I saw her immediately as I entered a restaurant. She had taken one of the larger tables far from the counter and was leaning over several books which held musical notations. I guessed the books to be hymnals. The woman was making notes on index cards, utterly absorbed in her work. I chose a seat near her so I could learn more. I asked if she was interrupt-able. She looked up and re-focused on me.
“Are you an organist or choir director?” I asked. She laughed.
“Neither.” And then she unraveled this amazing story.
“I come from a long line of musicians from England—church musicians or members of really good orchestras. My grandfather was knighted by the King for his work with the Royal Opera. I could play piano before I could talk. In elementary school I took up the pipe organ and was accompanying Sunday worship and weddings before I graduated from high school. If I heard a piece of music, I could play it. I did arrangements to accommodate the available voices. I was never apart from the music.
“Then when I was twenty-five, I started having problems remembering and recognizing the music. Doctors in Boston found a tumor pressing on the part of my brain where the music lived. The tumor was operable, but when I woke up the music was gone. They had to cut away that part of my brain. So I had to rebuild those neural pathways. I started at the beginning, like any beginner, and slowly began to return the music to my mind.
“A few years later I was in a terrible auto accident. I hit my head hard on the door frame and I lost consciousness. When I woke up the music had gone again. Everything I had worked for had disappeared with this head trauma. I could see the notes on the page, but I couldn’t understand how they were related to the keys on the piano. So I started with piano lessons again and over time recovered some of my musical ability.
“In my forties I developed epilepsy. I was given drugs to control the epilepsy, though I still have it. While we’ve been talking I’ve had several petit mal [or absence] seizures, but you probably haven’t noticed. [She was right—I hadn’t.] It took time to find the right medication doses, but before that happened I had a chemical reaction against the medication and I lost the music for the third time. Now I think we have the right dosages of the right medications, but I cannot connect music with words. I can do one or the other but not both.
“Now—” and she pointed to the index cards, “I am getting it all down on cards so if I lose the music again, at least I won’t have to start from scratch.”
I listened to this story and loved her, this woman who would not live without music, who doggedly started again from scratch each time it went away. She spoke without a trace of self-pity. It seems to me this is what faith is: hanging tenaciously to what gives life to our spirit, practicing it even when we don’t fully understand, simply because we cannot imagine being without it.
Spiritual Life Coordinator