This is not a story about stargazing while floating down a river in the midnight hour, although wandering about the hospital at 3 am on night shift feels much like aimless drifting. Nightfloat is a scheduling arrangement that ensures night time presence of residents in the hospital to care for patients and take new admissions. Patient care takes no breaks. On day shifts, we have an elaborate schedule that involves lectures and caring for a handful of patients under the supervision of senior residents, fellows and attending physicians. The floors are teaming with visitors, nutritionists and therapists, pharmacists and educational specialists. But at night, the weary visitors have retreated, the daily cacophony has been replaced by the gentle humming of infusion pumps, and the hallways are bathed in the soft glow of cardiac monitors.
The other night, with all of our wee friends soundly asleep and no work to be done, we all took a break before meeting with the day team for overnight updates and hand-off of care. I drifted over to the student lounge, hoping to catch a much-needed nap on one of the comfy couches. All the lights were ablaze. I almost turned around when in the back of the lounge, I saw the Steinway grand piano. I walked across the room, sat on the bench and opened the cover to reveal the shiny keyboard. In my mind I could hear the Chopin waltz I used to play over and over shortly before I quit piano playing years ago. My fingers, however, did not remember a single note. I dug about some nearby boxes and found a binder of sheet music. I looked for a song with the least amount of notes. “Too many notes”, said Salieri upon hearing Mozart’s piano music for the first time. Too many notes for my rusty piano brain. I came across Coldplay’s The Scientist. I figured I should be able to handle it, since I know the song by heart and the left hand score only requires one finger, a seemingly simple succession of single notes. I looked at the first chords. Nothing. Not even a hint of a memory of how to read sheet music. Nine years of piano lessons. Nothing.
I took my first piano lesson at age 7. Or maybe 8. I have no recollection whatsoever of expressing a desire to play the piano. Perhaps my mother signed me up in the absence of will. I remember wanting to learn how to play the organ, but it’s a much harder instrument to fit in a townhouse than an upright piano. I had a navy leather binder in which I carried my sheet music and books. My teacher had long blond hair and huge front teeth. Do I remember this because we lived in England at the time and the stereotype that Brits have terrible teeth had already been impressed on me? I do not know. What I do know is that she would chastise me for improper hand technique. “Imagine you have a little bird and your hand is a cage. If you let your wrist drop, the cage collapses and the little bird can’t breathe.” No one want to kill an imaginary canary, especially not a 7 year old. I still remember how to hold my hands just so. My second piano teacher had very short hair, then one day no hair at all. She would cover her head with colorful scarfs. It wasn’t until years later that I understood what she was going through at the time. She never once mentioned the bird in the cage or my wrists not being properly positioned, but sometimes she would close her eyes and sway a little while sat next to me, looking happily elsewhere. One time, I used the sustain pedal with so much gusto and soon after felt a pool of water at my feet. The nearby glass fish bowl that was on the tile floor – why on the floor, I will never know – had cracked and Fish was just about out of water. Near death by emphatic performance of a Schubert minuet. I have no idea whether the vibrations from my liberal use of the sustain pedal caused the glass to crack, but it makes for a great story so that is how I crafted this particular memory. My third piano teacher was a tall man with a perpetually out of control messy mane of hair. Unlike my previous two teachers, he taught at the local music academy and I had to go there for lessons rather than have him come to the house. The academy required annual progress reports, music theory classes, and, worst of all, annual recital in front of an audience. I was in high school at the time and on the verge of my soon to erupt teenage rebellion. I hated the formality of the music academy, the rigor of my teacher who never ever seemed to have fun. It was Chopin and Debussy and under no circumstances anything composed in the second half of the 20th century. And the damn end of year recital. I wanted to learn and play for my own pleasure, not for an audience of strangers. Sometime in my junior year – or perhaps it was senior year – I quit. I hated the music theory classes, my teacher, the Debussy piece, and the stomach ulcer-causing recital. In my totalitarian rejection of formal training, I also abandoned my piano, because at the time it epitomized what others expected of me. It was a burden, a shackle, an obstacle to doing what I really wanted – even though I had no clue what that was. I stopped playing overnight, after taking lessons for 9 years. I haven’t played in 15 years. Until two nights ago.
It was painful at first. I couldn’t remember how to read the sheet music. I attempted the right hand part, using my knowledge of the song to guide me. The right hand part, then the left hand. That was even harder. Eventually I was able to put it together. I wasn’t able to play the entire song without tripping on a few notes here and there, but I played. I sat at a piano in the early morning hours, without a single soul around, and I got lost in the moment. It took work, a lot of painstaking squinting at the sheet music and constant repositioning of my fingers who kept tripping over on another. But I did it. And it felt wonderful to being playing again. I thought of my wee patients, hopefully resting peacefully and pain-free in their beds. I half-wished they could hear me. Healing doesn’t only come from pills and IV drips. Some might say I should have used my downtime to sleep because one never knows when things might get busy in the hospital. Maybe so, but I’m pretty sure my cortisol level plummeted as my serotonin level rose during that blissful hour.
It seems incredibly dumb to me now that I stopped playing the piano and lost years of precious knowledge. But I’m sure it felt like the right decision then. I don’t know what happened to my piano. I do know that I don’t need my piano, or my wrists up a certain way, or a recital to play. I found a piano in the middle of the night and I played the best I knew how and it was all I needed it to be.
The sweetest pleasures are the ones that manifest themselves when we do not expect them.