I can see through to look at what my life will become now.  Perhaps one day I will be able to picture a door that I can walk through, into a new, lovely life.    I won’t lie to you, it’s a tough  process, and sometimes I’ve definitely been more successful than others.  But God has been down here with me. and I’ve learned a lot about trusting and listening to Him.  He’s very good at that…He’s had lots of practice.

I first had the vision maybe two years ago, not long after I came home from the facility.  If I was going to struggle with walking independently for quite some time, and possibly forever, why not apply for one of these mobility dogs that I was reading about?

So that launched the first wave of effort.  My oldest daughter, who had been home with us during the 9 months after  my accident, took on the project.  She did lots of computer research and made dozens of calls.  It seemed most places we found wouldn’t allow their dogs to go out of state, only trained dogs for children and veterans, or were prohibitively expensive.  She finally settled on a man here, in our city, who trained dogs  He said he had several breeders he regularly used, and he would be willing to go with us to pick out the puppy.  We would do the basic obedience training, and he would do the specialized part of the training.

I did further research on mobility dogs.  Unlike other support dogs, they have to be fully mature…approximate two years old.  Just the frame that they wear around their neck is pretty heavy, and in case the person stumbles and puts their full weight on the dog, their bone structure has to be mature enough to handle it.

And there is a very high risk that a puppy won’t turn out to have the correct temperament.  After 18 months of training and love and waiting, we would definitely have a pet.  But maybe not a mobility dog.  Pretty scary stuff.  But I said “Ok”, because this seemed the only option available.  And a puppy is, after all, very very lovable!

And then came months of waiting, without a call back.  When we eventually managed to make contact, it was only to find that this man had tragically died of an premature heart attack a few months before.

Of course this was a much, much more extreme tragedy for the man’s family than for us!  Even so, it seemed like another setback on my journey to find a dog.

Back to the facility in St. Louis that my daughter had initially called, who had refused to give her an idea of any waiting period until we paid the application fee.  As I pointed out, it had already been more than a year since we had initially started the process.  The usual wait time we were finding for a dog was 2 to 3 years, so if we had applied at the time …..

My husband quickly agreed.  He called them.  The initial contact was indeed most unhelpful, which must have been what turned my daughter off.  They were mostly concerned with telling you what the dogs could NOT do.  They were NOT seeing eye dogs, they were NOT trained for PTSD, yadda yadda yadda.  He persevered, thank goodness.  She agreed to send him an application.  Game on.

My lifelong best friend lives just a few miles away from this particular place, and she is the one who hand-delivered the initial application packet, and the follow-up packet.  She and her husband also paid the application fee for us.  They, along with several other friends, started doing some heavy duty praying.

Support Dogs Inc., where my dog is coming from, is, as I said previously, in the St. Louis area.  I can’t say enough about the great work this organization does!  We visited there a few weeks ago, and it just made my heart leap up to see those dogs, so proud and tall, all there for their “specialized” training.  They are all born there, then at 8 weeks they go, either first to a family or to prison to live with a prisoner (they will eventually all do both) for their socialization and basic obedience training.  Then when they are 18 months old, they come back for the specialized training.  We saw 2 litters of puppies, and about a dozen of the older returning dogs.  My dog is more than likely right now in a prison or a home.

Can you tell I am excited? This is me trying to hold it down. This application process has already been very extensive, and more than a year. They say the wait will be less than two more years, most probably around a year. I am content to wait now that I know for sure that somewhere out there there’s a dog for me.

Hello out there, my doggy pal! I’m praying for you, and your trainers.