Making Music in the Face of Struggles

“Optimism isn’t just a shift in perspective. It’s an act of bravery.”

—Terri Trespicio

It was that early morning phone call — the one you don’t want. The fear in mom’s voice. “Can you come now?”

My stepdad, Lewie, had suffered a stroke. She thought he was having a bad dream and tried to wake him, but he was incoherent. He looked at his watch, said, “It’s 4 o’clock,” and then ceased to speak. Ambulances rushed him to Saddleback Hospital with its state-of-the-art stroke care. Within minutes, he was out of mom’s hands and into the hands of experts and professionals.

Then the waiting game began. The same game played out over and over by anyone who has a friend or loved one in a hospital. We wait by the door, in the hall, by the bed. We wait for the nurse’s report; we wait for the doctors.

Life outside the hospital stops. We focus. We mold our lives around the emergency. Family members gather together and hover. We fill the waiting with our lives, the stories.

Luckily for all of us in this instance, Lewie’s prognosis is good. He suffered no paralysis, and while struggling with his speech, he is recovering quickly. In less than a week, he’s moved from Saddleback to Mission Hospital’s Acute Rehabilitation Unit. In all likelihood, he will be home soon.

Recently, when he’d finished all the therapy required “work,” he looked at his caregiver, and pointed to the piano across the room.

“He wants to play,” she said.

Lewie sat in front the keyboard and his fingers danced across the ivory. He had suffered a stroke just days earlier, yet here he was, filling the room with a musical lyricism that transported everyone into a magical space.

The power of the music and the piano to heal were not lost on me. Each evening, Lewie would fill my parents’ living room, playing from memory, with beautiful tunes. When my parents lost their home in the Laguna landslides five years ago, it was the piano that we feared would be demolished with the house. It was the one object left behind, and the one thing that Lewie truly loved (besides my mom and his family — of course).

The bulk of their belongings had been rescued hand over hand, walked down the steep and unsteady slope by friends and family members to waiting trucks below. The piano remained, lonely in the empty and shattered house, with no seeming solution. Too heavy to carry; the earth too unstable for transport.

But Charlie Williams, who helped so many of the slide victims with his time, his crew and his vehicles, was not daunted by the project. When the earthmovers had cleared a path around the broken stucco and timbers to prepare the house for demolition, Charlie crafted a plan. Carefully, the piano was moved from the middle of the former living room toward the sagging end of the houses onto the twisted patio. From there, he pulled a truck up to the edge and slid the piano — with the help of four men — onto his truck.

Lewie oversaw the entire project, and celebrated with great joy when the instrument made it to their new home. While it doesn’t fit in their living room, and takes up nearly the entire second bedroom, it is used just as often, and it provides an immeasurable joy.

Mom told me the story of his playing the piano at rehab on the phone, but I “saw” her smile, even through the wireless system. She was proud and happy, present to the joy in the moment.

I couldn’t help but think about her optimism and what that has meant for me as I’ve been confronted with a recent parade of life’s unexpected tragedies.

So many times I’ve wanted to simply stop and throw in the towel. Shut down my heart because life’s hurts have threatened to suffocate me.

But she’s been there, a beacon of understanding and direction.

“You’ll get through this,” she says to me. “We go on. That’s what we do.”

Then she puts her arms around me, gives me a big hug, and with that shining smile, adds, “I love you.”

It’s the same simple words, hug, and smile that she’s been giving me for more than 60 years. And it has the same effect. I am at once sheltered, supported, and empowered.

Lewie’s a lucky man to have her in his life. We all are.

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