Playing for Time

Published in the Globe and Mail, August 28, 2007

I used to wake up some mornings as a teenager to the sounds of my mother playing the piano. But it was never Rustle of Spring or a gentle Minuet in G. Rather, it was the thunderous chords of Chopin’s Funeral March. Either it was time to get up, or someone – probably me – was in deep trouble.

My petite mother would be perched over the keyboard, small hands hammering down, creating sounds that made the room shake. If I tried to close the door, she’d only open it again and return to the piano to play even louder.

What my mother played always signalled her mood. A waltz meant all-clear. A nocturne meant she needed to be left alone. But the opening bars of the Funeral March spelled doom and had me racing for cover.

It was expected that I take piano lessons and piano exams, even stumble through recitals, despite my mortification. Worse yet was the year I was required to play the national anthem at high-school assemblies.

One time, I misplaced the score. As I had played it so often, and almost had it memorized, I thought I could manage. After everyone stood up to sing, I began to play. When I reached “the True North strong and free,” my panicked fingers faltered and stopped. People kept singing, but the right notes eluded me. It happened again another time. I decided I’d had enough of the piano.

After I left home, my mother had to retire early because of deteriorating eyesight. Eventually, she couldn’t read music. I hardly noticed this, as she had committed so many pieces to memory.

She then developed Alzheimer’s disease. Her repertoire began to shrink along with the rest of her memory. But it didn’t stop her. Once, while we were visiting a care facility, my mother spotted an ancient upright piano in the corner of the room. She marched over faster than you could say Battle Hymn of the Republic, and launched into a medley of pub tunes intermingled with hymns, ending with a rousing rendition of Ten Little Indians.

I smiled wryly at the doctor as she arrived. “Sorry about this.”

“No one minds! It’s wonderful that your mother still plays!” She went over to lavish her with praise.

Delighted with her audience, my mother played on.

As I watched song after song evaporate from her memory, I decided to take up lessons again as an adult. But my performance anxiety was almost insurmountable. At the introductory audition with the new teacher, I tried to avoid playing a single note.

“Do I have to actually play?” I asked the teacher in desperation.

When I finally learned one of my mother’s former pieces, the adagio from Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata, I played it for her. She listened for a while, nodding but looking confused. After a few moments, she stood up: “Can I go home now?”

Other attempts failed as well. Classical music just couldn’t keep her attention. I resorted to Christmas carols, whatever the season. I’d urge her to clap or la-la along, trying to recover even a small portion of the mother I had known growing up.

Later, I started playing the piano on my mother’s secure floor at her care facility, sight-reading and stumbling my way through Red River Valley and Tea for Two. Slowly, the other residents would find their way over from the TV lounge. A few (usually mute) residents would suddenly start to sing; others would even dance. My mother would pat my shoulder appreciatively or pound out the time on the dining table. One time, she stood up at the end of a song to applaud.

As my mother’s dementia deepened, our family arranged private one-on-one music therapy for her. Although my mother’s speech was often nonsensical, she could sustain a wonderful musical dialogue through rhythm, tempo and volume that would deeply satisfy and calm her.

During my mother’s last weeks, as she lay unconscious in palliative care at the hospital after suffering a stroke, I talked to her, held her hand, read to her, played her favourite tunes on the CD player. But it didn’t feel like enough.

So one day, I started to sing, self-consciously, quietly, so no one outside the room could hear: “Now you are come, all my cares are remov’d./ Let me forget that so long you have rov’d./ Let me believe that you love as you loved./ Long, long ago./ Long ago.”

Suddenly, it felt as though my mother were singing to me, even while I was singing to her. Every phrase became clear and alive. Years of occasional tension, of living on opposite sides of the country, a decade of dementia – it all fell away, leaving only the essential truths.

Recently, I’ve been searching for a piano of my own. In stores, I look around furtively to ensure no one’s around, choose a piano and sit down to play Chopin’s Funeral March. The major piano stores must know me as the Morbid One.

Although I doubt I’ll ever learn a third of my mother’s extensive classical repertoire, I’m going to make the effort, piece by piece. It’s my way of remembering her – not so much how she telegraphed her dark moods when I was growing up, but how she could create such beauty through her hands.