Music, after writing, is my greatest passion. But when I entered the hospital in June 2011 for induction chemotherapy, I stopped listening to music altogether.
Music, the saying goes, can soothe even the savage beast. What about the frail beast? The sad one?
Between the hospital walls, hearing my favorite songs filled me with a deep, unbearable ache. Music, and the memories attached to them, reminded me of all that was no longer. It reminded me of myself at 16, lugging my 30-lb. double bass up the steps of the Lincoln Center subway station in five-inch heels en route to my lessons at Juilliard. Where had that feisty, fresh-faced music student with long auburn hair gone?
I didn’t know it back in June, but I was in the process of mourning my ‘old’ self: on some level, I was realizing that everything had changed–that my life, as I knew it, was over.
How many ‘selves’ do we put to rest over the course of a lifetime? It was strange for such recent memories to feel like they belonged in an old filing cabinet.
Almost four weeks into my hospitalization, I reached the height of my despair, frustration, and anger. I couldn’t help but see the world in the binary: everyone out there is moving forward, and I’m in here, in an oncology ward, stuck in place.
I was in an especially somber mood. The week before, I had lost all of my hair. (It doesn’t all “fall out” at once–some of it does, and the rest you have to yank out with your hands. It felt like my scalp was a garden and I was pulling weeds from damp soil.) I was also suffering from mucositis, a painful side effect of chemotherapy that causes inflammation and ulceration of the throat, mouth, and digestive tract. I could barely eat or talk.
Then, on June 25, 2011, something magical happened. My friend Jon Batiste, an internationally acclaimed jazz musician whom I’d first met at a music camp as a teenager, came to visit me in the hospital. To my surprise, he showed up with his entire band (aptly named ‘The Stay Human Band’), made up of tuba player Ibanda Ruhumbika, alto saxophonist Eddie Barbash, and drummer Joe Saylor.
It was a new concert venue for the band, not to mention for Mount Sinai Hospital (no lighters allowed). But in some ways it was more suited to a concert than anywhere else. Hospitals ache for music. Oncology wards, more than anywhere else I know, are music-less places. Instead of melody, there is constant beeping. Instead of singing, there is the steady medical call-and-response loop: nurses hollering to each other; patients calling, sometimes screaming, for their doctors; nurses scrambling to find the doctors; visitors searching frantically for nurses. Then, there are times when you hear nothing at all. In some ways, the diverse noises of a hospital–however annoying–remind us that the hospital “machine” is in healthy operation. It’s the silent moments, the hollow sounds of quiet suffering, that can be most startling. These are the noises of healthcare.
Jon, Ibanda, Eddie and Joe were purveyors of the music of health. As the sound of Jon’s harmonabord filled the hallways, nurses and patients filtered out of their rooms. The patients who could walk, walked. Those who couldn’t were wheeled to their doorways. Others listened from their beds. Every inch of the 25-room floor was filled with music (I even worried we might receive a noise complaint).
Timidly at first, and then with jubilation, patients, nurses, and medical staff began to dance and clap their hands. The oncology ward was breathing a sigh of relief, its inhabitants rejoicing in a temporary timeout, losing themselves to the beauty and healing power of the music.
The saints had marched in (they played that song, too).
Check out this amazing short video of the Stay Human Band playing at Mount Sinai Hospital on June 25, 2011: