BE THE SONG

By John Thomas Tuft

Charles and Nancy lived in a blue collar section of Baltimore. Charles drove a bus for the city and Nancy was a music teacher in the public schools, back before the world decided that being plugged into the internet automatically added twenty points to one’s  IQ and bestowed experience in several professions all at once. They gratefully raised two daughters in an era when many a son of the workers was drafted and sent to Vietnam because wars never fight themselves. The girls were taught to love music and keep to regular schedules. Nancy always exhorted her daughters, as she did all of her students, as they struggled to master positioning, chord transitions, technique, not to mention hitting the right notes, to “enter the music, surrender to it. Be the song!”

One day her youngest, Lillie, stopped mid Tchaikovsky, to ask, “Momma, what do you mean by ‘be the song?’ I am fingers and bones, blood and breakfast, dirt and hot dogs. I am not a song.” Nancy corrected Lillie’s hand position and patiently explained, “Did you ever get a song stuck in your head? It’s magic. It is as though the song is alive inside of you!” She saw Lillie pull a face, ignored it and went on, pointing to the sheet of music. “See all those squiggles and marks? Mister Tchaikovsky saw swans swimming gracefully as though they were dancing. He tells us a story about a prince and a swan queen who fall deeply in love. But an evil baron puts a curse on the swan queen and she can only become a human and be with her lover between midnight and daybreak, never forever. Mister Tchaikovsky uses these squiggles and marks to tell the musicians the story and they play it to give the dancers the story to act out. If you want to play well, play with the beauty it deserves, be the song. Be the swans, be the prince, be the queen, be the evil baron. Anytime the music for Swan Lake is in your imagination, leaping and soaring, you will yourself be the song.”

Lillie rolled her eyes and kept practicing. On her regular schedule, of course. The daughters grew up and left home. The other side of the coin is, of course, that Charles and Nancy grew older and eventually more feeble. Nancy’s fingers became less nimble on the piano keys and, as her eyesight dimmed, household chores that used to be routine became physically overwhelming and sometimes downright dangerous. Charles faired a bit better, and he worried watching Nancy’s decline. The old house on Guilford Avenue needed repairs and upkeep that became more and more challenging for him to maintain. But it was their home, the one they labored and sacrificed for all these years. When Lillie could make it home she would spend time with her mother in the front parlor, playing Mister Tchaikovsky’s story of love and longing. “You’re the swan queen, Momma. The song is part of you. Be the song, Momma.” And Nancy would smile and sway, her head filled with magic and wonder always within reach.

Sadly, the time came when the daughters realized that Momma needed more help than they could manage. They searched the city for a nursing home that could make her comfortable, feeling cared for and welcome, two of the essential elements to being human. She was placed on the waiting list for one and made Charles promise, swear up and down and sideways, that when another spot opened up he, too, would move there and they could be together forever. Nancy finally moved into the home and set about trying to adjust to a much different world. Lillie would come and take her to the dayroom where a piano sat. Each day felt like a week to Nancy, each week more like a year. This strange new world seemed like a place where she could never be the song again. Time crawled but finally the home told the daughters that a place had opened up. Charles could move in now to be with Nancy.

But Charles changed his mind. His visits to the home had been too depressing for him, the cost of leaving his home too high. He decided, after sixty-seven years together, he would not move into the home with Nancy. Lillie made the long journey to the home to tell her mother. Even as she told her mother the news, she could see the Swan Queen begin to wilt and withdraw. “Tell him it’s midnight, and I only have a short time till the dawn,” she pleaded with her daughter before taking to her bed. Lillie tried everything, even bringing a portable keyboard to her mother’s room to play for her. But the spell of rejection is a powerful one. For six weeks the Swan Queen hovered, as though dancing just above the waters, unable to swim, unable to fly. Finally, Lillie brought the keyboard one more time. Before she played, she took Nancy’s fragile, withered hand. “Momma, it’s okay. Go on now. Be the song.” And as Mister Tchaikovsky’s magic filled the room, that is exactly what happened….she danced beyond never forever.

Words are magic and writers are wizards.