[Music] makes practically everyone fonder of life than he or she would be without it.”
Had I possessed any musical talent at all, my life probably would have gone in a different direction.
Not that my parents didn’t try to make me a musician. They transported me to piano lessons, percussion lessons and voice lessons. They bought me a guitar. They pushed me to work hard in the middle school orchestra and the high school choir. They encouraged me to sign up for ensembles and high school musicals. In retrospect, each opportunity enhanced my appreciation for music but none of them made me into a musician.
My new patient, a talented jazz artist, agreed that he has known lots of kids like me — eager but musically inept — during his decades-long teaching and playing career. Now that he had retired, he still enjoyed performing regularly with a remarkable local big band. Playing his horn was as natural to him as breathing. Music was still a big part of his life.
When he had developed throat cancer, I silently worried that whatever treatment we proposed would finish his playing days. Surgery would change the shape of the pharyngeal cavity. Radiation would cause severe dryness. I shared my concerns with him and he shook his head. “Do what you have to do,”
he told me. “I’ll be OK.”
We decided on a course of treatment. It was not easy. His mouth was changed. Each visit showed that the tissues were healing, but it was a slow process.
After a few weeks, he asked, “When can I start playing again?” “Go ahead and see what happens,”
I replied. He smiled in a way that betrayed the fact that he had already been practicing.
At each visit, he would announce, “I can play! I need to drink more water, but my chops are returning!”
Before long, he was back performing with his friends. Without actively thinking about the process, he had not only recovered from our treatment but had learned to compensate for his new physical challenges in ways that no one could ever have predicted.
As I sat in the audience one night, I realized that he was playing much better after all that we had thrown at him than I would ever have played even if I had spent a lifetime practicing. Everyone was happy.
Still, I will always try to imagine what it is like to pick up an instrument and improvise as effortlessly as some of my naturally gifted friends. I guess my parents were correct when they stopped pushing me to take music lessons and suggested that I pursue a different line of work.
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Somehow I would guess your musician friend/patient finds you "gifted". I never had the chance to learn a musical instrument as a youngster, but am trying now. Maybe someday, I'll feel like I can play in front of someone. Not yet.
- rl bates
Bruce, you actually played guitar quite well, as I remember, but as always, you remain modest. However, your deep compassion for people and the skills you have acquired and shared to enhance the quality of life for those in need is a rare and blessed gift.
As someone who practices medicine but also has musical longings - I've been playing the oboe for just a year now - this post meant a great deal to me. Thank you for sharing your patient's story, courage, and gifts with us - and your own.