I woke up in my diffusely-lit ochre bedroom and put on my hiking boots. It was only half past seven, but already the sun was focusing in and baking the left side of my body as I walked south into the park. I began to cry.
I worried that I'd quickly become dehydrated with the abundant loss of electrolytes evaporating off my eyelids. I tried to stop the flow, to choke them back, but remembered that crying is a relief, and allowed myself this luxury. I knew the origin of my tears, but hadn't quite woken up yet, so I let myself cry while I marched up the sandy road, the thoughts responsible for my emotions slowly assembling themselves into a unit.
The piano isn't there anymore. That's it. A piano. Yesterday, my dad casually inserted a photo during the group text between my sister and I, sharing a picture of the living room corner that had housed that instrument for almost as long as my memory goes back. A wing chair now sits there, struggling to fill that void. Our text session quickly dissolved into a few fragmented sentiments from all three parties. My sister said she was crying, and I'm sure my dad was too. I am still crying.
It would seem trivial to an outsider—and at first did to me too—but the more I've thought about it, the more my emotions swell, tunneling back in time with this most evocative object, a true emblem of love and hate. I hand't given much thought to the piano after the initial, short-lived anger I harbored surrounding a non-dispute regarding its ownership. Last year when my dad decided he was moving to be closer to my sister's young family, it was determined that he was not going to take the piano when he sells the house. It would go to Phil, my mother's brother. All rationality and consideration of my nomadic lifestyle aside, I was momentarily hurt by this decision.
My mother and I were the family pianists. Both of us were classically trained and—for a sizable chunk of my upbringing—practiced daily; she played because she loved it; I played because I felt obligated. She performed in her college orchestra and continued lessons as an adult. I started when I was nine and promptly retired once I completed high school.
The piano was always there, sometimes roaring in violent, historic crescendos. Sometimes languidly romanticizing, other times plucky, plinking. Graciously tuned to the demands of its players, it always complied. When it was resting, it sat elegantly as a witness, a member of the family. Waiting patiently or singing gloriously, it was always there.
Despite the fact that I didn't particularly enjoy playing it, I entered the competitive circuit after a few years of training, traveling to play before judges in enormous, empty auditoriums on college campuses. Saturdays were the worst. If I had missed a day of practice during the school week, I would have to "practice double," meaning two hours of sitting at the bench, drilling the same pieces over and over and over until I couldn't anymore. I would pace in laps around the first floor of the house, letting the minutes tick away. If it were silent for too long, my mother would call down from her office and ask what I was doing. "Looking at the music," I would lie, as I lay on the ground under the belly of the beastly instrument, daydreaming, waiting for the measly chirp of the kitchen timer to set me free.
Laying under the instrument. If it wasn't too late at night, sometimes I would do that while my mother played. Deafening noise, she was a ferocious musician. I would watch her right foot mechanically pump the damper while my entire body vibrated in the muddled acoustics beneath the soundboard, my way of expressing my desire to be like her, to be close to her. It was her hug to me, and I allowed it to envelope my every sense. Other nights, I fell asleep in the room above, listening to her curse as she bobbled her way through passages of virtuoso caliber. I felt safe with these sounds.
I mimicked my mother, swearing my way through measures that I was too sloppy to master, eventually retraining my fingers to move in the correct order in pursuit of perfection. I push, and perceived that she pushed. I dreaded recitals, having a notorious record of losing my place in the middle of a piece, silence where it shouldn't be. I played way too fast; nerve impulses far exceeded my brain's processing speed. These moments were catastrophic in my little teenage world. As I got older, I was the last person to play: the finale in a room filled with warm, encouraging parents and their children, the perfect example of what not to be—a deer in headlights staring at the empty music rack, wincing, fighting back tears, fumbling my way until I reached the correct keys and muscle memory could effectively resume, taking me to the end of a mortifying moment. I hated playing in front of people, and at home would stop playing immediately if I detected an onlooker peeking in. I was traumatized by audiences, afraid of the people who cared the most. Afraid of disappointing them. Debilitated by fear of letting others down—a trait I still struggle with, although considerably less now that I've invited myself to join my own audience. Unlike recitals, I thrived in competitions, because I had only myself to appease, only myself to disappoint. The only other people watching were a few indifferent, exhausted college music professors. And as a defiant teen, I didn't give a fuck what they thought. Or at least I pretended I didn't.
It was frigid in the hallways where I would wait for my turn to present three pieces—half a years' repertoire—that showcased a range of musicalities and emotive nuances. Under unforgiving florescent lights, I sat between my parents, head hovering over my lap, thoughtlessly staring at pages heavily inked in rows of black dots and lines. Trying not to look at the other performers waiting to be called into the room, I would nervously fidget, wiggling my fingers in the same houndstooth skirt with suspenders, black wool turtleneck, black mary janes, and baggy-around-the-ankle nylons. My hair was always pulled back in a simple ponytail and bangs covered my forehead long before they came back in style. My hands were cloaked in what my mother dubbed my "magic gloves," more of a psychological protection than a remedy for my icy fingers, blanched white from a heart racing so quickly the blood didn't have time to circulate to those most important parts of my body. And then it would be my turn. My music books would be taken from me and handed to the panel who would inspect the editions and layout of my selections before I was called into the auditorium. Even now, my heart rate begins to accelerate as I recall those minutes preceding my invitation to enter the room, when I would be ushered by a smiling college student onto an endless, bright stage that made even the largest grand look like a doll's toy. I'm pretty sure I had a sheepish posture as I carefully padded to the middle of the platform where I would take a clownish bow and then sit. I felt tiny as I took in the room, the feeling of so much air and space around me, finding it almost impossible to focus on the only object in that space, the handsome, familiar instrument that rested inches from my face. Like a bad public speaker or nervous squirrel, I would involuntarily adjust myself as I settled in, smoothing my skirt and adjusted my leg position, scooting the bench around, raising it, lowering it, peeking around into the u-shaped cavity as if that would give me some critical knowledge, all the while knowing that every single movement I made was being monitored and wasn't really going to hide the fact that I am, simply put, not a poised human being.
In competition, they allow you to play scales to warm up your fingers and get acquainted with the qualities of that particular piano, but I usually skipped that part because I didn't practice scales at home, and my creeping up and down the universal tonal spectrum sounded uneven and novice in my imprecision. So I tried to remember what the hall monitor had said about it—bright or tight pedals or very sensitive in the lower register—but the silence as I inspected the instrument was uncomfortable, and hoping not to hear a word from the judges, I would jump into the first piece to get it over with. The remainder of my few minutes at the keys were consumed by flow. That gloriously numbing, full embodiment of flow. I could find it there, alone on that stage. I was situated so far from the judges that they wouldn't even be able to make out the squeezing and gnawing, the pained, wincing emotive faces that so many musicians involuntarily make when they find flow. I hated those faces, but they were lost in competition, never to surface as embarrassment in home videos. Unimpeded flow is sublime, and I knew it then as I know it now.
After those few minutes, we were back in the car heading towards St. Louis, watching the cusp of barren fall or spring landscapes roll by, wondering how I did, oblivious to my parents' chatter that served as white noise. The results would be sent to my teacher, and she would call as soon as she heard how I placed. How I hated and loved those days before the phone call. I did not have to practice. I was free, but felt empty with anxious anticipation that desired warranted pride. A shameful feeling laced with, or balanced out by, adolescent insecurity.
I resented my parents—especially my mother—for this. For this sense of bondage, this discipline I could barely maintain, this thing I had to do that none of my friends had to do. (I chose to turn a blind eye to the fact that they had other things they were required to do.) I hated what I did best, and for that reason. It was the draw of success, the failed perfectionist in me, the stubborn and willful nature I possessed, that kept me strung to the piano. As each season passed, the pressure increased. I became irritable, oppositional, angry at my parents for keeping me at the bench. I could quit whenever I wanted, they said.
So one day I did. It was the last week of summer vacation before I started my senior year of high school, and I was upset with my parents, most certainly for something insignificant, as all of those verbal tussles have been forgotten and clumped into a generalized feeling of teenage angst that colors my not-unique impression of high school. This particular recollection of quitting piano, although blurry, is one of the sharpest that I retain in my 34 years. There was blubbering and shouting, I think in the hall near the kitchen, ending with "I quit!" and then barreling down the highway to my best friend's house even though I was told I was not allowed to leave. It was then, while driving through the distortion of tears, that I realized my misguided anger towards my parents was self-induced. I was a prisoner to my own drive, a greedy child who wanted to win. And for the first time, I had a very conscious glimpse of the person I was, both good and bad. I cried and cried and then arrived to my friend's house and cried some more. I hated myself for hating my parents. I hated them for allowing me to hate them. I was overwhelmed with remorse, and couldn't even bring myself to enter the usual "my parents suck" conversation with Katie, who had legitimate reasons for disliking her dysfunctional family. Because it was that day, as I stumbled away having exercised my autonomy in a major way, that I had the novel recognition of my parents as the nurturing, supportive people they were. That newly acquired knowledge was only a seed, and it took years for it to develop into a substantial appreciation I could harvest.
When I came home later that evening I half-heartedly apologized before un-quitting piano. My mom said she knew I wasn't going to quit. It wasn't in me. Without verbalizing it, I withdrew my apology and continued to hate my mother for knowing me better than I did.
Our relationship was contentious for many years. It mellowed as we both aged, but never had the chance to mature into something desirable. An authentic, yet guarded admiration for the other emerged. The love was always there, but a friendship it was not. We spoke on the phone nearly everyday after I left home, acting as one another's sounding boards. We knew a lot about one another, but our differences were vast, and some of the rifts were never coupled. I have no regrets, but I've started to wish I could have the opportunity to continue to nurture that relationship. To see it ripen.
The piano was a link between the two of us. A loaded object we both cherished, an object that spoke a language connecting us, an object that vibrates with decades of memories both singular and shared. My mom was the more voluminous musician, filling the house with thunderous and passionate notes. Then again, when I play I can't hear it, I only feel it—a phenomenon she and I both experienced, so perhaps she saw me in the same light. When visiting my parents as an adult, I would browse my old books and prance through Chopin's preludes or bang out a few of my favorite movements in Beethoven's sonatas. The piano was a precious thing, a thing I rarely had access to, a way to pass time while looking forward to "going home" to New York or Boston or wherever I had set up camp, not really grasping the concept of home.
In recent years, the piano became a sculpture, a portrait of the past, a space-filler. My mother stopped playing when she received her terminal cancer diagnosis. When I moved back home to help take care of her, I would play sometimes, rushing through a few old pieces my fingers could still pluck out without needing to refer to music. But I never really got back into it. It seemed like a waste of time. Not productive. Not appropriate. A complicated nostalgia, one that rang outwardly with joy and pride and life, but was seated in a mix of misery and mastery, efforts over emotions, somehow an inappropriate accompaniment to the tone of my mother's withering lifesong.
I was surprised by my severe reaction to the news that the piano was no longer there. Of course it wouldn't be. I've known this for a year. But like death, it presents an odd sense of relief, and grief, of cascading memories that automatically fill ones head like a sink being fed by a fire hose. Thoughts that leak through the body and appear as tears. Memories that cast dark shadows are once again brought into the light, where their shadows can once again color your life. I cannot help but feel the weight of this object as it becomes un-muted, to mourn it and allow myself to feel its timbre moving through my body. It plays an elegy, for me, for my mother.