lenten journal: playing without a score


    It was a great night.

    We went into Boston about two o’clock because we had to go to the doctor’s office before our evening could begin. Ginger and I are three weeks away from her sabbatical and the Trip of Our Lives to trace the steps of Paul through Greece and Turkey (thank you, Lilly Endowment). To be able to make that trip, we had to make this trip to get our vaccinations. Our nurse, Dale, was excellent both in the information he had to give and his gentle manner in giving the injections. From there we met our friends Cherry and Dell for coffee and then began our evening adventure.

    In looking for somewhere fun for dinner, we happened upon Betty’s Wok and Noodle House across the street from Symphony Hall. It’s retro diner meets Asian-Latin fusion. The food was amazing (Juan-tons!) and our server, Michael, made it even more fun. We left, full and happy – they even kept our leftovers refrigerated for us until after the concert – and walked across the street to find our seats in the magnificent hall. The orchestra was tuning up.

    There are a lot of great things to remember about last night, but watching and listening to Joshua Bell play the violin is at the top of the list. The piece was Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D. Opus 35. (Once again, I run into my ignorance when it comes to classical music: I thought Opus was the penguin from Bloom County.) Neither he nor the conductor worked from a score. The room filled with melody as the orchestra began, and then Bell made the carved piece of wood sitting on his shoulder come to life. He stood the whole time, moving his body in sync with his bow, occasionally wiping his brow with the cloth that hung on the side of the conductor’s podium. In the sections where he was not playing, he turned to listen to the orchestra in a way that showed he was really listening and not just waiting his turn.

    I don’t know how much time passed – twenty-five, thirty-five minutes. The program notes pointed out that Leopold Auer, to whom Tchaikovsky dedicated the concerto when he wrote it, declared the piece “unplayable.” Though he went on to learn and perform it, Tchaikovsky carried the wound of those words for many years. I wish he could have been in the room last night to hear the artist we heard play it as if it were written for him, moving from the big forceful movements to the high, tiny, whispers of sound that even reached us on the back row of the second balcony. It was a great night.

    And it had been a hard day.

    Gingers father has worked hard his whole life. I love to hear her tell stories of his days as a milkman and then a route driver for Golden Flake potato chips. I can remember going to Birmingham after we first married and waiting for him to come home so we could go out and pick a snack off the truck. He retired several years ago, but got a call this week to ride a route with an old friend who is recovering from surgery and needed some help. Monday morning he left the house at 4:30 to meet the guy. A little after five, the man called wondering where Reuben was; he had not showed up. When she found him, he told her he had gotten turned around on a road he has driven most everyday of his life. Wednesday night he came in tired from work and talked about his exhaustion.

    “I can’t believe I’m so tired after only one day of work,” he said.

    “You’ve gone to work for three days,” Rachel replied.

    “No,” he said, “today’s only Monday.”

    Reuben’s work ethic, like his compassion, lies deep in his muscle memory. He is a virtuoso of daily life, a man who knows how to run the scales of existence and pull from them a melody of love and grace. He is a man who timed his delivery route so he could get to everyone of Ginger’s softball games and dance recitals, even as he made sure he kept his promises to keep the shelves full at the Piggly Wiggly. He is a man who, when asked how he is doing, answers every time with gusto, “Fine, marvelous, outstanding.” He is a man who has accumulated very little in his life and feels rich and content. He is a mountain of a man who is mostly gentle and kind stacked on top of each other. For his whole life, he has played a concerto of hope, finding ways to affirm and encourage those around him, convinced to his bones that God is holding him and will not leave him alone. He, too, plays without a score; he lives the melody.

    When Rachel called the doctor to tell what had happened and to make an appointment, the doctor said, “It sounds like Alzheimer’s.”

    Only a chilling silence can follow that sentence.

    We don’t know, yet, exactly what is going on. Thanks to the ridiculous inefficiencies of our health care system, it will be some time before we know because they don’t have any appointments available. What I do know is I’m troubled by the strains that are beginning to break into our lives. Only last Friday I sat at the funeral of my friend’s father; today I’m worried about my father-in-law. I’m not quite prepared for this particular movement. There is no score, and I don’t know this piece by memory, or even by heart.

    Living outside Boston while Rachel and Reuben are struggling in Birmingham makes it all even harder to hear. What carries this far, for the most part, is the pain. It is both a low and piercing note, full of questions and yearning. Here is a man who has composed a wonderful life; he does not deserve for it to be erased, measure by measure, in reverse. Why does it feel, sometimes if feels as though all of our lives are like Saturday Night Live skits: we don’t know how to write a decent ending.

    We talked to Ginger’s mother on the way home last night. Reuben had a better day. He had already gone to sleep.

    “What makes one day better than another?” Ginger asked after she hung up.

    “I don’t know,” I said. And we drove home, her hand in mine.



    1. According to Webster’s, the word “opus” derives from the Latin oper- and means to work, usually connoting a musical composition. One’s magnum opus is one’s greatest achievement.

      I can see B. Breathed’s Opus in that context.

      What a wonderful phrase about your father-in-law: “a virtuoso of daily life.” Despite the certainty of pain in your father-in-law’s behavior and diagnosis, I am sure that we who read your blog will be enlightened by your journey through it. I hope the writing eases the experience for you.

    2. “Only last Friday I sat at the funeral of my friend’s father; today I’m worried about my father-in-law. I’m not quite prepared for this particular movement. There is no score, and I don’t know this piece by memory, or even by heart.”

      Brought tears. Partly because of the picture you drew and the way you tied it back to the symphony last night, but mostly because it could be a tough road ahead for your family. Loss is inevitable, I know, but it never fails to stir my deepest emotions. Losing the ability to map life out like you once could feels cruel. I truly pray that is not what your family faces.

    3. Milton,

      I’m so glad you were inspired by the concert last night but I’m so sorry to hear the news about your father-in-law. I hope the diagnosis ends up being something less serious, but my prayers are starting now.

      Peace my friend,

    4. You are such a gifted person – in many ways, it seems. There was so much to love in this piece!

      Blessings on your family. I’ll think of them whenever I hear that song – ‘Rachel, Rachel, I been thinkin’…’

    5. Praying for Reuben…remember that new music often flows from the most unexpected places. All that you will and Ginger encounter over the coming weeks, months and years will sing, somehow. And grace provides a constant accompaniment that never leaves or forsakes the rhythm of our lives.

    6. Milton –

      My mother’s sister has Alzheimer’s. They live near you in New Bedford. My aunt is at the point where she really needs professional care, however, my uncle refuses. He has the support of his daughters who live in Acushnet and Norton. This is a women who never said a bad word in her life. Now, she swears at and can’t remember the name of the man she has been so devoted to for 45 years of marriage. The most difficult decision that your mother-in-law will face is accepting that it is time for help. Knowledge of support groups and special facilities would be helpful. Perhaps, when visiting, Ginger could take her to such a place, while you watch a game with your father-in-law.I don’t have to tell you, knowledge and being there. It is the key.
      Take care,

    7. More prayers starting from over here as well.

      Been away from easy access to computers for a while so have looked forward to this chatching up with your (our) lenten journal.

      Don’t suppose your trip with Ginger includes any kind of stop over in London?

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