I faithfully sit at the piano several times a week, reach up, turn on the metronome, and dig in. It started out in complete frustration. My inability to remember anything, make sense of everything, when I knew vaguely that it had all, at one time, been the source of so much joy and meaning, both for me and for everyone that came in contact with me, was just crushing. And then, bit by bit, it started coming back. I could see that my diligence not only made me happy, but it brought my family joy. It seemed everyone that had ever known me before asked “how’s the practicing coming?” and just lit up when I told them how I was progressing.
But the last few weeks it’s been harder and harder, and today was horrible. Seems my coordination is slowly and steadily coming back, at least keeping up with the beginning level classical pieces I’m starting to be able to play again.
The giant problem is my dyslexia. I just can’t read music at all. Notes seem to be playing practical tricks on me now. It’s like my brain is an oversized junior high boy, with a not-very sophisticated sense of humor. “Your leg is cold.” “No, it’s not.” “Yes, it is. (snicker, snicker).”
And with music notes…”That’s an F.” Next time “That’s an A.” I can never be sure if it’s my dumb brain trying to fool me, or if it’s actually telling me the truth.
I don’t know if, or when, this will change. No one knows. I’m on my own here. So I have to, one more time, come up with a Plan Q. A different way of existing in the world where piano may, or may not, ever be my “thing.” But as Scarlett O’Hara said in Gone With the Wind, that terribly flawed depiction of the strength of the human spirit, “Tomorrow is another day.” So I won’t think about it today.
Talking. Like Anne of Green Gables, I have been told too many times, too roughly, that I talk too much. And I know I do. I am a verbal processor to the extreme. I hear, or think, or read the barest germ of a thought, and immediately have to talk it through WITH SOMEONE ELSE to start bringing it to life. My husband is the total opposite. He can dream something up, and plan every nuanced detail before he springs it on the world in all its glorious fruition. Not me.
I have to exhaustively find person after person to talk phase one, phase two, phase three, phase forty, phase one hundred,, of a plan that might not ever happen. My husband used to marvel at how I could expose myself like this. But I simply had no choice: it was the only way I could ever achieve anything.
My mind was always bubbling, always excited, always full of ideas. And between children, church, and school, I had the perfect places to release all that energy. It was a lovely laboratory of ideas and excitement building on ideas and excitement. But the last few years it had reached a crisis point of stress, and I knew something had to give. So I was enrolling in a Masters of Music Education to get a job at a university as a mentor to student teachers, which increasingly had become my passion.
And then…the accident.
Now I have been totally off Zoloft, my anti depressant, for several months. I have been off my anti anxiety medication for a long time because that drug, along with a couple of my other medications, set off a terrible drug interaction which caused such severe dizziness it left me almost unable to walk or move. So..
I’m feeling excitement again, my brain is sparking all the time, I’m excited about ideas. Because I have dyslexia now, I can’t read books, but I can listen to podcasts and listen to audio books, and I can think about them. And I love it. And, along with that, I feel sadness. And it’s my sadness. And I love that too . I don’t want to lose that again.
But I’m deeply, terribly, afraid I might have to. Right now I don’t have a neurologist, but my doctor has requested an appointment with one that I liked the sound of. I really loved the previous one, but after only two visits, we received a letter saying he was joining a non-neurological practice and, in more polite terms, his patients would just have to fend for themselves. So since them I haven’t had a neurologist.
I have almost nightly meltdowns now. This is due to a lot of things, but a whole huge chunk of it is my desperate need to talk with people who I know, and who LIKE me! I so miss that! Writing is just not the same. It’s not collaborative, not a team effort. And talking is so hard now. I get so confused, story lines are difficult, time lines are impossible, my speech is still slurred when I get excited. I dread talking on the phone still, , and I almost hate meeting new people and having to talk to them.
When my husband is home, he’s always working on something out in the yard where I can’t follow, or it involves equipment which makes sudden very loud noises. Anyway, he carries such a huge load of guilt and worry about me all the time. He really only seems to truly come alive when he’s working out in the yard or remodeling our house. He hates to sit and talk. I used to dislike it, too. But that was before the accident. when I could walk and talk at the same time.
Friends have to come to me now. We live in a pretty isolated area. Everyone who used to come to our house would always exclaim “What lovely privacy!” And that’s exactly how it is. Very private. How lovely…..except now, when I really kind of need more neighbors.
Maybe the doctor, on hearing this, will put me back on the Zoloft, Maybe that’s for the best. If I have no one to run all these exciting ideas by verbally, maybe it’s best if I just never think them. Maybe. Because this really is a kind of torture. I keep telling myself to put on my big girl panties. Stop being a whiner. No one is mean to me at all. So what if no one wants to hear my exciting ideas about _________ just this minute? Is that really the end of the world? And then I scream (silently, of course) yeah, to me, it kind of is. It kind of is.
Ooof. I wrote this whole thing last night in a total orgy of self pity, and then I went upstairs trying to flee from the whole world downstairs. I put on the television to public television and there was a documentary about the history of some genres of folk music. The particular segment that I settled on was set in West Virginia, and was narrated by a couple of men whose fathers had spent their entire adult lives working down in the coal mines. I watched those terrible scenes before me, and immediately felt bathed in shame.
I thought I would just erase this whole thing today. But then I decided not. I am not who I used to be. I am not nearly as clever or able to process things mentally well at all. I get confused frequently, and I get angry. That slows my thinking down to a virtual crawl. This frustrates me EXTREMELY. I am in some ways, vastly more selfish now. But in other ways, I know and recognize suffering as I never did before. I know I am in no way experiencing the limits of human suffering, or even anything close, but at least now I can maybe catch a dim glimpse of desperation? Maybe? I have no idea. I just know I couldn’t erase what I wrote last night, but I had to write an addendum. Please forgive me for whining.
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.
I was born to teach. More precisely, I was born bossy, and I learned to channel that productively to become a pretty good teacher. Given my insatiable drive to help people, plus that music seemed to be my native language, it followed that teaching music and working in church music was the ultimate life goal for me. All my life I’ve done both of these things, in varying combinations. It was the very air I breathed. It was never a job. I would gladly have done it for free, but unfortunately you have to have money to live in this world, and that I was able to help support our family by doing this was just pure joy to me. Sure, I got tired. But what was a healthy body for if not for working hard? I didn’t realize it at the time, but the harder I worked, the more proud I was of the picture of ME: the hard-working, talented, nice, little do-gooder always rushing around helping people and making everything better. Oh, and I had a very cute. sporty, second hand little car with a stick shift that I was doing all this in. But I was very conscious that you shouldn’t be proud, and that it was all coming from God’s grace, and I was always very insecure and vulnerable, and willing to demonstrate that at a moment’s notice. Or less.
And then, in Sept. 2014, a truck hit me. It changed everything. Two and a half years after the accident, I took stock. I was home. I was beginning to be able to read 15 to 20 minutes a day, to listen to music occasionally (maybe 1x a week), to walk around the house by myself. I still couldn’t even walk outside by myself or make many decisions on my own. I definitely would never be able to work full-time again…I was praying that God would prepare me to someday be of use to someone, in some capacity, again. Maybe leading a children’s choir in a church, or something like that?
I still wasn’t driving myself, and I was staring into the very bleak prospect that, quite possibly, I would never be able to drive again. So any possibility of employment would have the added complication of transportation. We don’t live in the city or the suburbs, so driving has always been somewhat of a necessity.
I had to start all over with piano, and after almost 2 years of almost daily practice, I was still struggling to learn the most elementary level of classical songs. So possibly I would never be an accompanist again, because my vision didn’t seem to getting any better. Reading music is essential for an accompanist, unfortunately.
It was as if I was walking down a long hallway of closed doors, and I was trying them one by one, only to find them all locked.
Or it was like a nightmare of being back to middle school again. I was extremely unpopular (which had actually started in elementary school, and lasted clear through high school, but who’s counting?). Several classes I had no friends in that particular class. I would walk into the room, and every time I would try to sit down, a student would shake their head “no” and tell me that seat was saved, or move their books onto that seat. I would end up standing until the teacher came in and saw me, and made the students move their books off the “saved” seat.
This latest feeling was reminiscent of one of those awful memories, of trying and trying and trying to find a way to make it better, to get out, to find a seat, and running again and again into a “no”, or a wall, or a locked door.
I went into another depression. My counselor says that a good thing about brain injury is that it forces you to face your “stuff” and work through it more quickly than healthy people, who can mostly just keep going until things get really unhealthy. Alcoholism, divorce, etc. God spared me from those by breaking my body and brain. Thank you God. I mostly mean that now. I really do. Sometimes more than others.
Anyway, I feel as if the main way I can help now is just tell my story. I might never be a “teacher” again in the traditional sense; I might never be an accompanist again. I will never sing again so that anyone but God will want to hear; but I have learned to type and write again, and I can tell my story. And I do have a story now to tell. So I’m going to do it. Again, thanks for listening.
There’s a picture I’ve always loved of my second daughter running, when she was just a toddler, in our side yard. Her hair is just like white dandelion fluff, blowing back in the wind of her joyous, headlong rush, which has always made me think that a good American Indian name for her would have been “Wind In Her Hair.” Something about the picture just speaks to the heart of her spirit, her true identity. She has always held a unique position in our family, and we would all be lost without her. In so many ways, she anchors us all together. Like me, she has always needed routine (something hard to come by in our family!), and like me, she loves reading and books. We’re both deeply domestic, love animals (not that that particular trait is unique to us!), but unlike me, she excels at teaching young children. They give me the heebie-jeebies. I love them when they’re my own, but in large groups I seem to cause them to freak out and start jumping up and down and screaming. Before you can calmly whisper “hush up,”, she will already have them sitting quietly on the floor with their legs crossed waiting for instructions, which she will then issue in a calm. yet authoritative, voice. It must be magic. I definitely don’t have it. Maybe you could have given me a room full of middle or high school age “singers” and sooner or later I would have worked them kind of like a lion tamer, but that’s not at all the same sort of magic. I admire that in her.
She’s not perfect – who is? But she’s really good. And she tries very, very hard. Always has. And I still see that little girl in the picture when I look into her eyes. She’s still looking out at me.
Good morning! Alarm ringing at 5:30. That still seems early, but oh well. Up. Pull a shot of espresso. Empty the dishwasher clean the counter feed the cat check that Ev’s in the showerpacklunchesfindkeyschargephonehugeveryonegotoschool. Good start. Pretty morning, nice drive. Good to have a job.
This is my life–dancing on the angst.