What My Grandmother’s Piano Taught Me About Life — and Death
Life is grand — rich and monumental, not unlike a grand piano. It inevitably uses gravity to return finally return us to a state of inertia, the same way gravity keeps our bodies tethered to the Earth as we experience life.
My maternal grandmother has always loved playing the piano and although she’s felt a little off-key lately, I’m trying my best to help her fine-tune her outlook on life.
What she’s missing
I recently spent a week in Philadelphia helping my parents transfer my grandmother from a skilled nursing facility to assisted living. My grandmother is ninety-six and up, until this point, has been independent – a soloist — if you will — for most of her life.
This move got me thinking about the cycle of life. It’s funny how we evolve as human beings — we begin life as children who need constant care and attention, then grow into adults who are able to care for ourselves and finally, as elders we revert back to children who, once again, require the watchful eye of others to provide safety and love.
Shakespeare wrote the now-famous phrase “All the world’s a stage.” The monologue that follows it compares the world to a stage and life to a play. It talks about the seven stages of a man’s life, including infancy, adulthood and finally, old age.
Life is grand, but sometimes we miss that because we’re sitting too close to the stage.
I remember when my paternal grandmother passed away. My dad packed up her apartment and gave me some of the gifts I’d surprised her with on special occasions. I was struck again by the mysterious nature of the cycle of life. It felt strange regaining ownership of the many trinkets she left behind and yet it was comforting and familiar.
When my parents and I spent days packing up my grandmother’s apartment in Philly — her clothes, furniture, dinnerware, her beloved piano — it felt a little less strange than it had with my other grandmother.
This time, my grandmother is still around — she’s not ready to leave anything behind.
My grandmother is still feisty and has a sharp wit that would put Dorothy Parker to shame, but these days, her morale is low. Lately, she’s had nothing but time to obsess about her own mortality. Most of her friends have passed on.
I, too, understand what it’s like to be at the mercy of my own thoughts, ruminating about people I’ve lost — mostly to the opioid epidemic, in my case.
My grandmother and I aren’t that different — despite being separated by fifty-seven years of life and experience. The most basic instinct of all living organisms is to survive at whatever costs — to stay on this Earth for as long as possible.
When I was in active addiction, I fought tooth and nail against this instinct.
While my grandmother was thinking about how little time she had left, I was always thinking about how much time I had left.
The rhythm of life ebbs and flows. Life is so difficult that, at times, it feels like a staccato — an articulation of abrupt and separated notes.
Other times, it feels like a legato – a series of notes that are smooth and connected. Life is unpredictable — a complex, fragmented arrangement interrupted by notes of impermanence and improvisation.
But life can also be a fairy tale — an ethereal composition of enchanting and supernatural moments orchestrated by the universe. At the same time, life is also fragile — an inspiring, operatic production interrupted by notes of impermanence and uncertainty.
My grandmother loves the piano more than life itself
What she doesn’t realize is that life is the piano — and that the probability of ending it on a good note is high but largely dependent upon her perspective.
When my grandmother falls victim to those thoughts about her own mortality, I remind her that longevity is not guaranteed for any of us. It’s also a good reminder for myself to live in the present.
As difficult as it has been for my grandmother to relinquish her independence, I point out that she doesn’t have to play solo anymore because her friends and family will always be there to accompany her.
I encourage her not only to focus on cherished memories, but to make new ones because “happily” is never “after” – only “now.”