Thursday, September 22, 2022

Listen and Sing

Some six years ago, a friend announced he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. As you might imagine, it was a devastating blow for all of us who know him— and of course, much more for him himself. Yet for the first five years, it unspooled in slow motion so that it was hard to see the effects. During that time, he was the person we knew , just now with an extra label. But if in the first five years, he had Parkinson’s, in the last year, Parkinson’s had him. Seemed to be chipping away at his memory, nervous system, physical presence and sometimes stealing him away so that he was hard to recognize. It was hard to witness. And again, harder yet for him to wake up each morning and struggle to re-locate himself. 


Because he is a member of our Men’s Group for the last 32 years, we’ve huddled to consider how to respond. One idea was to have two of us each week spend much of a day with him and give his wife the opportunity to get out to hike the way she loves—and needs—to do. I had the idea of having him come to my house so I could play piano for him as I do at the Jewish Home. But it soon became clear that even a walk down the stairs to the car, a drive across town, a walk up the stairs and sitting in my house was simply too much. 

So onto Plan B. I went to his house with another friend and with no piano there, brought my guitar and banjo. Both of them had been parents in the school, so they knew some of the repertoire I developed from 45 years of singing with kids five days a week. And off we went.


Well, it wasn’t the same as wrapping him inside the notes of the Goldberg Variations, but perhaps even better, as he actively sang along and the guitar is a more intimate, connective instrument than the piano. After an hour of singing, we lunched in his garden on a perfect temperature day and then he read some of his poetry from some three small books of poems he published. I read a few from a book I brought and when I asked, “Enough? Want to take a nap?,” everything in him responded, “Yes!” 


This horrific disease, with its sense of loss and deep sorrow, certainly qualifies as a trauma, but at Larghissimo tempo. Not as immediately devastating as a catastrophic one-time event, but with some similar qualities. And notable differences. Going over to his house, I thought about a poem from the book I’ve been enjoyed called The Path to Kindness. In it, Patricia McKernon Runkle gives some sage advice in her poem “When You Meet Someone in Grief.”

Slip off your needs

And set them by the door.


Enter barefoot 

this darkened chapel


hollowed by loss

hallowed by sorrow


its  gray stone walls

and floor.


You, congregation of one


are here to listen

not to sing.


Kneel in the back pew,

Make no sound,


Let the candles,



 Yes indeed. Yet when the loss and sorrow is spread out over six years, the trauma chips away slowly rather than flattens one like a boulder dropped by above. And though yes, though it’s always a good idea to listen, this could also be a good time to sing.


 And it was.

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