Christmas Story #1: How I [might have] saved a life one Christmas

Two years ago. I was in the middle of recovering from a personal tragedy that resulted in collateral damage so epic that I could hardly recognize myself. One relationship gone wry resulted losses in every area of my life; personal, professional, relational, social, financial and spiritual. What I had worked towards during all my adult life was gone like a smoke. Puff.

I found myself having to make an international move back to the city where I spent my teenage and college years in the hopes that familiarity would bring some comfort and stability. But I found myself feeling more alone than ever. Of course, it didn’t help that whilst dealing with my epic losses, I decided to be my own boss, running my own business through teaching piano in my one bedroom apartment. I had a few students after a few months and wondered routinely if this was the week I was going to go out and get a part-time job as a waitress.

Not having money was hard. But it was also things like not having co-workers to talk to and not having a routine that gave me a sense of usefulness. Time was my enemy back then. I had too much time on my hand and it was set on moving ever so slowly.

And I remembered the wise words of my good friend and executive coach, Craig Chong; “When you don’t have enough work, do pro bono work. It creates connections and it’s better than doing nothing.”

So I found an ad on Criag’s List (not related to my friend, Craig) looking for someone to play the piano for a memory care unit in a retirement home. My first time playing there was during the week of Christmas, 2012.

The restricted access room, where the residents were gathered reminded me of a scene from the movie, Awakening. Elderly men and women sitting in wheel chairs. There was no interaction, no talking, and no acknowledgement that I was there.

I started with some standard jazz songs and moved onto Christmas carols. Slowly, I could feel the room awakening. People started talking and interacting with each other, still quite confused about where the music was coming from. By the time I was playing songs from The Sound of Music, people were singing and dancing. And then when I started playing hymns like “Amazing Grace” and “It is well with my soul,” people just sat there, absorbing the music, tears streaming down their faces. One very frail looking woman just sat there weeping with her head in her hands.

When I was leaving, a staff member came up to me and told me that the woman who was weeping had been on a death roll for a while. She’s been telling everyone for weeks that she just wants to die but after the music today, she said she was feeling happy.

I went home that day back to my one-bedroom apartment, still very alone, still very much in need of having to build every area of my life, but feeling that I might have saved a life today—by playing a few songs on the piano. And that reminded me of why when my life fell apart literally overnight, I decided to pursue music full-time. I don’t know of anything else [perhaps other than deep, genuine care and love of a human being to another] that is as deep as music.

The music we listen to lives in our soul. And one day, when we lose our ability to speak or swallow food or recognize our children or spouses, we will still recognize the music in us.