by Wendy Poole
After my father’s death, I lived with my mother for three months. Afternoons could be challenging for both of us. In the early middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease, her memory and ability to cope could cause her to become confused and agitated by mid-afternoon.
One afternoon, I sat down at the piano. As a child, I had loved playing it. However, that was many years before. Now I found myself staring at black notes on sheet music—once familiar to me but now unreadable. Hesitantly, my fingers attempted a scale and clumsily felt their way up and back down the eight notes. Twice. The impromptu recital ended.
Two days later, I again leafed through the sheet music. I hoped to recognize something—anything—that I might be able to play. My right hand laboriously stumbled over “Bali Hai” from South Pacific. My left hand became the designated page-turner. I attempted “Younger than Springtime,” my favourite song from South Pacific—a song played so repetitively many years before that I thought my fingers touched the notes before my eyes read the music.
My mother approached and stood silently, tapping her foot in time with the uneven tempo of my faltering right hand’s solo interpretation of “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.” She began to hum and then very softly sing the lyrics.
“And I like your singing, Mum,” I replied.
That was the beginning of our afternoon recitals.
Each afternoon, my mother’s voice—at times, sweetly beautiful, and at other times raspy in its attempt to keep pitch—rose in volume. My hesitant fingers lumbered over black and white keys, my head bobbing up and down as I tried to match the notes on the sheet music to the piano keys.
On those afternoons as we accompanied each other, the apartment filled with—well, let us just say, sound.
After a few days, it became obvious that it was not just my uneasy playing or my mother’s voice that was out of harmony, but the piano itself. It desperately needed tuning.
I said all of this to the piano tuner on the phone. We made the appointment. He arrived at the agreed-upon time.
He approached the piano with a quick step, took a cursory look at it, and made a quick comment on the general look of the instrument itself. “Apartment size, not known for a lot of sound quality.”
He played a few individual notes and then a quick tune. He cleared his throat. His facial expression visibly changed, and I knew our talk would be about the last rites of the soon-to-be-departed piano. Tuning forks and turning pegs to resuscitate the soul of this musical instrument would do no good; its time had passed.
The piano tuner looked in my direction and delivered the diagnosis. “The soundboard is cracked; it’s shifted forward, perhaps a result of the last move.” His voice sounded almost annoyed that the expectation was for him to do CPR on a piano with rigor mortis. “The pegs are dry. The piano wires are so old that they will probably snap if tightened. It isn’t going to hold any tuning for very long.”
I told him I just needed the piano to stop sounding like a cross between a howling dog and a retching cow.
Silently, he began his work.
In the den, I turned up the TV volume to cover the yowl of the piano strings as they were coaxed to adopt a new and unnatural position. The TV volume went up and down several times over thenext 45 minutes. Finally from the living room came the sound of a piano being played—not the pure sound and tone of a finely tuned instrument, but it was a definite reprieve from the disharmony that had echoed in the apartment an hour earlier. I smiled. The operation was a success. The piano tuner looked at me. He did not smile. He felt otherwise.
“You have to promise me you will never tell another person I am the one who tuned this piano. It is,” he continued, “the worst job of tuning I have ever done. I don’t think it will hold for more than a week.”
Gathering his tools, he walked to the door. He apologised again and hesitated to take his fee. He offered to come back—for free—to wrap the pins and re-tune the piano if it didn’t hold.
The piano tuner was wrong. For the next six weeks, the piano gave my mother and me its soul—it became a Steinway and served us well.
Over those six weeks, I began to read and anticipate the notes. My fingers became more agile with daily practice. And my mother, seated beside me, would sing—her voice strong, her memory sure. Sometimes, we sang together; sometimes, we chose songs from my father’s sheet music. Other times, it was tunes from Broadway shows. We laughed a lot over who was the worse singer. But mostly I played, and my mother sang.
For my mother, those afternoons spent at the piano were singular events, each time new, enjoyed and then forgotten. There was no memory thread of previous times.
As I played, my mind at times would revisit those distant evenings when my mother and I held recitals in the living room, and my father, our attentive audience, listened to “his girls” as he looked over his evening paper, his gentle foot tap our metronome. On occasion, he sang a phrase or two with us.
For me, those six weeks were a shared time that blended into a peaceful, happy, and singular memory of time with my mother. During those afternoon sessions, I had my mother as I knew her to be.
The certainty of her future, which we would face together, was temporarily banished as the piano music and her sweetly beautiful voice filled not just the apartment, but also our minds, hearts and souls. It was a shared point in time that ultimately would not exist except in my memory.
I think it was the piano tuner’s finest work.