The concert hall has light oak walls with sculpted grids and cascading steps down to the stage. On the stage, a massive Steinway sits shiny black on the polished oak floor. Just beyond, a glass wall overlooks an early summer garden.
Scanning the room, I am startled to see that my former analyst is seated behind me, like he was for all those years I lay on his couch. I turn, and smile, joking that some things never change. Now frail and hard of hearing, he seems not to get the joke. I nervously flip through the program as I wait for the concert to begin.
The psychiatrist-pianist who is about to lecture and perform saunters onto the stage. He clutters the once perfect setting. His tie is too long, his shoelace untied, and his microphone with its narrow cord makes him look like a member of the secret service. But he begins to play an arrangement of Porgy and Bess, and it is breathtaking: the poignant notes of summertime linger against the darkening June sky. As he plays, I can hear him breathe heavily, pouring himself into his music.
I wonder how long someone must practice to master a complex arrangement like this. Playing it all from memory, his fingers glide effortlessly across the entire keyboard. My envy of his performance takes me back to Kilbourne Hall at the Eastman School of Music, with its blue velvet seats and brass railings. This time, I am the pianist, but I am only seven, performing at my first piano recital. I am to play a Bach piano concerto – the one every child plays: the pinky of the right hand starts on G, and the thumb plays middle C while the other fingers ascend to meet the pinky. My first piece uses only one hand and only a small section of the keyboard. As I wait for my turn, I play it over and over in my mind, so frightened as I anticipate climbing the stairs to the stage.
I can hardly believe this moment has arrived as I look up at the massive Steinway. I awkwardly pull the bench closer to the piano so that I can reach the keyboard. My music is sitting on the piano in case I need it. Placing my pinky on the G just above middle C, I curve my fingers the way my teacher has instructed, and begin to play. I hear myself make a mistake, but keep going. When it is over, I hurry to the front of the stage to curtsey. I know my performance has paled by comparison to the ones that preceded it. I feel ashamed yet disappointed that it is over.
My attention moves back to the concert lecturer. He is talking about the life of George Gershwin, a career so prolific yet cut short by a rapidly fatal brain tumor in his 30’s. He describes
Gershwin’s dawning awareness of his glioblastoma — the smell of burning rubber is the aura that precedes his seizures. I don’t know if my mother experienced such an aura before her seizures – we never had a chance to talk about it. I remember the scene in the surgical waiting room where I learned of my mother’s tumor: there was nothing to be done. Her glioblastoma had so invaded the brain with its twists and turns that it was impossible to cut it out.
I wonder if my analyst is thinking about me as he hears about Gershwin– about how I lost and grieved my mother during my analysis, about how he was the one I called soon after finding out what the seizures signaled. “Just let yourself feel your feelings,” he reminded me.
As I listen to the music, I picture the tumor, so complex, notes so connected, glissandos so rapid, pounding, loud, delicate, and fragile, taking up the whole space.
I am ready for the concert to end. I need to escape this beautiful room with its beautiful sounds. It is making me too sad. I long for the preconcert stage with its perfection, before the clutter, before the stage fright, before the brain tumor.