Music, as the saying commonly goes, can soothe even the savage beast. What about the frail beast? The sad one?
My parents started me on the piano at the age of 4, but it wasn’t until the fourth grade that I chose music for myself. The music teacher at Lake Avenue Elementary School stood in front of the class with a dozen stringed instruments lined up at the front of the room. Choose your instrument, she invited us.
The thought that I could choose my instrument was a revelation. Violins, violas and cellos were the hot items — and there were more of them than any other instruments — but I was curious about the big wooden object at the end of the row, leaning up against the the chalkboard. The double bass. It was taller than I was — taller than the tallest boy in my class — and what’s more, my teacher told me I was one of the only girls in her memory who’d expressed interest in playing it. I had to try it. That afternoon I took it home and gave it a name: Charlie Brown. I was going to be a double bassist.
By age 16, I was a student in the precollege program at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. Every week I commuted from upstate New York — a four-hour ride on Amtrak — often barely making it on time to my 9 a.m. music theory class. Everywhere I went, my bass came with me. It was cumbersome. It attracted stares — and sometimes unwanted offers of help from strange men. Lugging it around the subways and buses and sidewalks of New York City was a chore — especially for a teenage girl who insisted on wearing heels — but it was worth it. When I showed up somewhere to play, I felt like I had already warmed up.
Last spring, one year out of college, I found myself once again commuting from upstate to the big city. Same train, same route. But this time I was on my way to see an oncologist. I was 22 and I had just been given a diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia. My relationship with music changed abruptly. I no longer had the stamina or the interest in playing the bass. And once I entered the hospital to begin my intensive chemotherapy treatments, I stopped listening to music altogether.
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. Where had that feisty, fresh-faced music student with long auburn hair gone?
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