Variations on a Theme: Melody in Memoriam

January 9, 2008
Early January (First Week Back)

My back feels as though a poker were rammed down my spine. My fingers are uncompromisingly stiff and slow. There is too little time to practice properly. I always wait too long, the eleventh hour (more precisely, an hour before my lesson) before forcing myself through the pane of resistance and playing my pieces. Scales and exercises left by the wayside, I feverishly attempt to cram a week’s worth of work into learning the technique. Hands that should feel light and agile bump and shudder instead, my fingers moving like ancient clockwork. This one Debussy measure will not come out right…. Melody is an effusive, compassionate teacher, but has expectations of excellence. My patience for repetition is worn thin. Eleven years of practicing breeds skill, but also heightened difficulty to progress. I stare at the clock and impassively regard the time, the sentence meted out to punish my insouciance. The phone rings: the whistle signaling my return to work. This depressing, Sisyphean task is so incongruous to my love of music, my desire to actually play well. But wait! What’s this? The call was a reprieve! Melody is ill. All lessons are cancelled until further notice. Secretly, shamefully, I wish for this every week: a pardon for not practicing, and an excuse to not practice for six more days. There’s no reason to be worried; my piano teacher ended her studio last year to cope with her disease, but started again within the month.
January (Finals Week)

Studying is out. I can set up a nice mental block for myself when called upon to do so. Cramming a semester’s worth of logarithms and postulates into one evening, as evidenced already, is just not my style. Instead, the evening program is Monopoly. This quintessential, fatherly game (nothing says paternal wisdom quite like bonds and smart investments) is reserved for lazy afternoons only. I shuck off crisp hundreds from my wad to finance a few houses when Mother walks in from the grocery store. “Janel called this morning,” are her words in passing, as she walks left to right across the room with her arms festooned with plastic bags. Melody is dead. It zapped my heart with a shock. Where had that thought come from? “What happened?” I ask, tensed. “Melody died this morning.” I had known it was coming; she had been seriously sick for days now, and had come home from the hospital to be with her daughters. I had meant to visit her. I didn’t want to be left without saying goodbye. But my schedule, my inhibitions, my procrastination robbed me of that too. No practicing for six more days. No more practicing.
Gray February

The wake is in Wheaton. This place has no connection to anything of Melody’s. No familiarity will spark memories in this place. Miniscule snowflakes fall down as my mother and I walk into the building. Melody’s life is depicted in portraits and snapshots on panels in the lobby. I sign the register and then walk into the chapel. Harp music is playing: how odd that it is recorded, when she who we are here to honor was a performance virtuoso. I see no acquaintances among those gathered here. Mother and I linger at the back. We are not worthy to impose on the front pews. Eventually I make the trek toward the open casket. What a sight. So still and calm, none of the effervescence or volume she had in life. She is wearing that familiar ring, three red stones with diamonds set in gold. To think that she will never correct my fingering again, or refine my musical interpretation. Her death has dammed the flow of her knowledge forever; her skillful playing will never impress me again. It is inconceivable. Her body is so obviously empty that I must clench my teeth and clamp my lips to stifle my emotion. On the way out, her daughter Julia, now living on her own, stops to thank us. She seems so happy that we took even this small piece of time to remember the woman who has been the artistic mentor of my life. Suddenly, my face contorts, spasms. I draw wracking breaths to keep from crying. How can I cry when Melody’s daughter stands radiantly peaceful before me? It is not my place to introduce such sadness when my claim on her life is such a small one. We leave then, silent and gray.
August (End of Summer is Nigh)

Mother and I pull into Cobblestone, Melody’s house. The route is so familiar it feels like a magnetic drag on the car. We wend through houses and buildings towards Melody’s stoop. The house is sold and moved into now, six months after she died. I never entered that house again after my unknowingly last lesson. That has been one of the sharpest blows. I had no symbolic parting with that familiar place, the basement with brown shag carpeting, the brown dresser covered in kitsch and scented candles, the forceful grand dominating the room. It is gone now. It is preserved solely in my imperfect memory. We walk past other houses, houses we never passed in our rush to arrive to lessons punctually or, more often, near punctually. A woman smokes on Melody’s deck, and the outline of alien furniture shows through the window. We greet her. “Hi.” she returns. I look at my mom and she says, “This was my daughter’s piano teacher’s house. You just moved in, right?” “Yep.” “She took lessons from her for 11 years.” “Mmm,” she smiles. Her brevity dissuades us from asking to be let in, and she does not invite us. We leave soon after. At home, I try to practice. I am preparing for a lesson with another teacher. My scales and exercises that used to come so easily, notwithstanding the last few weeks with Melody (which surely were colored by her illness), are proving impossible to ease into. No more practicing for today, I think.

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